Oct 01

Photos and words

If I could put the meaning of my photo into words, I wouldn’t have bothered taking the photo. If we are a judge on a photo competition, we can write a long analysis of a photo, saying what its meaning is and how it achieved it. We could (and we do) write a lot of words about the photo. And the person who took the photo might also be able to write about their photo. And when we have articulated our thoughts about a photo, we can turn it around, and then go out and look for photos that fit the words that we’ve written. So we could say, I’m going to try to find photos that express a sense of urban desolation. I want them to be very minimalist, to have nice geometry and to have quite subdued colours. But then aren’t you looking through the camera with a filter of words clamped onto the end of the lens?

Some photos need captions to reveal their real meaning. This is often the case with photojournalism. Pictures can be ambiguous and words can clarify their meaning. But sometimes you want your pictures to be ambiguous, sometimes you want them to be unclear. Sometimes you can explain in words why you’re taking a photo, sometimes you can’t.

A picture can be worth a 1,000 words, so they say (there’s a blog about photography called 1,000 Words, precisely because of this saying). Some photos can be worth a lot more. Pictures in newspapers can take up a whole page (that’s potentially more than 1,000 words’ worth). A photographer got annoyed about a blog I’d written the other day and, in a bit of a huff, he said: I’m too busy taking awesome photos to be talking to you! I laughed out loud but he perhaps has a point.

A photo of words

Sep 24

We will not murder your children

"You remain the owner of your photos." Instagram tells us, with a touching note of sincerity in its voice. I’m reading this on the first "Sponsored post" that I’ve seen on Instagram, posted by Instagram itself and announcing that there will be more ads on the way. What they’re saying amounts to nothing. They can take away the ownership of your photos as much as they can murder your children. They’re offering you something you already have and they can’t take away from you. And I don’t see what sponsored posts have to do with the ownership of your photos, apart from it being something cuddly (if vacuous) to say to soften the blow*.

Instagram’s sophistry around photo ownership started when it was trying to defend the changes to its terms of service last year. It kept on repeating the mantra “you own your photos, you own your photos”. Again, of course you do, there’s nothing Instagram can legally do to change that. And it’s not the point. The thing with photos is that your “ownership” matters very little. What matters is the licences you issue, or the permissions you give to other people to use your photos. And when you post a photo on Instagram under its terms of service, you give Instagram a “fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license” to use that photo. So Instagram can use your photo itself or it can give it to other people and charge them and it doesn’t have to pay you. Of course you can licence the same photo to other people too (Instagram doesn’t give itself an exclusive licence) and you can put a certificate in a frame on your wall saying “I own this photo”. But that’s about it.

Instagram has to make money. As part of a publicly-owned company, it has a legal obligation to do so for its shareholders. I just wish it wouldn’t 1) treat its users like we’re idiots; 2) pretend it’s doing us a massive favour by not doing something it couldn’t do anyway.

Why does Instagram keep telling us we own our photos?

* Unless this is a reference to the possibility (allowed under the TOS) of Instagram using your photos (which you still own) in its own sponsored posts, or those of third parties that it gives your photos (which you still own) to.

Sep 18

Camera replacement apps: what are they good for?

For many people, the joy of mobile photography is its simplicity. Tap, swipe and you’re ready to hit the shutter, no need to focus, no fiddly settings. The camera apps that come pre-installed on smart phones (often known as native camera apps) are fairly simple too. With each update of those apps though, they’ve become slightly richer in features. Apple’s native camera app allows you to take panoramic shots, use various aspect ratios, a burst mode or HDR. You can focus and expose by tapping on the viewfinder but unlike big cameras in manual mode, you have no control over the three variables that determine exposure: shutter speed, aperture and ISO. Native camera apps automatically set these variables based on how much light they detect. Aswell as exposure, this “golden triad” of variables also affects images in other ways. But for mobile photographers, these effects can be more or less replicated in post production. So despite the advances in native camera apps, they are still quite simple and much of the creativity in mobile photography comes in post production.

All the gear and no idea - mobile camera apps are simple

But to make up for this perceived simplicity of features many developers offer “camera replacement” apps. So what extra features do these apps offer and how do they rate?

Shooting in different aspect ratios: the iPhone’s camera now lets you shoot in square format, seemingly in response to Instagram’s square popularity. Having your ratio set in advance can arguably help you visualise your final composition, but whether you shoot with a rectangular, square or hexagonal viewfinder, the obvious way of achieving your desired final image is to crop it afterwards. Value of feature: 4/10.

Shoot with pre-loaded filters: The only limited value we can see in shooting “in” black and white, for example, is, again, to visualise your final image in advance. But why not give yourself the freedom to decide what filter to apply after you’ve taken the shot when you can choose from a wide range? Some Hipstamatic aficionados enjoy working within the constraints of a particular lens and film combo but if they capture a moment that would have worked better without any filters rather than D-type plate and Roboto Glitter, sorry, it’s too late. Feature rating: 3/10.

Exposure/Focus separation: Useful for filling up half an hour of a mobile photography class and impressing your students, but otherwise this feature has little point. On native cameras you focus and expose on the same point, but various replacement apps allow you to focus on one point and expose on another. Why? Wild creativity? Maybe. Exposure control? Perhaps, but this is something you can do more easily in post production. In fact, you can vary the exposure of specific points in post production too. Some Android apps allow you to vary exposure before taking the photo and this is more useful than separating off your exposure point and searching for somewhere in the image that corresponds to your desired level. To date, Apple have been sensible enough to realise the blinded-by-science nature of this feature and have not included it in their native camera. Feature rating: 2/10.

Shutter release options: If you want to take a team photo but you don’t want to be left out and there are no willing passers-by to assist you, you need a timer release for the shutter. Various camera replacement apps give you this. High five! You can also find apps that will allow you to fire the shutter by tapping anywhere on the screen. Useful for taking photos in tight spots. High five! And some apps have a stabilisation option that only allows you to release the shutter when it senses the camera is still. High five! Feature rating: 7/10.

Timer release for team photos: high five!

RAW file exports: JPEGs compress your image information causing - critically - severe loss of data. Only RAW files ensure that all your visual information is retained. Various apps allow you to shoot in RAW (grrrr!) and generate a file that is over 10 times larger than a standard JPEG. This is all very well but when will you actually use a TIFF file? Do you often need to print your photos 20 metres high by 10 metres wide? They fill up your camera roll and hard drives, take forever to transfer and use up your data allowance if you upload them. I’ve often wondered if RAW files would be quite as appealing to geeky photographic men if they were called PURR files. Feature rating: 3/10.

Technical information displays: Some apps cram the viewfinder with all sorts of information: as your exposure through the viewfinder changes, the app will tell you what shutter speed and ISO the photo will be taken at. Your viewfinder can also show you brightly coloured histograms that change in real-time alongside GPS coordinates. With all this scientific information at your fingertips you may feel like you’re flying a small space ship. You may be very well informed but you have no control over any of the variables. Unfortunately smart phone cameras take photos on auto-pilot. Feature value: 2/10.

At the controls of a small space ship!

HDR apps: We looked at HDR apps in issue 9 of FLTR and showed how they are great for evening out the highlights in high-contrast scenes. Feature rating: 8/10
Slow shutter apps: Some apps can take control of one of the elements in the golden triad: shutter speed. In issue 12 of FLTR we reviewed Slow Shutter and showed how slowing down the shutter speed can be a powerful creative tool. Feature rating 8/10.

You can’t slow down the shutter without a slow-shutter app.

In conclusion, I can’t help but wonder whether many camera replacement apps have been developed and are used more from a desire to make up for what are perceived as smart phone cameras’ technical shortcomings than for any practical advantage. But for many mobile photographers - especially those who have the experience of carrying around a bag full of heavy photographic equipment - less is more. Or small is beautiful, as we say here at FLTR. One of the world’s greatest ever photographers, Henri Cartier-Bresson, had a famous dislike for excess equipment: “I like the smallest camera possible, not those huge reflex cameras with all sorts of gadgets”. I reckon he would have loved smart phone cameras - and he would have only used the native camera app.

This article originally appeared in FLTR magazine

Sep 08

iphoggy-bloggy: Farewell power users and thanks for all the users

Typical! Just as I’m going to stand up in front of an audience to expose Instagram’s Followcracy strategy at EyeEm’s festival this weekend, they go and get rid of it. For those of you who are new to iphoggy, here’s a summary of my analysis.

When it started out, Instagram needed to grow. It did this partly by identifying cool people and making them power users (ie with more than 100K followers). It did this by putting them on its suggested user list, which by some estimates gave them around 5K followers per week. These power users became minor celebrities, they were of course very supportive of Instagram and they generated a lot of media interest - all these three things helped to grow Instagram’s user numbers. They also caught the interest of lots of businesses, who started hiring them to push photos through the digital letter boxes of all their followers. These businesses told other businesses and so Instagram grew even more - and then it sold itself to Facebook. Job done!

Job done indeed. So now it can change things. Now the suggested user list gives you “personal” recommendations, suggesting people based on four criteria: 1) your Facebook friends; 2) follows; 3) likes and 4) Popular.

First, my Facebook friends aren’t normally very good at photography. I follow their ice bucket challenges on Facebook so I don’t need to on Instagram. Second, I’m guessing “follows” this means people who I follow’s follows, or people who have followed people who follow me. Not sure, but it throws up a mix of legacy power users and, yes, some quite interesting non-power users. Third, likes. Same dynamic as follows, I guess, and these are mostly non power users but not as interesting to me as the follows category. And lastly, Popular. These are all celebrities or brands, who are of no interest to me at all. Especially @motors_show: think Top Gear without the production values and in Arabic.

So farewell power users! Instagram used you to build its empire and now it no longer needs you. But does that mean the roundtable discussion I will be chairing on Saturday will now be one about history? Yes, in one way. Instagram’s Followocracy Fallacy was a masterful social media strategy and no doubt it will be taught in social media studies courses for years to come. And to quote Misty in Roots, “without the knowledge of your history you cannot determine your destiny”. It should teach us to watch out for similar strategies in the future.

Farewell power users and thanks for all the users!

Sep 01

Desktop imitating mobile?

The other day I was complaining that I didn’t think there were any new mobile photo apps coming out any more. Like a middle-aged Dad complaining that pop music isn’t what it used to be, I realise this could be because I’m just not paying close enough attention any more. But I tweeted it and no-one really came back with many suggestions of what I had been missing. “Mobile has caught up with desktop!” I boldly pronounced. Well, some news about Adobe’s Lightroom a couple of months ago suggested to me that mobile may actually have overtaken desktop rather than just caught it up.

First, Adobe announced the release of a “mobile” version of Lightroom. They say mobile, but really it’s just for iPad at the moment. So mobile in the sense that you can carry it around, not in the sense that it’s for mobile phones (I think they call them cell phones in the US). For me, the main advantage with having Lightroom on an iPad will be that I can sync multiple edits to various photos at once - something I do a lot with desktop Lightroom. Second, I found out that the new Lightroom 5 has two new features that have long been very popular with mobile photographers. They are 1) spot healing for custom shapes and 2) the parallelisation (is that a word?) of lines. In the case of 1), you have always been able to spot heal with Lightroom, but only circular patches. For me, this was always a problem: often I’ve wanted to remove a cable or a mic stand from a picture of a singer on stage. On the mobile, with an app like Handy Photo, this was already very easy. Just mask, tap and boom - the unwanted thing is gone. For 2), this was something I’d always loved doing with Genius Scan+ and then later with Perspective Correct. The classic example given is to straighten the sides of a building, but I’d used these apps more creatively sometimes, but also just to tidy up a picture when I couldn’t quite get the right angle to take the picture from.

I know most of these tools are available in other desktop apps such as Photoshop (is parallelisation?), but it’s interesting to see that apps that are popular with mobile photographers are exerting some influence on the developers of desktop software.

Aug 25

Video killed the photograph?

I’m not one to hide from my failures - in fact, I take great pride in my self-deprecation. To the extent, sometimes, that I might be accused of boasting about it. I recently quoted for, but failed to win, a commission from a leading financial firm. “They loved my photos!” the guy from the PR said. And since I don’t have a gezillion followers on any social network to force-feed my photos to, for once with a PR, I could only take what he was telling me to be true. I gave them my quote and it inevitably went quiet, though, after prompting, he got back to me and told me that they had decided to go for people who could do videos. To be honest, the prospect of promoting a financial firm had left me feeling slightly squeamish -though every man has his price - so I wasn’t too disappointed.

But it reminded me that lately I’ve been bumping into increasing numbers of people in the photo pits of London’s music venues carrying unwieldy video cameras. And many of the magazines that I shoot music photos for have been featuring embedded video. And it reminded me that I’d tried Instagram’s video feature once, but then got bored of it. It was all beginning to make me feel a bit old-fashioned. But then this morning I read a quote by William Boyd, the author. He’s talking about an album of photos that he has from his childhood and one photo in particular. He says of one of the pictures:”It’s full of images like this – snapshots, photography’s unrivalled, essential power. Time stopped, for ever.” And it makes me feel a bit better about not doing videos.

Unwieldy video cameras

Aug 18

To watermark or not to watermark?

The picture editor at my agency told me the other day: “Put a watermark on your photos and it won’t happen again”. We were discussing the theft of one of my photos by The Heritage Orchestra. They’d found a picture of mine online showing them at the Barbican and they’d copied and pasted it onto their website without asking me. I contacted them about it. They replied and asked me what photo I was talking about, but when I sent them an invoice they ignored it and my further emails. Ironic really, when so many musicians complain of illegal music downloads. Would a watermark have stopped them stealing this photo? Quite possibly yes. But it might also have made them less attracted to it in the first place. For some time now I’ve been following an excellent street photographer on Instagram. The only issue I have with his photos is that he places a huge watermark on all them. In my view, the watermarks completely ruin his photos as a visual experience. And what is a photo if not a visual experience? Especially when the life of a photo on Instagram is unlikely to be more than a few seconds, why strangle it at birth?

I read a blog the other day that talked about Flickr as if it were an open-source archive of free photos: “When you go to Flickr to use a photo for a blog post … leave a comment under the photo and add a link to the post.” Again, the impression is that because it’s on the internet, you can have it for free.

Putting your photos in the shop window, either on a photo-sharing platform or your own website, is a risk. Some people may see the photos, like them, walk into your shop and - when you’re not looking - steal them. The internet has made it all too easy. But without the internet, they wouldn’t have seen them to want to steal them. And for every thief like The Heritage Orchestra, there will be buyers who recognise intellectual property and copyright. And as it happens, I also sold the same photo from the same gig that night at the Barbican to a different buyer. The buyer wouldn’t have seen the photo if I hadn’t published it online and they might not have liked it enough to want to buy it with a watermark.

Just because it’s online, it doesn’t mean you can steal it

Aug 14

Blown out

I follow the Instagram feed of a professional photographer who works for one of the world’s leading agencies. I really love his photography but I recently saw one of his mobile photos and I thought: I wonder if he’d have submitted that image to his agency if he’d taken it on his big camera. The image was of an ice rink, taken from probably 20 or so rows back in a stadium. The ice-rink was completely blown out in the image. Not surprising: the white ice was brightly illuminated and the stadium stands were almost in darkness. I’ve been using an HDR app for many years on my iphone (Pro HDR) and a while back I found that the new Canon 5D mk iii had added an in-camera HDR option. I’ve always found that Pro HDR is great for just this sort of high-contrast situation. I wondered if my Instagram friend had heard of Pro HDR. So, as politely as I could, I asked him. “That’s a striking image,” I said, “but I was wondering if you knew about Pro HDR? You might have reduced the contrast between the ice rink and the stadium with it?”. A few days later I got a curt reply saying that was exactly how he’d wanted the image to look thanks. Really?

Two things to say about this. The first is that there is almost no critical dialogue on Instagram. It seems to be an absolute taboo to critique someone’s work, no matter how constructively. The second is that big-camera photographers often seem to almost deliberately create amateurish images with their mobile cameras, as if to say, I’m off duty now, this doesn’t really count, I’m not even going to try with this rubbish mobile device.

HDR can help

Aug 11

Tips for professional instagramming: why doesn’t Instagram let you RT?

If you’re running a professional Instagram, you (or someone else you work with) is probably running a Twitter alongside it. Many of your Instagram posts might dual-post on your Twitter. But the way we measure success on the two platforms is subtly different. On Twitter you’ll be punching the air if someone with a big following spots your tweet and re-tweets it. That’s when you can start going viral, as the ripples from that first RT start to multiply. And with those RTs, your follower numbers will also get a boost, which is probably your ultimate aim. With Instagram, one of your main aims is also probably to boost your follower numbers. But in its case, your aim with a single post is probably just to get as many likes as possible. That RT ripple that can give you so many new followers is not available in the native Instagram app. It’s not possible to like something so much that you want to share it with your own followers. There are third-party apps (like Repost and Regram) that allow you to “regram” someone else’s picture but it’s not something a lot of people do and it’s a bit fiddly.

You might say Instagram is a bit anti-social compared to Twitter in this respect. But clearly this hasn’t stood in the way of its success! It may even have been a reason for its popularity - Instagram may have decided regrams could be a source of too much commercial promotion, so it avoided them.

So if there’s very little prospect of an Instagram “RT”, what’s the main aim of posting a picture? Well, the answer to that question is, in social media terms, quite old-fashioned. In my view, the aim is, quite simply, to give people something engaging to look at. If you put a smile on their face, cause their jaw to drop just a touch or their eyes to widen very slightly, you’ve done a good job. Your follower will like you (in the non-SM sense) more and, as a result, will be slightly more inclined to put their hands in their pockets to buy your services in the future.

Michael Franti: jaw-dropping

Aug 07

Isn’t regramming infringement of copyright?

Re-tweeting is a fundamental part of the Twitter experience. If you’re running a Twitter account for a business or a group, getting your own tweet re-tweeted is a great way to get your content seen by others and re-tweeting others’ tweets is a good (if you don’t do it too much) way of bringing your account to others’ attention. But in the Instagram world, the ability to use a photo on someone else’s feed and then post it in your own feed is something that you don’t see very often. But its use is on the rise.

So how is regramming different to retweeting? Well, for a start, it might constitute copyright infringement. When you publish a photo that you have created (whether in a book, magazine or on a website), you own the copyright. And the same goes for publishing on Instagram. Although by publishing on Instagram, under its infamous Terms of Service you give Instagram itself the right to use your photo, you do not give that right to anyone else who happens to see it on Instagram. Although, of course, copyright applies to text, I don’t think it stretches to tweets.

So if someone decides to regram your photo, even if they use one of the third-party apps that ensures the regram gives you a credit, they should still get your permission. In most cases, there is no malicious intention involved and the re-post is usually a way of complimenting the original photographer on their photo. But I think it’s important to put a marker down that without the permission of the owner, regramming is copyright infringement. To assume that publishing on Instagram is different to publishing anywhere else would represent a dangerous step in the direction of legitimising the theft of online photos.

Is someone using your photos behind your back?