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?

Aug 04

Tips for professional instagramming: choosing the right image

For the last six months or so, I’ve been running a couple of Instagram accounts: @islington_ah for a music venue, Islington Assembly Hall, the other @oneillaward for a photography competition, The Terry O’Neill Award. And, like getting prints from Boots, the thoughts on the process are just coming back from the lab. Here is the first in a series of musings and tips about the process. This first blog is about perhaps your most important task: choosing the right images.

Running an Instagram feed may sound like a breeze, but it’s not. It takes time, lots of time, and it takes care and attention. You firstly have to have an engaging image to post, perhaps every day, or maybe even more frequently. We talk about being deluged by images these days, but finding a good one, appropriate to your needs, is not always easy. When you do find one, if it belongs to someone else, you have to make sure you’re OK to use it, which means tracking down the owner and asking their permission.

Some images work better than others on Instagram. Remember that your image will probably be viewed on a tiny screen. So sweeping landscapes with subtle details won’t be properly appreciated. Better to post simple images that tell uncomplicated stories. Your viewer’s attention has to be grabbed in a split second, before they swipe on, so better make it high impact.

And just because you’re posting to mobiles, it doesn’t mean the image has to be mobile quality. Yes, authentic is good, but don’t confuse authentic with crappy. Many people make the mistake of thinking that because Instagram is a mobile platform, the photos have to be taken and edited on mobiles. That debate ended a long time ago. If you need a better camera to get a better picture, use one. A badly composed, blurry picture of something mundane is a badly composed, blurry picture of something mundane whether it’s on Instagram or in the Photographers’ Gallery.

To set your Instagram apart from traditional advertising, give your audience something authentic. Go back-stage or behind the scenes, show people what’s under the bonnet, give them something human. Again, being authentic doesn’t mean being amateur, so you still need something interesting and well-composed.

High impact: back stage, well-composed and authentic (Anathema)

Jul 28

Why are we scandalised by apping today?

A small piece in The National Geographic’s excellent 125th Anniversary Photo Edition caught my eye today. In it, Johnna Rizzo mentioned that in the early days of photography it was quite normal to fiddle with photos to make something look more interesting. The cameras were so bad then that the photos they took were always very poor representations of reality. Rizzo quotes the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Mia Fineman: “People in the 19th century wouldn’t have been scandalized the way they are today”. Yes, they do get scandalized these days, don’t they? In the last few years, we’ve had a backlash against mobile photography because of all the apping we do with our photos and all the filters we add. Rizzo goes on to say: “Photographers were mostly trying to make up for the cameras’ shortcomings…” Sound familiar? Yes, the whole reason for Instagram coming into existence was that “mobile photos suck”. So why are some people so hung up on us fiddling with photos? Rizzo makes an interesting point when he speculates that as photography technology got to the point where photos were pretty good imitations of real life and as photojournalism became a serious profession, we started to think we ought to capture a scene “as it was”. So without really thinking about it, we all started thinking we had to adhere to the Reuters’ code of photojournalism conduct? The recent proliferation of mobile photo stock agencies may also encourage people to produce more “realistic” images.

Fads for particular filters and special effects will come and go but let’s not think we have to listen to people who say we “should” make our images in any particular way.

I added in some of those clouds. What are you going to do about it?

Jul 21

Road-testing the Lumia 1020

The kind people at Nokia recently lent me one of their Lumia 1020s for a few weeks. Here are my main thoughts:

It’s a bit slippery. It could just be my iPhone-sized hands, but the phone tried to flee my grip on various occasions. I told it, look mate, you can go home when your time is up, and not until, so stop trying to run away.

It’s no good for street shooting. The much-documented delay when you fire the shutter means that if you’re taking a photo of a passing circus performer, you will have to learn to anticipate “le moment decisif” (it’s about half a second after you hit the button).

If you want to shoot one-handed and in portrait mode, you can, but you will need quite a large left hand. Strangely, the off-screen shutter button is located ideally for lefties. I’m told this is because Nokia wants us to shoot in landscape mode with two hands, using the right hand to fire the off-screen shutter button. Since I’d given up trying to shoot street (because of the shutter delay), this didn’t matter too much.

It took me about 2 weeks to find out how to post to Instagram, which has no Windows version of its app. You use an app called 6tag, which has the added advantage of allowing you to post in rectangular format (yay!).

The resolution of the 41 million pixel pictures really is better than iPhone photos. If you zoom in (to about x10), you will just about see the difference. But for posting to the web, especially mobile-based web, you probably wouldn’t notice it.

Hoorah for exposure compensation! When taking a photo with the Lumia you can vary the exposure of the photo before you take it, simply by moving a dial. A welcome end to the iPhone’s focus/exposure separation nonsense! For those of you Android and Windows users who are wondering what I’m talking about, click here.

Ooh! Exposure compensation!

Jul 02

Slow Shutter Cam review

People say you can’t do much with mobile cameras when you take the photo. It’s all in the processing, they say. Well, true. With most mobile cameras, you have no control over the three points of the traditional exposure triangle: ISO, aperture and shutter speed. But there are a few apps that do allow you to take control over one of those variables: shutter speed. Slowing down your shutter speed is something big-camera photographers so all the time - it’s one of their main creative tools. This article looks at one of the apps that give you that same tool with your mobile camera: Slow Shutter Cam by Cogitap Software. Retailing at a ridiculous $0.99, this app gives you huge creative photo-taking potential.

So what does it do? As the name suggests, it allows you to slow down your shutter speed. You decide how long you expose your sensor to the scene in front of the lens. The app makes adjustments to ensure you don’t over-expose your photo but if you leave the shutter open for a long period (say 10 seconds) and anything moves in your frame (or if you move your camera) you will get some blur. But it is precisely this blur that makes it such an exciting creative tool.

One of the common reasons for lengthening the time that your sensor is exposed to light is when you you’re working in low-lighting situations. In this case, any movement may in fact be unwanted rather than creative distortion.

Example of a low-lighting scene shot with Slow Shutter Cam

If you use Slow Shutter Cam as a practical remedy to a low-lighting problem (rather than as a creative tool), you will need to keep your camera still (eg by using a tripod). If something in your scene moves while you are taking the photo, it will show up in your final exposure as a blur. But that’s part of its creative attraction. Holding your camera still, while something in your scene moves is the first of the three main ways people use Slow Shutter Cam creatively. It’s a technique that big-camera photographers have used for many years. It allows us to create the classic waterfall image, where the water is smooth and fluffy, and the image where lights on passing traffic create a trail (see below for a variation on this).

This technique can be used in more creative ways too if applied to things other than traffic and waterfalls (eg people).

The second, more creative, technique is to move the camera on purpose while taking the photo. The combination of this technique and the use of the app’s light-trail mode has produced a very characteristic “look” in more experimental mobile photography. When people are included in an image of this type, they take on a Modigliani-style stick-insect aspect and it’s a look that has been widely used.

An example of a stick-insect person achieved by moving the camera slightly

It’s a technique best used when an image contains very well delineated blocks of colour. One of the leading proponents of the technique is American artist, Cindy Patrick, whose beach scenes are some of its best examples.

The third technique is to move the camera in parallel with a moving subject, a technique known as panning. If you are able to keep your frame more or less fixed on your subject, the long exposure will give you an interesting mixture of well-defined features and blur.

Examples of panning with Slow Shutter Cam

While primarily an app for taking photos, it does have an amazing post-production feature that you will not find on a DSLR: freeze-frame. This feature effectively divides your long exposure into multiple frames, the first and the last frames being very sharp and the ones in between having varying levels of blur. You can save any of these frames and then, using an app like Blender, blend them together to your heart’s creative delight.

So when people say mobile is all about the processing, remember Slow Shutter Cam. Although the images it allows the user to make may often have a painterly or experimental look, it in fact takes us back to the roots of photography by allowing us, especially if we use the techniques mentioned here, to feel we are really drawing with light.

This article originally appeared in FLTR magazine

Jun 23

Survey of independent mobile photo blogs

The grandaddy of mobile photography blogs and the source of the name for the new genre, iphoneography.com, closed towards the end of last year. No wonder - competition is fierce. Launched in November 2008 and running for five years, iphoneography.com was ahead of its time, with its unbiased reviews of the many apps and mobile photography gadgets that were emerging at that time and news about a photographic genre just starting out in 2008. But now as Instagram users pass 150 million and Flickr tells us the most used camera on its platform is a mobile device, demand for written content about mobile photography is strong. Today’s range of websites and blogs dedicated to mobile photography offers us a variety of app reviews, news, photographer interviews, competitions, tutorials and opinion.

Launched just after iphoneography.com and still going (just) are LifeInLoFi, which produces reviews and some quite insightful editorial, and P1xels. Dedicated to fine art mobile photography, this site showcases artists and has organised many real-life exhibitions and initiatives. Also in the fine-art space are iPhoneArt, again showcasing and interviewing artists and now moving into the gallery business and The Art of Mob, which showcases mobile artists and provides how-to tutorials. Another blog with arty aspirations is AMPt Community, though you will have to apply to membership to access all its features. Grryo (recently re-branded from the equally uncatchy Juxt) has a similar community-oriented approach, with a strong heritage in street photography and an archive of interesting and socially-aware photo stories from its contributors.

All the main photo-sharing platforms such as Flickr, Instagram, EyeEm and VSCO run their own blogs and many of them produce good content. An unofficial Instagram blog, Instagramers, which has probably done more to promote Instagram than Instagram itself, gives news about the general mobile community and features on the activities, both on- and off-line, of the more than 330 local groups around the world it has given its name to.

Anyone who has tried to deliver content for their own blog will know that the pressure to produce good material regularly can be hard. For this reason, some of these blogs will go off the grid for weeks, sometimes months, at a time, and some will post regularly but not very often. But one blog that seems relentless in its flow of news, views and features is The App Whisperer. This blog offers some of mobile photography’s best known names as columnists, alongside reviews, competitions, app giveaways and tutorials. Specialising in tutorials is another of the longest-running blogs, iPhoneography Central, while a relative newcomer, The iPhone Photography School, produces some excellent hints and tips pieces. Another website that gives budding mobile photographers help and support through its chat rooms and network of supporters is Mobitog. Some of the interesting newcomers with their fingers on the pulse and often quicker to react than the big boys, are bloggers like skipology and moblivious.

While all the above blogs are sustaining their efforts through advertising and/or the promise of a big pay-day when traffic is strong enough to sell out, two blogs are subscription-only (sold in the form of apps): FLTR and Mobiography. FLTR has the considerable backing of the British Journal of Photography and so is able to run some impressive interviews and is produced with a high level of journalistic rigour. Mobiography has produced an impressively consistent flow of content from many of the genre’s insiders and after a year of issues now seems to have survived the initial precarious start-up period.

With so many blogs competing in the same space, some blogs, like Mogitog, have found a clever way of delivering content without very much effort, using aggregating “newspapers” that simply pull news and features from original sources, via websites like paper.li. Titles, such as The iPhoneography Times and iPhoneography Today, are usually completely automated. They point at the real blogs and their robots extract news stories using a variety of logarithms and tags. There is usually no editorial intervention at all so they sometimes (thanks to their targets’ tag-savvy authors) include stories that are of no relevance to mobile photography. But often they gather together quite good “best-of” selections of daily mobile photography blogging output.

While many of the blogs’ content may vary in quality, be very sporadic or sometimes amount to little more than sponsored content, there are some good pieces to be found in the iphoneography blogosphere. Many are trying to monetise their traffic, so we will be watching to see if their commercial deals compromise the quality of their content. And while the blog that gave its name to the sub-genre may be no more, there are many iphoneography (or mobile photography) blogs out there doing a good job filling the space that it left.

A version of this article originally appeared in FLTR magazine

Jun 16

Can you print mobile photos?

Can you print mobile photos? I recently curated an exhibition of mobile photos and this was a common question. And contrary to popular belief, yes you can. Usually. It depends on your files’ resolution and size. Photos produced by mobile phone cameras are usually not much smaller than pictures taken on big cameras. A standard iPhone 5S photo is 3264 x 2448 pixels, while the largest JPEG that can be taken on a Canon 5D mk iii is 5760 x 3840 pixels. But there are various reasons why your final mobile photos may not be big enough for printing. Many apps, like Hipstamatic, allow you to shoot in higher or lower resolution. So be sure to choose the largest resolution option before shooting.

And a lot can happen to your photo after you’ve taken it in full resolution. In a recent FLTR article I wrote about backing up your photos. One of my points was that you should make sure your photos are archived in full resolution just in case you want to print them. Many platforms will archive your photos, but not in full size. During the process of uploading your photos to the platform, they get compressed. If you view these compressed images on a digital device’s screen, especially a small one like an iPhone, you won’t notice any loss of quality. But for printing, you’ll need high-resolution files. Another way you may lose pixels, especially in a genre where people process their photos quite heavily, is by importing them into an app for editing. Many apps will compress the images before importing them, some with a warning, some without.

Many apps will downsize your images before allowing you to process them

So if you paid a little extra for a camera phone because of the large number of pixels it promises, you will lose your apparent advantage as soon as you use some apps for editing. And this may make a difference to your picture quality if you want to print very large, so check your final pixel size before you choose how large to print. You can see the pixel size of a picture in the Info section of any file on your computer or, on your phone apps like like Lab or MetaData will tell you a picture’s pixel size (along with a lot of other information).

So if you’re sure you have the highest possible resolution file, you’re ready to print. What printers should you use and what can you print on? If you use a photo-sharing platform like Instagram, you’ll find various photo printing services that make it very easy for you to print straight from the platform. But again, remember to watch your pixels. If your photo is stored on a sharing platform in low resolution, it will also print in low resolution. To get best value from your prints, think about what is fit for purpose. You can spend a lot of money on high-end printers and if you want to show large prints to be viewed under bright lights, this will be money well spent. However, if you simply want to put a small print in your dimly-lit hallway, then a cheaper online option will do fine. If you have the patience and time, you can even try printing on your own printer, though these prints tend to fade quite quickly and if you add up the cost of paper and ink, it may not turn out to be such a good-value option. Likewise if you want to frame your photos, there are many more or less expensive options. For classic 1:1 Instagram and Hipstamatic photos, a really cheap (but good) option are the 12” frames (designed to display vinyl LP covers) sold by Tiger for £6. Obviously off-the-shelf frames are cheaper and will be fine if you can tailor the size of your prints. Before sending your photos to print, however, you should make sure your screen is showing more or less what your print will look like. In other words, make sure your screen is properly calibrated. Professional printers can help you do this, or you can find a lot of useful information on how to do this online (for example here).

Finally, prints don’t have to be on paper. There’s a myriad of possibilities, from mugs to tee shirts to calendars. Real-life vehicles for your photos can be great ways to put your photos to work. I recently produced various calendars on Snapfish’s excellent printing platform and sent them to potential clients - a socially acceptable way of forcing people to look at your photos for longer! Whatever you print your photos on and however big, in a digital world where a photo can have a viewing life of just a fraction of a second, if an image is deserving of a longer viewing life-span, printing it and then living with it over time can be highly rewarding and instructive - you get to know which pictures stand the test of time. In my last piece on backing up I said that if you love your photos, you should back them up. Well, if there are some photos that you really love, then back them up - and then print them.

This article orginally appeared in FLTR magazine