No such thing as a free lunch in photo-sharing platforms
Yay! I set up my own website! That’s the third one I’ve created in my lifetime and the experience is always exhausing. My head craned towards my screen, my eyes strain to check the brackets and the commas in that tiny little font that they use. One little piece of punctuation out of place and the whole thing can come crashing down. And you have to scour blocks of code to find where the problem is. There’s no undo button so you can’t just automatically reverse the brainless error you’ve just made.
My new website is a simple shop window for my mobile photos. I’ve curated the photos into subjects, so it’s a place where people can browse the best of my work without having to see my family snaps or be distracted by a third-party photo-sharing platform’s ads or branding. Each time I’ve gone through this process, I realise how much human resource, expertise and money must go into those slick photo-sharing platforms, which are a thousand times more than a shop window. They are incredibly complex and powerful machines. We take them for granted and we never expect to pay for them. And we are outraged and dismissive if there is even the slightest glitch. Yet we can’t ask for our money back because we didn’t pay any to start with. But as we all know now, we still “pay”, just not with money. We pay through our personal data, we licence our photos to be used in ads and on some platforms now we will be exposing our eyes to ads. But this is the new economy. There’s still no such thing as a free lunch: we just don’t pay for it in luncheon vouchers any more.
Setting up a website can be exhausting
The followocracy fallacy
I read recently that a hotel in Australia will give you a free night’s stay if you have more than 10,000 followers on Instagram. The idea (we suppose) is that you will take some photos, post them on Instagram and give the hotel some PR.
But it’s another example of how having large numbers of Instagram followers gets you free stuff. We might call it a “followocracy”. The more followers you have, the more doors open for you. As a power user, you have power. Over the last few years, we’ve seen how enough followers will get you all-expenses-paid trips if you agree to post pictures of their hotels, handbags or mineral water. Or free tickets to some cool events. Or even just good old-fashioned money. This followocracy is sustained by the belief that power users have some advertising influence through their follower numbers. But don’t advertisers wonder whether power-user value is a bit like a junk-mail delivery service? Yes, they can push things through a lot of people’s front doors, but most will go straight in the rubbish without being read, or there’ll be no-one home or they could start to annoy the recipients.
Some people still labour under the delusion that the quality of a power user’s photos is the reason they have so many followers. Of course, the power users themselves like to believe this too (who wouldn’t?) - this is how Instagram ensures they stay loyal to their platform. Some do happen to be quite good, but that’s not why they have lots of followers. Look closer and you’ll see most have got their follower numbers through Instagram’s suggested user list. Sometimes Instagram gives out large followings in this way to its pals (ie good old-fashioned nepotism), most other times they want people who they think will do good PR on their behalf. And if they weren’t already really a key influencer, in a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy, because Instagram annoints them as such, the world believes they are.
The democratising force of mobile
Mobile photography has been heralded as the new point of entry for photography. Here in the UK, some of our most respected photography institutions (eg The British Journal of Photography, The Photographers’ Gallery, etc) have embraced mobile as a fresh new genre that is attracting new talent to photography. I’ve said more than once that I reckon the Photographic Canon should be grateful so many more people are now doing photography thanks to mobile. And I think many of tomorrow’s Annie Leibovitzes and David Baileys will have started out with mobiles. And since more people are doing photography, standards will be higher too.
When we talk about the democratising force of mobile, we’re usually thinking about kids in baseball caps who are now trying out photography when they wouldn’t have 10 years ago. But here’s an initiative that stretches the reach of photography even further, putting cameras and photography skills in the hands in people who aren’t wearing baseball caps, who because of their marginalisation in society would be unlikely to pick a camera. It’s a project called Heart of a Woman and its aim is to empower women on the margins of South African society to take photos with mobile devices. Not only might they be able to sell their own photos, but the project will do for them exactly what mobile photography did for me, and for many others - give them a new and exciting means of creative personal expression.
Wasn’t it great for us when we discovered mobile photography? Well, you can help Heart of a Woman allow many more people experience that same buzz. You can make it happen in many ways, by doing your own blog, by tweeting, by donating your old iphone and, of course, putting your hand in your pocket. If you really believe in the democratising power of this new photographic genre, put your money (or efforts) where your mobile is.
Not just for kids in baseball caps
Gray’s Anatoly: your Instagram picture-track
(WARNING: slightly self-indulgant blog post)
Love em or hate em, Instagram provides a useful picture-track (I just invented that term, it’s like a soundtrack but in pictures) to our lives over the last two or three years. When my wife asked me: when did we go to Corsica? I reply, well it must have been after March 20, 2011 (the day of my first Instagram) because I’ve got Instagram photos from there. With each photo, I remember what we were doing and often the process of taking the photo that I went through.
So I decided to map my1,652 Instagrams in chronological order (more for my own benefit than yours) to date. I know you can get a map of all your Instagrams but that doesn’t map the “when”:
March 28, 2011: Lisbon; April 25: Brighton; May 1: Bruges; June 18: Auntie’ Maggie’s 70th; June 30: Arcade Fire in Hyde Park; July 9: Corsica; July 15: Latitude festival; July 31: Brighton; August 9: London riots; August 26: Rock en Seine festival, Paris; September 3: End of the Road festival; September 18: the apple crop; September 24: David Graham NPG workshop; October 10: Grayson Perry exhibition; October 22: Instagramers exhibition; October 29: Almeria; November 18: Norwich; November 29: Pixel This exhibition; January 1, 2012: Isle of Wight; January 7: Brighton; February 6: Bristol; February 15: Apple Store talk; February 19: Morzine; February 27: Aunty Maggie’s funeral; March 31: Highgate Cemetary; April 15: Dubrovnik; May 2: Other Cinema; May 6: Torrevieja; May 14: iphoggy launch; May 21: Luton playoff at Wembley; June 3: Applecart festival; June 9: No Direction Home festival; July 6: St Albans, J’s birthday; July 14: Latitude festival; July 26: Olympics; August 16: new season at Luton; August 23: Campus Party Berlin; August 26: Brighton; September 1: End of the Road festival; September 9: V’s birthday; September 29: Madrid, Vejer, Jerez; November 7: KCC exhibition; January 23, 2013: Snow in London; Feburary 1: San Fransisco, New York; March 11: Jura; April 6: Brighton; April 23: Wake Fest; May 5: Surf Savers; May 15: Ostend; May 31: Field Day festival; June 3: Berlin; June 26: Galaxy experiment; July 14: Latitude festival; August 3: Holi Festival; August 10: Brighton; August 18: Greenman Festival; August 30: End of the Road festival; September 7: Bordeaux.
Between these noteworthy events are pictures from various football matches, concerts, wanders around London, business trips to Zurich, cycle commutes, museum visits, rounds of golf and train journeys. What a life we lead.
Gray’s Anatoly: The 5 most underrated photo apps
I’ve noticed that everything in the mobile photography world is the top 10 this, or the 50 best that. Well, a top 50 sounds like a lot of hard work for me, but if it means some extra blog traffic, I like an underdog, so instead of a best of, here’s my 5 most underrated apps:
1) Slow Shutter Cam. While people sing the praises of apps that separate focus and exposure (a function with almost no use at all) this app does something completely radical with the photo-taking function. Yet the developers have 9 followers on Twitter (10 now) and they haven’t got round to posting a profile pic. In the hands of a skilled operator their app is a tool that is being used to create some of the most imaginative work in the mobile world.
2) Quick Camera. I don’t necessarily think Twitter follower numbers is a reflection of importance, but the developers of this app, the cutely named Melon Labs, are so unassuming, they have only just joined Twitter and have 0 followers. Yeah, what a waste of time, we’d rather be coding than tweeting. But Quick Camera beats some of the Real Madrids of the mobile photography world such as Camera+ by offering burst mode in FULL resolution. ¡Toma ya!
3) Photo Wizard: As thousands of mobile photographers are induced by top-dollar advertising to grapple endlessly with the intricacies of PS Touch (and then it crashes on them again), Photo Wizard makes blending and masking beautifully simple. The charming Pankaj Goswami (17 Twitter followers) from Bangalore is the creator of this superb app, which is now being offered free! You’re under-selling yourself mate!
4) Decim8. The punk rocker of the mobile community, this app was designed for “photographic destruction” and takes great anti-establishment pleasure in mashing up our pixels and putting them back together in totally weird ways. Its developer, the foul-mouthed Kris Collins is too cool to have a website but Wire Magazine gave his app a stonking 9/10. Traditionalist mobile observers may avert their eyes when they meet a Decim8ed image, but this app is the future. No future!
5) Instagram. Many people believe that after selling out to Facebook, providing a monolithic platform for a billion photos of nail-painting teens, lurid plates of food and mind-numbing sunsets, and encouraging a mindless culture of chasing likes and followers with no regard for photographic quality, Instagram is now an app with little or not interest. On the contrary, it has inspired a new generation of photographers and has almost single-handedly launched a vibrant new photographic movement. Not to be overlooked.
Decim8: the punk rocker of the mobile community
So I guess InstaMug will never happen
My business plans to launch InstaMug took a blow last week when it was revealed by Life in Lofi that Instagram’s lawyers are going to stop people using the terms “Insta” and “Gram”. A global corporate empire is crushed in its infancy.
Meanwhile another global corporate empire goes from strength to strength. And how did it get so strong? Because not-for-profit communities like Instagramers and companies like Statigram developed services around the Instagram name and API, which spread Instagram’s popularity to every corner of the world and added enhanced functionality to what would otherwise have been quite a limited tool. Instagramers did the work of a million community managers for Instagram, while Statigram developed a cutting-edge web platform that puts Instagram’s apology of a website to shame. So the company saved millions of dollars while others did their work for them. And until recently, it positively encouraged them to do so: its terms explicitly said they could use “insta” and “gram”. But now it thinks it’s big enough that it doesn’t need these little people for its success. So it’s dumping them.
What is it with companies when they get big? They go from being perfectly nice and polite to being selfish and money-grabbing. When they get successful, they can’t leave it at that, they have to have more. Well, in Instagram’s case, it’s because they are run by Facebook, which in turn has shareholders who want a return on their money. While we continue sharing our photos with Instagram, it progressively shares less of the benefits of its business with the people who helped make it big.
Stop! I want to make some more money!
Instagram shrinkage via Android (part 3)
I am the bearer of good news! In a daring scoop a few weeks ago that rocked the iphoneography world to its core, I demonstrated how photos posted to Instagram via Android (at least the version on my new Samsung S4) suffered mild pixelation. I can now announce that a solution to the pixelation has been found! (I can almost hear the collective sigh of relief around the iphoneography world). I awoke one morning last week and, as if from an angel, the solution was on my bedside table. I’m afraid I don’t know who my guardian angel was (all trace of the advice seems to have mysteriously disappeared). The advice was: uncheck the “Use high-quality image processing” box under Advanced Preferences. Here it is (you’ll only find this on the Android version of Instagram):
I tried it, and yes, it works. That mild pixelation is gone. (You’re ahead of me on this one, I can tell.) So, my next (rhetorical) question is: How is that by NOT using “high quality image processing”, I get a higher quality image?
Now a decent blog post ideally needs at least two related points. Here’s the second one. If I put that question to Instagram, I don’t think I will get a reply. I put the question of pixelation to Instagram via their deeply embedded “contact us” section on Facebook. And reply came there none. I have sent many emails to Instagram over the years and they never reply. I’ve tweeted them many many times. Not a sausage. You’d have thought that with $1bn in the bank, they could afford a decent help centre in Bangladesh. It really is very poor value for our money.
So I guess my question, why does high quality mean low quality in Instagramese, will go unanswered. Where’s my guardian angel when I need him?
Call me naive…
I know this will sound totally naive and people will be sadly shaking their heads with embarrassment at my lack of worldliness, but is money at the root of all evil? Call me cynical too, but as our little mobile photography industry has grown, it’s worrying to see how many big businesses are spoiling what used to be quite a nice little party. Of course, everyone has to make a buck. I’ve made some money by giving classes and, on a few very lucky occasions, taking photos. I also recently became one of Manfrotto’s local heroes, for which, yes, I get paid.
Some purists will say that when money (or inducement of any kind) is involved with an artistic venture, the integrity of the artist is compromised and they lose authenticity. Every time an Instagram power user posts a photo for a brand they cash in some of their credibility. I’m not such a purist. But I do think two things are bad ideas (the first because it’s a bad strategy, the second because it’s just plain mean): 1) Be careful what you endorse. When you praise (or post pictures of) a product that is actually rubbish, you lose credibility and in the long run, your work will also be seen as compromised and so have less value; 2) When working with others, especially when you get them to contribute their work or time for free, be clear about your business intentions. If you’re a business with the aim of making money (or other tangible benefits) that you not intending to share, tell people clearly so they know. Then they can freely decide whether they want to work for you for free in exchange for exposure, the connections or the pure pleasure of it.
There’s a lot of talk in the creative industries about how evil it is to not pay someone for their contributions. There’s a very funny video about photographers being offered exposure instead of money for their work which makes the point very well. I don’t entirely agree. Many creative businesses are genuine start-ups who can’t afford to pay people for their contributions and who are working solely for the love of it. But I do think that once a creative business can afford to pay their contributors, they should. It’s only fair. And, these days being able to “afford” to pay doesn’t mean showing a profit on a P&L. Look at Instagram. It never had a single cent in revenue, but its business was massively valuable and so they paid their staff (in money or shares). And of course, in a slightly ironic twist, as we now know, the quid pro quo with Instagram providing a platform to photographers for free was that they could use those photos for advertising on Facebook. So maybe if it’s not quite $1 billion, if you do something for a business for free, take a leaf out of Instagram’s book, make sure you get something back for it.
You want it for free?
Instagram shrinkage via Android (part 1)
I was quite excited about posting up my first Galaxy-generated image on Instagram. All those 13 million pixels! I knew that Instagram would dump about 75% of the pixels but still, but that’s always been the case under the iOS and they look good enough on that small iPhone screen (if not when you blow them up and try to print them). When I uploaded my first photo, however, I wasn’t that impressed by the results. There was a sort of fragmentation of the colour in one of the corners. One of my followers noticed it too and mentioned it. The disappointment was even greater with my second photo as it was clear that the image had deteriorated significantly. I wondered if it had something to do with the camera’s actual image or to do with the processing I had used. But I posted exactly the same image on Flickr and it looked fine. I analysed the two photos on the two different platforms and the shrinkage on Instagram was significant. It was less than 10% the size of the Flickr version. And it shows.
612 x 612 pixels, 104KB
2584 x 1453 pixels, 1.5MB
We already knew that Instagram shrunk its photos when posting via iOS, and the shrinking via Android is to the same size. But, on the strength of the first two photos that I posted via Android, the shrinking seems to harm the look of the pictures more. I had the same issue when Hipstamatic launched Oggl. The pictures are shrunk by even more than on Instagram and it really shows. Let’s just hope Hipstamatic bear this in mind when they bring out their Android version of Oggl.
Instagram video: I like pizza and I like kebabs but not from the same shop
On getting the Instagram updated complete with its new Vine-like video feature, I did exactly the same as I did when I found Instagram on March 20th 2011. I lifted up my iphone and pressed the shutter button and captured images of whatever was in front of me. It happened to be a neo-psych band (that’s their official category) called Temples prancing around on the stage of a pub in Tufnell Park. And the result was almost the same as then. Something not very interesting with garish colours.
So will the video button have the same addiction as the camera button did back then? Here are some initial thoughts.
I follow a Danish journalist (also a friend) who posted a video of a bald man talking in Danish (I presume) for about 10 seconds. I got the words IBM and Star Trek but (not being a speaker of Danish) nothing else. So that’s 10 seconds of my life gone. I also had to turn off my radio to hear it, which wasn’t nice.
You can’t look at a video in public places. It has sound so unless you want to be very annoying to the people around you, that experience is out. If you wear headphones, unlike the clever thing that happens when you get a phone call and your music is discretely paused, you have to pause the music you’re listening to watch the video.
Scrolling through my photo stream I briefly thought I was in Minority Report when one of my follower’s pictures started moving before my very eyes. Amazing I thought. The next one I saw I thought was slightly less amazing and the next one even less. This thing was wearing off on me very quickly. I didn’t get a single comment about my first video from my followers. No big deal, my followers seemed to be saying. It’s just a gimmick. Vine already does it and youtube has been doing it for years.
With its gezillions of dollars, of course, Instagram could have pretty much launched anything it wanted to. And its shareholders want to know new features are in the pipeline (they probably use that word). Like a shark, a business has to keep moving. But then Instagram’s beauty (and some might say, its success) was its simplicity. This is a bit of a business conundrum. To put it a different way, I like pizza and I like kebabs. But not from the same shop. Somehow, the pizzas are usually like cardboard and the kebabs don’t have that nice charcoal taste.
Not very interesting with garish colours