The three pillars of photography

3 pillarsI have written several times that technical innovation can be either a way to foster your creativity or could be, most of the time, a useless distraction. I don’t say I am opposed to innovation, that’s more the other way around of course, but I like to believe one should always remember the basic:

1. Subjects’ choice

Whatever the technology and the gear, and even if you know how to post process well images, you need to be creative and to have the artistic skills if you want to create “great” images. That’s not the bottom line, in my humble opinion, but I like to believe it starts here: learn to be creative, be yourself and express yourself.

2. Shooting skills

Some photographers have “the eye”, most have not. You can’t hardly learn that. Some know how to compose and when to shoot.

3. Post process and technology

Yes, never be overwhelmed by them, they are nothing but tools useful for the artist, but it sounds more important than never to know everything about the photography’s technology and how to post process images.

At the end of the day, photographers who excels at the three pillars of photography are usually admired or, at least, can produce amazing pictures. Know where you are, and in which topics you need to improve yourself!

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Digital photography in 2013: what can come out from the end of a revolution

The digital revolution may have began around 1999 or 2000 with the first real DSLR of Nikon and Canon. Almost 15 years later, evolution will continue, every quarter great cameras, software, or new web services are released, but I am more and more believing it is the end of the digital revolution. And that’s good news for photography because we may be able to focus again at what really matters: the picture, not the technology.

Ubiquity

Cheap point and shoot cameras and smartphones are making everyone a photographer. Modern sensors and skilled engineers allow everyone to take very decent shots, should they have no knowledge of photography. Digital filters and photosharing make the pictures looking even better and available right away for those who matters to everyone. Anonymous can become very famous thanks to Instagram, much more than many legendary photography. So what? That’s fine, just the consequences of the modern digital revolution. It is time to learn living with it.

Technology

We have learned HDR, digital filters, advanced post processing, and much more during the last years. We can now have a small camera with a x40 zoom for less than a fraction of the price of a whole set of lenses we used to need ten years ago. Or a mirrorless, or a tiny compact taking better pictures that DSLR a few years ago. We can store and share on line so easily nowadays. Much more will come, of course, and we will have to adapt. But I am wondering whether most of the breakthrough might not be behind us. And that’s also good news. Revolutions are exciting but they distract us, when they don’t exhaust us. A necessary evil, but still an evil.

Here above an example of how my pictures have evolved in 20 years while mountaineering! Is it better or worst? It does not matter, things have changed, and dramatically to say the least.

No revolution lasts forever

Mirrorless did not change anything to this revolution even if they are great cameras and improved the revenues of major vendors. I like to say they rang the bell: this is the end. We are entering a new era. Despite being a major innovation, it does not change so much the game. And I doubt that Lytro would bring anything significant too by the way.

Same for Google+ and Facebook recent photosharing improvements. Photosharing is becoming a commodity nowadays. It may be good for every one, but it won’t change the game.

The bottom line

We are getting bored with the revolution. We can now focus again at what really matters: taking pictures. We don’t have to spend weeks testing the new stuff, we have to spend weeks focusing at creativity, photography and what we want to show to the others. It’s no more about software and hardware, it’s about life and creativity.

Many photographers have never stopped working this way, fair enough, but I like to believe they were really lost in the turmoil of this revolution. The dust is settling done, so I want to see in 2013 the new raise of great photographers, not those showing HDR on Flickr, their meal on instagram, or selfie on Facebook but those who have something to say.

Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy – Franz Kafka

Digital photography needs a clear back up strategy

Some people can lose all their digital work in a few minutes, that’s still very rare. More frequent, your hard drive can crash, any time, without notice. At the end of the day, our digital assets are just becoming so important we cannot live without a clear back-up strategy. For a photographer, it cannot be more important.

The risks

You can’t have everything just in the clouds, that’s too dangerous. Without being paranoiac, services can shut down, someone can steal your password and delete your files, and maybe more important, it is good to keep control on your assets.

That said, the main risk today is still a hard drive crash. So it is very dangerous not to back-up your work on at least another source.

A robbery could make you loosing all your hard drive, but if you have one in another locations.

The constraints

Back-up is boring, sometimes even painful, but always time consuming, and can cost significantly. It is like going to the dentist. No one likes that, but we have to.

Defining the minimum back-up strategy

My “minimum” back-up strategy is to store my digital assets on:

  1. a desktop (or a laptop) hard drive,
  2. the cloud thanks to Google drive (or dropbox, or skydrive),
  3. another hard drive.

Actually, I am also using a second hard drive, not located in my apartment. I am using it only once per year. It is not so redundant as I don’t have any pass word on my desktop (I don’t need one). So I can see a scenario, unlikely of course, where I could lose everything during a robbery. Thanks to this second hard drive not in the same place, that’s look impossible.

Pricing

For less than 100 € you can buy a 1 To Hard drive disk. That’s a very cheap way to be sure your photography won’t disappear.

Clouds services are not that cheap. Google drive will cost you 100 € per year to store 200 Mo, so that’s way more expensive than buying a hard drive! But very flexible, and you can have access to your images from any device, anywhere on Earth. That said, it is not a very cheap way to back-up your images, but it is not only a back-up service, though. Dropbox is even twice as expensive than Google, and for photography back-up, does not bring something else imho. Box can be expensive if you have just a couple of hundreds of megabytes, but is becoming very competitive for storage above 500 Mo.

The bottom line

Keep it simple. But do it.

It has become very affordable to secure all your digital assets, don’t miss this chance… and be sure your data are resilient to most of the threats.

Some thoughts about the future of photostreaming

Photostreams are now just a commodity for any social service, and has improved dramatically for the last months. Facebook and Flickr recent improvements may be two obvious examples. Let’s list first some trends in 2012:

Bigger is better
That’s obvious: the experience improves with the picture size and photostreams are now able to display much bigger pictures.

Adjust to your screen size
Services like Flickr allow you to see a given picture of a stream, by clicking it, at the maximum size possible. Cool.

Endless stream
That’s also obvious, we hate clicking on “next page please”, and, freaking consumers that we are all like to see as many pictures as possible in the shortest time frame available.

Mosaic and no blank space please
Similarly, photostreams are now more and more mosaics without any blank space between pictures. That’s sound obvious nowadays, but that’s something actually recent. However, how and if you must crop pictures to display the stream is something yet not so clear:

Square crop
Square crop has become very popular, but for some, like Flickr, who are still preferring a justified streaming. Unlike some, I am not a fan of square crop, even if I do understand its usefulness, and to be more specific, for mobile device.

Present limitations
I understand my pictures must be cropped, but right now, it is far from being ideal. And browsing my Google Picasa albums with front page badly square cropped is just depressing for a photographer. Intelligent cropping tools are now starting to be available, so hopefully, this will improve soon.

Another problem with streaming is actually the search. We mainly browse mainly by either “time” or “tags”. This experience can be really frustrating, as pictures are now counted by billions, and you don’t want to see most of them for many reasons. Actually, it is becoming a real challenge to find the kind of pictures you are looking for. The trend – more and more pictures taken every year – will make the search experience on pictures more and more frustrating without some dramatic innovations.

That’s why I am sure, or at least I hope, that many new intelligent tools will be soon available. There are many ways to find what you are looking for and that’s how photostreaming may evolve: you can already give an aesthetic number to a picture. That’s very arguable, though. But I prefer from far missing some good pictures because the tool miscalculated their aesthetic value and browsing only “nice” pictures than browsing tons of uninteresting pictures for me. Yes, interestingness is really something photostreams are taking care of in a very basic way so far. Other tools are now providing a context to pictures, trying to avoid not only the tagging tasks, but providing some semantic to a picture to let people browsing it the way we want.

On top of this, there are now many ways to push your content to different channels and one person can post a picture to many streams. So services like Pictarine look to me a great way to display photostreaming by person. This dimensions does matter too. Search & display by people is really something still at its infancy for photostreaming. But let’s go a little bit further, I would love being able to look after a kind of photographer. Right now, finding new photographers that you like is a challenge, as we have all very different tastes. And photography has become so popular, there is no such thing than discovering new skilled photographers lost in armies of photographers you can’t care less about. Anyway, tha’ts something else I would discuss in another post.

Conclusion: how to handle an exponential volume of pictures?
So to make a long story short, the main challenge of photostreaming, in the future, would be to take care of “volume”. I believe that several business will be extremely successful if they will be able to improve the photostreaming experience of users. Welcome to a digital world of billions and billions of pictures… and counting.

I don’t mind the performances, controls suck

New DSLR, new mirrorless, new high end compact, new point and shoot, new smartphone. Every week will start with some good news with photographer. Sensors’ capabilities are now outstanding in low light, in high contrasts for landscapes, and for depth of colours for portraits. Other cameras’ performances are also always improving in terms of Autofocus, how fast the camera will shoot, and much more.

This does not matter so much to me

Cameras’ manufacturers are following the herd, that’s a marketing law. We, users, are supposed to be mostly early adopters and geeks. But we are not that much, we may even be deceit by this character. We are just photographer. Performances are right now really impressive, I will always need better ones, but that’s not the point. Manufacturers have forgotten the basics.

Three dials or nothing

It looks so trivial to me, I just don’t know why I am writing this: photography is first and foremost about f/, speed and ISO. That’s it. Shoot RAW if you don’t want to bother with anything less, and shoot JPG and take care of WB (White balance), DR (Dynamic range) and so on. But photography is mostly about these three parameters. Why can’t we change them so easily? Why these damned menus? (I know the answer…). When you are using programs, Av or Tv (Aperture / Speed priority), you still need the 3rd dial for correcting exposure. When you have shot a few times, let’s say a few dozens of thousands, more or less, sometimes much much less, you know the bias of your exposure, you also still need the ISO choice and the variable parameter. 3 dials or nothing. Period. How many cameras comply with this basics? Not so many.

Much more complex ?

But it is not that simple. There is also the AF mode, the WB, and much more. You will find hardly photographers shooting the same way. However, most of the cameras are still mostly products, not what I am calling photo platform with heavy customization capabilities. That’s a real pain because we are not the same, and we need to customize our control. We need customized display on buttons to remember what they are used for, we need much more “custom modes” (u1, u2 modes or C or whatever the name), we need to get control. Some manufactures are masquerading the past years, like Fuji, in a rather sensible way, what has been done before, which was not that stupid but which is already just obsolete. It was indeed stupid to remove the f/ control from directly the lens. Some are saying it was a way to build cheaper lens, but photography is not a cheap hobby, so that’s a wrong answer. However, I am very rarely impressed by controls efficiency of new cameras.

Few innovations, at the end of the day or too much to forget the basics?

There is obviously some common belief. New high end cameras are a plebiscite, mostly because of old fashioned controls and incredible performances. But it does not matter. I want a bigger view finder, I want my three dials back, I want great lenses, I want my customised controls. Nothing else really matter – at least that would not be missed.

Which camera manufacturer will not listen to the usual suspects, and will focus at what photographers really need? This blog might sound arrogant, fair enough, give me my three dials back (like in the Sony NEX-7 but for DSLR please), give me my great lenses back (not like the NEX-7!). Don’t forget my AF controls, my custom modes, my customized buttons, not just one or two, but all of them somewhere, don’t charge me 40% more for getting a bigger sensor I don’t need or a new lens line which bring nothing but a higher price and I will again accept that I am just an arrogant blogger.

Light field camera, a bright future or a dead-end?

Light field camera has moved from a technical concept to a mass consumer product recently. Basically, the concept is allowing you to focus after shooting, and theoretically to manage your depth of field (DOF) as you wish, so pretty much one can consider as a real innovation. DOF’s management has always been a real challenge for many photographer.

I don’t have much more to say about the product itself, DP Review published as usual a very exhaustive test and critic. No, my main question is more about the potential of the technology.

Don’t underestimate the existing sensors

Despite all the existing limits, I am still convinced it can really bring something unique. However, it has to overcome two main constraints: size and resolution. Compact cameras are so tiny that they are now embedded into smartphone, the clear future of casual shooters, and a must have for any photographer. On the other end, the performances of high end DSLR is more and more amazing, sensors are doing more than pushing the limits, they are just incredible if you think about what was possible only a few years ago. For both size and performances, I see no reason to stop the improvements. The  light field cameras look to me very chunky and their performances are yet pathetic, without saying using them is not as easy despite some real attempts to create an easy to use camera.

Don’t misunderstand people real motivation as casual shooters

Huge DOF with a small sensor camera at f/8

Casual shooters want to have everything focused, they don’t care and don’t understand DOF. Tiny sensors are very much capable doing that, and will be more and more capable into the future. When they performances will improve, they will operate more and more at bigger f/ numbers, with a greater DOF. I know they are limited by diffraction though, but the potential looks real to me. Indeed, even with resolution getting worse with high f/, it is still so far ahead compare with light field camera, at least for the time being. I know it may change, or not as both technologies are moving forward.

Creativity has nothing to do with managing DOF

Again, if you want an almost infinite DOF, you should use tiny sensors, they are still much better and smaller and cheaper. If you want to refocus after the shooting, and are an experienced photographer, where is the point? I am asking myself the question, so I am taking usually a couple of shots focused at different subjects. Shooting one more picture cost nothing nowadays, thanks to the digital photography. And for the photojournalism / action shooters: again, tiny sensors look to me much more capable to deliver what they are looking for.

The future is not what you expect

That said, they are much more potential application for this technology, and entrepreneur may be able to transform their new toy into an useful tool. So yes, there is hope! But it is still quite fuzzy to say the less.

The final word

I am an engineer myself, so I know the two constraints (size and resolution, if not a third one: low light capability) can be much improved, but frankly, the gap is immense and whereas it would be interesting to follow the technology’s improvements, it is unlikely this technology may overcome the classic sensors before long. Like many innovations, it may be just too soon or may never really solve any issue. I am just believing the innovation will come from another angle, the existing motto looks to me unable to solve the problems they are listing. Time will say whether I am wrong or not…

Further reading: apart from the excellent DP Review, this article is just a jewel about light field cameras.

Be aware: Facebook doesn’t give a s..t about photography

Whereas its photo services have improved dramatically for the last months, despite a 1 billion dollars acquisition, you should not believe, even a second, than Facebook is the photographer friend. Actually, I like their honesty: they don’t want to be cool, they want to become a utility. They don’t like photography, they like you spending your life on their website. Users don’t really matter so much (read Terms and conditions, and remember all the privacy settings issues), but what matters yet is to print money. After all, they will be publicly listed this week, so that’s something important.

This week, they also decide to acquire another mobile photo sharing company, but actually not the company itself, just its team: Lightbox. For those who don’t know them, they used to be a good alternative to Instagram. Facebook also bought Instagram not for an interest into photography, but just for their mobile social sharing skills.

Why Facebook sucks

They are going to close Lightbox’s services, that’s too bad for the users. But who cares? Well, the users care, when they spent hours and hours building a community. OK they will start again with Streamzoo, hipsters or whatever. Ok the service was free and you can download the pictures you posted in Lightbox, if you are not in a three weeks vacations without internet (Yes in Europe we do that! Remember, our debt is immense, so are our vacations, sometimes offline). But that’s not the point. What matters is building a community, a reputation and sharing with people.Facebook does not like when you do this without them, which is understandable. That’s not a reason and I despise very much the founders of Lightbox which obviously, despise their beloved users too acting this way. But you should remember that when it is free, you are not the client, you are the meat.

Instagram future

So I am mortified to see that some people still believe in a bright future of Instagram. Of course, I can’t be sure their future will be like Flickr after its acquisition by Yahoo!, but the motivations of Facebook look to me quite similar: integration, talent acquisition, who cares about the product?

Both sides of the coin

That’s business. Internet allow you everything, but that’s true for everyone. What is offered to you can be removed easily. Some ethic will eventually prevail with photo sharing & social web. For the time being, Facebook sucks and cannot care less about ethic, so I don’t like them. Just a few greedy investors and a talented founder is not enough. They missed the point. They did it on purpose, they can afford it. I don’t hope people will remember, I just hope entrepreneurs will leverage this assumed weakness to let their business grow. Flickr, do you hear me now that you seem to have lost your arrogance?

Snap My Life: just one more photo sharing experience?

When you want to store and share your pictures, well you really have many options. But social projects are hype if not in a bubble state. I like to review the existing, old or new photo sharing websites.

So I had a look at Snap My Life. I jumped quickly to their “10 reasons to love them“, and created a profile. Well so far I don’t some real innovation. Their “ambassadors program” looks more interesting for them than for the photographers – I don’t really see the point joining the program. The explore is a kind of 500px but without the quality of images of 500px. Their search is not dramatically giving a new or great photo experience. The site is not exactly very famous and I can’t see any positive trend. Of course they are proposing something unique – basically a mix of photo sharing / data storing on the cloud / music sharing, but I don’t really see the added value of their global offer. There is some geolocation and mobile apps, but that’s look more to comply with some buzzwords’ tyranny rather than a real great experience for the user.

If you want to share only mobile pictures, instagram looks much better. If you want to store your files, Dropbox and others Google drive really rock, and if you like photography, 500px is great. For the social photo experience, Flickr is to me still a king.

I don’t want to blame them but basically, you have now so many photo sharing websites, that it looks more than a challenge to enter this market unless with some real breakthrough, or by fixing something really broken. Otherwise, you will be just one more in the game.

 

Open Photo: a good idea but may be just a missed opportunity

Photo sharing is hype, we know it. Open source is cool. So a match between both should be fantastic. Open Photo would like to be this great player, able to put together some freedom to what has been so far a proprietary thing.

I like very much the idea to split where you are storing your pictures from the presentation itself, where you publish them, and done through an open source code, that’s just great. But actually many people are already doing it sometimes, not in an open source way. For instance, I am using Google to store my pictures, and I publish them through many channels (FB, Flickr, Tumblr, Google+, …).I don’t publish one picture through many channels because I must, but because I like. Don’t mix up “to store” with “to share”. You don’t do the same things with these different photo sharing websites. There are overlaps, fair enough, but I need all of them. So to make a long story short, you can store images on photo sharing websites, but you are not obliged to and, personally, I don’t recommend doing so!

My first point: the very unique idea of Open Photo seems to make not proprietary all tags & comments of your pictures and to let you store them where you want. If my understanding is correct, I don’t find the story not so much appealing.

Conversely,  tools like Pictarine can be much more helpful, acting like a “Pictures hub”, storing nothing but curating your published images.

I think there is a confusion somewhere, and we should get back to the basics of “Digital Asset Management“, something not as hype and recent than photo sharing. You must make a difference between:

  1. How I am taking digital pictures
  2. How I am doing the post-processing
  3. How I am managing the versionning of each picture
  4. Where and how I am storing them
  5. Indeed, I will publish them through many channels and with different formats, so publishing channels processes are the next thing to take care of
  6. Last and not least, how I am managing the social experience with my pictures

I have the feelings that Open Photo is going to be “one more photo sharing experience”. Of course they will pretend the opposite! But frankly with have already rather too many photo sharing options than too few. And I know the Open Photo’s team knows it. On a side note, flaming Smugmug and Flickr, like the are doing, looks weird to me. They have their defaults, limitations and weaknesses but, I mean, they are quite good at doing what they are supposed to do! And they are actually quite unique. Photobucket and the other Instagram are not evil per se, they are proposing a social experience of their own. Yes, photo sharing is broken and must be fixed, but that’s more because of its immaturity, not because of its lack of open-sourceness.

Open source is more for improving interoperability and standards, as every vendor try to lock-in its customers, and open source must act against this evil. But again, open source is for technology, not for end users experience – even if some open source teams will often try to pretend the contrary.

So yes, you should not store your pictures with the same provider than where you are publishing them. And you certainly don’t need Open Photo to do it. But do you really need to own the comments and tags of your pictures? That’s arguable.

Maybe Open photo could be a kind of competitor of Pictarine, they are both dealing with curation limits of photo sharing services, even with a very different philosophy, or maybe even work closer if not together, but so far Open Photo looks more like again reinventing the wheel, like too many open source projects, instead of focusing at real innovation, like some do, with so much success. As far as I know, one should remember open source is mainly if not only attractive for geeks, developpers and techies. End users, the mainstream, don’t care or/and don’t understand what it means to be LGPL / Apache licenced and don’t want to belong to the great Github community! I don’t think Apple can be known as an open source company – no kidding! – but they are very much liked by end-users. So do many Flickr and Smugmug users, even if they can criticize these services.

So, what do we need?

I need one and only one tool which will let me storing my pictures “anywhere” (I could switch from Dropbox to let’s say Google drive! – or the opposite if you think Google is evil), manage the versions of my pictures, and will let me publish them every where, and which will let me enjoying and handling well the social experience I am developping with them. And I need it by picture (the asset is “one picture, several versions, many published items, its comments and tags”).

Simple, but not easy at all.

For the record, Lightroom could make it, but so far does not really. It is indeed the Swiss tool of pictures’ management, not the real “pictures hub” I need. It does not manage at all  the social experience, that’s more for Pictarine which, conversely, does not handle the assets themselves. They provide a time-display, but no per asset display like Lightroom, which is still unable to show what-the-hell you are doing with you assets. Something Pictarine is very capable of.

Should this software be open source, that would rock. Should it not be, too bad but I may use it nevertheless. That’s how open source works: it is better with them but it works without.

Why Flickr is nothing else but a sleeping beauty

For the last months, many bloggers and journalists have noticed the raise of 500px, instagram, and other photo sharing websites whereas the old and fading lady of this kind, Flickr, was just doing… nothing. Some were saying, more in a provocative way, that Flickr is dead.

First, one should understand why: that’s easy, Yahoo! has been into a major restructuring for months (if not more), and being a product into such an organization means “you can’t take any real decision”. In a way or another, it will eventually change. OK one may argue it could last and damaged a lot Flickr, fair enough, but from my personal experience, I find this scenario unlikely. The Flickr team has been waiting for too long, and the management of Yahoo! will have to take a decision, at least will make possible some evolutions of the photo sharing website at, at least, a reasonable pace.  It is not like if Flickr has less means, people or money than the others, it is just Yahoo! which is a crazy mess right now and mess does not last forever. Companies die, break or come back, but can’t be messy too long.

Now let’s come to Flickr main assets versus its directs so called competitors: its vibrant and large community. I tried other photo sharing websites, but this one is really active and the diversity is so great, one can really explore the realm of photography, from casual shooters posting their last vacations pictures to serious professional, even if they all tend not to like Flickr any more but that’s easy to understand:

Flickr main weakness is obviously displaying the pictures (obsolete and ugly for 2012), and the browsing experience (too many clicks). It is complicated to solve these issues, given the size of the community (I am an engineer so I can get it), but other did it and again, I believe Flickr can do it. Conversely, acquire such a community and make it so vibrant is not a technological impediment. Facebook prevailed upon myspace, but there are not so many Facebook and a big and vibrant community is a real asset, quite tough to acquire.

The other photo sharing websites are interesting, but none can offer what Flickr has. A place for photography, for photographers, for all of them.

Therefore, I would not bury so fast Flickr, they are not dead, they have just been sleeping. Please wake up guys! Photography needs you!