Hanging on in the Flickrverse (aka ‘blows against the empire’)

Back in the olden days, before the advent of the mobile phone camera and the invasion from planet Zuckerberg, if you wanted to share your photos online the game was Flickr. For me, somehow, despite all the things which have happened since, it still is. Before we go any further, I’d like to say two things clearly. The first is that I’m in no way sponsored or otherwise rewarded by Flickr and/or SmugMug, the other is that while I’m joking about Instagram/Facebook a lot here, they’re both platforms which do what they do well, and I’m happy to use them. The sci-fi imperial comments are just for rhetorical effect…

I’ve got Instagram, and Facebook and enjoy them both hugely, especially Instagram (yes, the invasion of the pods from the Zuckerberg Galaxy has got me to). I’ve experimented with 500px and even something called ClickaSnap, which somehow left me totally cold despite it’s frequent claims that somehow people were going to pay me. I know people use it and love it, but it’s just not for me. Images uploaded to my instagram also go automatically onto 500px and when I remember to check occasionally people like them. Nothing gives a snapper a warm glow like some random stranger feeling motivated to double-tap one of my photos in a vague form of quality acknowledgement. As Flickr lurched from one crisis to another and users haemorrhaged from it faster than body fluids in an Ebola outbreak, I hung in there despite a vague feeling that maybe I ought to cancel my Pro subscription and just go with the gram, but I never quite did. Right now, I’m feeling more Flicker-Positive than I have for years. Because the new owners SmugMug decided to make it less attractive for free users and the roadmap shows they’re thinking about new features for Pro users.

So why does somebody deciding to risk losing further shitloads of their user base (i.e. the ones who aren’t paying) on top of all the ones who’ve just given up over the Yahoo Years make me feel positive? Because it suggests that they believe that there are enough photographers out there prepared to stump up their pennies for a decent online platform, and making the revenue to fund that independent of advertiser revenue might give them the security to deliver. If you think about it, in the world of free hosting funded by the adverts the folks from Planet Zuck have nailed it, they’re like the empire in the original Foundation Novels, they’re everywhere, if they could have offices which covered a planet to the point that nobody could see the sky like Trantor then they’d get there. People rave about ‘The Algorithm’ affecting their viewers (and do I hate the algorithm ranting), they express concerns about their personal data, but they stick with it because for free it’s a bloody good service. Pretty much unlimited storage and sharing options in exchange for your personal data; a devil’s bargain perhaps, but one loads of people are happy to strike.

SmugMug clearly believe that there are enough people who are prepared to go down the route of just paying for a service with money rather than with data, and I think they’re going to be right. After all despite the outcry over the Adobe subscription model there are still hundreds of thousands of people every month who pay up because, well, they get a quality product in exchange. Interestingly, I don’t remember quite so much furore when The Beast of Redmond quietly slipped into a subscription model for Office, but again it’s about a company taking a pretty much guaranteed monthly revenue stream to deliver a quality product. That’s what I think, or at least I hope, SmugMug is doing here with Flickr. To be fair, offering free users space for a 1000 images isn’t exactly mean either – and to my mind anybody who has over 1000 quality images to share is probably going to be a keen enough Flickr user to want to pay for the features it offers.

And that brings me to the final reason I stick with Flickr, because actually the quality of the images is overall better, because it’s always been a platform entirely for photographers, while Instagram is a platform for anybody who wants to share some photographs. When I surf on Insta I find a lot of images I like, and often new people to follow, but there are also a lot of photos where frankly I find myself thinking ‘seriously, why did you bother?’ – well they bothered because it was fun, and their friends will find it fun too, and it will help people remember the experience of that birthday party / wedding / stag do / weekend in Benidorm / whatever. Those are all great things, and most of us do them, but that’s not the user base who are going to go for Flickr – that’s what I think Yahoo etc missed, they thought they could compete with The Zuck Empire on it’s own turf, and they couldn’t – not with a user base into Sagan numbers, quick easy upload from the phone and immediacy of sharing. I think SmugMug have realised this and refocussed onto photographers, who care about the quality of the image itself as much as the context.

The thing which I think would be a good add-on to the Pro Flickr roadmap would, oddly, be a quality print on demand service. If they partnered with print labs in various countries and you could order a print from inside Flickr, billed to the same card which pays your subscription, with all the options for size and quality built into the platform. There’s a lot more interest in printing our work now among photographers. If you’re listening SmugMug? That would be nice.

If you want to give Flickr a go, then the free option is worth trying out. This is mine, and if (or when) you have an account I’d love you to let me know so I can see yours.


What makes me like your Instagram

I’m a big fan of Instagram, I follow a lot of people and I’ve been thinking about what makes me follow somebody, and then keep following them. The following comments are my thoughts, they will not allow you to overcome ‘The Algorithm’ or ‘get 5 million new followers in 10 minutes’ or any other such things. I don’t even know if anybody else uses the following criteria. But hey, citizen journalism and all that, it’s my blog and I can express my views on it 🙂

First off, no filters. Yes, I mean it, I can unsubscribe from somebody who takes a nice photo of themselves or somebody else and then sticks a dog tongue or rabbit ears on faster than shit slides off a shovel.

If I’m following you because your’e my friend then yes, I love to see what you and your family are doing, I love to see the antics of your cat, and what you did on your holidays. Go for it. But if I’m following you because of your content, or because of your photography, then frankly, sorry, I’m not that interested. Maybe run two accounts, one for ‘your life’ your friends can enjoy and one for ‘your content’ (all the remaining things refer to content channels…)

For me, I don’t care if you don’t post every day, or even every week, I’d rather you posted when you’ve got a great photo of whatever it is to post. Quality for me trumps quantity, every single time…

Oh, and related to that, I’m not a fan if essentially you post the same photo every time. You know, the photo which catches my eye is the one of you in the vintage dress in front of your back door, you’ve got a vintage dress channel, great I like those, then I look at your feed and all of them are you, in the same pose, in front of the same door. Live it up, do different things around the garden, show off those vintage dresses while drinking tea on the patio, while pruning the roses, while feeding the fish, keep the theme but make very photo that bit different, and always a great photo.

The next one is something which always makes me head for the unsubscribe button, the one where somebody takes two almost identical photos of themselves and puts then in one frame (it’s usually related to the above single-location issue). There’s a better solution…learn to compose for the square frame. Thats’ where the different locations come in handy, you’ve got more to work with.

Well, that’s what affects my subscription choices anyway 🙂

Backups, yes they’re important

I’ve always had a tendency to be anal about backing up, right back to the olden days I always had copies on at least two floppies, ideally in different buildings. I’ve carried this tendency on and have never really had to put my money where my backups were, until now.

Last week I noticed that my mac was behaving strangely, the photos app wouldn’t open, I couldn’t authenticate to iCloud, other accounts did the same. I went through the various solutions suggested on line and none of them worked. Booted into safe mode which said there was a problem but it couldn’t be fixed, wondered what to do next when it just stopped booting properly. I realised that my only option was to do a full restore, so I gritted my teeth, plugged in the backup drive and told it to restore…a couple of hours later Time Machine had finished and all was working. Apart from the fact that the problem still happened and I realised that whatever had done toys out of the pram had happened after my last backup. So I went back to the week before, which is on the same drive, restored and all was well. I had to do a bit of tweaking by restoring the files for the Thunderbird mail client from the later backup so I didn’t lose any emails, but all in all, a success. I always like to see if things like Time Machine work…just not on my main computer.

So, for anybody who thinks backing up is something they can live without, it isn’t. Time (and a few pennies) spent now will save you grief later. Just remember all the photos you’ve downloaded and the time you’ve spent post-processing them. Realising you need a backup solution after the crash is too late. By the way, I heard a data recovery professional once say you don’t need a backup solution, you need a recovery solution – good way to think about it.

For anybody deciding they need to come up with something, here’s my solution. It’s not the ‘right’ one, it’s the one which works for me, just consider the principles I’m working on when you come up with your own. Also, I’m using Apple Time Machine, but you could probably adapt these for any piece of software on the market.

Every Sunday morning, I do a time machine backup onto a desktop external hard drive which lives in a different room in the house. Don’t keep it in the same room, otherwise it’s going to be vulnerable to a whole number of things which might right off your computer. Then I do a second, encrypted, one onto one of a pair of portable external drives; one of which lives in a different room in the house and one of which goes off site (I keep it at work). Then on monday morning I take that in and bring the other encrypted drive home. The rationale is that at no time are the computer and all the backups in the same building at the same time, and if the house did burn down on a Sunday evening then the off site backup would only be a week out of date so I could only lose a weeks worth of stuff.

There are good subscription backup services out there at the moment of course which automatically take your backup off site and cloud store it for you. I’ve tried the free subscription to BackBlaze and thought it was very good, just not right for me. Two things to consider with these, if you did a physical backup as well and critically needed to get at your backup while your internet was down you could (yes, I know it’s a very remote possibility, but this is belt and braces you know). The other thing is that if you have any kind of business, or store information about other people on your computer, make absolutely sure that by putting your backup on the cloud you’re the right side of whatever data protection laws apply to you.

But, any backup is better than no backup – though a well thought out recovery strategy is best of all.

Why are ‘photographers you should know’ always on Instagram

Quite often on Youtube, and I do watch a lot of Youtube photography videos, you get a video called something like ‘5 Photographers You Should Know’, or something along those lines, and they’re always interesting to watch. However one thing I do find myself thinking is that these videos, generally by younger photographers with social media accounts tend to feature other younger photographers with social media accounts. Okay, let’s be clear on this one, there is nothing wrong with being a younger photographer or with having a social media account, both of them are admirable things; I’m not a younger photographer but I do have a social media account so I’m ticking a 50% of the boxes myself. But over the decades there have been many, many great photographers who date from before the time when social media accounts even were an idea, let along an actual thing. Why aren’t they featuring in these videos, why aren’t the 20 somethings suggesting that it’s really good to look at Adams, or Bailey, or Duffy, or Avedon; even Rankin seems to have slipped off the lists. I think it’s down to a simple thing: they’re in print.

I’m not buying into the idea that young people don’t read, that’s reactionary rubbish which too many old fogeys like to peddle, usually I suspect because they don’t actually understand the 21st century and like to be sniffy about things like social media. But what I am saying is that there is a tendency, and I can’t prove this, for younger people to not go looking for things outside their preferred media. Conversely, I think there is a tendency sometimes for older people to do the same, that dividing river has steep banks on both sides (wow, that’s an impressively pretentious metaphor). I’m lucky, and it is luck, to work in a school so I’m surrounded by teenagers, which really keeps your brain young I can tell you. We offer digital photography as an exam subject and lots of kids take it. The subject head has made a reasonable investment in nice books over the past few years, and I do like a browse on the office shelf and borrow a couple over the holidays. Well we got to the end of the Christmas break and I said on our return that I was sorry but I hadn’t got her Ansel Adams book back, to which she replied “hang onto it for as long as you like, I can’t get the kids to even open them”.

The course requires them to produce work ‘in the style of’ a photographer of their choice, and I found myself the other day looking at the exam work and thinking that if that were me I’d be getting out the plain white background and trying to do portraits in the style of Bailey (who I admit is my photographic hero), and then realised they’d never have heard of Bailey, or probably seen his work. Or Avedon’s “American West”, or Edward Weston and his peppers; if I could photograph vegetables like that I’d be totally a happy bunny. They’re not crossing the divide, they’re not seeing these photographers. Don’t blame the teachers, they can show them the work but they’re not engaging with it. There’s no colour, no filters, no effects and no sense that in 30 seconds you can flick off it and forget it existed.

None of them are going to get one of their classmates to kneel on the floor with a stuffed squirrel, ever.

Influencers and Brand Builders: not the Instagram for which we signed up

Bit of a polemic this post, and I’m not taking a pop at anybody in particular here, just in general. I also accept that there is no way this genie is going back in, because too many people now depend on rubbing this particular bottle.

Instagram used to be about sharing photos you’d taken which you thought other people might like to see, and that was fun; that was a social network. Then, from somewhere two new trends appeared. The first was that visual creatives found that Instagram was the way to get noticed (and photo editors decided that it was a great way to find photographers, models, etc without all that sitting down with people and taking about their portfolios). The second was the appearance of a strange new entity called the Social Media Influencer, which as far as anybody can make out means people who get paid or get given free stuff in exchange for plugging it on their social media channels. Eva Wiseman in The Guardian wrote a rather good piece taking apart the whole ‘influencer’ idea a while back. All of a sudden Instagram became business critical for some, and the entire business model for others. There were now channels on Youtube (which used to be for people to share bits of video) devoted to building your brand on social media. Blogs appeared exhorting us to do things like ‘post daily if not more often’ because that was what our brand audience supposedly wanted, and insisting that you remember to link you various bits of social media to ensure that as many people saw them as possible. Advice on getting five thousand new followers in a week appeared, and keyword tagging became a dark art akin to voodoo; there are probably social media tagging consultants out there, I haven’t looked as I worry I’d be too depressed by what I’d find. All of a sudden Instagram became a job, and you were told by various experts that if you weren’t treating it like a job you were doing it wrong. All of a sudden we were supposed to stop being people who took photos and wanted to share them with people: we were now supposed to be A Brand.

There is always an endless amount of railing about The Algorithm. I feel it needs capital letters because it’s always spoken of as though it’s some strange dark hearted mythical beast controlling everything from it’s lair: kind of like Cesare Borgia crossed with The Gruffalo. The complaint is that changes to The Algorithm decrease your engagement. Why by the way is that ‘a thing’, is it just that saying ‘the number of likes I get is smaller’ sort of sounds a bit narcissistic while discussing your engagement sounds like you’re a powerful professional presence doing serious things? A part of me thinks that actually the reason there is The Algorithm is that the tonnage of posts with which you’d be faced every day, if you followed the advice to follow everybody and every hashtag you can think of, would be almost unworkable. Of course, if you only follow a few folks you like, rather than follow the advice to follow everybody in the hope of increasing your engagement you’re not going to be affected. Generally I see most of my favourite user’s posts all the time. If you did everything you were supposed to do, posting daily, replying to all the comments (not because that’s polite but because The Algorithm is supposed to like it), checking your statistics and worrying about your engagement it would take all the fun out of it. I tried taking this attitude to blogging for a while and you know what? I hated it. I lost any enthusiasm for writing as I planned my posts and put things on twitter and linked like crazy. I didn’t write for months afterwards.

My strategy is to ignore all the advice and just use this, easy to follow, process: if I take a photo I like, and I think other people will like, I post it. Sometimes I post daily, sometimes I don’t post for weeks. I follow people who post photos I like, regardless of it they follow me back or not. I have a set of tags I use for my images which I know will put my photos in front of people who might enjoy them. I have, usually, somewhere between 100 and 120 followers on each of my channels at any one time and my engagement sucks. The people I interact with and I have a good time

Works for me.

Cost of Film v Digital – and what it tells us about the change in shooting styles

I was watching this rather good video on Youtube yesterday by Jamie Byrne Photography, in which he was explaining why he was giving up shooting film and concentrating entirely on digital work. He’s got good (one might say economically unassailable) reasons for so doing and I’m not arguing with him. He has good points and he makes them well. He also stresses that it’s not shooting film he doesn’t like per se, for him it’s just an argument of economics. I’m lucky in that as an amateur I can shoot what I damn well please and if I choose to spend the money on a film shoot then I can. It’s my money and I don’t need to balance a bottom line for it. I’m not going to argue, for one moment, that the future of commercial photography is overwhelmingly digital for both cost and convenience. I’ve seen videos with people arguing that if you look at the ‘real’ cost of both then film is much cheaper than digital; you factor in the cost of cameras, processing software, etc etc. You know what, they’re wrong. Let’s get this out there: digital is cheaper. You can put one image on a memory card, or fill the card and the cost is the same. Heck given that you can reuse the card over and over and each card costs pretty much peanuts for what it is, they’re damn near to free.

But then an idea bubbled up from my subconscious: they way we shoot has changed, and the way people expect us to shoot has changed with it. Digital has changed the way we think about making images, and the way we now think about image making has changed to suit that.

There’s a lovely quote by my personal hero, David Bailey, on photographing Jean Shrimpton:

“She was magic. In a way she was the cheapest model in the world-you only needed to shoot half a roll of film and then you had it.” (quote found here)

Now I’m going to allow this having a degree of Bailey’s famous humour here, but having looked at film of him shooting in the 60s (just watch some of the many films about Bailey on Youtube) it’s clear he’s not taking that many images. He’s spending a lot of time looking and directing but there aren’t a huge number of clicks compared with what you see now where you see the same level of model direction, but taking far more images from which they can select the best. Sometimes they’re even shooting in burst mode. This is what you can do with digital when the individual image costs nothing. You can take lots and just accept a high number of substandard ones along with the good ones. To put it simply the modern digital photographer can afford to be wrong far, far, far more often than their film predecessor could be. To be deliberately, and rhetorically, tongue in cheek as Bailey might be: you can afford to be far more sloppy and careless with digital.

I’ve realised that I have a genuine personal example of this change; our wedding photos. We got married in 1980 and our photographs were taken by Studio Norwich (who may or may not still exist). The album contains 86 images – that’s all we were offered because there are blank pages where we opted to reject a couple. They are slightly rectangular so assuming the wedding photographer’s tool of choice for the time, the Mamiya 645, then they were getting 15 on a roll. Do that maths and this is a bit under 7 rolls. Let’s assume that that they had only a 50% success rate of getting decent photos, which may be worst case, they shot about 15 rolls of film. This may mean they went and did a fairly big wedding and came away with 225 images. Can you imagine a wedding photographer today taking only a couple of hundred shots and giving the client 86 photos back? I randomly searched for a wedding photographer in Norwich today and their super-budget package gives the couple 175 images, with most offering 200 plus.

I reiterate. I’m not knocking the modern way of doing things. If you’re photographing an event which is one of the most important in the lives of your clients and is unrepeatable, then you’d be a pratt not to make sure you’ve got more insurance images then you ever think you’d need. Modern high end cameras record each image onto two separate memory cards just in case. This is brilliant. I knew a wedding photographer once who had to tell a couple that the lab had stuffed up and lost all their photos and he remembered it as the most ghastly experience of his professional career.

The same is true of the commercial fashion photographer. If they’ve paid for a model, and a stylist, and a makeup artist, and a hairdresser, and there is a photo editor wanting a double page spread in some fashion glossy, I can understand they taking advantage of the low cost of digital go make sure they’ve got the shot. I’m going to risk saying that there are no commercial photographers who would put a model, however good, in front of the camera, get them to pose, take half a roll (Bailey shot a Rolliflex, that’s 6 images) and then move on to the next setup. Especially as they’re not going to have seen the images as they shot them.

Did that mean they were more confident, or planned more, or just were in some way ‘better’ in the days of film? I have no idea and I’m not going to speculate, though I suspect not. I suspect that the truth is that if they’d had the low costs they’d have shot more. Mind you I’d welcome the opinion of Bailey on the matter. I’m sure he’d have views, probably very funny ones.

Doing the Prime Lens Challenge

A few weekends ago, Sue and I went to Glastonbury for a couple of days, it’s a town we both know and like and it gave us the opportunity to visit some gardens: Barrington Court, Forde Abbey and Chalice Well if you’re interested. I’ve been in a bit of a creative rut lately and was looking for something to pull me out of it a bit so I decided to do the prime lease challenge.

For those who don’t know, you go somewhere and take only one lens, which can’t be a zoom. Traditionally it’s a 50mm so I took my Canon 50mm 1.8, however on a crop body it’s actually the equivalent of about an 80mm, but it’s still a prime. My rationale for doing it this trip was that it’s somewhere we’re going to to go again, and frankly which you could do for a day trip, so if there was something really great which required a different focal length I could always photograph it next trip. So I put only my 450d and 50mm in my bag and that was that.

80mm equivalent is a very strange lens to work with! It was consistently either too wide or too telephoto, but I think that was the point. I realised how much of my composition relied on being able to get just the right focal length based on where I felt like standing rather than standing to get the best image. I did a lot of shuffling back and forth, and finding a different angle when the one I started with wasn’t working. I also found the ladder to the snake in that having that 1.8 aperture not only let me get natural light interiors I wouldn’t have felt confident with before, but also allowed me to make some other photos with tight depth of field which wouldn’t have worked with the zoom lens.

As an older person the exercise tool me right back to my roots, as back in the 80s everything I shot was on either a 35mm, 50mm, a 135mm or occasionally a 300mm mirror lens. Zooms were either really expensive or really pants so I didn’t own one. Looking back I never really considered creative choices in the process of lens selection, it was based on what I wanted to fill the frame with.

Has it changed my photography for ever? Well no, but it has made me more aware of the effect of the focal length of the lens (which frankly I never know because I just zoom to what looks right) and the effect it has. It’s also made me want to get out my old MX and prime lenses from the 80s and so some more photo shoots with those; on film of course which would be even more limiting. I wonder what only having a 300mm on the front of the camera would mean….?