A Fistful of Pixels.

You have a digital camera, you have a mobile phone, you know they have a few million pixels in them, but the latest models have more. Do you need them? Will your photos come out better if you have them?

YAWN! The camera manufacturers pixel race has been the most boring competition since the last World Paint Drying Championships held in 1957. Ever more astonishing numbers of pixels in their cameras, but does it make that much difference?

This is an idiot’s guide (that is to say a guide written by an idiot) to what a pixel is, and how many you need.

Since film has been outlawed by the Japanese, we’ve all moved to using electricity to capture images of everything from kittens to sunsets. In fact, the entire photographic gamut from K to S is now recorded using digital cameras.

A pixel is basically a tiny diode thing, which records light and converts it into a digital signal which the camera’s electronic brain can store for later viewing on porn sites the World over.

Each pixel has a microscopic lens in front which focuses the light onto it, and which stops light that hits one pixel influencing the neighbouring pixel and making your photos fuzzy(er).

Each pixel also has three teeny tiny amplifiers connected to it, which boost the electronic signal and record the light as being either red, green or blue.

So aren’t all pixels equal? Well no. You see when a manufacturer makes an imaging chip, they can decide what size the chip will be, and then how many pixels they’d like to pack onto that chip.

A mobile phone might have 3, 5 or 8 million pixels on a chip the size of a baby’s fingernail. A compact camera might have the same number of pixels on a chip twice that size, while a professional SLR might have 12 or 18 million pixels on a chip the same size as a “old skool” film negative (35mm).

How this works is by making the individual pixels smaller and bunched closer together for smaller chips, and larger and more spaced out on larger chips. And perhaps surprisingly, bigger pixels are generally better. Smaller pixels packed densely onto a small chip tend to suffer interference, which messes up the photo.

If you want to know what interference looks like, take a photo on your compact camera or mobile phone using its highest ISO setting (this is the chip sensitivity and equates to the old film speeds), or take a photo without flash in a darkish room.

When you look at the shadow areas of the photo, you’ll see digital grain, or noise, and lots of messy red dots which is where the pixels are starting to have a bit of a fight with each other. Those red dots are in fact, tiny pools of blood from the scuffle.

photo of the camera unit from a Sony Ericsson mobile phone.

This mobile phone camera unit houses lens, shutter, imaging chip and circuitry. No room for a large sensor.

So when you look at a mobile phone that claims to have 8 million pixels, remember those pixels are very, very small compared to the ones in an SLR. And small doesn’t mean more detail. In fact, if you have the choice between 5 million and 8 million on a mobile phone, you really won’t get any benefit from the higher pixel count. It’s just manufacturers want you to think you need the extra pixels so you can take better pictures and they’ll happily sell you the next model up.

Really all you need to know is that around 3-5 million pixels on a mobile, and maybe 8 on a compact camera, is ample for all those pictures of kittens, sunsets and drunken mates.

New technologies are coming through which will make these smaller chips work better, but then the same technologies will be introduced to larger-chipped cameras, and the quality will improve relative to that, so you’ll always be better off with a modest pixel count or a much larger chip.

So there you have it, the definitive, incontrovertible guide to pixels, which will remain current and authoritative until about next Wednesday, when no doubt a manufacturer will announce a 30 million pixel chip the size of a pin head which will capture fine detail in total darkness. The phone they put it in will still drop the signal every time you walk from your car to the front door…

The public are getting wise, proceed with caution…

Friday Thought.

Commercial and public organisations are constantly on the lookout for new ways to engage with customers and the general public. This is understandable and very easy to do now that the internet is highly interactive. Done properly, it can work very well.

However, not all such campaigns are successful in attracting positive PR. One popular idea is to engage with your public by asking them to give you free stuff. Most often, for obvious reasons, photos.

A classic example is when some bright PR spark decides that it would be “cool” if customers sent in their best photos for the company to use for free in its web site, advertising and publications. The conditions for giving the business this free stuff will normally be couched in very legalistic terms, with conditions so harsh, unforgiving and one-sided that only the clinically insane would take part in such a scheme. The bigger problem perhaps is that many customers will ignore the T&Cs because they don’t expect their big, cuddly corporate to do anything underhand or greedy, so they tick the “I have read and understood” bit, having neither read nor understood what they were committing to.

If your organisation is looking into trying this kind of customer interaction, let me sound a word of caution. Amateur photographers are getting wise to this kind of exercise. They’re beginning to understand that if somebody wants their photos, their photos must have a monetary value. Just as if you asked them for the keys to their car, or for a few hours free graft, they understand that while any idiot can give something away for free, it takes a special kind of idiot to do it willingly. And amateur photographers aren’t idiots.

Several organisations and businesses have already bought themselves some negative publicity trying this kind of exercise. The UK’s Environment Agency recently put out a call for graduates, keen on photography, to become free labour suppliers of photos. The BJP wrote an article about it, the EA had to take their Facebook page down at one point, and then finished with a spectacular U-Turn.

Other organisations currently fighting a backlash from photographers include the publisher Archant with their Great British Life photo competition, and Greater London Authority wanting free photos for their new web site. I know there are many more examples, but you get the picture (for free!)

pro-imaging website screen shot

Pro-Imaging advertise competitions as Rights On or Rights Off. Click to see the full list.

Photo competitions which hide rights grabs are another example where photographers, both amateur and professional, have forced a change of terms and conditions, but only after much negative publicity.

The examples of companies which have attempted this particular wheeze and then had to change their T&Cs to be more like a photo competition than a phishing trip is too long to list here, but you can check out the Pro-Imaging web site to see what makes a competition fair, and see which organisers have adhered to the Bill of Rights which has been drawn up through industry-wide consultation.

These schemes and scams keep popping up, and most get battered down by hobbyists and professionals working together for the better ineterests of photography. Why companies and organisations continue to make the same mistakes time after time is a mystery, but I do see the tide turning against this trend for what has been described by others as “loser-generated content”.

So use the internet to interact with your clients and your audience, but don’t ask too much because your clients can quickly swamp the message you intended to broadcast with the ugly sound of protest at unfair practices.

When is photo manipulation too much?

I’ll start by apologizing that this subject is so dry, it makes a very dry thing look wetter than a very wet thing. I never was much good at similes. Which brings me not very smoothly to the follow up article on post production (see here) with a few words on photo manipulation.

The question is, when it comes to images shot for your business, when does post production become photo manipulation? At what point does it become unacceptable?

To make better sense of this, I had better define the terms “photo manipulation” and “post production”.

Post production is generally accepted as the process of making an image taken straight from the camera suitable for reproduction in whatever medium it is destined for, as outlined in that previous article.

Carried out within acceptable boundaries, post production won’t change the meaning or intention of the original photo. It’s much the same as the good old days when you had a photo negative printed at the local lab. They would make sure your negative was clean, and they would also make adjustments for exposure, colour cast etc.

It goes without saying, though I’ll say it anyway, that image manipulation in any news, sport or feature photo is unacceptable. For businesses issuing press releases, the simple rule is don’t manipulate. You can damage your reputation and attract negative press and blog comment (remember this?), which will never go away and will take a long time to repair.

photo of Mells Iron Works at night

Made up of 8 image layers, this was a personal project not destined for commercial or press use.

Photo manipulation would cover things like adding to, or removing elements from an image, distorting people to make them look slimmer, taking an ugly sign or street furniture out of a background, adding a logo which wasn’t in the original.

A clear example of over-manipulation would be if I changed a self portrait to make it look as though I had humanoid ears. That would just be ridiculous, and those who know me would never stop laughing.

As wonderful as digital is, and for all Photoshop can do, it’s still extremely important to get the shot right in the camera. Not take any old snap, and hope for a technical fix later.

I do think the rules can shift a little when it comes to a corporate photo for a web site, but I still advise caution. For example, I will happily remove pimples or other non-permanent blemishes, but permanent ones stay. The person in the photo needs to be recognisable.

Dropping people or objects into a commercial image, or removing them from a scene, could cause problems of misrepresentation. If done sensitively and with appropriate captioning, it may not cause a major problem, though it’s important to take context into account, and that’s too much to cover here.

Maybe the best way to avoid disasters is to ask yourself the question: Is this a dishonest representation? What would my mother think? That last question alone should put you on the straight and narrow.

Article and photo © Tim Gander. All rights reserved. The articles in this blog may only be reproduced for non-commercial purposes.

The growing clamour from web designers!

My Friday Thought – A new feature which will rapidly become a rod for my own back, but let’s see how it goes.

There’s been an interesting, and very noticeable shift in the nature of the conversations I’ve been having with designers recently, especially webby ones.

In the past, whenever I asked web designers about the photography needs of their clients the reply came back, as if transmitted by mental osmosis from one designer to the other, “Oh they don’t have a budget for photography so we use cheap stock photos.” Always different web designers, always the same line.

The fact is, no client has a budget for anything until somebody explains to them why they need a budget for it (ie improved sales!); in this case, original photography which sets them apart from their competitors and communicates more honestly with their clients. After all, my clients have a budget for photography so what do they know that so many web designers’ clients don’t?

Part of the problem has been a misunderstanding of how budgets work. In the case of photography, it isn’t part of the web budget because the images are used in more than just the web site; it comes out of the marketing budget, of which the web site is a part, but many web designers will look at the photography fearing it will reduce their budget to do the design work. It shouldn’t.

I know selling photography isn’t easy. While every business now understands they have to have a web presence of some sort, beyond that it’s not easy to explain that apart from what the web site does in purely technical terms, it also needs good content to convince the viewer of the value of the product or service on offer. It’s the content, in harmony with the structure, which ultimately makes the sale.

And this is where web designers are starting to wake up and smell the cappuccino. There’s a growing realisation that good photography, as well as good copy and design, helps the site to pull together and deliver the message the client wants to transmit. Photos need to be more than just eye-candy on the page. They carry valuable information and can also be used to direct the viewer’s eye to key texts and links.

mitie services vehicles in a field

No Californian models posing here, just a real person representing a real business.

What kind of business in the UK needs a photo of a chisel-jawed American male in a suit clutching a laptop in a steel and glass office with angelic lighting and a patronizing smile? How many more generic stock images of non-people in non-places does the internet really need? And what do these images say about a business any more? Stock images used to be far more expensive, so a business using them tended to look more polished. They’re too cheap and ubiquitous now, and the shine has come off the novelty.

And the cry I’m now hearing from every designer I speak to is, “I am so sick and tired of having to use stock imagery.” Designers want to be proud of the results of the hours and days they spend designing a top-notch site, but having expended blood, sweat and weeks on the site, they are then forced to ruin the entire project either with photos the MD’s wife took, or with stock pictures of someone they’ve never met, taken in a  place they’ve never been to, that has little or nothing to do with the business they’re meant to be promoting.

I’m encouraged by this change of voice, and I’m helping web designers by explaining to their clients how real, unique photography can work for them, doesn’t need to cost the earth, and yet will contribute to the growth of their business.

So designers everywhere! Talk to me, I’ll talk to your clients, and before you know it there will be a budget for photography, and the web site you designed will look as good as you know it should.

I thangyou.

Post Production? ’tis the Devil’s work!

Post production is the process that dare not speak its name. It is surely some manner of witchcraft; the sort of thing only the Devil’s nerdy brother would be into. So what is it? And why should you care?

The concept is simple, the practice less so. Post production is what happens to the photos after the shoot, and before they’re delivered. And though you don’t necessarily need to know what post production is, it is helpful if you have an idea of the basics.

The image file that comes straight from a digital camera isn’t matched to any particular use, and is therefore not matched to any use. To explain that a little better; the camera file will normally be the right resolution for web (72dpi) but will be too large a file to upload. At the same time, it will be physically large enough to produce a print, but needs to be converted to around 300dpi for good quality print output. So the file needs to be resized to suit the end use.

Other things need to happen too. Often the photo will need some tweaking to get the colour, brightness and contrast perfect for the intended use. Also, while the image will be perfectly in focus (because I don’t take out-of-focus photos – no sniggering at the back!) it will need a little digital sharpening to make it appear really crisp in print or on the web. That’s just a characteristic of digital.

Digital SLR cameras tend to have a problem with dust getting in through the lens mount (normally when changing lenses) and adhering to the imaging chip. These then show up as grey blobs and hairs on the image which need to be cloned out in Photoshop or they’ll show up in the published image.

jpeg showing dust on highpass dslr filter

Play Spot the Dust! I've highlighted some. Click the pic to find more.

Adding captions, applying the relevant colour profile and conversion from RAW to jpeg format are also part of post production.

While some of these processes can be done in batches, some have to be carried out on each individual file. This can add considerable time to the overall process of shooting and supplying images to clients, and that time has to be factored into the assignment fee or charged separately, at which point my client might be wondering what they’re paying for. If I’ve factored it in, where another photographer hasn’t, it can make me look expensive, but then I’m not a “dump and runner”.

A dump-and-run photographer is one who simply writes the image files straight from camera to disk with little or no post production, dumps the files on the client, takes the money and runs. They may look like a cheaper option, but the truth is you’re not getting a professional service or top quality images, and this will be reflected in the final project.

Post production can be tricky and incredibly dull work, but I pride myself in the quality of work I deliver. And while you don’t need to know all the technical details, it’s at least worth understanding that it is a necessary process. And the Devil’s nerdy brother doesn’t charge as much as he used to…

Captain Caption’s Last Stand

Or, Captain Caption and the WORDS OF DOOOOOOM!

Okay, so we’ve already had two thrilling episodes of Captain Caption, and in this one we see our Lycra(TM) -wearing hero save the day yet again as we delve into the murky waters of the legalities of caption writing.

Actually, if you’re sensible, it’s not all that murky, but it’s wise to be aware of some basics.

I’ll deal with this in two sections, editorial and web. This applies to captions which appear under (or adjacent to) a photo, or the embedded caption in the IPTC table, which I covered previously.

If you’re sending out captions as part of a press release, either to print or web, you need to apply editorial standards. That is to say, the caption needs to be accurate and succinct. The first of those is vital. It is possible to libel someone by using a misleading or false caption on a photo. So stick to the facts of the story, and the realities of what is in the photo.

Be careful with your choice of words in captions. If a teetotaler is photographed holding a glass of water at a charity bash, don’t just caption that Mr X “enjoys a drink at the event” as the connotations could be misconstrued. There are too many examples to list, but common sense should guide you.

deceased footballer george best at portsmouth football ground

George Best - Safe to refer to his drinking because it's true. And in the UK, you can't libel the deceased.

The really simple answer is that if you’re going to send out a photo with a press release, get a press-trained photographer to shoot and caption the images. They’ll understand the style required, and the legalities of accurate captions.

Of course where images on the web are concerned, you still need to be careful to be accurate and avoid libel – perhaps more so because of the reach of the web, but the most commonly-committed sin on web images is to omit or strip out the electronic caption stored in the IPTC table.

You may not think this is much of an issue, and although it isn’t a criminal offence to omit the caption it can still lead to legal problems. Anyone who takes a photograph has the moral right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (1988) to be identified as the author of their work. All professionals and image libraries will state this as a term of use of their images.

Unfortunately, it’s not too difficult to strip out the table and leave the photographer unidentified with their own work. This is an issue which all web designers will need to address increasingly as there are moves afoot to introduce an orphan works act in UK legislation. This would allow image users to find pictures on the net and use them without paying if they can’t track down the original author. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but it’s a huge threat to the viability of professional photography, and could also result in the pictures you took or bought for your business web site being lifted and used in ways you might not appreciate and without the IPTC caption identifying the author, it makes the images even harder to keep track of once they’re out there.

So remember, when composing captions; play safe, be accurate, keep it simple and make sure you keep it attached to the photo.

But now Captain Caption has flown his last mission. The skin-tight hero costume is wearing alarmingly thin at the crotch, and the cape keeps getting tangled in revolving doors, so I’m going to leave captions for a bit. Of course if this or the other articles have thrown up any questions for you, do comment them here and I’ll answer as best I can.