Blog about no Blog

Hello to all my loyal readers!

This is just to say that this week’s blog isn’t going to happen because I’m away on a commercial photo assignment until next week.

I’m sorry to disappoint you, but the assignment should provide good blogging fodder for you to look forward to, so I’ll be in touch once I’m back!

Sorry for any inconvenience this break in transmission may cause.


Make these pictures move!

Now that camera manufacturers build video capability into their professional camera bodies, the question many photographers are asking themselves is, “why am I so hung over?” Shortly after that they ask themselves if they should be getting into this video malarkey by getting an SLR with a HD video doohickey built in.

It might be helpful to look at why camera makers did this in the first place. Or it might not, but it’s what I’m going to do anyway.

I have heard that the driving force for HD-capable stills cameras was originally the press agencies who wanted their staff to be able to shoot short video clips at news events to offer in addition to stills. I’m not entirely convinced by this, since shooting stills and video simultaneously is rather like juggling turds. It’s all going to get rather messy at some point.

My gut feeling is that the manufacturers decided they needed a new selling point for their equipment, which in every other regard has become about as sophisticated as it’s possible to get short of including a particle accelerator.

Hadron colliders being rather bulky (for now), video was the obvious choice, but they needed a valid reason to go to all the trouble, so suggested it might be a “good thing” to the picture agencies who probably said something along the lines of “knock yourselves out” – a ringing endorsement indeed.

And so it came to pass that Canon, Nikon, and probably some others which nobody bothers to buy much, built video into their pro cameras and said “Lo! for we have given the world of photojournalism the ability to multitask.” Marvellous.

portrait of rebecca adlington

Good luck shooting uprights on video.

But, this wasn’t the real reason for glueing a cine camera to a box brownie. The reality is camera manufacturers want these technologies to trickle down from the higher-end cameras to the consumer range in order that consumers, faced with the annoying fact that newer cameras can do something their poxy stills-only brick can’t, will upgrade to the newest, video-enabled model and consign their ancient, 9-month-old camera to Ebay or landfill.

Going back to the original question for professionals though, should you jump or be pushed into video, my advice is this: Bear in mind that within a few short months, every SLR will have HD video capability to some degree, and what might seem like a business advantage now (shooting high quality, cheap videos for smaller business clients) will quickly evaporate as the World and his spotty nephew equip themselves to do video just like the pro’s. Just like stills, the results will be mostly horrid and useless, but it’ll impress the boss that he can get video for “free” even if it costs him sales (he won’t notice that unless people start telling him how horrid his nephew’s efforts are, but nobody will tell him so he’ll never know).

In the meantime, being professional and understanding what’s required to achieve pro quality, you will spend thousands of Pounds on hardware and software to make video viable; you will spend weeks learning about panning, focus, lighting and sound, then converting, editing and encoding it all, only to find the prize is always just out of reach, and that clients will always want it much cheaper than it costs to produce. All this at the same time as discovering that in the commercial and weddings world, there’s already an army of well-equipped experts already doing what you hope to do. You’ll be trapped between Uncle Arthur with his video-capable Canon 60D (or whatever) shooting for free, and the seasoned video expert who has the technique, workflow and pricing honed to perfection.

Personally, I’d rather wait for the built-in CERN feature.

What IS a great photo any more?

The internet is crammed to the gills with photos. It’s like a gigantic, dusty attic, stuffed with boxes and boxes of malingering prints, negs and trannies (not that kind, you bizarre people) that were looked at and maybe admired once, and now sit there going curly at the corners, the colours fading, the mildew gradually engulfing them, while some unseen hand throws ever more photos in through the hatch, thousands at a time.

Well ok, the internet doesn’t suffer mildew, and digital pictures don’t fade, though perhaps one day they’ll become unreadable by computers, but I’d bet you a Great British Pound that 99.9999% of photos online get looked at a few times, and are now being seen by no one.

Sites like flickr, deviantart, facebook and myspace host millions of photos taken and shared by members of the public. Some of these sites allow comments and ratings, and the words I see again and again within the comments are “great”, “brilliant”, “awesome”. But what do these words mean any more? They’re used so casually to describe the attributes of the photos (and in the case of deviantart, usually the attributes of the nude model in the photo) that these words have lost all currency.

There are great photos that many of us will be familiar with; from the First World War to current conflicts. The Farm Security Administration project, carried out during the Great Depression in America in the 1930s and 40s was a rich source of photos which bear scrutiny and critical acclaim today.

Not all great pictures have been taken in conflict and famine. Helmut Newton, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Larry Benson, Man Ray, were working in studios and peaceful locations, but still managed to produce iconic work. Awesome might be too gushing, and I’ll punch anyone who says “great capture”.

And I’m sorry if my article is a little thin on jokes this week, but I do wonder what we think a great picture is now? Why say a picture is great, when what we actually mean is it’s just nice? Yes, that word which damns with feint praise, but it’s mostly true, because surely for a photo to be truly great, it has to have a resonance beyond a few dozen, hundred or even thousand people looking at it on their computer screens for 15 seconds while they sip a cappuccino before clicking onto the next photo or back to facebook. To be truly great, I say a photo has to distill something of its time. It must transcend all the barriers that prevent an OK photo from becoming an icon.

a couple hug in an english pub

A nice photo, but not much resonance beyond its fine black border.

Perhaps you’ll think I’m being too hard on current photography and photographers, but I’m actually being quite hard on myself. I don’t believe I have ever taken a truly Great photo in my 20+ year career. There are other photographers, some thankfully still alive and working, who have taken dozens, even hundreds of photos which are truly great because of what they say and their ability to convey a message and emotion to the viewer, and unlike so much flickr fodder, tell us something fundamental about the human condition, and will tell us something substantial about our times in decades to come.

Perhaps I’m being harsh on the digital photography culture, but my fear is that in the tsunami of digital images, we’ll lose sight of what really great photography looks like. In a world where millions of photos are described as great, great becomes average, and we surely need to keep a separation between the great, and the merely good.

Getty gone Good Cop.

You’re shivering, but your palms sweat. You squirm on the unsympathetic chair, and squint into a spot lamp as a voice barks questions at you from the darkness beyond. That’s right, punk, you stole a photo from iStockphoto, and now they’re gonna make you sing like a canary. It’s a fair cop, and no mistake.

For some years now Getty (owners of iStockphoto) have been setting their attack lawyers on business owners and bloggers who have unwittingly (ok, let’s be honest; knowingly) stolen photos from the web to use in their own websites. Normally, a web designer or amateur site builder will trawl Google images for something appropriate to their requirements, mis-appropriate it and use it thinking “well that was easy, so maybe it’s not illegal.”

This is fine and dandy (barring the ethical question of stealing from photographers), until the perp happens to steal an image which should have been licensed through iStockphoto, because that’s when the klaxon alarm goes off at Getty HQ, and the lawyers start booking another expensive restaurant meal based on future incomes from hapless/clueless/amateur website builders.

laboratory plant cultures in petri dishes

The "culture" of photo theft has to be tackled.

There was the fairly spectacular case of the removals firm which ended up spending £24,000 on a photo that might have cost around £160 had they licensed it legally, and there’s been a long-running and rather overheated discussion on the Federation of Small Businesses forum which has largely concentrated on how unfair it is that anyone should defend copyright so vigorously against people who were, after all, only stealing what they wanted and couldn’t be bothered to pay for (that’s a brutal summary, but not unfair).

Getty Bad Cop has earned something of a reputation for being belligerent and heavy-handed, and even I would disagree with some of their methods, even though I support the aims of protecting copyright property as I support anyone’s right to protect their own property.

However, perhaps sensing that this approach isn’t getting them much good publicity or winning any new friends, Getty have rolled out a new weapon. Stockphotorights is the cuddly face of the mass image aggregator hell-bent on cornering and dominating the stock image industry. It’s Getty Good Cop.

I have to admit, I rather approve of the aim of stockphotorights which is deigned to educate even the most casual user of images about the dos and don’ts of using photos. I’ve been trying to help people understand copyright and licensing for years, but let’s face it, I’m not Getty and don’t have anything like their resources to reach the masses. Plus where some people will just think it’s Tim spouting off about copyright AGAIN, they might take notice of the message from Getty.

Naturally, the site is aimed purely at users of stock images and only really mentions Getty-related agencies, but the same applies to any image found on the internet, so well worth a read.

So let me get you a glass of water, a more comfortable chair; perhaps turn off the interrogation lamp and offer a call to a solicitor. I’ll ask the Guv to calm down, take it easy. Better yet, take a few minutes to read the wealth of info at stockphotorights and we can all go home early.