Head Above the Parapet

I just want to say (smiles coyly to camera) what an honour it’s been (wipes tear from eye) to be (voice cracks) Freshly Pressed by WordPress.com (fans face with hands).

No, this article isn’t going to read like an Oscar acceptance speech, but of course I’m really pleased with all the attention my blog received as a result of being Freshly Pressed. I’d seen the Freshly Pressed feature of WordPress when I very first signed up and presumed it was just something that happened to other people’s blogs, never mine. So I was somewhat taken aback by the sudden spike in views and comments on my last post, and at first didn’t twig what had happened.

LEGO figure with huge camera

Since becoming a full-time LEGO photographer, I find the equipment heavier than ever.

And now I need to thank a lot of people for reading, liking, commenting and subscribing to my blog. However much emotion is removed from text on a screen, believe me I’m quite humbled by all the attention my blog has received by being “Pressed”. Thank you to everyone, and of course thank you to the human/and/or computer algorithm that chose my blog to be featured.*

The nature of the post that got featured was, perhaps even more so than previously for me, Ranty with a capital “R”. I’d seen a link to the article and accompanying photo about wild horses in Peterborough, the red mist descended and I was off. I probably wrote the “LEGO photo” article more quickly than any since my very first blog article.

But whenever I write about issues surrounding photography about which I feel strongly, I worry. Am I going too far? I know some of my clients also read my articles and I’m mindful of how I come across (just cross?) to them. By airing issues that are important to the future of professional photography, am I risking alienation from those who give me my living? I sincerely hope not. The clients who use me probably know me better than to confuse the professional photographer with the amateur blogger, and of course I know the difference between tackling issues that matter in a mature way, and ranting in a “life ain’t fair” sort of a way about how the World owes me a living.

It’s clear though that while I’m willing to stick my head above the parapet on issues I feel strongly about, other photographers stick firmly to the cuddly corporate line; their blogs being purely geared to Google rankings, crammed with keywords designed to get them up the search tables.

That isn’t to say I don’t use my blog to promote my work too. I sometimes publish case studies, which are my way of highlighting some of the work I do at the same time as giving those clients I feature a little added publicity, however modest.

Even with case studies I hope I give business owners and marketing managers ideas on how to use photography more effectively. Oh, and of course I need the added Google juice the blog brings. It’s the only way I can get my site listed higher than all the social photographers who pretend to do commercial photography, but who pay lots of money to get higher listings for work they don’t specialise in… but that’s another rant, which I’ve already had.

Perhaps it’s unfortunate that an article which is more strident than my norm should have got the “star” treatment, but I hope all my new subscribers (as well as my dedicated clients) will stick around because through these articles, in between flogging my wares and airing my views, I’ll still be writing about issues which have a great impact on the Profession and its future viability, because I don’t believe in pretending the issues don’t exist.

Gosh, I got a bit serious for a moment there. So I’m just going to say thank you again and please pass on my link to anyone else you think would value what I have to say, and I look forward to writing many more articles. From the ranty to the corporatey to the downright silly.

Thank you (runs off-stage, sobbing and clutching huge bouquet of flowers).

*Erica Johnson, Editorial Producer for WordPress.com assures me the featured blogs are chosen by human beings, not algorithms. Thank you Erica!

New Standards in Photojournalism

Which would you like first; the good news, or the bad?

I’ll give you the good news first. This article is shorter than usual. The bad is, it’s a bit of a rant.

I’d love to be sitting here writing about the amazingly high standards in photojournalism as a result of newspapers fighting to retain readership in the face of competition from the web.

Instead, I’m looking, open-mouthed, at the depressingly low standards to which local newspapers at least (nationals may follow suit) have sunk. In short, I’m looking at a photo which is of such a poor standard that it looks like it isn’t so much a photo, as a children’s mosaic made from the leftover bits of LEGO left over after all the fun stuff has been built.


screen grab from peterborough evening telegraph

Honestly, that's as good as the photo gets.

The picture is meant to show horses running wild on the streets of Peterborough (see original article here). It’s a reader’s snap, but as you can see from the quality of the photo, it could be panto horses on a dimly lit stage. It could be a tapestry. What it is, is a travesty.

Have picture editors become so enamored of new technology that they can’t see when a photo is utterly unusable? Or have newspapers done such a thorough job of destroying the old training and career structures that there is no one left to say “that’s crap, let’s get our own shot from the late-shift staffer/next available freelance”? Or have budgets been cut to the point that any smudge, no matter how poor, will do provided it’s free of any cost to the editorial department? Do newspaper editorial departments now have such contempt for their readers (and advertisers) that frankly, any old s**t will do so long as a thicker wedge can be driven between the ad revenue and editorial costs?


lego scene of horses

Perhaps LEGO representations of news events are the way ahead.

Normally I hate ranty blog articles, and while I do my share of moaning I tend to avoid the full-blown slagging off that is the stock-in-trade of other bloggers, but I have to say this isn’t the first time I’ve seen this level of citizen journalism foisted on local newspaper readers. There must be many more examples I never see, but The Portsmouth News also ran a pointlessly low-quality photo when a local landmark caught fire. Their only saving grace was that there was something to photograph the next morning.

I hope the Pereborough example is the worst we’ll ever see, but I won’t hold my breath.

If you’ve seen something as bad (or worse!) in your local paper, feel free to comment and leave a link. We could start a competition. Not so much “The worst photo in a paper” award, as “can you make out what this is meant to be?” kind of competition.

UPDATE: There is now a camera which is perfectly designed for exactly this kind of scenario: http://bit.ly/h8yDBu Remember though, it’s not a toy!

The web and photography – a stormy marriage

Photography on the internet is so pervasive that we take it for granted. But it’s worth remembering, it wasn’t always thus, and need not necessarily ever have been so at all had it not been for parallel developments. A potted history:

In the very early days of the web, most of what you saw was text-based. Then came porn. Then came interactive Web 2.0 when you could upload your own content, and BAM! Photos absolutely everywhere. More porn than you could shake a pink stick at. More photos of kittens, sunsets and dandelions than you can find grains of sand on the beach. In fact, for every star in the Milky Way, scientists believe there are at least 16 photos of orange-faced, bleach-toothed, American executives sitting in the Getty/iStockphoto archives right now, and this figure is set to double by 2020. OK, I made that up, but believe me there are a lot of photos on the web now. A lot of them of men in suits standing randomly in a field.

But for there to be photos on the web, there had to be some way of capturing photographic images digitally, and here’s quite a coincidence.

Around 20-odd years ago, someone built a machine which allowed press photographers to turn their processed film negatives into a digitised version which could then be transmitted over phone lines from anywhere with electricity and a phone connection. The (extremely expensive) machines were built into a sort of suitcase, weighed a ton and the whole process from scanning to delivering a single digital file took about an hour, not including the processing of the film. You needed a jamboy to keep insects out of the workings.

Then came portable film scanners and Apple Macs, which replaced the old suitcases. Then came Kodak with the first digital film backs for press cameras and the ball really got rolling. By now (circa mid-1990s) you started to see photographers shooting photos on fully-integrated digital cameras and transmitting photos from their laptops, via mobile phones back to the picture desk.

For consumers, compact cameras started to hit the market, with giddying resolutions of 800,000 pixels, and costing upwards of £450, but the die was cast. Canon developed their own digital SLRs, hotly pursued by Nikon, pixel wars followed and here we are today. Film is almost extinct, but digital cameras have coincided perfectly with the advances of web technology.

The two were made for each other. People love taking pictures, and they love boring their friends and complete strangers with them, so the internet is the perfect way to self-publish. Everyone wants to be a photographer now, many people think they are and supply their photos of  autumn leaves and rainbows to the likes of Getty for a fat 8p fee for each photo sold, or they share them for free on sites like flickr, where unscrupulous web designers and bloggers can trawl for photos in the hope they won’t get caught when they nick them for websites.

And this is where the marriage between the internet and photography is getting shaky. You see professional photographers and the likes of Getty have always known the value of copyright, whereas most people have ventured, utterly un-prepared, into the arena of taking and publishing photos with precious little inkling of the meaning of copyright.

Any idiot can give a photo away for free, but getting paid a respectable fee for supplying a photo, well that’s a black art. An art which Getty et al wished professional photographers didn’t know so much about, and are thankful most amateurs don’t understand. Because if Getty, Google, Corbis, Facebook, flickr (whoever, you get the gist) could make money out of all the “free” photos on the web, they’d be laughing all the way to the Canary Islands for a very comfy retirement.

Unfortunately for internet entrepreneurs, not only do professional photographers understand the value of copyright, but the general public are starting to twig too and are asking questions like “why did I wear my camera out taking 40,000 photos of butterflies, and all you pay me is some copper pennies and a half-eaten Werther’s Original?”

This marriage is starting to strain, and there could be some shouting, door slamming and plate smashing to come as the UK and US governments come under pressure to re-jig copyright laws so that web entrepreneurs (sometimes flatteringly referred to as freetards) can start exploiting everyone’s photos without all the bother of having to ask permission, let alone pay for what they want.

The next year or so will be critical to this fledgling marriage between the web and digital technology. The offspring of this unsteady alliance might turn out to be the bastard son of a badly re-drawn piece of legislation, and all the fun of the web will be replaced by sad bickering, litigation and exploitation. Suddenly I’m craving a roll of film.

This article was originally published as a guest blog on the ECRM website.

Cameron reveals “I am the walrus goo goo goo Google.”

This article had been destined to talk about the appointment of Andrew Parsons as official Downing Street Photographer. A subject upon which indignant middle-Englanders could really grind their teeth, a favourite past-time for Daily Mail readers.

However, my plans changed when I read the BBC article about David Cameron’s intended review of UK copyright laws. Might this be my chance to grind my own teeth about something? Again?

stop 43 campaign logo modified

ALL photographers need to work together for fairer copyright laws.

It’s taken a while for the review to be announced because, to put it mildly, the government has been rather busy with other things. However, it was a pledge of the Tories in the wake of the passing of the Digital Economy Bill (passed in the fag end of the Labour government) to re-visit the issue of copyright because part of that bill, the Orphan Works clause, got ditched as a result of coordinated, intelligent campaigning by photographers and specifically the Stop43 group. This time, the remit for unauthorised use might not even be limited to orphan works.

So here we jolly well are then, another six-month review of copyright (there have been one or two previous reviews, largely ignored) and this time David’s stated aim is to make UK copyright law “fit for the internet age.” A slightly worrying statement given that in his announcement he refers to a claim by the founders of Google that businesses such as theirs would never have launched in the UK because apparently our copyright laws are tighter than those in the US.

In the main, our copyright laws aren’t much tighter than those of the US, not that Google ever took much notice of the boundaries of US copyright law either . It’s fair to say that Google would love to be able to move through the internet like some content-consuming blue whale, monstrous mouth agape and everything in its path swallowed up whole and ready for commercial exploitation. Whale poo for sale, made from other people’s creative works.

The statement mentions the rights of creators, but we need to be sure this is more than just lip-service, especially as the BBC article states: “The six month review will look at what the UK can learn from US rules on the use of copyright material without the rights holder’s permission.”

That phrase “without the rights holder’s permission” is problematic because the boundaries of what is and isn’t acceptable will need to be set, and you can bet the likes of Google will lobby hard to have it set in their favour. They’ll assume that whatever they do, creators will continue to create. Not if their work is constantly stolen and devalued, they won’t. And as usual, the rights of consumers who have paid for that content won’t be taken into account.

My clients won’t take kindly to finding work I’ve shot for them turning up elsewhere, outside of their control and possibly misrepresenting them. And with my right to control use diminished, I will no longer be able to defend my clients’ rights over the pictures they’ve paid for.

That the review will happen is a good thing, but the starting position needs to be more positively in favour of creators and holders of intellectual property, for whom the internet has been a great way to get their work “out there” and get seen, but which mechanism has often led to mass theft rather than mass commissioning of fresh, or licensing of existing, work.

Another big risk is that as with previous reviews the government will turn to the wrong people when seeking advice from the side of the creators, just as it did in the early days of the DEB debate. It’s all very well talking to the National Union of Journalists, who have failed in the past to stand and fight the photographer’s corner, and whose only concern (naturally and understandably) is news photographers. Or the Royal Photographic Society, whose membership consists largely of people with little or no reliance on photography for an income. There are numerous groups whose focus is either too narrow, or membership not representative of the professional photographer.

This time, the government must listen to a much broader range of photographic groups and individuals than the Labour government did during their reviews. They must also dismiss the selfish wishes of those who simply find copyright inconvenient to their wants. This review could influence a law which might not change again for 30 years or more, so if the government wants to get it right, they’ll need to listen to the right people, not just the likes of Google, Facebook and whoever the “next big thing” happens to be. Mr Cameron will need to slip off the Google goggles, and see the reality that faces the UK’s creative individuals.

Photo case study: Location portrait.

I’ve written before on the subject of Photoshop, the pitfalls, dangers and terrors, but “meh”, nobody listened so I thought I’d show a recent example of where I have used some photo manipulation to benefit the final photo.

You see when I shoot for corporate clients, I prefer to get things pretty much spot-on in the camera, rather than taking any old muzzy smudge and hoping I can sort it all out later on the ‘puter. I have heard tales of “professional” photographers who work this way, and it tends to end in tears and a lot of wasted CEO/staff time, not to mention the wasted marketing budget, because by the time somebody has spotted that the Emperor’s new clothes are in fact a figment of the imagination, the cheeky little monkey with the winning smile and the expensive looking camera has caught the next plane to Rio with the company cheque already safely banked.

I digress; back to Photoshop, or to use the verb form, “photoshopping”. Not to be confused with the act of shopping for photos.

In the case where I was asked to get a website cover shot for Clucas Communications the brief was to get a double portrait of Peter and Sibylle Clucas against a white background so the designer could either leave the subjects against white or undertake a cutout more easily. In the event the final shot is used as a cutout against a white page, which works well.

That would seem easy enough, except that the shooting conditions were tricky (to get enough space we ended up setting up the shot outdoors with portable background and lights), so these were not perfect studio conditions. My one compromise then was that I knew I could get the background white-ish, but it wouldn’t be fully white as if we were in the studio with perfect lighting.

Below are the results, and the sharp-eyed among (amongst? amo amas amat?) you will notice that pretty much all I’ve done is go at the background with the dodge tool to lighten the highlights (only affecting those areas which are already almost white) to achieve a perfect whiteness any soap manufacturer would be proud of.


before and after photoshop examples of corporate portraits

Spot the difference. Can't see it? Oh well...

And despite the fact that most weeks I’ll have to listen to some smart Alec or Alice telling me what I can fix in Photoshop, I still stick to the principle that for my work, Photoshop is great for removing the dust spots that are the curse of the digital SLR and correcting the odd colour cast and generally preparing an image so that it is technically viable for either print or web. I’m not going to make a rainy day sunny, or drop the Taj Mahal into the background to make the view from your office window look more interesting. If that’s what you’re after, you’ll be wanting a different breed of photographer. One that will probably be in Brazil by the time you realise those “interesting” photos are in fact junk.