30 July 2010

The Real Revolution: Addendum

I just came across a recent book on the history of photographic printing, Richard Benson's The Printed Picture (2008). It was produced in conjunction with an exhibit at MoMA in New York and reads something like an exhibition catalog. It covers the history of photographic processes and print reproduction briefly and in a non-technical way. It's thin on detail but good for a quick 10,000-foot view.

It was interesting to see how high quality printing of images has been possible for a long time through processes like photogravure and collotype. These are expensive and comparatively fussy processes that have been mostly supplanted (or entirely for collotype) by offset printing, even for high quality reproduction. And with good reason. Quality offset printing is really superb.

The main issue for most publications is, of course, cost. Producing great printing for $100 art books is one thing, but doing it for a $2 magazine is another. Two mass-market publications often praised for their printing quality are Arizona Highways and National Geographic. Arizona Highways prints at 175 lpi using standard offset color. It looks good for a $2 magazine, certainly, though what is a little surprising is that almost any well-produced magazine today looks equally good next to it.

Benson is unabashedly enthusiastic about offset printing, "my trade and my chief love." "Today," he says, "we are witnessing the peak of the process's development. . . . I think it will be around for quite a while yet." While a $2 offset-printed magazine can look quite good, Aperture and some other art-grade periodicals reveal that a $10 offset color journal can achieve near-photo-print quality.

National Geographic has long used 175 lpi (perhaps higher for some plates) six-color rotogravure rather than offset for its editorial well content. Gravure uses regular square cells etched to different depths, each cell being inked to a different depth to describe tones, rather than using dots of varying sizes like offset. This can produce images that look much more like photographic prints. Gravure was the high standard for photo printing in books and journals from the turn of the century though the 1960s. At its apogee, in the hands of the Swiss and French in the 50s and 60s, "the printing is among the very best ever done."

The superlative flat-plate gravure of these old photo books is long gone. National Geographic's modern web-press gravure process is, comparatively, a poor cousin, but at its best is still as good as you can get in a $2 magazine. This expensive process is only cost effective for them because they print six million copies of every issue. Ten years ago that was almost nine million, and with a shrinking subscriber base, it seems their print quality has dropped a bit, too. Issues from the 1990s used a slightly heavier stock and on average exhibited less streaking, skip dot and dirty scrape. Some people attribute this to a change of printer (Quad/Graphics) about ten years ago.

"Despite its complexity," says Benson,"in the end color printing turned out to be easier to do well than black and white." The reasons for this are bit complex and obscure, but basically, color printing "could be done badly and still look good. Even if the print was too heavy, or too light, or somewhat out of balance, the colors' interrelationships could still hold and the colors could be enticing, even if inaccurate. . . . But in black and white work, errors in weight and scale could remove whole areas of content, and tonal distortions could murder the picture."

Just as print starts to fade and ebooks begin to dominate, I find myself becoming increasingly compelled by fine printing. Fortunately, I believe the most aesthetic books with be the last to disappear. They are more than carriers of information and will long have an audience. And on the art side, printed books have never been more beautiful or inexpensive. Print may be tipping into decline, but in this same anxious moment, there has never been a better age for print book lovers.

28 July 2010

Kodachrome Goes to War

I love vintage photography from the 30s-60s and especially when shot on the lately deceased color film Kodachrome. And when it comes to great looking classic Kodachrome, the greatest single public trove must certainly be the FSA/OWI Color Photographs internet archive of the Library of Congress. It includes 1,600 color transparencies that were taken to document the domestic war effort during World War II. The FSA/OWI Black-and-White Negatives internet archive contains Depression-era photographs from photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. The historical, art historical and aesthetic importance of these b&w photos is tremendous. All of these can be freely downloaded as high-resolution TIFFs.

But today I want to highlight the color archive. The entire collection can be easily browsed and enjoyed on LOC's Flikr photostream in a set titled 1930s-40s in Color. The only downside is that the Flikr images are rather small and the color is not very impressive. The scans are very conservative, unsharpened, and lack the saturation that they really should have. A little tweaking in Photoshop they really come alive. I've downloaded about 30 of the original TIFFs and tried to restore them to somewhat of their full glory. On a good computer screen, this is probably close to what the original transparencies would look like sitting on a light box.

Corpus Christi, August 1942 [click to enlarge]

A generous number of these photos, color corrected and in high resolution, may also be found under the tag 4x5 Kodachromes on the vintage photo site Shorpy. This is a beautiful example:

Kodachrome Goes to War: 1942

I just get lost in the gorgeous reds, yellows and blues of Kodachrome. Skin tones are slightly ruddy and very healthy. I regret that these colors belong to a different era. The supersaturation of so many modern color photos looks almost neon in comparison. Modern color curves are more in the lineage of Fujifilm Velvia transparency film, which stole Kodachrome's crown in the 1990s as color film of choice among landscape, nature and many other genres of (non-portrait) color photography. Our modern eyes now see Kodachrome colors as dated. We want everything to have that modern saturated pop found in nature calendars and lipstick ads.

Flowers dressed up in the colors of Fujifilm Velvia 100F

To a lot of us, Velvia colors look a bit 90s. Of course, now in the Photoshop era you can curve out your colors to look any way you like, and I think this is reintroducing a huge variety of palattes to modern eyes. In Photoshop you can even emulate all the different color films of times past. Many photographers, at least for art photography, develop their own color signature, and a retro twist is far from unusual. A Martin Parr photo always has those Martin Parr colors.

Back to Kodachrome at War. What makes these chromes spectacular, apart from the color, is that most are 4x5 inch transparencies, which are about 16x larger than 35mm film. They hold a lot of detail. The original 150mb scans are about 50 megapixels in size. At just 25% they fill up my 24" monitor. You're not just looking at someone in an old photo. It's like inviting them right into the room.

You're not forgotten, Rosie!

Addendum: There is a published book of the FSA/OWI color photographs: Bound for Glory: America in Color, 1939-43 (New York: H.N. Abrams, 2004). You can get a used copy on Amazon, though I think it's a bit pricey. But the two essays it contains are really worth reading and point to some other publications about this archive. The photo reproductions are good, but favor FSA photos over OWI. Many of the former are from 35mm slides and really suffer next to reproductions from larger formats. And I can honestly say that these images look more spectacular online than in print. Sorry, print.

26 July 2010

Richard Learoyd

The Summer 2010 issue of Aperture has a feature on British photographer Richard Learoyd. Learoyd produces compelling images, mainly simple portraits, using a very primitive and unique method of image making. The word camera means "room" in Latin, and the original prephotographic cameras were camera obscuras, rooms or smaller chambered devices that projected an outside image onto a wall or screen, from which tracings were often made. Learoyd captures his images directly onto Ilfochrome photographic paper using one of these room-sized camera obscuras. Since there is no intermediary negative, and the prints are made with a 1:1 camera, each portrait is a one-off and life-sized or larger.

Richard Learoyd: Unique Photographs @ McKee Gallery

These portraits are studies in simplicity. The subjects are well chosen, people of unconventional beauty, simply posed and perfectly lit against a gray background. But what makes the images really striking are the optical characteristics of the photographic process used. Large cameras inherently have a very shallow depth of field, so in these pictures just the subject's face, with perhaps a hand or arm on the same plane, is sharply focused. And because these are not enlarged from an intermediate negative, this narrow in-focus plane is exceptionally sharp and detailed.

Erika 2007 [click to enlarge]

Unfortunately, small Web reproductions fail to convey the astonishing weight, density, mass, volume and dimensionality that this process produces. The small print reproductions in Aperture are compelling; in life, they must be staggering. You've never portraits like these. Unfortunately, as Peggy Roalf in Aperture notes, "The nature of film photography today generally excludes any sense of the surface from its describable qualities."

Learoyd himself says that he working in the tradition of daguerreotypes, "those nonreproducable photographic objects whose multiplaned surface and miraculous depth of field fascinate me. . . . [Y]ou see the object before the illusion. With my pictures, the illusion is very strong and breaks suddenly, and then only momentarily, which is something I like." The same qualities can been seen especially in modern daguerreotypes by artists like Chuck Close.

Bob Holman by Chuck Close [click to enlarge]

Martin Schoeller works in color film but gets the same aesthetic by likewise using a large (8x10 inch view) camera. These very large film/plate/obscura print formats can reproduce micro-transitions in tone and contrast, i.e., detail, that smaller formats cannot.

Jack Nicholson by Martin Schoeller

Because this acute dimensionality focuses on the eyes and face, the illusion produced is one of intense intimacy. Rarely are we so physically close to a stranger that every blemish on their face becomes a compelling visual subject. And we would never examine a stranger so closely; even if suffered by the subject, it would feel voyeuristic. But says Learoyd, "I think that maybe my search for detail or perfection in my photographs is a desire to illuminate imperfection and humanness. The invitation to scrutinize another, which is undoubtedly in my work, inevitably highlights the loneliness of the soul and the depressing isolation of the human condition. After all, who do we get to look at so closely, so carefully that the pores of their skin and the meniscus of liquid under their eyes are visible? It is the opportunity to look without embarrassment—as we do with our children or lovers."

23 July 2010

John Szarkowski: Visionary and Tastemaker

John Szarkowski was one of the most culturally influential people you've never heard of (NYT obit). He was curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) from 1962 to 1991. In this period, photography went from being a primarily commercial and documentary medium, struggling for artistic status, to its current position as a primary, perhaps even the primary, medium for visual artistic expression.

MoMA was from its beginning the most avant garde institution with respect to establishing photography as an art form, and Szarkowski was First Curator during photography's passage from the fringes of artworld to its center. The exhibits he curated were massively influential, highlighting the works of many little known or broadly disregarded photographers who subsequently and, one might argue, consequently became some of the most respected and influential artists of their day. He introduced to the public many unknown, seminal talents like Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston and Elliott Erwitt, among others.

Just as importantly, he (re)discovered or elevated past masters like Eugene Atget, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Brassai, Andre Kertesz, Bill Brandt, Dorothea Lange, August Sander, etc. No one has been more influential in creating the canon of photography. So in a recent article in The Guardian, Sean O'Hagan muses (and ultimately affirms), "Was John Szarkowski the most influential person in 20th-century photography?" It can be argued that photography was the invention that most defined the 20th century. This makes Szarkowski a major, if publicly invisible, cultural figure for his time.

Szarkowski had a great eye but was also a superb writer on photography. His numerous book introductions and commentaries are a joy to read and teach much about what makes great photography great. Some have criticized his high tone, but in service of the arts, I’m not put off by some purple prose. And I do not find him so stuffy myself.

Szarkowski published at least two important general collections of photography: The Photographer’s Eye (1964) and Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA, 1973; reprint, Bulfinch, 1999). Both are classics, and the latter especially. Each photograph is by a different artist and is accompanied by a brief commentary that, all together, constitute a course in photographic history and appreciation. I think the plates in the 1973 edition are very good, and that is the only edition I’ve seen, but the 1999 reissue is said to be even better, using new duotone separations.

Szarkowski was clearly a powerful tastemaker, though he downplayed his influence on the medium and even his perspicuity. "I think anybody who had been moderately competent, reasonably alert to the vitality of what was actually going on in the medium would have done the same thing I did." I think he was a visionary, too, at least with respect to a certain type of photography, namely modernist and formalist "straight" photography. This is why he could define the photographic canon, crown past masters, in the way he did: his sensibilities were entirely congruent with the photographic establishment. He was a straight modernist photographer himself, focusing on cityscapes and later landscapes.

But I'm less sure Szarkowski anticipated or agreed with the widespread incursion into photography of conceptualism and especially post-modernism, really finding its legs starting in the late seventies. Much of contemporary art photography is represented less by photographers striving to produce art than artists appropriating photography as a medium. These artists are frequently not in dialog with their photographic predecessors and often conscientiously transgressive of photography's conventions. Some artists, like Richard Prince, argue that not knowing anything about photography frees them to use it more creatively. Gregory Crewdson brings the values of a film director to his art, so he hires people to capture, process and print his photos as he directs them. He may spend up to $1 million making a single, limited edition photo, using a full film crew, and still makes serious money on every one. (Attempt this at your own financial risk.)

Art collectors go gaga over artists like Crewdson, Prince, Jeff Wall, and Andreas Gursky, who holds the record for the highest priced photo ever sold at auction ($3.3 million). These are artists who cater to the artworld, very successfully, using photos instead of oils and canvas. They are artists first. However, most photographers are photographers first, lovers of the unique history and qualities of the medium, and working in dialogue with it. They are compelled by it, bound to it. If you want to know why, well, read Szarkowski.

21 July 2010

Coincidence vs. Inspiration vs. Plagarism vs. Theft

Earlier this year photographers engaged in another heated round of the unending debate over originality in photography. All the arts are vexed by this in differing degrees, but it causes photographers a special measure of anxiety. The basic problem is that we are all working with the same raw materials, the world as it appears before our lenses, and everyone is drawn to the most striking subjects. There would seem to be, by definition, a very finite number of "most striking subjects." But let's not get into theoretics just now.

The most recent debate centered on the work of two photographers, Sze Tsung Leong and David Burdeny. The LA Times rehearses the details (see also here), but the basics are: Leong finds out Burdeny is selling prints that look a lot like his, but for just $10k each instead of $25k, thus both ripping off his work and undercutting him on price. So Leong cries theft and starts breathing heavy about a lawsuit.

Sze Tsung Leong, 2007

David Burdeny, 2009

Now, if you think these look like cheap tourist snapshots, with burnt-out skies and a Kodak Picture Spot perspective, you'll get no argument from me. Or from Burdeny, who purposely shot from tourist spots. "More often than not I am standing next to someone who is taking the same image. So in a sense I’m taking things where basically, there might as well be a ‘scenic viewpoint’ sign. There are hundreds of copies of pretty much the same viewpoint." He says of this pyramid photo, "It just so happens that that's the only pyramid that you can photograph with a tripod without some very expensive permits."

But it's also a fact that there are a number of these very similar shots shared between Leong's "Horizons" gallery exhibit in NY and Burdeny's later "Sacred and Secular" gallery show in Vancouver. Leong's lawyers are also pointing out (through credit card records) that Burdeny purchased a catalog of Leong's exhibit at the Yossi Milo NY gallery on March 6, 2009, several months before arranging his exhibit at the Kostuik gallery in Vancouver. Also, the owner of the Kostuik gallery had previously tried to persuade Leong to show his work there, but he refused.

I think most people see a direct connection between Burdeny's work and Leong's. Burdeny has admitted everything but that (though naturally, being targeted for a suit tends to curb candor).

    It’s not that I want to divert attention away from myself. To imply that I am somehow the first person who has ever made a similar image, even if I was aware of that image—that’s the climate that everybody else works in… People appropriate other people’s images, people are aware of certain people’s work, the knowledge of what people are doing travels at light speed. Everybody draws from each other, and every once in a while, somebody gets singled out.

Some say statements like this, and work like this, go to far. Other photographers are more empathetic, due to the near impossibility of producing truly original work, free of influence from other artists and not repeating their subjects. Some have even pounced on Leong for pot/kettle hypocrisy, noting specific photographers he's "flattered" with imitation, and also suggesting he should not feel singled out, since Burdeny draws on several other photographers (like Elger Esser) just as specifically.

This has also tipped off another round of work-to-work comparisons between other photographers (comparisons with Sebastiao Salgado here and here) just to show this is far from an isolated case. A comparison of Simon Roberts and Peter Bialobrzeski is just as revealing (here and here), and back in 2006 David Bram noted several photographers who were imitating Michael Kenna. These examples could probably be multiplied indefinitely, if anyone had the stomach for it. The superb Geoff Dyer wrote a book a few years ago on the reiteration of subjects in photography. No one is free from influence. As Leong himself has said, "In photography, you see a lot of quotation. Every photograph has traces of past photographers."

There is no question that none of this is illegal. Even blatant photographic plagiarism is not illegal. Photos can be copyrighted, but landmarks cannot. Every photograph of that pyramid is an equally protected creative work in the eyes of the law. Leong is considering a suit for "civil conspiracy to infringe copyright and appropriate his artistic expression." Right. This is not likely to go anywhere legally, but it will probably damage Burdeny's reputation, which is (let's be honest) what justifies most of the price of a fine art photograph.

19 July 2010

The Real Revolution, Part 2

LensWork editor Brooks Jensen is a bit garrulous and imposes a strict editorial vision on his journal. There is a even a certain LensWork aesthetic, which I myself love, but which some believe unduly influences the work of aspiring photographers who are highly motivated to be featured. Brooks Jensen is also opinionated. He's lit some fires with his arguments that art photography is often overpriced, and recently a similarly provocative 2007 editorial (Issue #73) caught my eye.

The real revolution in photography, says Jensen, mostly unnoticed and unremarked, is in the quality of lithographic printing. The development of technologies like computer-to-plate printing and stochastic screening, and other general advances, have pushed print quality up and prices down dramatically in just a couple of decades.

Two measures of print quality are maximum black density (d-max) and the fineness and quality of dot structure. By dot quality, I refer to the fact that traditional halftone printing screens dots in a fixed geometric pattern, like a computer screen, and just varies the size of the dots to produce tone, whereas silver-based films and prints have a fixed dot size (grain) but a pattern that varies in placement and density (darker tones are more dense). This looks more natural to our eyes, and stochastic screening replicates this film quality in lithographic printing.

To demonstrate the revolution in print quality, Jensen evaluated the d-max and dots of (1) a 1968 art photo book of the highest quality for its day (Paul Strand's Tir a'Mhurain); (2) a likewise state-of-the-art 1989 volume, Ansel Adams' Yosemite and the Range of Light; (3) an original art-quality silver print, Wynn Bullock's Child in Forest, 1951; and (4) a test lithograph of that same silver print using excellent but less-than-top-of-the-line current print processes.

Strand's 1968 book has a d-max of 1.79 and was printed at 175 lpi (traditional screening). Jensen says, visually, those reproductions look perhaps 65% as good as the original silver prints. Adams' 1989 book has a d-max of 1.92 and was printed at 300 lpi (traditional screening). It looks perhaps 85% as good as the original prints. The print Child in Forest has a d-max of 2.07 with a fine film grain (=stochastic pattern). Of course it rates 100%.

Finally, the lithograph of the print has a d-max of 2.25 and was printed tritone with a 20-micron stochastic screen. This is close to the standard LensWork duotone printing spec. And if money were no object, the press is capable of twice that resolution, roughly equivalent to a 1000 lpi screen, with even more tones. As it was, compared to the original gelatin silver print:

    the blacks in the offset print were a deeper black than the gelatin silver photograph; the whites were whiter; the detail was sharper; that indefinable presence that is characterized by a certain glow, a certain three-dimensionality, a certain indefinable magic, was more present in the offset as a lithographically printed image than in the gelatin silver. And, this was not just my opinion but the universal opinion of virtually everyone I've shown this image to, even in some controlled, blind tests.

The result is that "the issue of LensWork you hold in your hands has a finer dot structure and blacker maximum density—in a $10 magazine—than Ansel Adams was able to achieve in his $125 state-of-the-art museum quality monograph less than 20 years ago." That alone is something to shout about. But the ability to reproduce quite inexpensively offset prints that exceed the quality of handcrafted silver prints is, in both historical and aesthetic terms, really staggering.

This is revolutionary for all who love photography, in a good way, but not unambiguously so for photographers. Jensen says one fine art photographer told him that three customers in one year returned prints to him because they did not look as good as the reproductions in his book. And others have admitted to him that they limit the sharpening of the images that they prepare for publication—make them deliberately less-good—so that their prints do not suffer in comparison.

Jensen goes on from there to explore the implications of this for photo print sales and value. That interests me less. And all this is just an explanation of the science behind a wonderful aesthetic experience and minor miracle. Of now being able to open up a $10 magazine and drink in photos almost as beautiful and striking as any that have emerged from a master printmaker's darkroom.

17 July 2010

The Real Revolution, Part 1

LensWork is a fine art photography journal. A very simple publication, it publishes fine art black and white photo essays, typically three per issue, along with a couple of editorial columns, occasional interviews, and, well, little else. I bumped into it in the periodical room of our library several years ago for the first time. I had no interest in b&w photography then, and just browsed it, but one photo essay on Jerusalem really struck me as unique and beautiful. I've thought about it so often since then that I finally went back a few weeks ago to find it again.

Andrew Beckham, The Holy Sepulchre

The portfolio was by Andrew Beckham, titled, "Questions from the Whirlwind: Temples and Monuments" (LensWork 53, Jun-Jul 2003). These were striking photos, not in spite of being in b&w but, it seemed, because of it. I was struck first by their subject matter, but what really impressed me was their richness and contrast. The tonal range was exceptional, with deep, sucking blacks, and the images were dangerously sharp. Like you could cut yourself on them.

Sharpness is much discussed in photography. Razor sharpness is a holy grail. It's one of two reasons why photographers still haul massive 8x10" view cameras to the tops of mountains to take photos. (The other, probably more compelling reason is bragging rights.) I understand why such a premium is placed on sharpness. It is a striking aesthetic quality, largely unique to photography, perceived partly through the optical resolution of detail and partly through strong distinctions in contrast. This is why a high contrast photo may look sharper than a low contrast photo that actually contains more optical detail. Beckham's photos were strikingly sharp on both accounts. In fact, they looked almost as good as darkroom-made gelatin silver prints. In some ways better.

In traditional criticism, a photograph is not a photograph until printed. Traditional film photography was as much about skill in printing as skill in picture taking, and even today, many photographers spend as much time processing their photos in Photoshop as they do taking pictures. A darkroom printed (or Photoshop processed) photo may look much different than the shot photo, and printing is a large part of the artistic process. That's why most reproductions have traditionally been made from the photographer's prints, not from the negatives. (Digital of course has changed all this.) This is also why prints made personally by a master photographer are worth more, even dramatically more, than those made from the same negatives by a different print maker.

A photo is a photographic print and any other reproduction is just a reproduction. Gelatin silver b&w prints have traditionally contained much more visual information than even 300 lpi art press reproductions. (Forget about 96dpi computer screens.) Prints have finer grain, broader and more subtle tonalities, blacker blacks, denser detail, a much greater and easily perceptible sharpness. I asked hypothetically the other day why anyone would pay $8000 for print they could buy in a $10 book. Most of that is just art value, but the rest is a premium paid for the mesmerizing depth and acuity of a master-made photographic print.

When we talk about the digital revolution in photography, usually we refer to digital cameras replacing film. But equally revolutionary, or moreso, is the death of darkroom printmaking and the rise of digital printing. Even people who still shoot film usually scan to digital, postprocess in Photoshop, and make their prints using inkjet printers. For less than $1000 you can buy a 9-ink photo printer that will produce darkroom-quality prints up to 17" wide. For $300 you can get a 13" photo printer that is, if not professional, still very good. These printers are fussy and expensive to run, but compared to a wet darkroom, there's no contest. We just ordered thirteen large art prints for my office building. It took the photographer just an hour a piece to prepare and print them. No contest.

Next: Back to LensWork. If we can get that kind of quality on a desktop inkjet, what can a commercial art press produce?

15 July 2010

Penny Stock

My daughter and I have been discussing careers in photography. I don't know a lot about it, but there is no question that many pro photographers are having a tough time. The economics of photography have changed drastically. Newspapers and news periodicals are in decline, putting a lot of journalists and news photographers out of work. Freelancers are doing decent business, but competition is fierce and the pay has always been low. In the commercial sector, stock photography has always been cheaper than commissioning new work and is being used more heavily than ever.

But the stock photo agencies since about 2000 have made changes to licensing and royalty models that have just sucked the money out of it for pros. Stock sales used to feed pros a constant stream of residuals, but now stock photos are penny stocks. The problem for pros is that the internet enables photo agencies to source stock photography from amateurs or semi-pros, who will cheerfully license their work for next to nothing. It's all gravy to them.

Amateur sourcing started with so-called microstock agencies, who will license photos for as little as a quarter a piece. They quickly became very popular, and microstock services are cheap and easy to start. They sprouted like dandelions. The old blue-chip agencies, like Getty Images and Corbis, quickly found these upstarts taking ever bigger bites out their business, a $2 billion a year business. In 2006, $800 million of that business was going to Getty alone, and they wanted to keep it that way.

So Getty purchased the pioneer microstock agency iStockPhoto, then bought another agency that was itself buying microstock companies. Then Getty got straight into microstock-style acquisitions by directly approaching select users of the social photography site Flikr. Now Getty is taking it to a whole new level, by acquiring entire portfolios from any Flikr user who will tick yes to a few terms of agreement.

A recent editorial from a UK photo mag outlines the massive downsides of this. It's not readily available online, so I'm reproducing it here:

    If you’re a Flickr user you may have noticed that stock photo library behemoth Getty Images has just opened up to the entire community what was up to now an exclusive arrangement with a few select members. Yes, you too can now have your pictures considered for inclusion in the files of the mighty Getty, which they’ll then sell for thousands to agencies around the world. All you have to do is wait for the cheques to roll in. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Except that, when you look into it in more detail, it isn’t.
    With the advent of digital and web publishing and the explosion of small-scale publishers, the economics of selling images has changed. Agencies such as iStockPhoto have sprung up offering lower prices, with many images produced by skilled amateurs. Publishers have turned to Flickr too, going straight to the source and cutting out the middle man. This shift has benefited the many photographers who would never have been able to get into the exclusive Getty club.
    Getty’s response has been to take over and snuffle out the competition—it’s aim is make it impossible for anyone to publish any pictures anywhere without paying Getty for the privilege. Having bought iStockPhoto and increased its prices tenfold on all the best work, it has now has turned its eyes on Flickr. This move, in my view, represents the hijacking and commercialisation by a powerful global corporation of what has been until now a hobbyist community website.
    The fact is Flickr users have always been able to sell their work to anyone who wants to use it. Potential buyers, including [What Digital Camera], simply contact the photographer through Flickrmail and negotiate a mutually agreed fee.
    Flickr users have sold their pictures in this way for years, and many have made thousands of pounds this way. What will happen now (if you tick the box to allow it) is that if someone wants to use your picture they’ll have to go through Getty. They’ll have to pay much more to use it, and Getty will take a whopping 70% cut. You will be prohibited from selling these images yourself, and once in the system it will be very difficult to withdraw them later if you find that the deal is not the pot of gold you expected.
    This arrangement will inflate the price of images on Flickr purely for Getty’s benefit, but the photographers themselves, who get just 30%, may not be any richer than they’d have been by selling direct. Many publishers, WDC included, will baulk at paying twice as much for pictures just so that Getty Images can take 70% of it.

To me this exemplifies again the new economics of creative work, with the internet providing a vastly greater supply than demand for stock photos, deflating their value. But at the same time, a clever and highly capitalized middleman it finding ways, however objectionable, to retain relevancy and maintain revenues. For photographers, the same trend continues here as in book publishing, music, etc. More and more people get a piece of the pie, but the pieces get smaller and smaller.

14 July 2010

One and a Half Benjamins

I blogged a couple weeks ago about self-publishing through POD services like Blurb. That's great if you want to sell your work on dead trees, but what about self-publishing ebooks? Self-publishing your ebook on Amazon or iBookstore is actually a bit difficult. They are set up to serve commercial publishers, not authors themselves (at least, yet), and formatting your book for ebook distribution require some know-how.

provides both print and ebook formatting and publishing services for authors at very reasonable prices. It will publish your ebook to all major platforms for $150, including "Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kindle, iPad, Sony eReaders, and the entire Ingram Network." Then they collect payments and send you the royalty check. On a typical $9.99 ebook, you earn $5.60 per copy. Sell just thirty copies, and you are well into the black. And ebook buyers are currently on a bit of a binge.

All you really need is an irresistible title, like the absurdly popular ebook, Sh*t My Dad Says. Its success is only made more absurd by being based on a lowbrow TV series starring William Shatner. Yes, that William Shatner.

Please, Please Pirate Me!

In 2002, tech publisher Tim O'Reilly published a controversial essay titled, "Piracy is Progressive Taxation, and Other Thoughts on the Evolution of Online Distribution." The clunky title does not do justice to its broad vision and insight into the future of publishing, of all media. Time is proving O'Reilly correct, and daring to practice what he preaches, he continues to flourish as a publisher. A recent speaker at AAUP reported that the consistent feedback from ebook users is: if you want our business, we want all our ebooks like O'Reilly ebooks (DRM-free pdfs). A room full of fearful publishers groaned.

I won't summarize all of O'Reilly's article. No point. It's essential reading, so just read it. He breaks down his argument into seven "lessons," but I'll single out just three highlights.

1. O'Reilly's first lesson is, "Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy." There is a massive disparity in supply and demand for all creative work, and as I've noted before, this disparity is growing exponentially for books. This greatly dilutes their economic value. Even if you can get published, the vast majority of books fail to find readers and fail commercially. The flourishing of niche enthusiast communities online and the "long tail" serviced by omnibus sellers like Amazon has certainly been a boon for authors, "But even then, few books survive their first year or two in print. Empty the warehouses and you couldn't give many of them away." Authors and other creators who are not established should be primarily concerned with finding an audience. Once you have an audience, you can find a way to monetize your popularity. But as for the great mass of unknowns . . .

2. "For all of these creative artists, most laboring in obscurity, being well-enough known to be pirated would be a crowning achievement. Piracy is a kind of progressive taxation, which may shave a few percentage points off the sales of well-known artists (and I say 'may' because even that point is not proven), in exchange for massive benefits to the far greater number for whom exposure may lead to increased revenues." With respect to music, for example, another essayist says likewise, yes, you should be worried about piracy, if you are U2. Otherwise, this system of free and easy distribution only works for you. And anyway, the only way to stop it is to stop recording music.

3. I'll say it again. I believe you can always turn popularity into money. If you fail to do so, that is a market or marketing problem. O'Reilly highlights the basic market problem that is feeding "piracy" (a term he rejects for unauthorized online distribution). "The simplest way to get customers to stop trading illicit digital copies of music and movies is to give those customers a legitimate alternative, at a fair price." The problem is that the pricing in old distribution models is not transferable to new distribution models. Traditional publishers are aggregators, publicists and printers who used to be necessary to connect content creators with an audience. Some of their services are still very necessary, but to remain economically viable at all will require for many self-reinvention.

    The question before us is not whether technologies such as peer-to-peer file sharing will undermine the role of the creative artist or the publisher, but how creative artists can leverage new technologies to increase the visibility of their work. For publishers, the question is whether they will understand how to perform their role in the new medium before someone else does. Publishing is an ecological niche; new publishers will rush in to fill it if the old ones fail to do so.

As I've noted recently, when it comes to using socially traded content, free is not free. This is an O'Reilly principal (often repeated). People will cheerfully pay for you to give them the content they want, if you can provide it "at a fair price," meaning at lower cost than they can otherwise obtain it. Time and frustration are costly, and convenience, in aggregate, is worth a lot. That's why one of O'Reilly's seven lessons is, "'Free' is eventually replaced by a higher-quality paid service." The reason why so many paid services fail is less their cost than their poor implementation (limited selection, poor navigability and filtering, etc.) and unreasonable restrictions (limited format and quality choices, platform restrictions, DRM). iTunes has been a wild success compared to other music services because it's not in the music business at all. It's in the convenience business.

For unknown creators, particularly of fungible works like fiction, the great takeway from this is that, yes, the free and easy distribution of your work should be a concern. Not as something to prevent, but to promote, by every means available to you.

13 July 2010

"Cost Is Not Value"

Following up my post yesterday, an article in the NYTimes looks at a recent exhibit on forgeries at the National Gallery in London, and what forgeries and related high art hijinks tell us about how silly the world of high art is and how simple it ought to be. It affects to rise somewhat above "the populist suspicion that much art is really just a scam," but doesn't by much, and pokes a finger in the eye of "dubious connoisseurship." But most people will be nodding their heads.

I have a conflicted relationship with art criticism of all kinds (literary, music, performance, visual, whatever). I am a critic myself, both as a blogger and professionally (academic literary criticism), and see my criticism as part formal exercise and part rationalization of subjective perceptions that are heavily conditioned by culture. I enjoy the critical exercise, but it's a cheap thrill. Opinionated bloviation in serious dress. I don't believe a word I say.

But still I seek out and am influenced by the criticism of others, and there is no question that expert criticism shapes popular aesthetics. When what I like and what others say I should like happen to coincide, I am very satisfied. When they do not, I can find myself a bit vexed, perhaps afraid that, despite my best efforts, I will never graduate from the ranks of the ignorati.

The canard goes, " I don't know art, but I know what I like." Why can't that be sufficient? Over time, I'm relieved to find that increasingly it is becoming enough. I'm becoming cheerfully ignorant and vulgar. I recently came across some simple photographic advice that summarized my emerging non-philosophy of aesthetics: "Look at collections of other people's work, go for the pictures that instantly appeal. If you have to think about an image to like it, then that's not what you are looking for here. This is not meant as an intellectual exercise."

Art is not an intellectual exercise. 'Nuff said.

12 July 2010

Art, Accident and Value

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, 1932

Henri Cartier-Bresson's "Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, 1932" is perhaps the most famous image by one of the most famous and influential photographers of all time. But why?

It was made at a time when small cameras with fast film were just coming into broad use and being employed to capture spontaneous and fleeting acts in pedestrian settings, starting a broad photographic trend that would extend to all genres of photography for 50 years. As one critic calls it, it is photography as "spontaneous witness." In this period, freezing people in mid-leap was very popular, technologically possible now for the first time. The famous French amateur Jacques-Henri Lartigue took very many of these leaping photos, getting everyone he knew to leap for him.

Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Bichonnade Leaping

I was once watching a documentary on photography and a famous photographer detailed the careful composition of Cartier-Bresson's "Gare Saint-Lazare." It was fascinating. How every element was framed with great judgment and then captured with surpassing skill at the perfect moment in the man's leap. Peter Degrassi of MOMA says of it:

    I don't think anybody ever made a better one of those pictures than Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare in 1932. The leaping man is caught just at the moment before his heel will touch the water. The water is so completely still, it acts like a mirror. And the way the picture is framed; you see his entire silhouette, which is clearer in reflection. Then there are these uncanny details, the sort of home made ladder that he's pushed off against has already made its ripples, and then, there are the bands that would go around a wooden barrel, in the shallow water nearby that anticipate the ripples that are going to happen once his heel hits the water. And then in the background, of all things, is a poster advertising some kind of dance event, with a dancer leaping in more or less the same pose that the man is leaping in.

So what is its value? This image is in copyright and, googling a bit, prints run between $8,000 and $18,000 each. If you are enjoying the totally unauthorized copy here, please buy a print and support the photographic arts. And who could argue that this exceptional expression of human creative genius is not worth the money. Right?

Cartier-Bresson himself said in an interview late in life that, in fact, when he took this through a hole in a wooden fence, he stuck his eye up to it, found the scene somewhat interesting, so then blindly stuck his camera into the hole and fired the shutter. One time. The man leaping was literally blind luck. Reread the above assessment with that in mind. With that datum, is this a work of artistic genius or a happy accident? Is it really worth $8,000 (starting) for a "hardcopy"? And how can you sell prints that are infinitely reproducible for that kind of money? How can you sell prints at all when one can find it everywhere on the internet for free? Or buy an art-quality reproduction in a book for pocket change?

But still these prints sell for high sums at high-rolling Christie's auctions seventy years after being created, one might say, mechanically and with great serendipity. For me this illustrates both how free things can be sold if you create a market (like fine art photography) and how genius and accident can be very difficult to distinguish. I think Cartier-Bresson was great. But millions of photographs have been blindly snapped on impulse, and I expect a surprising subset equal the artistic merit of this photo. What distinguishes this photo from those, in economic value, is much less creative genius than the simple fame of artist and photo.

But is it ever any different?

11 July 2010

The Invasion of EVIL Cameras

Not evil as in Dr. Evil evil, but EVIL as in Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens cameras. Also known as mirrorless or Micro Four Thirds (m4/3) system cameras. Yes, confusing. I'll stick with mirrorless system camera. Here's a picture . . .

Olympus E-PL1

. . . and a short explanation. In the beginning camera makers just converted film SLRs into digital cameras by placing an imaging sensor at the film plane and sticking an LCD on the back for reviewing pictures. These DLSRs largely retained the size and bulk of film SLRs because they use the same mirror and viewfinder systems. Having a traditional viewfinder is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is not necessary at all, and it comes with serious downsides. In addition to the bulk, the mirror blocks the sensor and prevents the use of the LCD for framing pictures, as you can on compacts. Many people prefer LCD framing, especially eyeglass wearers like myself. DSLR makers have tried to find workarounds for this problem, but so far all their solutions have been half-measures. The only way to enable compact-style LCD framing with an SLR is to remove the SLR components, i.e., the reflex mirror and viewfinder. Hence a mirrorless system (meaning, interchangeable lens) camera.

DSLR vs. Mirrorless System Camera

With the mirror removed, you also require less backspace between lens and sensor, which means you can use smaller lenses. All together you end up with a camera about the size of a large compact, but with all the lens-swapping advantages of an SLR. These smaller cameras were first introduced to the mass market by Olympus and Panasonic last year, but they do not use DSLR-sized imaging sensors. Their Micro Four Thirds sensors are about 30-40% smaller than the APS-C-sized sensors used in most DSLRs. (Sony's new NEX-series mirrorless system cameras and a few other models do use APS-C sensors.) Still, the image quality of even these m4/3 sensors is much closer to DSLR quality than to compact quality. They are, for many serious amateurs, viable alternatives to much bulkier DSLRs.

Until now, these mirrorless system cameras have been more expensive than entry-level DSLRs. The early adopter premium. But the new Olympus E-PL1 has come in just over $500 street, which is about where DSLRs start. Not bad at all.

Considering these cameras have only been out a year, and that no models have been introduced by Canon and Nikon, the dominant DSLR makers, it is an astonishing figure that this past month in Japan, 32.5% of all system cameras sold were mirrorless (here). Seven of the top twenty system cameras are mirrorless, all from Panasonic and Olympic. That makes these cameras both watershed designs and commercial successes. This will drive costs down and you'll see a lot of them swinging from tourist shoulders by next summer.

So where is Canon and Nikon? Nikon has just indicated that they may introduce a mirrorless model "anytime" this year or next. Canon has been completely mum. Both have dominant lines of DSLRs that they will not want to cannibalize, and you just can't throw one of these mirrorless systems together. They are not just cameras, after all, but entire systems. There may also be some truth to one reviewer's observation of the new Sonys: "As with Samsung and Panasonic, Sony's background is electronics (rather than cameras), so the incentive to move away from the optically complex DSLR design to one based more around electronic displays makes sense." Canon and Nikon are in the opposite position.

I'm excited for the future of these models because they are poised to replace an all-but-dead segment that a lot of us miss: the pro compact. DSLRs are big, noisy and conspicuous. These mirrorless cameras can almost be palmed, stealthy as a Leica rangefinder, but still produce DSLR-class images. And they are soooo sexy. As soon as they drop below $400, I may just have to trade blood for cash at the local plasma bank for a few months.

10 July 2010

Pirates, Part 2

Mr. Fweem very nicely elaborated on my previous post, from his perspective as both a consumer and creator of creative work. I started to write a long comment to his post, but decided to take it back here. So first, read his post. Then read the article he links to by Tony Woodlief.

I think Woodlief's article illustrates again in a number of ways that this is not primarily (or at least, generally not perceived as) a battle between creators and consumers of creative work, so much as between consumers and the corporations who control and exploit creators' work. Woodlief is not criticizing Joe Henry over wanting outrageous fees for citing one line of one song, but rather "his record label's parent company." Who is not looking after Mr. Henry, but after their bottom-line. That, at least, underlies Woodlief's argument and reflects general public sentiment. To me, the first element of copyright reform is ensuring that copyright protections benefit creators, not corporations that make billions by exploiting artists for their sweat and genius. I use the term exploitation frequently, but not lightly. For the uninitiated, see producer Steve Albini's classic "The Problem with Music" (profanity warning) or, more recently, Tim Quirk's drama with Warner Music over at Too Much Joy.

Everyone is in favor of compensating creators, of course. And when the composer in my original article started contacting traders of his music, saying it was not cool, most of them quickly apologized and took his work down. Of the 400 or so take-down letters sent, just one dumb teenager wanted to argue about it. The question for me and, clearly, many other people is not about supporting creators, but whether both creators and consumers should permit themselves to be victimized by corporate exploitation when they have the ready means to render those corporations irrelevant. The consensus is clearly that we shouldn't, and that this is about both parties.

On the other hand, I don't personally believe that creators have any "right to expect -- and receive -- some kind of remuneration for their creativity." And I say that as a creator. All of us are creators; creative work flows naturally from the act of humans living life. Almost none of it will ever be compensated and only the market can determine what of it has economic value. I think (e.g.) my daughter's hand-drawn Father's Day cards should have the market value of a Picasso, but I doubt the market would ever agree.

No creative act has any inherent monetary value, and the work or lack of work that goes into creative endeavor does not change that fact. Otherwise, explain Jackson Pollock to me. If we create something and no one will pay to enjoy it, that's either a market or marketing failure. It's certainly not a creative failure, though it can feel like that. Many of us choose to distribute our creative work freely because we would rather it be enjoyed by anyone with any interest than restrict it to those (typically very few) with interest enough to pay. The internet gives you more options in both those respects. Go internet.

But I hold all creative acts as being strictly equal, as creative acts. Market value measures only popularity. Someone once asked a famous songwriter what makes a song a classic. He replied, "Repetition." Classics are first and foremost marketing successes. Some also happen to be works of genius, but most are not. And copyright law is not for the fostering of genius, but for the fostering of marketing success. Marketing success may or may not itself foster creative genius, but judging from the quality of most corporate art, I'd say mostly not.

An example of my ideal. Twice in the last month I've gone to see a local band called Gypsy Cab, which is just one genius blues guitarist (Pat) and his drummer (Jesse). Pat is an 18 year-old who plays original electric blues on $200 Squier guitars through one very loud Fender Twin and smokes 98% of the guitarists I have ever heard. I paid to see them and I will again. I'm dying for CD. And a T-Shirt. I'll pay for those, too. And anything else they want to sell me. No corporations need to get involved. I'll just give them my money.

09 July 2010

Pirates, Hoarders, Saviors of Culture?

This post by David Pogue is not interesting for David Pogue (who I rarely find interesting), but for the letter it reproduces, the issue it raises, and some of the 300+ comments it has generated. The fundamental issue it raises concerns those (many, MANY) people who are engaged in scanning and trading print materials in the same way millions do music and movies. The particular subject here is sheet music, but it could be anything ever put into print. I've been involved with this professionally for some time, for example, in creating a digital library for Syriac scholars. For this project we only included out-of-copyright materials, but informally scholars trade copyrighted research materials on a massive scale, just like these music traders. With equal excitement and glee, and a similar lack of compunction.

Academic swapping and hoarding of copyrighted material is called research and is protected in some measure, ostensibly, by fair-use laws. These laws exist to facilitate research and creative work. There is no possible way any scholar could purchase all research materials used. But no scholar was ever sued or even called a pirate for photocopying (now, scanning) an article or monograph, because you can't produce more articles and monographs without doing this. Copyright law was always meant to curb commercial exploitation of another's creative work, not to prevent the use of that work in creating new work, whether artistic or scientific.

Also, I'm not sure copyright law was originally intended to curb the profitless enjoyment of creative work without payment to the copyright holder, who so very often is not even the creator, but rather a commercial exploiter of creators. But I'm no legal scholar and that's another topic.

When a pianist, as in this article, collects all the significant piano music ever published, pops it on a thumbdrive, and gives it away to other pianists, I have a hard time seeing any difference between that pianist and most scholars. Probably, true enough, this is sowing some seeds of destruction, but it also contains the seeds of creation. And I don't know why doing this is fair-use if you work at a university but piracy if you, well, work for a living. But of course, if academics ran the world, we'd replace copyright with open access on day one, or at least some generous implementation of Creative Commons licensing.

I see this as principally an economic problem, as many commenters to this article pointed out. People with more time than money will always trade and hoard, but put all this sheet music in a database and charge $10/mo for access, and much of this activity would stop. The people who did not stop are mostly people who would not buy your stuff anyway (i.e., the teenager in the article). This is just the market's way of saying that prices are too high and selection too limited. If your time is worth anything, this traded music is not free. People spend years collecting this stuff, at a very high effective cost. It's just cheaper than the alternative, and for many rare or out-of-print works, the only alternative. As one commenter observed:

    This is actually quite an interesting economic phenomenon. The fact that people illegally acquire content that is copyrighted shows the imperfect market. We, as consumers, don't always find the suppliers we want. As an example, in my town I cannot buy bok choi in the supermarket. I'd have to drive really far away to get it. I don't have the option of "stealing" it in any way that is easier. The internet allows this, though, and it's something classical economics hasn't thought about much: Stealing as a means of overcoming the imperfect market system.

07 July 2010

Old Media vs. New Media?

My favorite columnists are (like ten million other people) David Brooks and Gail Collins of the New York Times. Brooks is the rational and pragmatic me and Collins is my inner cynic. Their Opinionator exchanges are regularly fabulous.

This most recent exchange was on Old Media vs. New Media. Brooks clearly sees himself as the former and, implicitly, Collins is colored as the latter. Old Media is dedicated to "just the facts, ma'am" impartiality and accuracy that (per Brooks) can only be done if there is a certain degree of coziness with the subjects, at least if you are covering a beat. Burn or sour your sources and you will be reduced to punditry, speculating from the outside without any direct access to the most relevant people and facts. Collins sees her journalistic self as a member of "scorn contingent," whose job it is to burn those who deserve to be burned, and damn the consequences. Better perhaps to speak forcefully based on half the facts than with restraint on all of them. Collins is clearly less concerned than Brooks about straying into the territory of advocacy media.

Is this really the divide between old and new media? Does "just the facts" reporting require certain compromises, just to get those facts? Are those compromises unacceptable? Are reporters charged with an advocacy mandate? Should we have a professional "scorn contingent"? Is that the new journalism?

06 July 2010

Seeing Red

I just sent back one compact camera, unhappy with its image quality, and am ordering another, hopefully with better results. I'd been most seriously considering the Canon SD940 IS both for its features, like a 28mm lens and 720p HD movies, as well as its credit-card size. Reading some user reviews, I was put onto the imaging-resource.com Comparometer, which lets you view identical test shots from scores of cameras side-by-side. One must allow for camera sample variation, etc., but if image quality is your concern, it sorts out the winners and losers (or at least your preferences) in a hurry.

I've looked at a lot of test images in the past and had a decent idea of what to expect. Basically, as I've blogged ad nauseum before, the smaller and newer the camera (= more megapixels), the worse the images. Budget compact cameras just cannot compete in image quality with the flagship large-sensor compacts (Canon S90, Panasonic DMC-LX3, etc.), and certainly not with DSLRs and the new m4/3 system cameras. But moving up to those cameras involves much higher cost and/or greater weight and size. I want something pocketable and cheap (<$150) that takes great pictures.

So what does the Comparometer reveal? It generally confirmes the points just mentioned, but also illustrates: (1) managing the massive noise produced by compact camera sensors is all about tradeoffs and (2), all else equal, some cameras just manage to get it very right and others very wrong. Some manufacturers are consistently better than others—I like Canon and Panasonic best—but even so, image quality really varies.

So take Canon and Panasonic. Canon generally does a great job in keeping noise down, but does so by using heavy noise suppression. The down side is that may suppress both noise and image detail, producing smearing. Combined with the reduced dynamic range of compact sensors (and Canon's tendency to overexpose), this can produce plasticy images, especially of things like shiny foliage. All plants tend to look like rubber plants. Canon also favors a very warm look, meaning lots of reds, which can cause the red channel to clip faster than others. This can result in very hot, smeared reds.

Panasonic, on the other hand, prefers slightly cooler colors and sees reds well. They also use a lighter hand with noise suppression but strong sharpening. That can produce a somewhat gritty look up close, especially with flat surfaces (some call it "stippling"), but due to good color management, Panasonic images are also less saturated and plasticy. I prefer Canon's noise management, when not overdone, but Panasonic's color management. I certainly like the way Panasonic sees red, which is more restrained in its rendition.

Below are five image details from five cameras of swatches of colored fabric. I've ordered them from best to worst, in terms of both detail and color rendition. All have been reduced in resolution, so the test is not entirely equal, but I think it works as illustration (click images for full size).

The best image is from a Canon DSLR, so no surprise there. The second best is from an older Canon compact, the PowerShot A2000 IS. Now that was a surprise. It is a bit noisier, but otherwise compares very well with the DSLR's image quality. Third is the Panasonic DMC-ZS1 that I recently bought and reviewed. Later ZS-series cameras continue to look that good. The A2000 preserves a little more detail with less noise, but they are almost a tie. Fourth is my older Canon A590 IS, which preserves decent detail but suffers from too-hot reds. Finally, we have the Canon SD940 IS, which I was looking at purchasing. It suffers from significant detail smearing and blown out reds. And most unfortunately, nothing in Canon's current compact lineup, below its its two top models (the G11 and S90), looks that much better. Two thumbs down.

The Canon A2000 does not have all the features I want in a budget compact. But its image quality looks shockingly good. Great noise management, great detail, and great colors, even the reds. It is a 2008 model, out of production, but refurbished units are available on eBay that fall under my el cheapo price limit. I'm all in.

Canon EOS Rebel T2i

Canon PowerShot A2000 IS

Panasonic DMC-ZS1

Canon PowerShot A590 IS

Canon PowerShot SD940 IS

04 July 2010

Panasonic DMC-FH1

I just received this camera last night and, well, it's going straight back. It is certainly not bad, but just does not work for me.

The Good: It looks like the younger sibling of the ZS1 I just reviewed. In other words, beautiful. But thankfully it has much faster focus and performs very nicely. The lens is very sharp and contrasty, and is a wide 28mm, with 5x optical zoom and image stabilized. I took sharp handhelds with it at 1/8 sec shutter speed, no problem at all. It also has 720p HD video. For a $125 camera, it is very feature rich.

The Bad: The UI is redundant and, for a camera with so few settings, a bit hard to navigate. It has three buttons that get you to basically the same settings. Entirely too much. And as I say, it really has very few settings. It is an automagic point and shoot with almost no manual options. I was not expecting much that way, but the one must-have feature it lacks is any kind of exposure lock or panorama assist. I shoot panoramas all the time, so this was a deal breaker. But in addition, the image quality was just not good enough. Even moreso than the ZS1, it has a tendency to produce blotchy chroma noise in the shadows. Its image noise in general is unaesthetic (and yes, some noise is prettier than other) and its sharpening is set to nuclear. The result is some pixel-level nastiness, even at ISO 80, that I just could not live with.

The Verdict: So back it goes. I wanted to like it, but for just a bit more money I can get a Canon SD940 IS, which is roughly equivalent in specs, but has more manual features, including both exposure lock and panorama assist. Test images in reviews also look very good and noise-free at low ISOs. I've owned a lot of Canons and always liked them. So back to Canon I go.

03 July 2010

First Trip to iBooks

So, I load up iBooks for the first time and find that three of the top ten paid books are by Mormons, two by Stephenie Meyer and one by Glenn Beck (a novel, ghostwritten). I've puzzled on this before. Mormons seem to have a disproportionate presence in politics, popular fiction, and multilevel marketing companies. In all those areas we are consistently an embarrassment. Can someone decode this for me?

Apple is reported to have added 30,000 free titles from Project Gutenberg. Searching for "Gutenberg" will get you to quite a few. But trying Treasure Island out on the iBook reader, it doesn't impress me. There are basically no configuration options. Parts of the copy of I downloaded do not scale to portrait orientation, so you have read it landscape, ten lines at a time. When you change orientation, the iBook reader takes a five full seconds to respond. The book has plates, but again, they only display landscape and are a bit scrambled. Etc., etc. Stanza beats this reader to pieces. Color me unimpressed.

02 July 2010

Panasonic DMC-ZS1

As mentioned the other day, I just purchased a refurbished Panasonic DMC-ZS1 for my daughter, a very sharp young photographer. I bought it for it's exceptionally wide 25-300mm equiv. lens, great image quality (per glowing reviews), and modest price. It also has a very close macro focus distance of just 3cm, and Tasha does love her macro.

The Good: It looks and feels like a high-quality camera. The 2.7in hi-res LCD is excellent, a big upgrade from past cameras. For the first time we own a compact that you can effectively review picture quality on. It has quite good ergonomics and great battery life, and in auto mode it produces consistently great photos. The images look very sharp and have great color. Perhaps more real that real, but to modern eyes, that's just how pictures should look. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing of highlights) is exceptionally well controlled, and overall the photos exhibit less clipping than most little compacts, which gives compact camera images a consistently plasticy look. These images look a bit more more SLR-like, with less harsh transitions between high and low contrast. And, most importantly, Tasha seems to love it.

The Bad: (1) As many people have commented, the top dial is too prominent and in the wrong place. You have to wrap your finger around it to push the shutter, which feels unnatural, and some people have problems with it getting turned inadvertently. (2) The focus is slow, probably a byproduct of that long lens. That's typical of compacts, but I find this camera annoyingly slow. (3) Images look great at screen resolutions and probably in prints, but at a pixel level, noise reduction and sharpening is very obviously too aggressive and cannot be turned off. Also, sometimes low-contrast areas suffer from slight dithering or blotchiness. This is odd, since sample photos I've seen on review sites lack these faults, at least to this extent. So I'm not sure what to think. Perhaps a badly done firmware revision. Again, you would probably never see this in regular viewing, and in all other respects image quality is excellent. But up close it's a bit disappointing.

The Verdict: If you want a wide-angle compact, this camera cannot be beat for the money. In fact, probably nothing else can be had for the money. It suits my daughter's photographic interests perfectly. I wish the pixel-level image quality was better, but as sensor densities continue to increase, that kind of quality will continue to decrease. Really the only place to go is to high-end compacts or DSLRs, for which you will pay triple over this camera, starting. So I give it 8 out of 10.

The Photographer. All images are straight out of camera.

01 July 2010

Self-publishing Blurb

There are at least four threats that academic publishers, mostly in common with traditional publishers, are facing. The first is, naturally, the internet, which allows anyone to publish anything to everyone for free. The second is a decline in academic library purchasing and changing acquisition strategies, described partly in my previous post. The third is open access initiatives and university archival repositories, which are initiatives to make published research publicly accessible and (in cases) keep it under the control of sponsoring bodies. Universities are sick of having to, e.g., pay $10,000 a year to subscribe to a single scientific journal so that students can access the work their own faculty have published in it. They want to quit giving their intellectual property away.

Finally, there is the unstoppable tidal wave of self-publishing. Laura Cerruti of UC Press threw out this terrifying statistic. In 2009, 288,355 titles were published by US publishers, but an additional 764,488 titles were self- or micro-published. From other statistics I could quickly find, this is apparently about a 270% increase over 2008 totals, which had increased 132% over 2007. In 2007 traditional publishers were still publishing most books. In 2009 they were fighting to retain 25% of exploding booklists. UC Press is themselves shifting their resources into assisting (on a contract basis) UC units in self-publishing their research. That's clearly where the action is.

The gamechanger here is the plummeting cost and rising quality of print on demand (POD), which revolves around self-contained printing/binding machines that can produce bound books on a per copy basis very cheaply. The U of U's Marriott Library has one and are rapidly moving to the point where students can use ebooks online and, if they want a print copy to use, just hit a "Buy" link, type in their account code, then walk down to the Espresso POD machine and pick up it up. The library will add books to their own print collection in the same way.

Traditionally POD books are ugly and cheap paperbacks, the product of a fancy copy machine, but there are commercial-grade POD presses that can produce high-quality hardbounds. In fact, many commercial presses are moving to POD-only printing (most everyone will eventually), since it eliminates too-large press runs and warehousing. Third-party services will proxy for individuals wanting this same quality for their personal publications. The cost is shockingly low.

I read an article today on one such service specializing in full-color art and photography books, Blurb. Per unit prices for 7x7 color start at $12.95. They provide tools for online promotion of your title and a bookstore to sell it in. The quality is 100% commercial grade. Of course, editing and design is up to you, but all profits from sales are yours, too. Services like this are why self-publishing is going through the roof, and publishers are very, very worried.