Friday, April 29, 2016

Photography Simply Doesn't Matter Any More

Convergence and Culture Shift

I guess at some point, we all have to come to terms with the idea that the very nature of photography is changing.  Never again will there be a small 'priesthood' of people who control access to photography because they are the ones willing to take the time to learn all the arcane stuff it takes to make great photos.

True, there is STILL  a lot of arcane stuff to learn about photography, and there are still people like us who take the time to learn it.  But the truth is, no one but us cares!

In the past, there were cameras and other infrastructure to bring 'photography to the masses', but even so, the premise was that the masses consisted of snapshooters, and the hard stuff had to be done by 'experts' who took the exposed film and turned that into photos.  The expert people were there at almost every step of the process, and it supported the, perhaps irrational, belief that photography mattered.

Now, the experts involved with the photographic infrastructure, the "priesthood", no longer stand between the user and their photos.  The Smartphone camera has changed all that.  And more importantly, it has changed how photography is viewed culturally.

We no longer even need to print the photos and use the postal services to send them to our loved ones, friends, and family.  We don't even need to attach the photos to an email anymore.  It used to be that photography was a sequentially shared experience.  The photographer got the photos back from the lab, and then sent the photos he or she was proud of to others for them to enjoy.  And those subsequent people enjoyed them on different days and at different times of day.  The enjoyment was a solitary experience, and then one sent the photo on to someone else, or kept them.  Either way, it was a conscious act on the part of the viewer.  

Now, we just let the camera automatically upload the photos to Google, or Apple, or Flickr and let the people use their phones to either view them directly from our online account, or download them to their phones so THEY can alter or repurpose them, or keep them unaltered, as a part of their personal collection of photographs.

But the enjoyment is no longer completely sequential. Instead, the illusion that we are all enjoying it together at the same time is created.  Through the use of comments and the  ubiquitous 'thumbs up'/'Thumbs down' votes we perceive that our photo viewing is now a shared experience.  Then too, we  no longer need to take active steps to send the photo to others.  We might post the photo on social media, but it too, is a shared experience with comments and the ability to vote on a photo's worth.

The photograph is out there, in the ether, waiting to be 'discovered' by other viewers.  Roughly 113 billion photos get 'published' on the internet each year.  I speculate, that only millions are ever actually seen. and of them, only a few hundred actually resonate enough with us to be remembered.  Even fewer are remembered well enough, by enough of us, to make that transition to some sort of cultural significance.

(citation here)  (2nd citation here) (3rd citation here)  Note: You'll have to do a little math to get the annual figures!

Is it any wonder then, that even established names in the camera manufacturing industry are struggling to sell enough cameras to survive?  Should we be surprised that no one wants to PAY for photographs that other people have taken?  When was the last time you saw one of those little wire display stands that held picture postcards of women on waterskis, or a picture of the local tourist trap on one side  and which said, "wish you were here!" on the other?"

There are no non photography oriented magazines that feature good photography any more, and few people actually clip photos from paper magazines because: 

  • There aren't that many magazines any more.
  • If they want to save a photo, people just go to the online article, and 'right' click the photo of their choice.
  • What's the point? When billions of photos get published each year, saving a photo that will only be considered inferior to some other photo that will get published tomorrow or next month seems meaningless, and it devalues what we are seeing even when we view the photo.

News organizations are firing staff photographers and are pulling photos off of Twitter for free, with which to illustrate their stories.  Apparently, it's cheaper to deal with the occasional minor lawsuit, than it is to pay for a staff photographer.

Then too, photo editing technology has helped weaken the economic value of photographs either for news, editorial, or legal applications.  The truth is, an expert retoucher can alter a photo in such a way that can fool another expert, or at least create reasonable doubt in that expert's mind.  This has served to  weaken a photograph's ability to function as a reliable witness.

I would estimate that not a week goes by that on some photography forum site, someone complains that their photos have been used without permission. Or that someone makes dark charges that some commercial entity is only out to grab photo rights from photographers.  And given the evidence, that is not an unreasonable assumption. 

But the point is, no one respects a photograph any more, or the work that can go into making a good one.  And as a result the concept of protecting intellectual property for any, other than giant corporations, is now becoming seen as anti-social.  If you doubt me, go to any social media site and make a complaint about stolen intellectual property.

I think the only conclusion we can draw from this is that photography is losing the cultural significance that it had acquired during the 20th century. Photography has been devalued culturally, and once that occurs, it loses its economic value, since culture and the economy are linked. 

The gains that the American "Photo Secessionist" movement of the early 20th century to get photography considered an art form, have been seriously eroded (not that I agree entirely with the photo secessionists,  that was a different time and place).  But I bet Steiglitz is spinning in his grave!

Anything that is as ubiquitous as photography now is, simply CAN'T be "Art".  Photography has been turned into that music which plays in the supermarket to get you to buy that extra can of spaghetti sauce.

Am i just an old curmudgeon wishing for the days of my youth?  I don't THINK so.  Certainly there are things I miss about the old days, but on the whole I think things have never been better for people driven to make photographs.  

Image quality has never been higher, the gear and the software has never been easier to use. I don't miss developer stains on my clothes or the foul odors of the darkroom.   And I sure don't miss the era when "Cut and Paste" meant literally one had to cut something out of paper and paste it to another piece of paper.

I'm fully aware there is something of a movement to embrace the old legacy photo technology.  I suspect it is minor, and will be short lived.  However, if it is a permanent thing, they will have to do without MY embrace!  I'm NOT going back!

As far as I'm concerned, bring on the new technology and the culture shift that comes with it! And bring it online FASTER!  At my age, I can see that mandatory check out time on the horizon, and I want to see and to do MORE before that event happens.  Just make sure I have a way to take the kind of pictures I want to take, and I'm good!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Do You Need HDR for Natural Looking Photos?

As I wrote earlier, I recently purchased Photomatix Pro 5  HDR software.  And I am experimenting with it, trying to figure out when and how I might want to use it.  So I've been shooting a lot of  3 and 5 shot exposure sequences, trying to get a 'feel' for Photomatix.  (let's just call it PM, for now!)

I've been pretty happy with it, overall,  I found that I CAN get natural looking photos from properly exposed photo sequences.  However, I began to wonder if I'm actually gaining or losing anything by using PM compared to using a well exposed raw shot and developing it conventionally via ACDSee Ultimate 9.  So I set out to figure out a way to test the two programs out.

My methodology was as follows:

  1. Shoot hand held, a standard 3 raw photo sequence at Normal exposure, -2 EV and at +2 EV.
  2. Process the three photos in Photomatix Pro 5, and adjust the image with the controls  found in that program to make it look as natural and as pleasing as possible given my current beginners level of skills.
  3. Use the "normal" exposure described in step one, and develop it in ACDSee Ultimate 9.  I expected to cheat a bit, and try to replicate the image I found In PM as best I could given my intermediate skill level in using ACDSee U9.  However, I decided that if I could use ACDSee and make the image better to my eyes, I would not hesitate to do so.  My reasoning was that I want the best photo possible not get two programs to give me identical results.  Because of this reasoning, I also ran the HDR version through NIK Viveza 2 to modify a couple of areas that I thought could be improved a bit.

What I learned from this experiment, is that the answers can't lead us to a clear winner,  It's going to settle out to a matter of taste and skill, I think.

First, let me show the two "done" photos,  I'll describe what I like about them and then what I might like to change.

The HDR Image, Below:  
 note: As always, click on any photo to see it displayed larger.

This was clearly the easiest photo of the two to produce, and I was quite satisfied with how it looked straight away.  The detail and tone of the photo is very good, and, I think, it reflects how the scene looked to my memory.  As a reminder, I did use NIK Viveza 2 to lighten the detail in the shadows of the fallen logs a bit,  to darken and add contrast to the footbridge, along with lightening the water level roots of the tree in the center.

 The ACDSee Only Image, Below:

Frankly, I like this photo overall, just a bit better.  While not quite as 'perfect' as the HDR photo, I think it more accurately reflects the . . . "emotional content" of the scene better than the HDR version.  However, it was MUCH more difficult to produce.  Instead of a simple 4 step process to get a completed photo, I had to resort to a somewhat complex 8 step process to get the photo to where I wanted it to be, that included multiple passes with Pixel targeting, and development brushes.   I could have cheated and used NIK Viveza 2, but I wanted to see what an all ACDSee version would look like.

My Analysis:

I always thought ACDSee's selective editing was pretty good compared to the competition, and I think, for the most part, it is.  However, if ACDSee could invent a way to handle multiple pixel targeting, ahh, targets in one pass, the way they do with the development brushes, I think they could be VERY competitive in the selective editing department.

Out of curiosity, I did try to subsequently 'fix' the HDR version to better reflect my preferences however that added another 6 or so steps to the process, and I never did really capture the 'feel' of the ACDSee version. I suspect as I gain more experience with Photomatix, the quality of my HDR photos will improve as well.

Pixel Peeping

Let's first look at an area that HDR excels at, problematic exposures.

Above: The HDR version is on your left.  As you can see, HDR does an excellent job of capturing detail out of the problem photo areas.  The branches of the trees against the cloudy sky are more numerous and more pleasant to look at.

Here, above: I found that ACDSee's Light EQ did a better job of pulling out detail in the shadows of the water level roots than Viveza did.  Though Viveza did a pretty decent job of it, I think, the HDR version might not have provided all the detail Viveza needed..

Above: is once again a comparison of the two images, side by side this time.  While both appear quite natural, I believe the ACDSee only version seems not only to adhere to the emotional spirit of the scene as I saw it, but I believe in the HDR version, the brightness relationship of the standing trees in relationship to the overall scene seems a little out of balance. That might be a personal taste decision though.

I DO wish however that I could have captured a bit more of the detail those trees that were silhouetted against the sky in the ACDSee version compared to the HDR version, but the compromise I made in that regard is something I can live with.

All in all, I don't think there is a huge benefit to using HDR for natural looking photos unless I am facing a challenging lighting situation.  In which case, It costs nothing to fire off a 3 or 5 exposure photos sequence to get insurance that I have adequately captured the scene.

I didn't illustrate it here, but HDR's don't really work well with even slow speed action shots.  The Ghosting, (where the faint images unique to each shot can bleed through enough to the final composit image that not even the strongest anti ghosting measures can remediate.

Friday, April 15, 2016

An HDR newbie's comparison of NIK HDR Efex and Photomatix Pro 5

Talk about bad timing!  I bought Photomatix Pro 5 the day before I left for a 3 week visit to Texas. My intention was to go to Hamilton Pool, near Austin, and shoot some HDR sequences for a proper test of Photomatix Pro. During that 3 week stay, Google announced that they were releasing the NIK Tools 'out into the wild'.

In all honesty, if, when I decided I wanted to explore HDR, NIK HDR Efex had been available for free, I probably would not have purchased Photomatix. It is certainly an excellent tool with which to explore HDR photography. It's pretty good software, overall. Certainly its little quirks are quite forgivable considering it is now free.

That being said, after using it a bit, I think I would also have outgrown NIK HDR Efex eventually. I think Photomatix is simply easier to use, particularly if you are interested in the less tone mapped, more natural looking photos, as I am.

I don't think it is quite as easy to get natural results with NIK HDR Efex as it is with Photomatix. However, HDR Efex is probably the best FREE HDR software option out there right now (and I tried a LOT of them!), and you can get natural results with it, you just have to work a bit harder, I think.

See the two photos attached to this article. I used the same source photos shot at Hamilton Pool near Austin Texas, and tried to get them to look as much alike as possible. Please remember, I am not an HDR expert, and have minimal skills with either software package.

The source photos were taken with an Olympus E-M10 in HDR 5 photo burst mode using raw images. Click on the photos to make them appear larger and look their best.

This first HDR image, below, is from NIK HDR Efex. I like it well enough, but I see the sky and and the overhang of the dome starting to look a little too 'tone mapped' for my tastes. Also note the rock at the lower right, I've lost a LOT of detail there. And to make matters worse, NIK also stripped significant Exif data from the final photo image.  This is one of my pet peeves,  I hate, absolutely HATE losing the EXIF data when photos come back from a round trip to an external editor.

The second photo, below, is from Photomatix Pro 5.1.2. The sky and the dome look very close to how I remember it. The color of the water is purer, and the rock at the lower right, has quite a bit of detail. And of course, the Exif data from the primary photo was transferred to the end result.  (Again click on either image to make it bigger so you can see it better)

I spent about the same amount of time on each composite photo. From my basic determination, I would say, that Photomatix is a bit easier to use, especially if one is looking for extremely natural looking photos. That being said, NIK made it very easy to get those super tone mapped, over the top photos many people like.  Not surprisingly, Photomatix Pro 5 made me work a tiny bit harder (though not significantly so) to get strong dramatic tone-mapping.

I suspect this difference is a result of Google not actively developing HDR Efex for the last few years and thereby not keeping up with changing tastes in HDR, while Photomatix has done so with its products.

I was unable to get NIK to accept the raw image, the only way I could get it to work was to convert the raw to tiff files in ACDSee before sending them to HDR Efex. I could send the raw photos directly to PhotoMatix with ACDSee without converting them to Tiffs or jpgs. Both the HDR Efex and PhotoMatix software could function as external editors or as Photoshop plugins with ACDSee's bit mapped editor tab.

I'm sure some people will point out that I haven't practiced enough with NIK HDR Efex to make getting the more natural look in an HDR possible. And I am equally certain they are correct.  However, I would still give a slight nod overall to Photomatix in terms of functionality and ease of use.

People who have bought Photomatix Pro 5, should not feel stupid for buying it.  You still have the superior product, I think.  However those people who want to explore HDR without spending money should seriously consider NIK HDR Efex.  It is FAR superior to the other free options.  You can always buy Photomatix later, once you are sure that you want to make HDR a part of your work.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Using Smart Collections in ACDSee

Updated with new information on search criteria logic, on 4/19/2016

In photo management, we often times have to create regular collections of current photos for a variety of reasons.  We might want to identify all the photos that have been taken by an E-M10 camera and cropped, for instance.

We could do this with a series of saved searches and this would work fine.  However, if you have a large number of searches saved, it might be difficult to find the exact search you are looking for because all the saved search names sound alike, or because they are listed in alphabetical order and the first search you need to run, is separated by 50 other saved searches.

This is where ACDSee's Smart Collections come in handy.  These are really nothing more than saved searches, but they have a hierarchical storage infrastructure associated with them.  This allows the user to group the Smart Collections (i.e. the searches) in ways so that similar Smart Collections are easy to find and are physically close to each other because they are in the same category of smart collections. See the screen print below (note: click on any photo/screen print to make it bigger):

The results of a smart collection search can be selected and used in a variety of batch processes including placing them in a regular Collection (a collection without a saved search associated with it).  So, with that capability, you could run a series of smart searches, and after each smart search is run, you could place the results into a regular collection, and thereby build up a larger collection of similar results built on that sequence of searches.

Unfortunately, none of the ACDSee software programs have the ability to run all the smart collections in the collection set and then treat  them as if they were the results of a single search. So for now, we must manually run each search within a collection set and manually process the results.  

HEY ACDSEE!  That would be a good idea for some future update!  It would ALSO  be a good idea to allow ACDSee Action Scripts to be created for the manage tab as well as the edit tab.  Think how cool it would be to be able to batch process the results of a search or a smart collection with an ACDSee Action script!

How to Create a Smart Collection

The first thing we need to do is right click on the Collections bar in the collections window (See the screen print below).  From the drop down menu, select "Create Smart Collection"  When you have done that, the creation window appears.

What you do with this window should be intuitive, plus it pretty much looks like the saved search window.

Below, is how to fill out the fields in such a window:

Name:  This should be the name of the smart collection you are creating.  In the example below, I have yet to type in the name of the Smart collection. It should read, "E-M10 Photos that have been cropped", but sadly, I neglected to do this.

Location:  If you check the "Inside a Collection Set" Check box, you then need to specify the collection set under which your new smart collection will reside.  You don't have to do this right now, since you can create the Collection Set later and then drag and drop the collections to rearrange them later.  But you can do that at this point if you want to.

Match:  This is where you describe the search criteria.  Click on the "Add" button and a list of virtually every attribute that the ACDSee supports will appear.  Select  attribute that you want to search on and it appears in the window.

You will note that if you click on the word "is", a drop down selection menu will appear giving selection logic options.  The exact search criteria options will vary according to the metadata field you are searching on.  The search criteria logic list is:
  • IS
  • IS NOT
If you click on the "0" after the "IS" Then a text box will appear allowing you to specify the value you want the search criteria to look for.

I find the "IS ANY OF" particularly useful in that it will allow you to select a series of values separated with commas.

You can add as many of these "Match" clauses as you want.  However, all multiple 'matches' will be considered 'AND' logic.  there is no "OR" logic, and no "AND IS NOT" logic linking the series of match clauses (though that logic may be allowed within the search clause itself).  You can eliminate and identify groupings within the Smart Collection results in the Filter menu above the Smart collection results.

How I found my 'Cropped Photos'

I now shoot a micro 43s camera called the Olympus E-M10, and I shoot raw mostly.  So I know that the uncropped size of my camera's raw image is 4068 pixels wide by 3456 pixels wide. If I want to find the photos that are cropped, I know that the width has to be LESS than 4068 pixels wide, and the Height must be less than 3456 pixels high.  if they equal those sizes, they are not cropped. 

Now the problem is I've shot with a Canon G3 in the past and my wife's cameras as well and those tiny sensors make pictures SMALLER than the m43s image (in terms of pixel size). And the problem with that is THEY will all be included in the dimension criteria whether they are cropped or uncropped, because their default size is something less than the larger m43s size.  So I need to also specify that the model name stored in the data base to exclude those cameras from the search.

If I want to find the cropped photos from the other cameras as well, I need to figure out what the default image sizes for those cameras are and create a Smart Collection for them, and store them in the same collection set as the one for my E-M10.

To find those that have only been cropped for the width, but not the height, I would also have to create searches for the specific camera and only specify the width parameter but not the height, and place them in my cropped collection set.

Then to find all the cropped photos I have to run each smart collection individually, select the results from that Smart collection and manually place them in a regular (i.e. "dumb") collection common to all the related smart collections.  It can be a bit of a hassle to do that process 3 or 4 times to compile a collection of all cropped photos.  This is why ACDSee needs to figure out a way to automate running all the smart collections in a set and treating them as a single common result set.

On the whole, while smart collections have their faults, I would estimate that more than 80-90% of the time, the way smart collections are currently configured, the user will have no problems getting what he or she wants from them.  However, that last 10% or so is going to prove problematic.