Tag Archives: photography

How much is a photo truly worth? Less than you think

photography

Much has been written about how YouTube has influenced the face of online video and the entertainment industry at large, but little ink is devoted to one simple tool that has since become universal across all online video: the embed button. Though I doubt YouTube invented it, the company’s ubiquity ensured the standardization of the embed button so that virtually no media property today, whether it’s Hulu or Comedy Central, posts video to the open web without the ability to embed it on an outside website.

Think of how much better the web is because of this. It could have just as easily become the norm that in order to view a video, you had to visit the website on which it’s hosted. And if you dared to place it on your own website then you’d get hit with onerous copyright lawsuits and takedown notices. The embed button has removed unwanted friction from the internet, and artists have quickly realized that it’s better to have their content spread across a multitude of aggregators and WordPress blogs, even if it means not having 100 percent control of how your videos are presented or introduced — or collecting payment from every single website that embeds the video. More virality presents more opportunities for brand building and marketing.

So if we learned and accepted this concept about rich video content so early in the web’s development, why do we still refrain from applying it to static images? While it’s accepted dogma that the embedding of a video on your website is perfectly permissible as long as proper credit is given, taking and reprinting an image, even if you give the image’s creator credit and a link back to his website, is still considered theft.

Well, not all content creators consider it theft  — the problem is you’ll never know which ones do until you’re slapped with a lawsuit. All across the country, different media companies have adopted different policies for how to approach images. More traditional legacy publications, on the advice of their lawyers, adopt an extremely conservative approach, not only refraining from posting photos they don’t have the rights to, but barring their social media editors from uploading AP and other wire images — images they’ve paid for — to the news outlets’ official social media platforms (basically, because they don’t technically own their social media profiles, they consider it a breach of contract if they post an AP photo to Facebook or Twitter).

Other news outlets, typically the more nimble, digital-only ones, have more permissive approaches. Buzzfeed, for instance, has long maintained a policy that a single image contained within a longer post full of other images constitutes fair use, and therefore a link credit is sufficient payment. But with dozens of such posts created a day, it only takes a small handful of image creators to ruin the parade. In 2013, a photographer named Kai Eiselein sued Buzzfeed, claiming $3.6 million in damages, for reprinting a rather mundane soccer photo without his permission. In his complaint, he listed not only Buzzfeed’s alleged misuse of the photo, but all the other websites that later published that same photo as a result of Buzzfeed’s original post.

Now I would warrant that the photo not only wasn’t worth $3.6 million, its reprint value wasn’t even worth $50. In a world where the effort to shoot and publish a photo has been made minuscule by the ubiquity of smartphones, the value of a single image, all by its lonesome, is worth nothing more than a link credit, and photographers who spend their time getting angry and slapping websites with DMCA takedown requests should instead be emailing those websites and asking for links.

There are plenty of photographers out there who have learned the harness this more permissive approach to copyright. One of my favorite examples is Gage Skidmore. During the 2012 presidential election, when he was a 19-year-old college student, Skidmore traveled to political events and shot professional-quality photography of GOP primary candidates like Ron Paul and Mitt Romney. But rather than trying to license the content to news agencies, he uploaded it to Flickr with a creative commons license. Journalists and bloggers discovered the photos, and as of September 2012, his photo credit, using his name and often a link back to one of his web properties, appeared over 1 million times.

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This free marketing has led to many business opportunities for Skidmore. In some case, news orgs voluntarily paid him for the reprints, and he was able to license some of the images for physical print products, including a book. It has also helped market his skills as a professional photographer so that he can generate clients for his portrait photography business.  Professional photographers fear that if they allow reprint without payment, it will devalue their work, but there will always be a market need for original photography, whether it’s the hiring of a wedding photographer or a photo shoot for a news publication. Sure, thousands of publications reprinted Kim Kardashian’s glossy ass photo, many without paying money to Paper magazine, but the interest generated from those reprints drove gargantuan levels of attention and traffic to Paper’s website. The photographer who shot that photo certainly earned his keep.

There are dozens of ways a photographer can utilize the marketing value of free reprints of her work to generate significant revenue. Cory Doctorow, a longtime Creative Commons advocate, lists several of them in his most recent book, including everything from selling swag to auctioning off original versions of your art.

The main problem is that, unlike the case with online video, where such practices have been widely adopted, there’s been no such standardization for static images. Sure, more platforms are allowing the easy embedding of photography, including Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, but it may be that these tools were introduced too late in the web’s development, and so their use is limited. For now, publishers will have to play it by ear, establishing their own policies for how to post and properly attribute images. And if you’re a photographer who comes across one of your images on a blog or website, instead of Googling “how to send a DMCA takedown request,” consider simply sending an email asking for credit and a link. You’d be surprised how happy the website’s owner will be to oblige.

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Why Harvard and the Smithsonian teamed up to crowdsource a century of astronomical history

photographic plate

Several afternoons a week, a Pennsylvania retiree named Albert Lamperti boots up his computer and spends about three hours scrutinizing decades-old documents and inputting their contents into an excel sheet. Lamperti took an early retirement in 2009 from Temple University’s medical school, where he taught anatomy to first year students, “so I could have fun with all this stuff.” That “stuff” being amateur astronomy, a field that has fascinated him since 1984 when he and his oldest son purchased a telescope and spent the summer observing things like the rings of Saturn and moons of Jupiter. When he was a kid, Lamperti worked a paper route and had used his early savings to spend $29.95 on an Edmund Telescope, a purchase that went mostly unused until he finally sold it as a teenager. This second time around, however, he was hooked, and it wasn’t long before he joined a local astronomy club his wife saw advertised in the newspaper. Over the intervening decades, Lamperti told me in a phone interview, he would go on to make over 5,000 astronomical observations. “From 1984 on, I’ve had that as a very nice diversion from work. Even though you come home at night very tired from observing, at least you feel that you’ve accomplished something, and it took your mind off any stresses from your day.”

Lamperti belongs to the Delaware Valley Amateur Astronomers, a hobbyist group that falls under the umbrella of the Astronomical League, and it was through this group that he first heard about an ambitious new project headed up by the Harvard College Observatory, an astronomical research facility that has existed for over 150 years. So in January he and several other amateur astronomers hopped on a conference call with David Sliski, who was then a curatorial assistant at Harvard (he recently took a job as a telescope operator at the University of Pennsylvania), to learn about the plan to transcribe logbooks for nearly half a million photographic plates of the night sky that had been taken over the course of a hundred years.

The project, called Digital Access to a Sky Century at Harvard (DASCH for short), is actually a collaboration between the Harvard College Observatory and the Smithsonian Institution, the latter of which has embarked on a much larger endeavor to crowdsource the transcription of millions of pages of archival material. The DC-based network of museums launched a beta version of its crowdsourcing platform in June 2013, and over the next year about 1,000 volunteers transcribed 13,000 pages of documents. After emerging from beta in August and opening up to the public, that volunteer list has swelled to over 4,000. Though it isn’t the first archival institution to begin digitizing its collected works — everyone from the New York Public Library to the British Museum have launched similar initiatives — its scope of work is arguably the most massive; there are 137 million objects spread across the Smithsonian’s 19 museums.

But in a world where Google has the technology to scan millions of library books and provide searchable text, why can’t the Smithsonian do the same?  “Basically these documents are not able to be recognized by [optical character recognition] text readers,” said Sarah Sulick, a public affairs specialist at Smithsonian. “You feed it through a scanner and it can read all the script on the page, but for these handwritten documents it just can’t do that. We actually need a human for this to happen.”

The Smithsonian and Harvard College Observatory, Sliski told me, have had a longstanding collaboration ever since the Smithsonian physically moved its own observatory from the National Mall in the 1950s up to Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics is a joint venture between the two and has become one of the most venerable astrophysical institutions in the world. For their most recent collaboration, the Smithsonian has offered up its transcription program and thousands of volunteers to tackle the arduous task of transcribing the handwritten logbooks for thousands of photographic plates.

What are these plates? Well, they used to be the method by which all photographs were recorded, whereby a photographer would use a glass plate with a silver gelatin emulsion on the back to capture an image. By the 20th century, most photographers had moved on to more agile forms of film, but the plates were still used by astronomers who were taking pictures of the stars because they were less likely to bend or deteriorate with age. “In 1850, the director of the Observatory, William Cranch Bond, took the first photograph of a star, Vega,” said Sliski. “Later in the 1880s, the fourth director, Edward Pickering, launched a program to photograph the entire sky. He started in Cambridge, Massachusetts but quickly went west to Mt. Wilson, then south to Peru. Later the observatory would move to South Africa, New Zealand, and even Jamaica.” This was significant because, from about the 1890s onward, astronomers now had a complete picture of the night sky in both the northern and southern hemispheres. It provided tremendous value for those wanting to study patterns within the universe over a period of time. “What this collection allows you to do is look at the entire night sky for 100 years. If today you took the entire GDP of every country and invested it in astronomy, which would obviously never happen, you still couldn’t reproduce the results here, because there’s an element of time you can’t buy. There’s a uniqueness in that you can look for objects [in the universe] which occur on very unusual time scales.”

For instance, if a black hole accretes matter from a nearby star and ​goes nova, it will increase in brightness by a factor of ~100 for a few weeks, an event that will only happen every 50 to 100 years for a particular object.. “It’s been impossible to map the occurrence rate of that because we’ve only seen two or three,” said Sliski. “We know it exists, but we need to survey the entire sky for 50 to 100 years to count these things and see how frequently they’re happening.”

There’s a significant amount of human history attached to these plates, which is both a blessing and a curse because it causes tensions between archivists and scientists. A museum curator views the plates, which often include notations and other writings scribbled onto them by astronomers, as historical artifacts that must be preserved as is. A scientist, on the other hand, sees the plate as just one piece of data, and those annotations and scribbles get in the way of analyzing that data. “You have to wipe away all the handwriting,” explained Sliski. “Otherwise it’ll look like stars when you digitize it at a very high resolution.

Whose handwriting would be wiped away? As it turns out, some fairly important people in the history of astronomy.

Edward Charles Pickering, the director of the Harvard Observatory in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, grew so frustrated with the quality of clerical and computational work from his male staff that he ended up hiring his maid, Williamina Fleming, who he felt could do a better job. It turned out that she could, and when Pickering later received donation money to hire more staff, he placed Fleming in charge of a group of women who were later referred to as “Pickering’s Harem,” an unfortunate name. Most of the women performed this work, much of it monotonous and grueling, for between 25 to 35 cents an hour, half what a man would get paid for the same tasks. In fact, that was their appeal.

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These “human computers,” as they’re often called now, provided much of the foundation on which some of the largest discoveries in astronomy have been made. It was the observations of Henrietta Leavitt, for instance, that were employed by Edwin Hubble when he used variations in brightness to map the distance between stars. “That moment in time transitions our views of the cosmos of it being a galaxy with millions of stars to a universe of hundreds of millions of galaxies, each with hundreds of millions of stars, and then we later determined it to be hundreds of billions of galaxies each with hundreds of billions of stars,” said Sliski. “That conceptual change is the direct result of what these women were doing.”

human computers

Edward Charles Pickering with his “human computers”

So the scientists and the historians reached a compromise: Harvard can wipe the plates clean, thereby allowing it to scan them and aggregate their data, but first it must take high resolution photographs of the plates with the writings intact. This way, museums can still consult the pre-wiped plates and the scribblings they once contained. So that’s what Sliski had been doing the past three years: taking about 400 plates off the shelf a day, photographing them at such a high resolution that a single plate requires a gigabyte worth of data, wiping them, scanning them, and then placing them back on the shelf.

The plates, in aggregate, allow Harvard to utilize algorithms and other pattern-seeking technology to search for notable astronomical phenomena stretching back into the 1800s. But before it can do that it must first perform a task that requires the help of the Smithsonian transcription center and hundreds of volunteers like  Albert Lamperti: transcribe the accompanying logbooks. “If you scan a plate we can measure the position of the stars, and we know which stars they are, but all this is irrelevant without knowing the date and time of the exposure because the whole point of this is to measure how the position and brightness changes in time,” explained Sliski.

That’s where Lamperti comes in. Several days a week he’ll log onto the Smithsonian transcription website and visit the astrophysics section. Once there he’s shown a bevy of partially-completed logbooks (each logbook is 100 pages, with up to 20 plates recorded to a page), and when he’s editing a particular page nobody else can access it (so as to avoid repeat work). For a particular page, he’s shown a high resolution scan of it that he can zoom in and out of, and there are 13 columns he has to transcribe into an excel sheet below the image. “Usually I work on it in the afternoon for two or three hours,” he said. “But I work on it for no longer than three hours, because once you get tired you make mistakes.”

I asked Lamperti what he gets out of the experience. Isn’t the act of transcription rote and grueling? He recounted for me a brief summary of the history of these plates, how they were used by astronomers to make some of the most exciting discoveries about our universe. “To see those actual plates from the late 1800s and early 1900s, and to see that old writing in the logbooks, knowing what that photographing led to later on, I feel like I’m part of the astronomical history here in the United States.”

Once the logbooks are transcribed and reviewed, Sliski would upload all the data and images to an open database that will allow scientists and the public to study them.  And the amount of information and potential these plates have is immense. According to Sliski, “99.99 percent of the data has never been looked at by anybody. Back in the day, people would look at maybe 100 stars on the plate, not the 50,000 when we can now see when we scan them.”

When the logbook transcriptions are completed and the rest of the data is made available, the project’s contribution to astronomy and science will be widely recognized around the world. “In astronomy, the field surveys itself every 10 years and asks what’s the number one priority,” said Sliski. “For the decadal survey for 2010, the biggest priority was time domain astrophysics.” And when the decadal survey is conducted again in 2020, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences will likely look back at the previous 10 years and recognize the discoveries that were only made possible by a group of amateur astronomers, many of whom, like Albert Lamperti, logged in day in and day out to record a tiny sliver of our universe’s history, giving us a glimpse into the cosmos that made the mysteries of why we’re here and where we’re going just a little less mysterious. And like the human computers who laid the foundations for astronomical discovery in the 20th century, the contribution of these volunteers will not soon be forgotten.

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Images via Popular Science and Harvard

Are you an independent fashion blogger in need of a photographer? Try using your boyfriend

Apparently there’s a growing trend within the fashion blogosphere in which the female bloggers employ/coerce their boyfriends into photographing them:

There are ways in which it makes sense for your photographer to be the person you’re around the most. If you come across the perfect stairway for showing off your new block-heel flats, for example, they’ll be there. Romeo Pokomasse met his girlfriend, Ivania Carpio, of the Netherlands blog Love Aesthetics, when she took his picture on the street (“I thought he was hot,” she says), but initially hesitated when she asked him to photograph her. Now they have brainstorming meetings about upcoming shoots. “We’ll have an argument about who has to do the dishes, but with work we’re always on the same level,” Carpio says. (Pokomasse is taking more vacation days from his sales job because, Carpio says, “I need him more and more.”) And most of the photos on Keiko Groves’s blog,Keiko Lynn, are taken by her boyfriend, Bobby Hicks, a bartender at Milk & Honey in New York, usually on their antiquing trips upstate. But Groves says she is careful not to overwork him. “It can become more of a partnership than a romance,” she says. “I had an ‘aha’ moment when someone I knew who had the same setup had their relationship fall apart. I said, ‘Let’s take a step back.’”