Changing Expectations with Instagram’s New Avatar

a_texan_winestopper_-_october_21__2016_at_0507pmFor me, Instagram has always been a place to share my phone camera’s photos. I have seen others including National Geographic and 500px share their professional shots and I’ve come to accept that. But personally, I like the constraints that a phone camera (aka iPhone for me) imposes on you. Initially it was the square format but now you can post your 4×6 photos as well. The filters allowed you to treat your photos like art (I never really understood the #NoFilter [1].)

With each iteration, phone cameras are getting better and better. Right now, even with the smaller sensor size, they allow for RAW capture that you can edit in apps like Lightroom, Enlight, Snapseed, VSCO, etc. that are almost as good as their desktop versions. With speciality apps like Prisma, there’s no illusion for depicting reality as it literally urges you to treat your photos like art. That’s a direction I like. However, with Instagram, if you follow the right people, there’s always the expectation of showing off your best photos. Although now you have your ‘camera’ on you all the time, the pressure to capture great photos can get to you and more often than not, you’re less likely to post if your previous one was really good.

more_lucy____-_september_24__2016_at_0751pmOf course, there’s an entire parallel and even larger community that is using Instagram to share photos, good or not. But most of this community had been living on Snapchat where no one is appreciating your photos but rather looking for where you are and what you are doing. The photos take a backseat and sometimes literally, with the countless overlays of emojis and text. To take that on, Instagram launched its newest feature – Stories. Photos that you’ve taken in the last 24 hours can be added to one stream with no captions, titles, or even locations [2]. But more importantly, there’s no pressure to edit your photos or present the best of them. You just click and share with minimal tagging with colors, emojis, or text. More importantly, like Snapchat, these stories disappear in 24 hours.

So with one notable addition, Instagram has resolved that dilemma of whether a photo is good enough to share on your feed or not. Now you basically can ‘dump’ your so-so photos in the Stories and curate the best ones for your main feed. Think of your main feed as your primary gallery showcasing your best works and your stories as the behind-the-scenes process. It’s the director’s commentary for your movie. Heck, the commentary may be for a movie that never made it to the screen or a movie that has no commentary at all. All the rules are out the window.

I follow some insanely talented photographers on Instagram and their ‘stories’ in terms of the photo quality can be crap but it’s fun taking a look behind the scenes. Or the cook who shares the final product on the main feed and all the steps involved in 10 separate photos on the Story, with a few videos thrown in. This Instagram I like and it may be Mark Zuckerberg’s wisest acquisition at what now seems like a steal.

  1. I never quite got the intent behind #NoFilter. Is it meant to indicate that this scene I’m presenting to you is just as glorious as it looks? That implied that your other photos are heavily edited to make them look pretty. I’ve no problems with either except I don’t believe photos always are intended to depict WSIWYG unless you’re doing photo journalism in Aleppo. []
  2. A sign of my greying age is that I had to google to find out how to use it the right way. But soon, I was somewhat mollified when others asked me about it []

Unsplash is a good site to get royalty-free high-resolution photos that photographers have discarded (or donated).

Outdoor Portrait Workshop

For the new year, I decided to get back to attending more Meetup workshops in the area and instead of the indoor studio-setup workshops, I opted for the outdoor version. I end up taking a lot of photos of my family and friends outdoors anyway and with a rambunctious four-year-old, expecting him to sit still indoors while I adjust my reflector is impractical. Also, I’ve not yet mustered the enthusiasm for purchasing studio lighting equipment which can get expensive plus needs lot of storage space.

Although it’s January, the weather has been much better this season so we gathered at Bull Creek Park, a picturesque urban park with a limestone riverbed and a bubbling stream. However, the weather was just playing tricks and by the time we started, the temperature started dropping rapidly and our poor model was freezing. It was a two hour workshop only compared to the 4+ hours when we do it indoors but it felt twice as long.

First, we started out with available light and the pro photographer leading the workshop made the best use of the evening light on a cloudy day to demonstrate positioning the model in the penumbra region (partial shade) to make the perfect portrait.

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Working with Eye-Fi and Lightroom

IMG 2144

The wife got me a Eye-Fi SD card for my camera for Fathers’ Day. I had my eye on it (sorry, couldn’t resist) for a while but somehow I hadn’t clicked on the ‘Submit’ button on Amazon yet. Anyway, The Eye-Fi is basically like an ordinary SD card with wifi capabilities so it can wirelessly transmit the photos you take to your laptop saving the hassles of plugging it in each time via USB. Yeah, yeah, first world problems, I know. But there have been times I have clicked hajjar shots on the spur of the moment and never gotten around to importing them leaving them lying around in a digital purgatory. So in fact, this was a selfish gift by the wife since she is the one who nags me to transfer the photos and upload them on sharing sites so she could send photos of her ‘jigar ka tukda‘ to distant family, both 80 and 8,000 miles away.

Conceptually, the workflow seems like a breeze. You take photos, they magically are transmitted to your laptop, you process them, upload them to various places, and wait for the ‘likes’. But in practice, it is not as simple; at least to begin with. I use Lightroom for post-processing and any photo I take, I must process it even if it is to correct for minimal lens distortion before I share it. The Eye-Fi sends the photos to a pre-determined location so naturally my first instinct was to change that location to where my other photos were (I sort by Year > Month). The photos were transferred just fine but Lightroom doesn’t read those new photos even if they are placed in the folder. You have to manually ‘synchronize the folder’. I would’ve preferred this be done automatically each time you launch Lightroom (it is currently a requested feature) but I could live with it. So far so good. I thought I had a decent workflow in place.

But something went wrong today. I took couple of photos which transmitted just fine to my folder. So I fired up Lightroom and hit ‘synchronize folder’. However, this time I got an additional dialog box that asked me if I wanted to remove duplicate photos from the catalog in addition to importing new photos. I hit submit and it emptied my original folder in Lightroom and created a duplicate ‘June’ folder outside the hierarchy. The photos by themselves did not duplicate but now I just had two locations pointing to it. I tinkered around a bit and ended up with a big mess of my entire catalog duplicated in an haphazard fashion. Frustrated, I just shut it off and left it alone to cool off. I’m known to hurl obscenities at the computer if it isn’t working; not that it ever helps.

So how did I fix it? I moved the location of the photos to my original Pictures location instead of the Skydrive [1] and pointed Lightroom to the changed location. Everything seemed to instantly fix itself but I was back to square one. So now I have adjusted my workflow by letting Eye-Fi import to its regular destination and then placate Lightroom by move-importing photos to the Pictures folder. Not the ideal solution since I have to still manually import photos in Lightroom but at least the photos are there on my computer and I don’t have to plug in my camera. Phew!

So why did I go into narrating inane details of my photography workflow frustrations? Just so that I don’t have to call my computer a motherboardfucker, that’s why.

  1. I was using the Skydrive as the default location for my photos so they get synced simultaneously to the cloud. But nowadays I Time-Machine religiously at work almost everyday so chances of losing anything is remote []

The problem with Flickr

The Home view is also quite un-interesting. Some recent activity is displayed, as well as a few recent photos from your Contacts, but it’s just not done in beautiful way. And these are photos we’re talking about! What’s with the miniature thumbnails?

[via Flickr’s upcoming makeover]

After Vimeo’s impressive UI update, I cribbed about Flickr’s lack of updates so I was glad to hear about the upcoming changes. But apart from making changes to the single photo page, I don’t see any major overhaul in the way the site is designed. I hope I’m wrong and BetaBeat didn’t report on the entire list of changes. But as Ryan points out, Flickr, especially after being bought by Yahoo, has lagged. I still consider it a superior photo hosting site compared to its competition. It still offers plenty of options in terms of customization and privacy; the recent geofences privacy was especially brilliant.

But the way I use it now is more of a photo storage in the cloud with almost no interaction with the community that it was known for when Flickr launched. I receive almost no comments or favorites on the few public photos I upload but then I don’t comment or favorite others’ photo as well. Flickr Home is a total disaster; cluttered, filled with unused features, and worst of all, scant focus on the photos. Almost all social networking sites have or at least are working on presenting the recent activity in more pleasing terms. Facebook’s News Feed updates constantly and hence fosters more interaction. Flickr’s idea of recent activity is showing recent photos from your contacts in the smallest thumbnail size possible at the bottom of the Home Page. If one of your contact has uploaded several photos at once, like most of us do, then all you see is that person’s photos. Why isn’t the much vaunted ‘Interestingness’ photos promoted on the home page? Where are the photos that inspire you to shoot better photos, like the way 500px does?

O HAI! by Pratik M (Pratik) on 500px.com

On the other hand, 500px is an excellent site if you want to get inspired (or intimidated) by people’s photography skills. But more importantly, their UI is excellent and so is their iPad app. I nearly purchased their ‘Awesome'(pro) account until I realized 500px doesn’t allow private photos (to be fair, they want you to only upload photos that you want to share with everyone else). Checking out the Popular and Editor’s Picks on 500px is something I do every night before I sleep. It helps to end the day looking at wonderful art disguised as photographs.

Flickr doesn’t even have an iPad app; I hope they do especially after the retina display iPad 3 launches. But they’ve already lost the market to apps like Flickring and Flickr Studio that tap into their public API. Talk about a lost opportunity.

PS. I hop over to 500px site to get their URL and am surprised by an overhaul of their UI to make it even more impressive (just look at the size of the thumbn…err…photo previews). Flickr indeed has a steep hill to climb.

Scenes From India

Scenes From India – In Focus:

Diversity is everywhere in India, from its religions and languages to its economy, and climates. The second-most populous nation in the world, India is home to more than 1.2 billion people. Most are Hindu, but seven other religions — including Islam, Christianity and Sikhism — make up nearly 20 percent of the population. January 26 will be India’s 62nd Republic Day, marking the date in 1950 when the country’s constitution came into force. Collected here are recent photos from across the vast nation, offering only a small glimpse of the people and diversity of India. [41 photos]

(Via www.theatlantic.com)

Research Park

Research Park - Fall 2011

We are so nerdy that even the park we go to is called Research Park

Morning Sunrise

We woke up grumbling on an early Saturday morning to Ruan’s crying in the nursery. We usually like to sleep in on Saturday unless we’ve a Skype session planned with parents in India. I noticed an orange glow on our bedroom window blinds and thought, damn! I left the back porch light on again. Sleepily, I walked across the room and opened the blinds and instantly woke up. I saw this outside and couldn’t resist walking outside in the cold to take a picture:

Morning Sunrise

I bet this is what enlightenment or the proverbial ah-ha! moment feels like; unfiltered and unedited.

Instagram Insta-grumble

Instagram 2.0 review: Insta-grumble:

Across the board distinctive elements of each filter have been compromised. Filters that were washed out are now more contrasty. Filters that were contrasty are now more washed out. They’ve all drifted towards the same look.

Instagram said that all the filters have been completely re-written to work with the new live preview system and to output far higher resolution images, and it seems to me the re-writes just haven’t nailed the original look. I have a feeling this may be for technical reasons, that the new engine for live preview just can’t support certain features like textures.

(Via www.myglasseye.net)

Instagram is one of the apps that I use most of the time on my iPhone, apart from the regular Mail, Twitter, and Facebook. I love the ease by which you can take neat photos and share it instantly with your network. The filters available are just right and although there are plenty available, I used only a handful, frequently depending upon the mood and context. Heck, I even share all my Instagram pics on my Facebook account; most often get ‘liked’ by multiple people.

If the above linked review is accurate, then it is indeed unfortunate. The vast difference between the filters is what makes choosing between them so much fun (have never used Poprocket so am not sad it got cut but have seen others use it). If all your photos look the same, as the new updates does, why wouldn’t you rather use the built-in camera app or other generic apps? I hope the folks at Instagram aren’t compromising on its unique arty factor in lieu of unnecessary convenience. The app might get more popular but it will lose the crazy (hipster?)fan following it currently enjoys (guess you can see the need for getting more funding take precedence). On the upside, the quality of photos is definitely much better now so you don’t lose detail in which otherwise are just crappy cellphone pictures.

Experimenting with HDR Processing

Lately, I have been experimenting with HDR photography. High Dynamic Range Imaging (HDRI or HDR) is a post-processing photography technique that allows for “a greater dynamic range of luminances between the lightest and darkest areas of an image than standard digital imaging techniques” [source]. This technique works great in bringing out the details and can be used in variety of light conditions. It best works on streetscapes and landscapes; you wouldn’t want to HDR people if you wish to still remain friends with them. HDR images do not always appear realistic but assume a surrealistic artistic feel yet look believable. The technique in creating an HDR image is first actually creating the HDR version which is kind of like, a negative for the final image, and then tone mapping that image to get the final result.

Although it sounds complex and makes you believe you need an illuminating engineering degree to create a HDR image, it is anything but. The basic steps are shooting three images with different exposures; one perfectly exposed, another underexposed, and another overexposed and merging the three. It is preferable to shoot in manual mode and shoot +/- 2 f-stops to acquire three images. If your camera is equipped with auto bracketing, this is done easily otherwise you’ve to manually adjust the exposures.

Thanks to Supremus who has been doing this much long than I have, I learned that you can do the over/under-exposure shots within Lightroom/Aperture/Photoshop instead of doing it in the field. I would still recommend using both techniques to see which results you like best although theoretically they should be the same. If you are shooting three images with a manual setting, use a tripod to avoid misaligned images and adjust exposure settings quickly to keep all three images as similar as possible with the exception of exposure. Supremus also pointed me out to an awesome stand-alone HDR & Tone Mapping tool that makes creating HDR images a walk in the park – PhotoMatix Pro – that imports your images and does the grunt work for you.

Whatever technique you use, once you start creating HDR images, you’ll be hooked and tempted to look at every landscape or streetscape photo through the HDR lens. Use it judiciously. Check out the HDR groups on Flickr for well executed ideas. I’m sharing the first attempts of my HDR foray below. The first two used three images I shot in the field and the other two are using one image with exposures adjusted in Aperture:

Pier 39 HDR

From Pier 39, San Francisco

Golden Gate Foliage HDR

The Golden Gate behind the hills

Golden Gate Fort Point HDR

The Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco – The Vintage Look

Lombard HDR

Lombard Street, San Francisco

I hope to see your HDR photos if you go out and shoot some. If you’ve already been dabbling in HDR, feel free to offer any tips or better still, flaunt your photos.

Experimenting with Aperture

Recently I switched to RAW image formats as a default on my Nikon D40 and am using Aperture 2.0 on my Mac for image editing. Although I am not professional photographer by any stretch of imagination, I was curious what would I gain by switching to RAW especially given the powerful editing capabilities of Aperture 2.0. I admit that my not-so-keen eye still isn’t able to distinguish between RAW and the default JPEG but Aperture sure adds layers to your editing abilities; at least more than iPhoto.

The only hitch with Aperture is that you get stuck editing your photos ad nauseam and with tons of photos in your queue, this takes a while. After posing a question on syncing Aperture and iPhoto on Aardvark, I decided that I would launch iPhoto when my camera is plugged in for my photo dump and import selected photos to Aperture for additional processing. I’m posting some of my photo experiments from over the weekend:

Christmas Ornaments

Building an Ornament Chandelier

Eye on the ball

Pork Chops on the Grill

How and what do you use for image processing? Do you similarly have two programs – one for light and quick editing and other for detailed editing? Any tips regarding using Aperture or exploring hidden powers of RAW would be appreciated.

R-Strap for SLRs

One of my pet peeves about SLR cameras is the awkward manner in which the camera dangles from your neck. The flimsy straps even if they are those broad Nikon-branded ones are too short to sling across your shoulders. I prefer to carry my camera across my shoulders on the side but then I have to always ‘un-sling’ it to take photos. That is mighty uncomfortable and inconvenient. A search for a sling strap yielded this amazing product called the R-Strap (see video below).

Although it is a tad pricey (starts at $55), good products always are. I received the strap in the mail yesterday and I instantly liked it. I bought the R-Strap 5 that has additional storage in the strap for your iPhone and change. It sits snug on your shoulder and doesn’t move when you lift up the camera to shoot and drop it back when you are done. The camera doesn’t sit on your paunch but rather hangs on the side near your hips with the lens facing back. the position is especially good when you are using a longer lens. You may feel unsafe but trust me, it is much better than knocking into people and poking them in the back with your lens.

I can’t wait to try it out in the field and with the First Friday coming up in Downtown Bryan, I have the perfect opportunity. The snow forecast is not going to stop me.

Update: LumaLoop has a similarly-priced side sling strap. But I still prefer R-Strap because of its steel carbiner lock unlike the flimsy plastic lock on LumaLoop strap. I want to dangle my SLR at my hips without worrying too much about it falling off.

The Annotated White House Flickr Feed

I used to love when Anna Marie Cox used to blog at The Wonkette. Snarky political commentary from inside the Beltway; she spared no one. Until she quit and joined Time magazine as a columnist. Oh well, you have got to make a living, right? So it is a pleasure when occasionally she dons the garb of Wonkette and indulges in snark. This time, she along with Jason Linkins comments on the White House Flick feed that shares photos taken by Pete Souza and others from behind-the-scenes. Check them all out and each one of them make you go LOL for real so be warned. Some of my favorites are:
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Bad Engagement Photos

Anyone who has tied the knot in India in an elaborate ceremony involving overly-excited relatives knows the importance of the wedding photographer. He is taken care of lest memories of the day are lost by ‘accidentally’ hitting the delete button. He uses this position of importance albeit for a day to the hilt making the poor couple squirm uncomfortably in atrocious poses. Pointing to the moon (WTF!) in one such commonly used pose. I’m sure a secret cabal of photographers nestled deep in the secret darkrooms have devised this torture technique that lives on forever in garishly photoshopped wedding albums. We had our share of poses; some we flatly denied; others we couldn’t because he would dumbly stare at us feigning deafness until we relented for a second.

So in that context, I was glad to have stumbled upon this hilarious collection of engagement photos taken mostly in the U.S accompanied by priceless comments. The sadistic married man in me smiles gleefully at the naivete of gullible couples who have fallen prey to the instructions of the photographer. It indeed is an international conspiracy. I wish I could see their wedding photos too. Or perhaps not.

SprintCam v3 Results for High-Speed Video

The results from the first SprintCam v3 showreel, made for NAB 2009 exhibition are phenomenal. Shot at 1000FPS with amazing clarity and high-definition, slow motion video has made a quantum leap. The jelly shots are shot at 2500FPS. The role of the third umpire in cricket got a whole lot better.

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