25 March 2011

Watermarks: the Good, the Bad and the Downright Ugly

I’m not sure what is going on but seemingly suddenly I am seeing a plethora (I just love that word and am glad I can actually use it here) of watermarks on people’s online photos.  I personally don’t think there is anything wrong with watermarking, per se.  In fact, there are plenty of good reasons for doing so and few bad ones.  If you are not sure, or want to explore the pros and cons, just do a Google search and you’ll find lots of discussion.  For my part, I’m on the Good side of the conversation and feel that a subtle watermark can a) immediately identify that this image belongs to someone and at the same time b) act as a form of branding for you, the photographer.

The key for me though, is subtlety. The reason I am now noticing so many watermarks may have to do with increased awareness on the part of photographers of the value of watermarking; hence, I am seeing more of them, because there are more of them.  That may be it, but I suspect the real reason is that many watermarks seem to now be on steroids.  I commonly see huge marks across the middle of images – perhaps with some clever design motif – that shout MY IMAGE: HAND’S OFF BUCK-O!  I don’t want to minimize the nefariousness of image thievery, but frankly a big old No Trespassing sign is just a turnoff. 

If the very first thing I notice with an otherwise beautiful, compelling, striking (insert other adjectives here) image, is a large obtrusive watermark, then I feel you have done a disservice to your work.  And, if the watermark is so gaudy that I can’t get past it to see the beauty, compelling nature, etc., of your work, and instead click away, well, that is generally not a good trend.  Am I alone in this?  I’m just one opinionated person, no?  After all, I have no patience for commercials – Super Bowl or otherwise – and will deliberately go out of my way to not buy a product if the commercial or advert is just irritating enough to register with me.  So I may be a bit off the bell curve with these kinds of things.  Ask your friends and colleagues what they think.  Do some research on the web.  Here is a post from PhotoShelter that corroborates my gut feel.  It is true that a giant watermark may discourage casual thievery, but it also appears that it may discourage a purchase.

From a purely aesthetic viewpoint, in my opinion (and, opinions I have)  a watermark should not compete with the image.  Perhaps I am aiding and abetting the thieves out there, as it certainly is simple to crop out or use content-aware fill on a subtle watermark…so be it.  I am trying to share (and, yes, sell as well) my photos and I want the image to stand out.  Competition from a watermark is unwanted.

There are some good guides out there as to what watermarks should look like and what elements should be in a watermark.  Using the copyright symbol – © – or the word “copyright” is pretty much universal.  I typically use the symbol and my business name.  Some people recommend also putting in a date (year) while others think it is a good idea to also include a web or email address.  Fancy logo designs might look nice, and can certainly be part of a branding exercise, but they may also be a distraction.  Use at risk.   Opacity of no greater than 50% is recommended with placement near, though not necessarily on an edge.

Check out what (inter-)nationally recognized photographers are posting with regards to watermarks:

George Lepp

Tom Till

Scott Bourne

David DuChermin

Ian Plant

Nick Brandt

Huntington Witherill

Kim Weston

Etc…Of course, there are notable exceptions to the way the above professionals watermark (or don’t) their images.  Whether the exception is the rule, is up to you.

If you really want to protect your images from online theft, many experts recommend one of two paths. Either, 1) register your images with the US Copyright Office and only post low-resolution versions online, or 2) don’t upload them in the first place!


18 March 2011

George sez...

The Wasatch Camera Club brought George Lepp to town for an all day presentation/lecture.  Coincidently, a few days before the workshop the club had its bi-monthly competition and we asked George to act as the sole judge.  He was happy to do so.  For me, the highlight of any of the competitions is the critiquing.  In this case, we were not disappointed.  George gave some of the most pointed but even comments we have yet heard.  He was helpful and suggestive, complimentary and questioning, and I saw several people taking notes.  He can back up his statements and suggestions with decades of photography experience, not to mention his years on the editorial board of Outdoor Photographer. That does not mean we as photographers – aspiring and established – need to agree with, or incorporate every critique and suggestion he (or, any other pro) makes, but we do need to listen.     

Two of my images he spent some time analyzing.  I took mental notes and re-processed them accordingly.  Not surprisingly, his suggestions do make both images stronger.  Though, that is just my opinion and yours may vary.

First, Quail Creek: he overall liked this image and thought that it was a wonderful spot to photograph.  However, he really objected to the whitish sky.  Our eyes are drawn to bright, contrasty objects and he felt that the sky was exactly that culprit.  I frankly never felt that way about the image and instead looked at the light reflection in the water leading to the sky as a natural leading line through the photo.  Of course, the sky, lacking clouds or other features of interest, is pretty boring.  But, I reasoned, it is a relatively small part of the image.  You can see this in the ‘Before’ image.  Taking his suggestion to heart I cropped the image but maintained the aspect ratio.  See ‘After.’  A bit skeptical at first, I now feel that the ‘after’ shot is stronger.  Instead of your eye wandering off the photo through the white sky, it now follows either the left curving wall or the light reflection to the waterfall, which is the natural center of the image.  The Moki Steps on the right wall are even helped (despite cutting off the first two) by naturally entering into the image.

The second image, Pine Creek, was taken on a cold morning in Zion, this past January.  I’ve always liked elements of this image, but at the same time there was something that bothered me a bit.  What was it…?  Oh, I know: busyness!  This a very cluttered image and George basically intimated that it made him “back away” from it.  Having Mr. Lepp back away from your composition is not a good thing!  Simplify, simplify, he said.  One way to do that, is to concentrate on the distant cliffs and their reflection by cropping the image.  He also suggested toning down the bluish shadow tones in the snow.  Finally, he was not terribly happy about the scrubby winter trees in the mid-distance.  Accordingly, I cropped the image into a 8x10 format and removed some of the blue saturation from the snow.  There wasn’t much I could do about the mid-distance scrub-trees, but I also felt that the re-crop actually opened them up a bit.  The result?  You can the differences in the ‘Before’ and ‘After’ images, and again – because of the reduction of busyness and concentration of subjects (red cliffs and their reflection) – the ‘after’ image appears stronger to me.

I realize that my tendency – especially with the use of ultra wide angle lenses (these were both shot at the widest extreme of my 10-20mm) – is to include too much and too many.  Too much of the landscape is not always a good thing because often it will bring in too many subjects and/or too many undesired elements.  Simplify, George sez and he is right.  Strong, uncluttered compositions with one primary focus of interest can be the most effective type of image.  Well expressed, consider well heeded.


16 March 2011

The Power of Suggestion

It’s great when people critique your work.  Especially if you have the opportunity to have real pros, who have been there and done that for x number of decades, review images with their finely-honed eye.  There is much to learn and they can definitely give you that proverbial leg-up by pointing out composition issues, lighting troubles, and perhaps the stray element that detracts from the effectiveness of your image.  “Watch your corners” and “Avoid bright spots” are two phrases that I have heard more often that I wish.  Once voiced, the power of suggestion being what it is, an image so identified is marked for good...at least until the problem is rectified.

Case in point: a judge at a recent competition really liked my infrared image of Manhattan shot through the cabling of the Brooklyn Bridge.  But, he also singled out a bright spot in the lower-right corner of the photo (caused by the afternoon sun shining directly on a building’s face).  I had absolutely never paid any attention to it and in fact had never even noticed it...until he pointed it out.  Then it became as a grain of sand in my eye, a pebble in my shoe.  Every time I looked at what I had thought was a pretty good image, all I saw was that small bright square in the corner.  Small it may have started; quickly it became the cyclopean eye of an oncoming train.  Using Nik Software’s Viveza I burned in the offending area enough so that now I again see the bridge and not that Macbethean damned spot.

More recently, I posted a series of images from a portrait shoot onto the critiquing forum of Photography Review.  A good group of folks ‘reside’ there who are diverse in their approach to photography and facile at critiquing images gently but accurately.  To this end, they actually offer useful suggestions on your posted images (rather than the useless “awesome photo, dude!” you see in other online venues).  One image I posted I really was quite happy about and generally the critiquers were complementary as well.  However, a couple of them dinged me on two distracting highlights that for them subtracted from the image.  I, of course, again, never noticed them until they were pointed out and then I couldn’t stop noticing them!

The ‘solution’ for these two episodes is to either not listen to people or become more vigilant at catching elements that can detract from your photographs before you snap the shutter.  I think it is obvious which direction I’ll take.  But what if the power of suggestion changes the way you see a photograph?

I posted an image online that I thought showed a very unique perspective.   I was in southern Utah in February exploring some of the new wilderness areas around St. George.  In particular there is a large swath of redrock desert that acts as a transition area of sorts between the Basin and Range expanse, the Colorado River Plateau and the Mojave Desert.  Called Cottonwood Canyon Wilderness Area, it is generally dry but there is this one stream – Quail Creek – that flows from the Pine Valley Mountains and eventually joins the Virgin River downstream from Zion National Park.  I spent the better part of a morning photographing the small pools and even smaller waterfalls against the soaring red walls.  Over one particular short fall I positioned myself to capture the water as it flowed between the five legs of my tripod and me and out and over the rock wall.  Using a 10mm at f/22 the angle is extreme capturing the scene literally inches in front of my toes, the tumbling water just beyond and below, the pool. Once posted on Flickr, I had several people comment that the perspective was very strange, to the point where they had a hard time figuring out what they were looking at.  To them, it seemed that the water was flowing out of the pool (downward in the photo) and not the reverse.  Once I understood what they were seeing, I of course started seeing the image that way as well.  In fact, it is kind of like one of those optical illusions where you see a lamp stand then two people facing each other and then the lamp stand again and then…well, you get the idea.  Of course there is no ‘fixing’ of the photo this time around, just the oscillating behind two ways of seeing it.

The power of suggestion is indeed mighty, which is why I often (but, not always) refrain from using anything other than purely descriptive titles on my work.  But I’ll leave that discussion for another post.


04 March 2011

When to Break the Rules: Centering

When first starting out with a camera, we are often admonished for placing a subject smack dab in the middle of a frame.  For good reason: many centered compositions will look static, lifeless and boring.  None of those attributes typically lend themselves to a successful image.

But, it seems so obvious.  After all, when we look at something usually we are looking straight-on, not askance.  But a photograph, no matter how all-encompassing, is a very small and contrived slice of the world.  Even if you are the ‘straightest’ of photographers, when you snap that shutter you have altered the perception of the world via that image.  That’s why photographs are different than seeing and this should be the first revelation that photography is not merely recording a scene, but instead presenting it.

Of course, it does depend upon what your intent is with the composition you are creating.  Perhaps you want a static scene.  Maybe even a boring one.  I’ve certainly seen plenty of images that fit in that category and in some cases that may even have been the intent of the photographer.  But, the composition with the subject matter plopped in the middle of the frame will often look unbalanced, bothersome, the result of a snap-shooter.  But, sometimes it also works.

In my searching for lines, angles, and patterns, I will often shoot a scene straight on.  Sometimes it makes perfect sense, intuitively.  And, the images work.  It wasn’t until an art professor stated the obvious, that it clicked why these compositions are successful: symmetry.  Often we can create dynamic tension (usually a good thing!) in a photograph by shifting our composition to reflect the aesthetic logic of the Rule of Thirds or the Golden Ratio.  But some subjects and scenes do well to be presented in a centered fashion.  This works when symmetry is achieved and the centering is performed on a dominant subject with strong leading lines.

The concept of symmetry we can understand pretty readily, but the caveat of subject dominance is equally important.  Imagine a rock spire or tall building viewed from afar.  The scene might work quite well if composed with the subject (assuming the spire or building is the subject) off-center.  But center the subject and even with a very symmetrical landscape, the image will likely appear static and uninteresting with the subject lost in panorama.  Now, move in on the object and really make it the subject of interest and centering will work.  This is especially the case if there are strong lines leading to and/or radiating out from the subject.  Our eyes move into and out of and back into the scene.  Dynamism is created!

Some subjects lend themselves naturally to this kind of treatment because they are imbued organically with that essence of symmetry.  Trees, buildings, shadows, and even people can be perfect fodder for centering.  However, a blanket straight-on approach to subjects will not work.  You need to be able to see the symmetry that is unique to every subject and scene in order to express it via an image.

Bottom-line: don’t be afraid of creating centered compositions. Just know the ‘rules’ so you know when, and how, to successfully break them.


01 March 2011

21st Century Religious Wars

A recent posting on a local photography forum I belong to prompted a flurry of posts that currently number around 120 plus a couple of spinoff threads. The discussion and exchanges were at times playful, petulant, passionate and opinionated, testy, boastful, once or twice borderline rude, sometimes fact-based and more often emotionally-driven. In the end — if there is an end — no ones’ minds were changed. Sound familiar? Scan backward 10 years or so and you know what the topic was: Film vs. digital. That poor horse was flogged to death, several times over. Like Lazarus, or some silly teen zombie movie, coming back to life long past when its pulse gave up the ghost.

We don’t hear much about analog versus digital anymore. Despite the fact that film shooters are still out there — as are a few of us vinyl record owners — digital photography and music has won the war. The topic of this recent post is nearly as old: Mac versus PC. The question was not quite phrased that way, but that is the path the conversation took. There were a few “it doesn’t matter” ... “whatever you are comfortable with/can afford” ... “I use Linux”, but generally it was all about “mine is better and here is why” with arguments that were neither new nor terribly convincing.

Half way through the thread it took a predictable detour: Nikon versus Canon. Then the knives came out. Well, not really, but the heat was raised.

I’m not sure why these types of discussions generally take on an argumentative Manichean flavor, but I assume we as humans are more comfortable with clearly black and white choices, when the world is of course poly-chromatic.

As a Mac-Linux-Windows computer user and a Pentax photographer I trod a different path. But, really...who cares? As others have pointed out, they are just tools; it’s what you do with them that counts. All of this us-versus-them arguments are the photographers’ version of the 16th century Wars of Religion, albeit without the bloodshed, mayhem and stake-burnings, fortunately. Some, of course, look at these ‘discussions’ as entertaining maybe even informative. Perhaps, but also some like to cook and others merely stir the pot (while the bulk wait impatiently to eat!). To me they seem like a monumental waste of time (see: here I am writing about them!) and in the end I fall back on the wisdom of the neo-street-philosopher and quasi-celebrity of the early 1990’s, Rodney King who said, “Can we all get along?” Amen.