PetaPixel Continues their Anti-Flickr Tirade

Three anti-Flickr articles in the space of two days! (One from Wired)
It’s keeping me quite busy I tell you.

Urgent Update!

Since publishing this post, I note that PetaPixel has now published a counter viewpoint. Here’s a link to the article, written by Thomas Hawk: In defense of Flickr: 8 Reasons I’m Sticking Around My thanks go to Thomas Hawk for writing the piece, and also to PetaPixel for publishing it, restoring somewhat my faith in the site. I’m not in any way suggesting that my criticism of the two most recent PetaPixel anti-Flickr posts has influenced their decision to post the Thomas Hawk  rebuttal – in all likelihood they probably don’t even know my little blog exists.

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Below is my own response to the Allen Murabayashi piece that appeared earlier today, written before I saw the Thomas Hawk piece on the same subject.

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PetaPixel is on the warpath. Their target is Flickr.

Wielding the hatchet this time is Allen Murabayashi, chairman and co-founder of the online portfolio site, PhotoShelter, in an article entitled: Flickr’d Out: The Rise and Fall of a Photo Sharing Service.

Given Murabayashi’s background, it’s hardly surprising, though unfortunate, he’d want to trash Flickr (or any opposition photo site, for that matter), even though both sites appeal to very different market niches.

photoshelter home screen
A portion of the PhotoShelter home page. Obviously, focused as it is on the professional market, the site appeals to a very different demographic than that of Flickr, so why chairman and co-founder Allen Murabayashi feels the need to denigrate the long-standing photo-sharing site is something of mystery…but perhaps not.

My gripe is not really with Murabayashi, it’s with PetaPixel, who publish nonsense like this uncritically and with no counterpoint or alternative view.

Obviously, I don’t have any say in PetaPixel’s editorial policy, but I feel that a site that claims to promote photography in general, should be a little more circumspect in their attempted demolition of a venerable and much-loved photo-sharing site like Flickr.

Flickr has been around since 2004, making it one of the oldest social networks on the Web. Many loyal Flickr users have been with the site almost since inception. I’ve had an account with the service since early 2007, and a paid account (called Pro) since 2008.

Nevertheless, the site has had its share of problems over the years, particularly since the Yahoo buy-out in 2005.

The World Wide Web is a strange place. A “darling” site one week is excoriated the next. Yahoo was once one of those “darling” sites. Then it wasn’t. Google came along and swept all before it.

Since then, one feels, Yahoo has struggled to find a relevant place for itself.

Flickr was largely left to fend for itself and the site no doubt suffered from a lack of development, particularly as newer sites with better interfaces and slicker layouts gained traction. But Flickr underwent a major revamp in 2014, a process that is continuing as we speak.

As part of this revamp, Flickr announced a huge one terabyte of storage space to all free account holders, and unlimited space to paid account holders.

One-freakin-terabyte! Do you have any idea how big that is? Let me illustrate. According to Flickr, I have 20 619 photos loaded on the site. Admittedly, most of these pics are produced with older equipment that doesn’t produce the pixel-chomping image size of current cameras. Others are scans from low-end scanners that also produce images in an easy-to-digest size. Even so, you would expect over 20-thousand images to take up a sizeable chunk of server space. And it does. 48.46 GB to be precise – less than 10% of the 1 TB allotted space at my disposal if I had a free account!

This alone makes Flickr the absolute best bargain, photographically speaking, on the entire Internet.

Even if you never make any of your pictures available for public viewing on the site, even if you never participate in any Flickr community activities, even if you aren’t interested in any of the social aspects of the site, Flickr is a place you need to be. If just for that cloud storage.

So what do you get for free at Murabayashi’s PhotoShelter site? A 14-day trial, that’s what. When your 14-day trial runs out you start coughing up. (In the interests of openness and fairness, I’ve just signed up for a free PhotoShelter trial account, to learn a little more about the service.)

Also, contrary to what you may be thinking, I’m not opposed to PhotoShelter either. I firmly believe there’s a place for everyone on the ‘Net. It really comes down to defining your audience and going after it. PhotoShelter is very squarely and unequivocally aimed at professional photographers.

“Experience more than 100+ features specifically developed for professional photographers” and “Exceptional tools that simplify how you take care of business, from upload to sales.” are just two of the come-ons displayed in boldface headlines on the site.

The basic PhotoShelter package will set you back US$96 (billed annually) or US$119.98 per year (billed monthly @ $9.99). This buys you a grand total of 4GB cloud storage. Given today’s large camera chips it ain’t gonna take you long to use up all that space (especially if you upload RAW), and then you’ll no doubt want to upgrade your account accordingly.

If so, there are two options open to you; the mid-price range at $25 – 30  p/m (100GB cloud storage), and the “Unlimited” package at $45 – 50 p/m (unlimited cloud storage.) By contrast, unlimited cloud storage at Flickr will set you back US$39 per year, (or a measly $3,25 p/m).

Of course, storage space shouldn’t be the sole determinant of where you place your pictures on the ‘Web. There are many other things to consider, especially if your livelihood depends on your pictures. And I’m sure PhotoShelter’s 80 000 users (according to their homepage) are delighted with the service. The portfolio design options look pretty good, and there are some big name photographers there, like Joe McNally. But, it turns out, Mr. McNally also maintains a Flickr account! He hasn’t made any photographs available for public viewing yet, so he’s either using it purely for storage, or maybe it’s just for family snaps, or maybe someone else set up the site for nefarious purposes.

But regardless of who does or doesn’t maintain an account on PhotoShelter, there’s really no good reason for the chairman and co-founder to post a petty, whining, “obituary” about his possibly-longed-for demise of a competitor(?) site.

Ironically, Murabayashi does praise two other sites in his article: Google + Photos and Picasa. The problem, as he himself notes, is that they are both defunct. For a site that’s currently alive and kicking he recommends the “swell consumer tool named Google Photos”. That’s fine and good. I also recommend Google Photos, particularly if you want your pictures to show up in Google image search results (although obviously you will still have to optimise your pictures manually to get results – SEO doesn’t happen automatically no matter what site you use.) But in recommending Google Photos, I don’t trash other photo sharing and/or storage sites.

And just what kind of file storage do you get with Google Photos? Here’s what Google tells me:

High quality (free unlimited storage) Great visual quality at reduced file size.

Yep. “Unlimited” storage, but your pictures are compressed. Of course, if you don’t want your images compressed, you can always buy more storage. For instance, 1 TB will cost you US$10 per month, or $120 p/a if my maths is correct. Compared to 1 TB free? Looks like Flickr is still the better deal.

As I’ve said before, there’s a place for everyone’s pictures on the ‘Web, even on [gasp!] Facebook (often trashed by photographers, but properly understood and used by others).

As I have also said in this post, it’s understandable for Murabayashi to hold the views he does with regard to Flickr. But publishing those views on a popular, public,  photo reportage site is just plain bad marketing. Marketing 101 suggests you don’t knock your competitors. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth of potential customers who actually appreciate the slated competitor.

But PetaPixel  is simply without excuse. If  they are just chasing clicks with articles like this, they should perhaps consider the wider ramifications of what they publish. Do they really want to see a site like Flickr vanish into cyberspace never to be heard from again? Regardless of their answer to that question, they should at least give Flickr the right of reply, or, failing that, publish blog posts like this that provide a counter opinion.

Finally, I think Flickr could quite happily say, in agreement with Mark Twain, “reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

DISCLAIMER: I am not employed by, nor derive any income from, Yahoo, Flickr or any of their subsidiaries or affiliates. But obviously,

I hope to see you there soon!

Oh, and you’ll find Thomas Hawk’s brilliant Flickr page right here.

Well, Is Black and White Photography Just A Gimmick?

flea market cutlery shot illford c41
Cutlery in a flea market in Cannes. Shot on Illford XP2, a B+W negative film made for .processing in C41 colour chemicals.

Click on images for larger view

No less an authority than Allen Murabayashi, Chairman and Co-founder of Photoshelter, posted an article on his site’s blog posing this very question. I was somewhat surprised when I saw the title of the article, and at first I dismissed it as someone seeking a bit of controversy for the sake of it.

Then I began to  ponder the question. Is Black + White a gimmick?

Originally, all photography was b+w, and, apart from some early pioneers, it remained that way for several decades. The question then was not “is b+w a gimmick?”, but rather “is photography a gimmick?” B+W was all you had. In the 1930s, as Murabayashi states, Kodak introduced Kodakchrome, and colour became “mainstream”.

b+w portrait shot with kodak brownie
This is a picture of me shot by my brother in the 1960s, on a Kodak Brownie camera. At that time we didn’t ponder whether B+W was a gimmick or not…it was all we had.

Growing up in the 50s and 60s I can remember very few (perhaps only two) people who used Kodachrome, or colour slides as we plebs used to call them. The vast majority of us still used “normal” black and white film. Colour slides were for people who took their photography seriously. But there was no getting away from it, those Kodachrome pictures were impressive. I’m not talking about impressive from a colour rendition perspective – who the heck knew anything about colour rendering back then? – I’m talking about impressive due to the simple fact that they were in colour. Of course we saw colour photographs in magazines, but here was a picture, shot by Uncle George, who was just “one of us”, that was also in colour.

This is a shot from the very first roll of colour film I ever used. Kodakchrome loaded into my (then new) Olympus OM1. The picture was shot from a moving train. January, 1976.
This is a shot from the very first roll of colour film I ever used. Kodachrome loaded into my (then new) Olympus OM1. The picture was shot from a moving train. January, 1976. I didn’t choose Kodachrome because of its amazing qualities, I chose it because it was easy to get processed; just drop it into the envelope provided, pop it in the post and a short while later your slides would arrive all nicely mounted. Wow.
colour print from kodak
A colour print from Kodak. The smaller picture on the right was for cutting off and giving to someone else. Automation and C41 processes now made colour easy to do. From the collection of Annemieke Hall (how’s that for pretentious?)

Only b+w film went into our family camera, a Kodak Brownie. We didn’t even think of it as black and white, to us it was just film. We didn’t even know if the camera could shoot colour! If someone had asked us “Why don’t you take colour pictures?” we would probably have replied “because we only have a black and white camera.” In that context one may well have asked “Is colour photography a gimmick?”

Colour really came into its own when cheap, fast, print emulsions appeared on the scene. Easy to process with non-proprietary processes, suddenly everyone could “take” colour pictures – even people who weren’t interested in photography per se.

And with the arrival of the automated one-hour photo lab, it appeared black and white photography was headed for the “remember when” basket.

As colour film and processing became the dominant force in photography, the use of b+w became more of a creative choice. Black and white photography still relied on traditional developing and printing skills which relatively few people were interested in mastering.

But, here’s the thing; even when black and white was all we had, there were still relatively few people who were interested in mastering processing and printing skills. By far the majority of us were happy to drop our film off at the chemist and pick up the negatives and enlargements a few days later. Only “serious” photographers did their own processing. What’s more, the same later applied to colour processing as well. Because no matter how easy colour became, there were still a few people who wanted to do it themselves. Let’s face it, no one-hour lab could do the job as well as a skill;ed darkroom technician. Still, no-one asked if black and white photography was a gimmick.

Another aspect to this conundrum is of course that “older” photographers learned their craft on black and white. Those who took their craft seriously only began to experiment with colour after they had mastered black and white. Some, like Alfred Eisenstaedt, never really moved on to colour in any significant way. I remember seeing the legendary Mr. Eisenstaedt when he gave a lecture at an exhibition of his work at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. In the closing minutes of that lecture he put up a few colour shots he’d done on his travels in South Africa. During question time he was asked if his approach to colour was any different to his approach to black and white. “Oh yes,” he replied, “very different. When I want to shoot in colour I put colour film in my camera.”

First train of the day arriving at Fishoek.This picture would lose all meaning in black & white. Shot on colour transparency, Olympus OM4Ti. Jan '93.
The first train of the day arriving at Fishoek, near Cape Town. This picture would lose all meaning in black & white. Shot on colour transparency, Olympus OM4Ti. Jan ’93.
houseboats on the thames
This pic was originally shot on colour negative film, but I think the image works better in B+W, so I converted the scan in iPhoto. Pentax PZ1.

It may have been a creative choice, but it wasn’t a gimmick any more than colour was. And there were still enough enthusiasts willing to pursue monochrome to make it a viable proposition for companies making the necessary tools for it; film, chemicals, paper, enlargers, trays, and all the other accoutrements of the analogue dark room, well into the 1990s.

The Digital Age

Everything, of course, has to start somewhere. The first digital camera to hit the consumer market was the Logitech Photoman, released in 1990. And guess what? It only shot black and white pictures. That’s right, if you wanted to shoot digital pictures in 1990, you could only do so in glorious greyscale. And with only 376×240 pixels, the pictures were not great. In some ways the dawn of digital photography was quite similar to the ascendance of analogue.

These days, everyone who carries a cell phone also carries a camera. The world has never been as photographed as it is today. And whether we carry a smart phone or stand-alone camera, we’ve never been this spoiled for choice. Switching from colour to black and white is as easy as pressing a button.

walter sizulu botanical gardens
A shade shelter at Walter Sizulu Botanical Gardens. I never even shot this in colour; it seemed pointless.

With each advancement in photography the photographer’s choices have increased. At one time large format was the only format. Then small and medium format became available. Once there was only black and white. Then along came colour transparency and suddenly we could choose colour or mono. Then colour print technology arrived on the scene so we could choose how we wanted to shoot our colour. Then SLRs gave us a massively expanded range of lenses to choose from. And so on, and so on. It’s simply a matter of choice. And our choice depends on what we want to say. In fact, I believe it’s what we are trying to say, or convey to the world, that should be the underlying reason for any choice we make about both equipment and treatment.

monaco tourists 1993
I was first attracted to the shot by the bright colours of the tourists’ clothing and their casual footwear, which combine to give the impression of relaxed people enjoying a summer holiday. In that sense the colour version more accurately conveys the intent I had when I pressed the shutter, in other words, it says what I wanted it to say.
tourists in monaco 1993
Whether we choose colour or B+W should really only depend on what we are trying to convey. Does this image work better in colour or B+W? Actually, the question is irrelevant – each picture conveys a different feeling. Whether you prefer one or the other is simply a matter of preference. And if I had only presented one of the two versions, you wouldn’t miss the other.

With this underlying attitude to photography, there are really only two questions to answer: 1.) Will the equipment I’m using help me realise my vision as a photographer? and 2.) Will the treatment I have in mind for this picture (or body of work) help me convey the message I want to convey? If a black and white treatment will better convey your message then that’s what you should use. It’s not about is which is better, or if one is a gimmick or not. They are equal. But different.

That’s why I don’t believe b+w in this day and age is a gimmick. If it is, then shooting in colour is just as much of a gimmick.

In all fairness, Murabayashi doesn’t conclude that black and white is a gimmick. I think he takes a very very balanced view of the subject. My response is more a response to the title, which poses an interesting question, rather than the entire post. His post quotes several photographers and makes for interesting reading if this topic interests you. You can find his original Photoshelter article here