Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Dumpster Evolution

Previously unpublished, written in the summer of 2007:

The change has been coming for quite a while, but still, this was a nostalgic week for me. This was the week we scheduled a massive trash bin to be delivered to my photo studio in Key Largo. We had made a decision to change the thrust of the business to fit emerging technology, and that meant discarding remnants of things that were “a good idea at the time”. When I looked at the depth of the dumpster detritus, it struck me how significantly the digital revolution fostered these changes, and as I walked from room to room in our building, I was reminded how each segment of a business devoted to underwater photography has had to adapt.

The detritus of an analog darkroom

The Darkroom – I had a plan when I came to Key Largo in 1978. I came as a recreational diver on holiday and heard they had 500,000 divers visiting Pennekamp Park. I figured half of these must take pictures underwater, and half of those shot slides, and half of those would bring it to my shop to be processed at $6 a roll. Well, that would be gross revenues of $375,000, which to a guy making minimum wage as a color lab technician in Denver was HUGE! Of course, my “business plan” was totally bogus, and there were nowhere near that number of people taking underwater photos at the time, let alone walking through my door. But still there were enough shooters having their E-6 film processed, and enough photographers willing to try underwater photography for the first time with my rental Nikonos II, that I was able to make a go of the business.

This was way before I got my first commercial assignment, and way before I’d even heard of “stock” photography. Actually, that E-6 sinkline I built in 1978 was a cornerstone of the business for the next 25 years. I could rent cameras in the morning and then go out on the dive boat in the afternoon to practice my underwater photographic skills. That night I would process the film, mine and whatever customer’s film came in, and by the next morning I’d see the results of what I’d done.

This quasi “immediacy of review” was an extremely important learning tool to me. While a lot of pro photographers were shooting Kodachrome in those days, I was a big fan of the E-6 Ektachromes, not only because it was cheaper to process myself, but because Kodachrome had to be sent out to a big lab somewhere, and in those days before FedEx, it could be more than a week before processed slides made its way back to my post office box. Seeing the results while still fresh in mind was a very powerful learning tool. Later, as I began to teach photo classes on live-aboards and at dive resorts, we wouldn’t even consider them unless they had quality E-6 film processing services.

Then, I went to the first Digital Shootout in Indonesia with the guys from Backscatter and Light and Motion. The month was September of 2001, which we’ll all remember because it put us in Manado watching the 9-11 terrorist attacks on TV at the time. The Digital Shootout staff put an Olympus 3040 in a Tetra housing in my hands for the first time, and “immediacy of review” took on a whole new meaning. Yes, there were issues with digital lag, and it wasn’t as easy to compose and critically focus on a camera’s LCD as it was through the massive viewfinder on my Nikonos RS, but the potential of the technology was irrefutable even then. Instant review, with the ability to change exposure variables for the next shot, not just the next day. That was a “Eureka” moment that changed my life, or at least the picture-taking part of it.

As soon as I came home from that trip I bought a Nikon D1X and a Seacam housing, which was the beginning of the end for my E-6 darkroom. I started shooting more digital images, my clients became more accepting of digital submissions, and dive tourists to Key Largo began shooting more digital as well. By 2004 I had as many digital shooters in my photo classes as I did film enthusiasts, and by 2005 I taught my first digital-only photo seminar.

An E-6 line requires a certain critical mass of use and replenishment or it won’t be of predictably high quality. We simply weren’t using it and we had to shut it down last summer. Yesterday all my stainless steel reels, heater-recirculator pumps, and chemical storage tanks went to the dumpster. While I hate contributing to the landfill overload, I am very pleased I am not consuming and discarding processing chemicals every day. And, even at wholesale, film and processing were very expensive.

Net transition benefit = Two Thumbs Up. Migrating to a digital workflow has made it easier for me to capture images on location, and the quality of the resulting files from my high-end digital SLR are so much better than scanned film I’ll never go back. I may embrace the next greatest technology, but the odds that it will involve an E-6 line are pretty infinitesimal.

Stock Photography – In the early 1980s, as I began to have photos published in national magazines, I got a call from The Image Bank. They were a stock photo agency in New York, and they suggested I send them some of my photos and they would try to sell them too. After all, they were in New York and that’s where all the publishers and ad agencies that really mattered were located. Actually, they did pretty well for me, but not as well as we were doing ourselves. We decided to put a toll-free phone number in so clients could call us for their photo requests, and about then a fledgling courier service called Federal Express was just getting started and finally, even from a remote corner of the Florida Keys a client could be looking at my slides the next day.

Plus, we had a big advantage because our photo researchers were scuba divers. That meant that when they wanted to illustrate an ad for a cruise ship going to Grand Cayman, we would not send them a clownfish from the Red Sea. A client would call with a photo request and we’d pull the right slides and shoot duplicate transparencies. The E-6 film would be processed and mounted in-house, and sent out for review. The client would show their client, and maybe a month or so later we’d get a call again. Yes, they wanted to use the shot, we’d negotiate a use fee, and then the original transparencies they wanted would be FedExed to them, along with a delivery memo specifying they were responsible for loss or damage to the original slide at $1500 a pop.

The dupe was never as good as the original, so they needed the original to have scanned for whatever print medium they had in mind. That meant they had to be willing to accept the liability, as well as pay for the multiple Fed Ex fees. With an 800-phone number and Fed Ex, people with niche coverage, like mine from the underwater realm, could be competitive with the Big Boys in New York.

Then in the mid-1990s, as the Internet began to really rev up, a few visionaries perceived that photography was a commodity that could be viewed online, and then digitized and transmitted over this new pipeline. It should come as no surprise that Bill Gates was one of them, and his privately owned stock photo agency, Corbis, is now the second largest in the world. What was a bit of a surprise was that two investment bankers, Mark Getty and Jonathan Klein, came to a similar epiphany and began to build an empire based on digital transmission of visual content. They bought several existing agencies, including The Image Bank and Tony Stone Images, and invested mightily in the technology that would make the job of finding and licensing the right image far easier. A critical component of their vision was not only finding the right images, but transmitting them over the web. No more duplicate transparencies. No more originals getting sent to the client for scanning. No more liability for $1500 slides lost or damaged. In 1995 Getty Images was founded and today is the world’s largest stock photo agency, serving an average of 2.3 million unique visitors each month with over 2.3 billion thumbnails and 161 million page views.

Somehow, in competition with emerging technology our vis-sheets with duplicate slides were being called for with less frequency. The writing was on the wall regarding digital delivery of visual content, I found a few very good agencies to partner with, and now the business is better than ever. Most of my significant analog images have now been scanned, and all new captures are digital, so the images are all the “language” of the Internet, that being zeros and ones.

A two-terabyte hard drive can hold as much information as this room full of slides.

However, there is a whole new urgency to how images are being transmitted on the Web. To a great extent the technology is so new there is a “Wild West” fervor and stills and even video clips are getting passed around with such frequency it is hard to ever know who authored them or where they came from to begin with. Wikipedia reports on this issue, known as orphan works:

“Orphaned works are, broadly speaking, any copyrighted material where the rights holder is hard to find. Because the cost of finding the owner is so high, creators cannot build on orphan works, even when they would be willing to pay to use them. In many cases the works were abandoned because they no longer produced any income. In most cases, rights holders, once found, are delighted to have their work used with minimal compensation.
In February 2006, the US Copyright Office issued a report on orphaned works, concluding:
• The orphan works problem is real.
• The orphan works problem is elusive to quantify and describe comprehensively.
• Some orphan works situations may be addressed by existing copyright law, but many are not. Legislation is necessary to provide a meaningful solution to the orphan works problem as we know it today.”

Here is a major disconnect … the perception is that cost of finding the owner is significant, so even if fees are willing to be paid to the copyright owner, it is not worth the hassle. So, unless the copyright holder is easy to find, the work may fall into Public Domain and can be used for free. This whole issue is up for legislation in the US Congress at this very moment. Visit to learn more.

Yikes! That is a scary thought for anyone who licenses visual media. Yet, the same digital technology that threatens our copyright can protect it. Metadata is the information that goes along with an image on a web site. It is the means by which a researcher who types “Carcharodon carcharias” into a search box on a website comes up with pictures of great white sharks. Yet, once the image is downloaded, that information is gone, unless it is embedded in the photo’s IPTC field. If it is, Photoshop and most other browsing programs can reveal who shot it, when it was shot, and caption details; all with a single click of a mouse.

The pending Orphan Works legislation is going to force metadata to be embedded in all digital images to protect photographer’s rights. According to David Riecks, chair of the Stock Artist’s Alliance's Imaging Technology Standards committee, "Photographers need to add metadata to their digital images now, or risk losing future income. Without metadata, they may as well be putting their images in a black hole."

Net transition benefit – One Thumb Up, One Thumb Down. The new technology is liberating in some ways, as it is much easier to have work viewed by a broader universe of potential buyers. But there are so many technology-driven changes that one must be constantly aware. Plus, writing all that information in the IPTC field is BORING! Inputting data into small fields on a computer screen is not what drove me to be a photographer in the first place.

Hey, maybe those days of renting cameras in the morning, diving in the afternoon, and processing the E-6 at night weren’t so bad after all. But, meanwhile the dumpster’s full and the trash truck’s a-comin’.

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