Front image: Madagascar Crested Ibis, image created at the Zurich Zooh on 21 November 2013, Canon EOS 5D Mark III with Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS. ISO 3200, f/4, 1/40s, Evaluative metering +1/3. Processed in DxO Optics Pro and Photoshop CC.
It was just a year ago that the first Photoanimalium.com post was published, effectively launching the website. Since then, more than 6500 Facebook fans, 70 posts, about 350 images and a steady increase of visitors…
First a big thank you to all active supporters, fans and visitors for all your kind encouragements, suggestions and constructive criticism. I am looking forward to continuing this journey with you!
Looking back at this year, there are many things I’ve learned. I have made experiences in unexpected areas and I wanted to share some of them.
Photography and post-processing skills
Of course a year has passed and my skills have improved: practice makes it perfect and a year is a lot of practice: our family library increased — I’m not the only contributor — by some 30’000 images in 2013. Whether I have indeed improved is a pure subjective matter, the quantitative metric does not tell much. Maybe we could argue that the better I’m getting at shooting, the less I spend in post processing? Unfortunately, as Post Processing skills are growing as well with practice, what used to take a lot of time takes less and the time saved is used to do more advanced editing, soon the photographer becomes fussy about imperfections and ending up spending more time… This has of course a limit, and it is very personal to determine how far is too far.
I personally like very saturated images, with striking eye contact and as much greens as possible on my images. In the course of this year my taste has gradually become more marked towards vibrancy, higher local color contrast and to spend more time repairing imperfections and eliminating distracting details. There is always the risk of going over board, especially with all the tools available, because more saturated images have more impact — on the photographer as well — and because they are simply more popular than neutral images. Tom Till wrote an interesting piece in Outdoor Photographer about this phenomena and I surely hope that I have not already fallen into that trap.
There is something new that has also developed: the sense of purpose of an image. Before the website, my main driver was to sharpen my skills, the important aspect was to find the animal, to focus carefully and to shoot it in an interesting pose. Doing so I got great images, but within an ocean of bad images. So far that is pretty common for animal photographers. Left with the few good ones (or one) I was simply happy, learned my lesson, let’s move on and anyway this animal is simply gorgeous! Many images might have been good, perfectly sharp around the eyes despite the action (yes, even when they lie down all animals move, especially when they have their eyes open… even the snails: try once to get a good macro shoot of a snail…), but they lacked a purpose: it was a good image, but then what was it good for? Well unfortunately I had to respond too often “for nothing!”. Looking back, there are a few images I published on the website I regretted to have published, because they are simply too weak, too snapshot…
Compared to a year ago I spend more time on the same subject, I return to it and while I generally don’t have a definite idea of what image I want to create, I am no longer satisfied with just a technically good image.
Intrinsically, all animal are beautiful or interesting or both. When they are not, it’s because the observer is too familiar with the animal — a Rock Pigeon or a House Sparrow anyone? — or emotionally not attached. Following the same line of thoughts, any image of any animal has aesthetic or educational qualities or both… but all images of animal are not beautiful or remarkable, unless the photograph made them more than the record of a memory and work up the image for impact on its audience. This is increasingly the direction I am going toward to… Not there yet but working on it…
There is a mixture of alchemy, of wizardry, a pinch of science and a spoon of emotion to predict how popular a particular image will become. Not that I expect everyone to like all my images nor that I compare myself to a Steve MacCurry, an Alan Murphy not to mention Art Morris — and even them are not universally liked — but every time I publish an image I ask myself “how popular is this one going to be”. I must be wrong about two thirds of the time…
Generally, the images commanding most approval are those with a nearly uniform background giving contrast to the subject: supertele style. Not a surprise in itself but it is not universal neither. Same for the subject’s eye, having sharp eyes on an image is a minimum but better having an actual eye contact. But again eye contact with dark eyes is not enough either… ideally animals with medium to light irises with strong colors will get more attention: a beautiful Imperial Pied Pigeon will have less success than a Nicobar Pigeon… (Ok, both are beautiful birds).
Then there is the question of the babies. Having a young daughter in love with pretty much everything that is a baby (She might make an exception for a baby cockroach but even there I’m not so sure) I am quite influenced by her opinion and I often expect — look for? — praise when showing a juvenile animal, especially when the animal is a primate. Well there is no correlation. Of course many babies are dull, even those of adults with vivid colors, for their own protection in the wild, some could even be considered as ugly — I’m thinking particularly at all Stork chicks — regardless, in the eyes of many babies are cute but still there is no correlation there between cuteness and popularity.
The popularity of an image does puzzle me, probably because I compete in a domain saturated with many greatly talented photographs and I should take it as a sign that I must work harder to get better images, but also because unlike pro nature photographers who actually make a living out of nature photography — you’d be surprised to know how many are in fact surviving out of portrait or wedding photography but not nature — I do not have the marketing acumen which enables them to live off their art.
All the rest
Building a website as a hobby is not a small endeavor and I understand more why many pro photographers are using existing platforms such as SmugMug. I am not foreigner to techy stuff, but the web has its own set of tools and challenges, and boy that takes a lot of time! The last few days I’ve been struggling with issues with my website which all of a sudden became very slow; trying to do a thousands of things to make it work, breaking a few, to only realize after yet another email with the technical support of my hosting company that the problem was not the website but the number of email server instances: I just bought a new iPad and I set up my email accounts on the iPad as well, so my desktop was tapping into the mail server, my iPhone was tapping too, the iPad was tapping too and to make things worse I had to use my laptop as well… I burned my “process” budget at my host and thus the server was not allowing the website to run… leading to the fatal Internal Server Error 500, the blue screen of death equivalent for websites…
But trying to resolve it, I learned about website optimization, compressing images, using cache, parallelizing a website, distributing the cache regionally, minifying the code to make it run quicker. I knew these technologies, some in practice, some in theory, but never applied any to website. Today, though I am still not coding in HTML, CSS or PHP, I am much less ignorant of these aspects and if I had to do it again, I would embark again in making my own website rather than using a turnkey solution: I don’t have to provide a cost/return rationale unlike pro photographers.
Commingled to this passion is also the practical realization that the geek world is as cutthroat as any other. They may not wear a uniform nor an exclusive suit, but the jeans and t-shirt CEOs are no less ruthless. There is much evil in the web: Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. some might think that we are losing rights most thought fundamental until now: privacy is pretty close to liberty, lose one and you might lose the other.
A friend recently said it very well: we, users, used to be the customers, spending the money, buying the products and ultimately paying the salaries. With the internet, we, the users, have become the products that internet companies are selling to other companies. As a product we don’t have rights anyway, and even if we had, the internet companies do not care that much. I wrote a couple of times (here and here) about it already and I probably will continue: when it comes to photography there is no reason why a multi-billion corporation would get free of charge the rights over the work of photographers struggling to make a living…
What this year brought me most is around people.
First my daughter, during this journey I got much closer to her than I was before, it has been crucial for both of us to share this passion and it helped us to communicate better, first for photography and gradually for everything else. Having a kid with any form of autism is not easy on the kid and the parents. A light form of autism makes you too easily lose sight of it, and before I noticed it only her mother was able to provide the reassurance she needed. Photography brought us close again and now often she calls me “Mum” and her mother “Dad” as we became interchangeable, equally reassuring to her. This helped me to get closer to my wife too, we share the same interest for photography, but until this period she was feeling alone supporting our daughter and dealing with our communication struggles. Photoanimalium.com made us more united as a family than we may have ever been before.
There are also many new friends I have made and who share the same passion for birds or animal photography. Singapore is a vibrant wildlife scene and a place to easily see many many big cameras, huge lenses all in military camo, and all shooting at the same tiny bird somewhere on a tree. At times the photographer camp is quite dense, but it is a great opportunity to make new friends, share experience and have a good time. As a group it is much easier to spot sparse birds and track them discreetly, most of the time… Though I appreciate shooting alone, I have loved every opportunity I had to spend time with the guys and gals in Singapore! I have not spend as much time with them as I would have wished but I can always try to do better in the future!
Logically it would be the second anniversary…
Although there are changes coming my way in the next couple of weeks — more on this later — I intend to continue publishing new images and posts, make new experiments and above all to continue to have an absolutely insane fun!
Thanks for the ride and happy shooting!