500px isn’t quite Flickr yet

Since the big changes to Flickr last week I’ve been mulling over the idea of switching to a different photo sharing site. 500px had caught my eye in the past as being a very similar concept to Flickr. It has social aspects like Flickr does, maybe even more so as it supports the notion of “liking” a photo as well as making it a “favourite”. They seem to target the more professional photographer (yes Marissa Mayer, there really is still such a thing) and the curated photos that show up through their main photos section shows that. Frankly it’s a little off-putting since my photos don’t even come close to that level, but the same can be said for Flickr’s similar sections so I guess it’s not that big of a deal. So I took a day or two to upload some of my photos, put 500px through its paces and see how it measures up to Flickr. I’ve built up a fairly specific workflow for my photo uploading and I’m measuring against that so what might be show-stoppers for me may not affect others.

Ultimately if you can’t be bothered to read the details I found that 500px is a nice enough photo site and while visually it may look better than Flickr right now it is missing much of the functionality that I find important.

Basic organisation

500px lets you organise your photos similarly to Flickr. You have your photo library and you can put your photos into sets. The main difference is that while in Flickr your full library is generally visible to everyone, on 500px it isn’t. Instead the main photos you see for a person are those put into the “public photos” area, which just appears to be a special set. This is a little odd. If I want to see someone’s photos I have to click through all their sets, Flickr just lets me browse their photostream. Stranger still, sometimes photos randomly end up in the public photos set without me putting them there. I don’t know if this was something the website did or the plugin I used to upload, but after uploading two sets which overlapped all the photos that appeared in both sets were suddenly in the public photos set too.

Browsing through photos is hard on 500px. On Flickr if I go to a photo I can see which sets it appears in and easily move back and forward through any of those sets or the photostream. 500px only shows you thumbnails for the set you got to the photo through, it makes finding similar things from the same photographer more difficult. 500px also supports tags of course, but there doesn’t seem to be a way to show all the photos from a photographer with a particular tag. There doesn’t even seem to be a way to see a full-size version of a photo, just the 900px wide version on the main photo page.

Uploading

I’m not the sort to trust online sites to be the place where I store and manage my photos. I keep everything managed locally in Lightroom and rely on Jeffrey Friedl’s excellent plugin to then mirror that to Flickr, so I wanted to do the same with 500px. They have a Lightroom plugin too. Excitingly for me it is open source so while I found problems here it could be possible for me to improve it myself. 500px’s plugin is in a word “basic”. It can upload your photos tag them and name them but that is about it. It is remarkably slow to do that too. For some reason it does the upload in two passes, the first pass eats up my CPU and seemingly does nothing (maybe rendering the photos to disk somewhere?) then it goes ahead and does the upload. This is frustrating since you have no way to guess how long it might take. Probably not a problem for small uploads though. The other big problem for me is that it uploads the photos in a random order. I like my photos to be in the order I shot them but there doesn’t seem to be any way to do this at upload time with 500px’s plugin. Just the lack of options in their plugin mean I’d be spending a long time trying to make this plugin do what I really wanted, things like tagging based on rating, stripping certain metadata from photos etc.

Organisation

Once you have your photos in Flickr you can use their excellent organiser to put things into sets and arrange things how you like. As I mentioned I prefer to do this in Lightroom and just mirror that, but that doesn’t work for things like the order that photos appear in sets. Flickr makes that pretty easy, you can reorder a set manually or by various attributes like capture time. After uploading to 500px put all my photos out of order I figured I could just correct this online. Sadly the 500px equivalent is extremely basic. You can reorder manually … and that’s it. For a set of a few hundred photos that just doesn’t cut it.

Portfolios

One feature that 500px has that Flickr doesn’t is portfolios. They are effectively a custom website to show your photos off on, no 500px branding, very clean layouts that just show your photos off. They’re a little oddly implemented to my tastes, you have to create custom sets to appear in your portfolio, and those sets don’t show on the main 500px site. Want the same set in both? You have to duplicate it. I wasn’t a fan of any of the available layouts either but that is just my taste. Apparently you can go in and edit the layout and styles directly so you can probably do better things with this. Ultimately I don’t think it’s a very useful feature for me, and if I wanted it I could just use Flickr’s API to build something similar on my own site.

Stats

One of the things that scares me about Flickr dropping Pro membership is that they are probably going to be phasing out their stats. I like to be able to see how many people are looking at my photos and where they are coming from and while Flickr’s stats offering was always simplistic to say the least I could at least use it to find sites that were linking back to my photos. 500px boasts “Advanced Statistics” for the paid tiers, but I’m sad to say that this claim is pretty laughable. Flickr’s stats are poor, 500px’s stats are even worse. They track the social aspects (likes, faves, comments) over time but not the photo views which is what actually interests me. You can see the total views for each photo, but not over time. And that’s about the total of all the stats you get. 500px’s highest tier also boasts Google Analytics. Don’t be fooled though. This only extends to your portfolio views, not views of your photos through the main 500px site.

Summary

There is a recurring theme throughout this post. 500px has the basic functionality that you need for putting your photos online but not much beyond that and has nowhere near the functionality. There is another problem too that affects any site that isn’t Flickr. Flickr was the first big site in the game and has a great API. They are the Facebook of photo hosting. Almost any application or tool that does anything with photos boasts some level of integration with Flickr, support for other sites is random at best.

All of this is not terribly surprising. 500px launched just 4 years ago, Flickr has has more than twice that time to develop its feature set, user base and developer base. Maybe 500px will improve in the future but for now it just doesn’t have the features and support that I need and Flickr provides. Maybe I’ll continue looking at other options but if it comes down to Flickr or 500px, right now I’ll stick with Flickr.

Hello new Flickr, goodbye social

To say that it was a shock to find Flickr had released a massive revamp of their site is something of an understatement. Ever since Yahoo took over the reigns the site has received minimal attention leading many to believe that it wouldn’t be long before they gave up altogether. Every time Yahoo announced another set of web properties that they were discontinuing users breathed a sigh of relief to see that Flickr wasn’t on the list … yet. Now those days may be over. Love them or hate them it is clear that Yahoo have invested a lot of time and thought into the changes that they released earlier this week.

The thing that strikes me as really odd about the changes though is what they seem to be doing their best to hide, the social aspect of the site. Flickr was possibly the first social photo sharing service. Many other sites have always existed that allow you to put your photos online and show off your portfolio. Flickr though was always aimed at also making connections and discussing each others photos. You have contacts, comments, favourites not to mention information about where and how each photo was taken right alongside each shot. It seems remarkable that in this time when everyone seems to be trying to build social sites that Yahoo have decided that the social aspect is less important. When you look at a photo’s page now you see a giant version of the photo. All of the information about the photo and comments people have left are hidden below the fold. The front page suffers equally. Where before I would see a list of recent comments on my photos and thumbnails of what my contacts have uploaded recently my current page shows me one and a half pictures from my contacts.

Yahoo seem to have decided that the photo is all that is really important. I disagree, the photo is of course very important but the information about the photo and how people react to it is very important too, far too important to hide.

I made a thing to help with GPS in Lightroom

Yep, this post is totally not Mozilla related so I’ll keep it short, but a lot of people in Mozilla do take great photos and maybe they are stuck in my position: No actual GPS device and an compulsion to try to correctly GPS tag their vast collection. I put it off for a long while but finally this weekend wrote a Lightroom plugin to help ease a lot of the manual labour. Go check it out if you’re interested. It’s even on github!

Professional photographer for a day

A funny thing happened last weekend. I got to pretend to be a professional photographer and did a photo shoot. Ok it wasn’t highly paid (actually it wasn’t paid at all so technically I wasn’t professional!), but it was an interesting experience nonetheless.

I had only just got my new camera (the Nikon D7000 for those interested) so this was my first chance to really play with it and as it happened my girlfriend needed some shots taken of t-shirts and things that her company were selling. Luckily her sister (who is ridiculously photogenic) was also in town and agreed to be a model.

Now to tell the truth I don’t think I’m a great people photographer, I tend to concentrate more on places and things, but I must say the new camera really made a world of difference to the kind of shots I can get of people. It took me a little while to get used to ordering my model around but by the end of the shoot I was almost convincing myself that I was acting like a pro.

It was only after I got the photos onto my laptop (which I had forgotten to take with me) to view at a decent size that I realised my fatal mistake. I had spent all of my time focused on the model, getting the framing and lighting right. Lots of things except the one I should have been focusing on, the t-shirts that were the whole point of the shoot! The goal was to show off the designs on the shirts and in a lit the designs were obscured either because of the angle of the picture or because the shirts were too rumpled.

Well you live and learn. It was an interesting experience and you can see some of the results on flickr. Thankfully many did come out well enough to be useful and it was kind of nice to play with photography in an entirely different setting to that that I’m used to.

Do I need a new camera?

It’s been about a year since I last went through this. The result of my last plea for help was a number of recommendations and I ended up buying the excellent Canon Powershot S90. It really is a great point and shoot and I think pretty much exactly what I needed at the time to help me learn a little more about photography. I always figured it would be good test to be able to play with and figure out whether I eventually needed to move onto something more. I guess the main thing that disappoints me a little about the S90 is its slow speed, it can only take about a shot a second in RAW. I often could do with something faster. Also while its low-light performance is better than anything I’ve ever used before it still isn’t as good as I’d like. I could certainly do with a longer optical zoom but that’d have to be combined with something that used faster shutter speeds I guess.

So I’m starting to get a little itch again, fueled by people talking about cameras across twitter all this morning and planning a honeymoon visiting an active volcano in Hawaii. So I’m starting to wonder if its time to look for something more, but I confess I don’t know whether a DSLR is really for me yet. I don’t know enough about lenses to really know what I’d be looking at right now and I’m pretty concerned that I’d just never actually carry a DSLR around enough to make it worthwhile. Micro 4:3 seems like a smaller yet still more powerful option but again I don’t really know what I’m looking at. What actually are the benefits of these over my point and shoot?

So I am asking my good friends of the internet to once again help me out. Should I look for something new or stick with what I have for now? Are there any good books that it might be worth reading to learn more about photography or is a learn-by-doing approach as I’ve been using for now the best way?

Shooting fireworks on New Year’s Eve

There are many blog posts on the subject of how to best set up your camera to shoot fireworks but I was so surprised at just how well it worked out for me that I thought I’d add mine to the pile. Also I wanted to make sure I remembered what I did right and wrong here for next time I try. You’re going to need three things really:

  1. A camera that is up to the job. Perhaps surprisingly you don’t need a full SLR for this, but you do need something that will let you manually adjust the aperture, ISO and exposure times. Shooting in RAW is vastly preferably. I was using a Canon Powershot S90.
  2. A basic tripod. Exposure times will need to be long so you won’t be able to manually hold it steady and you’re shooting upwards so not much other than a tripod will do the job.
  3. Lots of luck. How much really depends on the fireworks display. The longer it is the more time you’ll have to refine your timing and aim. In my case our display was at home one with just 4 fireworks going off, ridiculously I managed to get the setup pretty much right first time.

The basic setup is straightforward. You want a small aperture, apparently somewhere in the range of f/8 to f/16 is golden, my camera limits at f/8 though so that is what I used. You want a fairly low ISO value too, I shot at 100. In an ideal world you’ll want a camera where you can manually hold the shutter open for however long it takes the firework to fire off. I didn’t have that though so instead I just manually set an exposure of 10 seconds which I figured was a long enough to capture a full rocket. Then set up on the tripod, point in the direction you think the firework will go and hope. Remember that fireworks go quite far and your camera will probably capture a decent area of the sky so chances are you’ll get it in frame, whether it is way off to one side is pretty much luck the first time though.

I was astounded though that the first shot I got was pretty much perfectly framed. I started the exposure on a 3 second timer triggered just after the fuse was lit. This meant the exposure started shortly before the rocket went off. In retrospect it might have been easier to just do a longer exposure, the timer adds an additional variable into the guesswork that is really unnecessary. Still I managed to capture the launch of the rocket and the initial explosion. A longer shot might have captured more of the explosion but then I’m pretty satisfied with what I got. This is after some additional processing (this is where shooting in RAW becomes really important):

Although with no processing at all the shot showed off the firework pretty well I found that when I turned up the fill light something surprising happened. I had been shooting through trees and when the firework went off all the trees got illuminated faintly with the red glow which the camera was able to pick up. It wasn’t just the trees though, rockets let off a lot of smoke as they fly and that too had been illuminated giving the final picture something that almost looked like an aurora. Frankly I’m continually surprised at how much light even my non-SLR camera is picking up and how much Lightroom can make use of it.

The next firework we let off was a Roman candle. These shoot for long bursts so maybe it would have been better to turn down the exposure length some but I wasn’t playing with any settings while I was shooting so my shots got multiple launches and explosions in a single exposure but this still got me a fantastic result. Again pushing up the fill light revealed the trees, looking even more ghostly this time:

The second Roman candle that went off I managed to capture twice. As well as triggering off a 3 second timer I had also set to take 3 consecutive shots. In this case that paid off with two different views of the same firework however for the others it mostly got in the way as it would keep shooting long after the firework was spent and we were waiting to set off the next. It didn’t help that with long exposures my camera has a serious delay between the end of one shot and starting the next making it pretty unlikely the second exposure will be worth much.

Slightly disappointingly I only got a glimpse of the second rocket we set off. For some reason its fuse took longer to burn and so my first shot just caught the streak of its launch but ended before it exploded and due to the delay between shots the second exposure saw nothing. Still technically I managed to capture all four fireworks that we launched and I ended up with four pretty good pictures which for a first attempt I am pretty proud of.

I was at a small personal display which both meant that there were very few chances to get things right and that I didn’t really have any time to look at the result of one shot to adjust my technique for the next. However on the up side there was just a single firework going off at a time, I could watch the fuse being lit and time my shot accordingly and the others were happy to wait between fireworks while my camera stopped taking shots. Considering that at the start I didn’t expect to really get anything I’m really happy with the results. Not sure when I’ll get the chance to try this again but even if I don’t hopefully some others will get some ideas from this.

Time for a new Camera

I’ve never been terribly impressed with my current digital camera. It’s an Olympus FE-280 that I bought on the spur of the moment in Boston a few years ago when my previous camera decided it didn’t want to stay charged any longer. Feature-wise the Olympus probably has almost everything I want, but its menu system is so convoluted that I can never find how to enable the things I’m after in a reasonable amount of time. In the past few years it has slowly developed some bad pixels (both on the view screen itself and on the CCD cell and now the battery charger is starting to flash ominously suggesting that the battery is about to go to a better place so I think it is about time to start looking for a replacement and this time I want to do some research.

Sadly I know probably just enough about taking photos to make me dangerous which means that I occasionally want to do things that probably warrant use of some expensive feature-packed camera. While I would love the power of something like a digital SLR the reality is I would barely make use of all its features and I need something smaller otherwise I will never carry it around with me. But here is a list of the features I am after, maybe someone has suggestions for cameras that have all of these and more?

  • An easy to use mode that does fast exposures
  • Good motion stabilization
  • A way to take a quick sequence of images with one press of the shutter
  • Maybe manual focusing to allow shooting through windows
  • Orientation detection, ideally actually orienting the image file but I guess just putting the EXIF orientation marker is a start
  • I’d sort of love to get RAW images to play around with in the occasion the camera hasn’t been clever enough to work out what I want

Update: So I guess everyone is recommending either one of the Lumix series or the Canon S90. The latter seems to provide more control over shooting at first glance but then the Panasonic site doesn’t offer the full instruction manual for the Lumix cameras, only basic instructions which makes figuring out exactly what you can do with them and how a little more tricky. The Lumix cameras do claim a faster fps in burst mode and all have more zoom than the S90′s relatively paltry 3.8x. I wonder how much use zoom is though when I’m not going to be using a tripod for shooting.