Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Digital Photography Braindump

I like to think that I'm a pretty decent amateur photographer, and I can be certain that I take a lot of pictures (as my 15k+ Aperture library attests). Of course, my latest subject of choice is our new boy, Jack. I've taken to using a 50mm prime, just for the challenge and for some nice depth-of-field shots.

So I thought I would just jot down a few notes about my setup, how I manage the digital library, what I do with the images, etc.

Shooting

I use a Canon 30D, shooting in RAW. Some things I like to keep in mind when shooting are:
  • Digital images are "free".. shoot a lot and delete later
  • When shooting kids/dogs/etc, use rapid-fire and try shooting from a low angle
  • Rule of Thirds: try to put your subject in a third of the frame, not the middle. Backgrounds are interesting.
  • Talk to your subjects, don't stalk your subjects. Most people freeze up around a camera. Sometimes I ask for a posed picture just to get it out of their systems, then I shoot more just before and after. Those non-posed tend to be nicer shots.
  • Memorable / "good" pictures have something to them: convey a genuine emotion, capture a unique quality of the subject, capture a unique viewpoint of the subject (unique lighting, abnormal attire, etc).
  • Photography is playing with light. Don't forget that while you're taking a picture of a subject, it's the light that really decides how they look. If it's sunset, start shooting. Don't be afraid to ask people to move closer to the window.
Most people take pictures as a form of documentation for their life. You see this with every overzealous parent (myself included) and tourists taking pictures of every single frame in an art gallery. While this is totally reasonable, you should remember that there is more to taking pictures than just recording where you went today and what you saw.

I try to mix up my shots with "documentarian" shots and "photographic" shots. Sure, I'll take a picture of my wife standing by a piece of art, but I'll also take a picture of the really-neat marble archway on the way to the bathroom, or the way the light is hitting some arbitrary statue just now. I find that having both of these types of types results in a more memorable photographic library, makes for better slideshows and albums, and really make taking shots more interesting, without feeling pretentious.

Processing
Once I have all these pictures on your camera, how do I manage them? I think there are a few basic steps, most of which are optional.

Import (required)
I import my RAW images into Aperture (v2) via a CF reader on my monitor attached to my Mac Mini. I don't have OS X setup to auto-start Aperture on CF insert, as that just confuses things sometimes (eg when I plug in my iPhone).

Most of the time, I choose the "auto-stack" option, setting it to about 5 seconds to gather all my rapid-fire shots together right away.

I import new events into a new Project with a name like "2008-05-14 The Trip to Colorado". While including the date everytime gets annoying, it helps down the line, as Aperture only sorts alphabetically (arg!) and it helps when you go to Archive your pics. I tend to keep my projects in folders based on epochs of my life (eg "college" "grad school"), or other broad categories that might include several projects ("the wedding", "2004 Europe trip", etc). Managing project locations like this has been a pet peeve of mine about Aperture. Ho hum.

A good tip here also is that you should have to worry about importing several cameras worth of data into the same project. You might think that you will want to retain which camera in image came from, or on which day you imported it. Just throw them all into the same event, there is a semi-hidden field called "Import Group" that keeps track of all this. I've found this incredibly handy when I've imported images from several people's camera, only to find that the clocks were out of sync, causing odd image layouts. Choosing a single Import Group, then applying a date adjustment fixes that. Booyah.

Prune
This one is easy. Delete all the pictures that are just plain bad. That includes: camera problems (focus/exposure/ISO was all wrong), obvious duplicates, blinking/frowning subjects, etc. You're never going to do anything with these images so just drop them.

Currently, I don't delete the images right away. Instead, I rate them as "reject" (using the - key) which hides them from view. Later I go to the reject pile and confirm that all my rejects are indeed bad and actually delete them. This is partially an insurance policy, and also a technical hiccup I've run into when dealing with referenced files that live on a remote disk with no Trash mechanism, like via NFS (ignore that if it made no sense).

A notable exception is if you have a unique shot that is somehow "bad" but otherwise you really want to keep it, you might be able to recover the content via "extreme" post-processing (e.g. lots of tweaking, cropping, maybe moving to monochrome).

Stack
Obviously this is Aperture-specific, but I'll mention it because I think its a neat feature. Generally pictures tend to be grouped in time. You'll have The Big Group Shot, The One With the Dog and the Hamburger, etc. Of each of those scenes, you really only want a single shot that convey the moment, but if you're doing rapid-fire or just took a lot of shots (as suggested), you might have a ton. Stacking puts all of these images into a logical grouping called (duh) a "Stack". Each stack has a Pick which is the "top" image.

I like to auto-stack on import (as mentioned), but you really have to take a full pass through your project to stack the rest as well. Split stacks, make new ones, etc. Once you have a stack, remember you can only have a single Pick. So if you have two great shots in a Stack, you should "Extract" one of them and have it live outside the stack, as you'll be "collapsing" the Stack next which hides all the non-Picks.

I'm not sure what the benefit is of keeping the non-Picks around. For now, I'm keeping them just in case someone wants to see alternate shots.. or something. Remember that non-Picks don't include "bad" photos, which you already deleted in the first step.

Highlight
Normally while Stacking, I also choose the Pick of each stack. I've broken this out as a separate step here because you can do this later, and I often find myself coming back around to verify or revisit my Pick choices. Once this highlighting is done, you should collapse all Stacks, so you only see the Picks (or, of course, single shots that don't have a Stack).

Metadata (Keywords / Captions / Ratings)
Now you should have whittled down your project considerably. In my opinion, there's no point in adding Metadata to bad/dupe shots, as this process is time-consuming and laborious. By this point, you've looked over the same pictures two or three times (possibly more). Go get a coffee.

Now that you're refreshed, you're going to take a stab at adding Metadata to your shots. Why? This has to do with the next step, "Deliver". When you take pictures, its because you want to do something with them, right? Whether its print and frame them, share with friends, make them into gifts, sell them, or just have a fun slideshow of your life, you're probably going to want to do those actions on a subset of your giant collection, right? (except maybe the fun slideshow).

Keywords are tricky to get right. Aperture's Keyword system is pretty darn good, as its evolved a few critical steps. The first time I saw and used Keywording was in Adobe Photoshop Albums 1.0. They had it right the first time around. It was an easy drag-n-drop system. Each tag had a mini-icon (the first picture that was used with the tag, simple but worked very well), and they were separated into: Who, Where, What (or something). I've used this model half-heartedly since moving from APA, and really wish I'd done it more consistently.

The real key here is to consistently address:
  • Who is in the picture (you can limit yourself to the main subject, not background people)
  • What is the event going on (if applicable)
  • Where (country, city, vacation spot, etc)
  • Optionally: Type (is this a piece of art, architecture? is it a portrait? Is it "abstract"? Is it yet another picture of a winery?)
I recently read someone's blog that said Smart Albums are your personal photographer's assistant. "Go find me all my pictures of Paris at night" or "Get me all my photos of my Mom taken outside" etc. Without Metadata, Smart Albums can't do diddly.

Captions aren't very high on my radar. They're really only good when you're uploading a gallery to the web, or if you might not remember what a photo was about (actually, they're pretty handy when it comes to shots of artwork, artist and title!) My only suggestion here is to be consistent and concise. Don't write an essay, just enough to explain the relevance or context.

Ratings can really make you crazy. "Is this a four-star image or five-star?" "What makes something a two-star over a one-star?". I try to use this rubric:
  1. unused
  2. unused
  3. Good. I really only use 3-star to suggest an image is worth keeping around, but probably not worth printing. These tend to be documentary pictures that help tell a story, but aren't very compelling on their own.
  4. Really Good. Shared with people either via print or online. All/most Stack Picks should be at least 4-star.
  5. The Best. across all projects/albums. I'd like to see this image every day.

Deliver
Finally, we get to do something with the shots. So, what are our options?
  1. Do nothing. Let them sit on disk.
  2. Print them out and shove them in a shoebox.
  3. Print them out and put in a nice album.
  4. Order an album/book printed digitally
  5. Order a calendar or mug or something online
  6. Share them online
  7. Send the files to the subjects via email
  8. Send the prints to the subjects via a printing service
Obviously, (1) and (2) are not recommended, but they probably account for a majority of digital pictures these days. Putting prints into albums (3) is really good and is probably the easiest for those coming from ye olde film days.

Online printing services have always been the promised land of digital photos. Unfortunately, without an easy-to-use uploading service, most of them suck. Having to manually add 50 photos via an HTML form is tedious an unnecessary. More advanced photo hosting services provide Java applets etc for uploading in bulk, but they're still pretty rough. I've found that Aperture plugins are the best. I use the SmugMug plugin to upload directly to SmugMug for prints and web sharing. Even easier is Apple's built-in service for iPhoto and Aperture. Ordering prints from a client-app is the right solution, hands down. Using this approach, you can also order books/albums directly (4) as well as other fun stuff like calendars (5). Many online printers offer printing onto mousepads, mugs, etc. Really this stuff is not that useful, so I won't get into those.

Sharing images online (6) tends to be the most popular these days. There are so many sites out there for sharing, its hard to choose where to put your images for the world (or just your friends) to see. Here are the services I've used, along with some notes. Note that most of these can also be used for (8) sending prints to others.
  • Flickr - The big social site. Good for sharing with geeks, keeping your friends up-to-date, etc. The layout isn't that great for seeing full-sized images, and the slideshows aren't too good.
  • SmugMug - Costs a little, good presentation, good quotas. I use this for "online archival" as I can upload large galleries here and easily access the pics from anywhere.
  • Apple .Mac Web Galleries - Comes with .Mac, which costs a little each year. The killer feature here is ease of use and collaborative galleries. I use this to quickly put up a temporary gallery that my friends/family can not only see, but add to via a custom email address. This is a great feature that is keeping me on .Mac. Also the simplicity of dragging images into a special folder in Aperture, and the upload/sync happening in the background is great. Using both a desktop at home and a laptop at work allows me to publish/sync to the gallery easily this way.
  • Google Photos (Picasa Web) - Of course, I'm partial to Google technology, but for some reason, I'm not hooked on Google Photos. I like the layout and quotas, but I haven't felt a real pull here yet. No complaints, it just showed up too late.
  • Gallery (open-source) - Old school. Several friends still use this. Great as it costs nothing, has relatively inifinite storage quotas (host it yourself). Looks ok. Mostly I ditched this due to the time I spent keeping the installation up-to-date and stable. Managing PHP apps is behind me, I hope.
  • Kodak/Shutterfly/oPhoto/etc - I find myself getting invitations to view galleries on these commercial services all the time. I can't stand them. I have to log in to view a gallery? C'mon. Sure not all of them require that anymore, but I'm still bitter.
  • Facebook - Ugh. Sure the face tagging is neat, but.. ugh. Unfortunately, posting here is a requirement for my generation (just barely).
The remaining option (7) really bothers me. Maybe its just because I know how much disk space 15 full-sized images over email really takes up on Gmail, or I'm disappointed when people make up for that by sending 640x480 images instead. Why is this so hard? Email is just the wrong medium for sending images. Google acquired Hello (picture exchange over P2P chat) back in the day. That was some neat stuff, but its recently been killed off. Oh well.

Archive
So you're done with this event. Onto the next. Not so fast, don't forget to leave these shots in a state where you can access them in the future ("Hey Steve, do you have that one shot of me from Christmas 3 years ago? The one with the stupid sweater.") Your Metadata will help you retrieve the images, assuming they're still around. Plan for disaster, but try not to kill your productivity in the process. Here are my suggestion:
  1. Get a RAID'ed NAS. That's a storage server that sits in a closet somewhere and is available to all computers via your network. These are great, I have a ReadyNAS NV with 1TB of storage available to all my computers over WiFi. Disks fail, plan for it. RAID saves your bacon. Mmm, bacon.
  2. Use Aperture's Referenced Masters system. I migrate all my masters onto the NAS after I'm done working on the event. Actually, I tend to forget about it and do a bunch every month or so. Hey, I'm human. I suggest using the file naming scheme: [Project Name]/[index]_[Version Name]. Assuming you named your project with the date, as suggested in Import, this results in an organized, but-not-too-organized file layout on the NAS. Currently, I'm doing this over auto-mounted NFS, but there are some drawbacks to it, such as in Aperture 2 you need to "reconnect" the mounted share everytime you want to work with the masters. Still looking into how to fix that.
  3. Use a Vault. The Vault system backs up your local Aperture Library. This includes all the metadata, the project organization stuff, any non-referenced masters, etc. You should really push this Vault onto the NAS as well. I've found that this can be incredibly slow, so I make a copy of the Vault to local Disk, then let TimeMachine push it to the NAS when it gets around to it. Obviously, the more masters you reference, the smaller this Vault. You do the math.
One neat thing about Aperture is that it uses a SQL database (SQLite?) for its projects/etc. I've found that this is really handy in the cause of disaster. Early on, I hosed my library, but was able to fix it via some standard SQLite utilities. That was a close one. Thank you Apple for not inventing a proprietary storage format.

Well that post turned out a lot longer that I had anticipated. Hopefully you've gleaned a few tidbits. Probably not :)

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