Unfinished summer business: updating my Flickr self

August is almost wrapped up, which makes it particularly sad that I still don’t have a Flickr album up for SXSW… as in, the schmoozefest of a conference that happens in March.

Flickr app logoI didn’t mean to let things slide this badly. But with Easter coming only a week after my trip to Austin, it was too easy to let photo-sharing chores wait. And then I didn’t take care of this in the two weeks and change I had between Easter and jetting off to Hong Kong for the IFA Global Press Conference–at which point, my photo debt had begun compounding.

You would think that a photo-sharing service with mobile apps that automatically upload your photos would ease sharing them with the world. But one of my most frequent edits, straightening a photo so the horizon is level, turns out to be maddeningly difficult in a touchscreen interface–unless you lift your fingertip off the display at just the right instant, the image will yaw to the right or left for a moment more and skew your adjustment.

I also suffer from the disease of needing to caption every picture before exposing it to a world that usually has better things to do. So even though I no longer usually need to transfer images from a camera to a desktop app and then geotag and caption them before uploading them to a photo-album site (which itself still beats the picture-sharing options of the 1960s), I haven’t gotten any more efficient at presenting my photographic output.

Hell, I haven’t even remembered to post a newer profile photo at Flickr. If the blurry nature of that shot doesn’t make it clear, the photo in question dates to 2004.

(For anybody asking “Why Flickr?”: Instagram wasn’t an option on my series of Android phones until 2012–and it remains a bad fit for a dedicated camera. I settled on Flickr years before I had any thought of writing for a Yahoo site but continue to enjoy it, even as alternatives have arisen. I mean, Google Photos is pretty great, but don’t I give that company enough business already?)

These impermanent things: going through a near-century of mementos

My mom is getting ready to move to a smaller place, so I’ve spent some of the last few days inspecting a large collection of old photos, papers and scrapbooks that had been collecting dust in the attic.

Dad in 1938One thing I didn’t realize before starting this exercise was how unevenly these old pieces of paper would decay. Black-and-white photos from the 1930s and before (that’s my dad at the right) still look fine, but the brown paper of Mom’s scrapbooks from the 1940s (below) flakes into fine particles at the slightest pressure. There is no preserving some of this stuff.

That’s not an issue I or my heirs will have to deal with, as long as somebody takes a few minutes to copy data to a new storage medium every few years. And if an app exists to open those files, which should be a near-certainty for JPEGs and PDFs.

The other is the frequent absence of metadata. Looking at 1960s photos from cocktail parties–yes, much the same subject material as a typical weekend’s worth of Facebook photos–the only way I can identify their locations, their dates and times, and the people in them is to ask my mom. If Dad took those pictures in his single days, their details will probably remain a mystery, as he died in 1999. At least some of these photos have hand-written captions, some in writing that I can decipher without straining.

Mom's scrapbookThat, too, is a problem we’ll almost never have to deal with again.

It’s now been at least a dozen years since digital cameras went mainstream and we could stop worrying about not knowing the exact instant a photo was taken–assuming you remembered to set the time and adjust the time zone on a digicam. It’s been over eight years since smartphones began automatically geotagging photos. It’s been almost as long since photo-album apps on our computers or on social networks let us tag people in photos and started offering to find more pictures of them. Google Photos can even identify locations and faces in uploaded photos without any such metadata and also promises storage in perpetuity.

So some 50 years from now, when our daughter is going over old photos and videos–presumably in some VR interface–she will have a lot less mystery to deal with. But I hope she’ll come away with the same thought I’ve had while browsing through these keepsakes: You know, Mom and Dad were pretty cool back in the day.

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Post-travel to-dos

Cards and card

I’m through the worst of what I’m not-so-fondly calling Conference Month, and all of this travel is reminding me of the tasks that await each time I come home and finish unpacking.

Let’s see:

  • Do laundry.
  • Catch up on other household chores: sweep the floors, do the dishes, bake bread, reaffirm my earlier decision that the late-summer lawn is a lost cause.
  • Go over my e-mail to see which messages I should have answered three to five days ago.
  • Tag and categorize business expenses in Mint, then verify that I didn’t forget to record any cash transactions in the Google Docs spreadsheet I use for that purpose.
  • Send LinkedIn invitations to people I met on the trip, assuming their profiles show signs of recent life. (Go ahead, call me a tool now.)
  • Throw the latest set of press-kit USB flash drives onto the pile.
  • Scan business cards into Evernote.
  • Download, edit, geotag and caption photos, then post them to Flickr (for public viewing) or Facebook (for friends).
  • Make sure I got the proper frequent-flyer credit for the last round of flights.
  • There’s probably some other chore that should be on this list but that I will only remember when I’m on my way to National or Dulles.

As I write this, there’s a stack of business cards on my desk and several dozen pictures in iPhoto that have not been edited, geotagged, captioned or shared. And I only have five days before my next work trip, the Online News Association’s conference in Los Angeles, so you can imagine how well this is going.

Conference organizers, maybe you could find other months to host your events?

 

Side effect of reviewing gadgets: a largely gadget-free Christmas

Since I see so much gadget coverage timed for the holiday season–and have contributed a fair amount of it in the past–I have to assume that normal people give and get gadgets around the holidays.

Present ornament

But I am not normal! I understand why I rarely get the output of the electronics industry as a present; if a friend worked as a chef, I’d feel intimidated trying to buy kitchen gadgets or cookbooks. And as a freelancer, anything that I could use on the job should come out of my budget so it can land as an expense on my Schedule C at tax time.

But I also rarely buy myself gadgets as presents, even when there’d be no reasonable work connection. For that I blame the advent of CES: Knowing that I’m going to get a peek at the next six months to a year of the electronic industry’s handiwork two weeks after Christmas makes me leery of any non-trivial gadget purchases in the month before.

So what do you get for friends or family in the same disreputable profession that still acknowledges their professional interest? Cheap and non-obvious accessories can work. One of the better gadget-related gifts I ever got was a tiny, silicone smartphone stand that attaches to the phone’s back with a suction cup. It’s helped me stage more than a few phone pictures–and as a bonus, our toddler enjoys sticking it on my forehead.

Of you can try to make your gadget-reviewing pal’s business travel a little more pleasant: Figure out what airline he or she flies most often and buy a day pass to its lounges.

Edited 12/14/2013 to remove a stray sentence fragment.

Feed me, see more (The Magazine meets BuzzFeed)

This story originally ran in issue 15 of The Magazine. You can now read it here by virtue of that publication’s impressively author-friendly contract.

One of the Web’s most popular sites — and the exceedingly rare media property soaking up tens of millions of dollars in venture-capital financing — gets much of its content without asking permission to use it, much less paying for it.

The Magazine BuzzFeed coverThat’s not news. But if you talk to some of the people whose images wind up in BuzzFeed’s endlessly clickable and heavily clicked-upon photo galleries, you may have your expectations overturned, as mine were: most say thanks for the exposure.

BuzzFeed at first looked like an appropriator that took value without returning it, irritating professional photographers who find their work both increasingly valued and increasingly used without compensation. But on closer inspection, BuzzFeed may be finding its way toward a safer course — a careful combination of conventional licensing and curatorial selection.

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Taking gadget-porn photos

One of the lesser-known joys of my work is the chance to take pictures of the gadgets I review. It gives me a chance to exercise whatever photographic talents I may possess, and it frees my editors from running the same PR-provided shots or stock images that every other site can get.

But it’s taken me a while to acquire some basic competence at this weird art form.

The most difficult part of the exercise–still–is keeping dust and reflections out of a shot. In the sort of close-up photos often required for gadget photography, grains of dust can look as big as cookie crumbs–except when you’re looking at the viewfinder or screen of a camera while taking the shot. Likewise, the glossy screens on almost every portable gadget are frighteningly efficient at reflecting overhead lights, nearby windows, any decor on the walls, and the camera itself.

I deal with dust by taking a microfiber cloth, the kind you get for free with a new pair of glasses, to the device I want to photograph–even if it looks pristine. Then I repeat the exercise. As for reflections, you can avoid some of them by angling the device’s screen in just the right direction. But it’s easier to prop up a large sheet of posterboard in a position where its expanse of white will be reflected on the screen. In rare cases, you can use a reflection for artistic purposes.

Posterboard also makes for a decent backdrop, but it doesn’t exactly add any excitement to the composition. Instead, sometimes I’ll hold a phone in front of an expanse of wall or window and let the shallow depth of field provided by a macro focus blur out that  scenery.

Not often enough, I will think of a background that’s both more interesting and actually relevant to the subject–like when I parked an Apple TV and a Roku receiver on top of a page of TV listings. Putting a digital device next to a comparable analog object can yield interesting results too.

Or I can shoot so tightly that you can’t see anything else but a detail on the back or the screen of a device. The trick is to ensure that only the relevant plastic or pixels is left in focus to command a viewer’s attention; it would help if more cameras included the tap-to-focus feature offered by some smartphones.

You don’t need much of a camera for this sort of photography. Anything with a decent macro-focus mode and optical image stabilization (to compensate for the longer exposure times needed for indoor shots) should work. That allows for most point-and-shoot cameras–I’ve taken most of the shots linked to here with the cheap Canon I bought in 2007–but I’ve gotten decent results with some phones and tablets too.

Whatever the model, don’t even think of using the flash. You will quadruple your dust and reflection problems and make the device look too pale. You want to avoid that kind of sloppy result whether you’re trying to provide an accurate illustration in a gadget review or you just want a non-ugly photo for eBay–which is where I started picking up on some of these lessons.

If you have other tips or suggestions, I’ll take them in the comments.

Post-CES travel tech recap, 2012 edition

One of the things I try to do after each CES–catch up on sleep, do laundry and cook for myself for the first time in a week–is note how the technology I took with me to the show worked out.

I did that in 2008, 2009 and 2010 for the Post, but apparently I was too wiped out after CES and the Verizon iPhone circus too repeat the exercise last year. This time around, I had a lot of new hardware on hand, and I was also able to switch out some of the software I’d used in previous years.

My laptop at this year’s show was the Lenovo ThinkPad X120E I bought in April. I continue to enjoy its light weight (3.3 lbs.) and extended battery life (four hours of nonstop work is no problem), and at a wireless-hostile show like CES it’s handy to have a laptop with a conventional Ethernet port.

But this ThinkPad is not a fast machine. At all. I’ve been planning to replace its hard drive with a solid-state drive, which should help a bit; in the meantime, it’s not a bad computer for writing and simple photo editing. And, hey, it only cost $500 or so.

About photos: After ditching Google’s Picasa a while back–it was too much work getting at edited photos from inside other programs–I usually alternate between Microsoft’s Windows Live Photo Gallery and Paint.Net. I used the latter app almost exclusively at CES for a reason irrelevant to most of you: Discovery News’s blog format requires specific photo sizes, and Paint.Net makes it easy to crop a photo to a set proportion.

The best photos I took came from the oldest hardware in the image above, the Canon A570 IS camera I’ve had since 2007. Once I got home, I used Apple’s iPhoto to upload everything to a Flickr set.

I carried my own phone, the battered HTC model at the bottom left of the photo, but used it much less often than the two review models above it, also Android-based: a Samsung Galaxy Nexus on Verizon and an LG Nitro HD on AT&T. I’ll save my full evaluation of both for later, but I will say I’m not the biggest fan of the Nexus for its battery drain, the two freeze-ups I could only cure by removing its battery, and its maddening failure to save a timestamp on several photos. The Nitro, in turn, suffered from LG’s puzzling and unnecessary alterations to the standard Android interface.

I took most of my notes on Twitter, which was terrific for real-time sharing but inconvenient afterwards. As noted before here, Storify is useless as an archiving tool, since I’d have to drag and drop 300 or so tweets one at a time; I may try TweetBackup instead. I didn’t use Evernote as much as in prior years, and this time around its utility was undercut when the app crashed a couple of times, taking my most recent input with it in each case. That raises a question: Why does its Android version have a “Save” button at all when the Windows and Mac editions save every keystroke automatically?

I took along one extra item, a Belkin travel surge protector. Being able to turn one outlet into three–plus two powered USB ports–simplified recharging everything in my hotel room. It was also an enormous help (and a good conversation piece) in crowded press rooms.

The luggage you see underneath is a messenger bag called an Airbeltbag that I got as a Christmas gift. Yes, that’s a real airline seat-belt buckle you see latching it closed. The TSA guy at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas and a publicist for the Tripit travel-planning app got a kick out of that, but I also appreciated that this bag will not accidentally open once you insert the metal fitting into the buckle. I just wish the zippered pocket on the outside had some pouches on its inside for pens and business cards.

If you have questions about any of this gear–or, more importantly, my coverage of the show, including the wrap-up I did for the Consumer Electronics Association this week–you can ask me in real time at tomorrow’s Web chat. It runs from noon to 1 or so at CEA’s blog. This will be my first live Q&A since my finale at the Post back in April, so I’m looking forward to it. Talk to you all then?