Photo Blogging Explained in Words and Pictures Interview with Martin Taylor, Photoblogger

NEMO: What is a photoblog, and how is yours focused?

MARTIN: A blog is a way of self-publishing to the web in journal form. The blogs you usually encounter on the web are text based. Photoblogs are based around photographs, although they sometimes contain text, too. Photoblogs are not static like a gallery, as most photobloggers post new images regularly — somewhere between weekly and daily. Readers usually navigate through pictures in chronological order and photoblogs usually allow readers to add comments to a photograph that can develop into a community of readers.

The unofficial photoblog headquarters is where you can learn more and find links to thousands of examples of photoblogs.

NEMO: What goals did you have at the beginning, and how have they evolved?

MARTIN: My goals for photoblogging have always been the same: to motivate myself to make more photographs and to find an audience for those pictures. When I first created my photoblog I was obsessed with getting hits and visitors to see my photographs. But as time has gone by I am more concerned with just producing and posting quality work that I am proud of. Chasing an audience is frustrating and nowhere near as much fun as actually taking pictures, so my goals remain as they were but the emphasis has changed.

NEMO: Which software and web tools are required for your photoblog?

MARTIN: Most blogs utilize a content management systems (CMS) built specifically for bloggers. The CMS usually handles accounts, posts, comments, and archives. The CMS resides on your web server and you access it through a web browser from any machine on the web. As an author you log into the CMS and create posts through forms, and your visitors see html pages that the CMS creates as a result of those posts. The style and structure of your blog are controlled by a series of templates which you also edit through the CMS.

I use one of the most common blogging software packages called Movable Type. I chose to install Moveable Type on my web server and set it up myself. This approach gives you a lot of flexibility and control but it does require you to have a little geeky knowledge about servers, ftp, databases, etc. For those people who aren’t comfortable with those technologies there are services that will host your blog, such as Typepad, Blogger, and others.

NEMO: Which cameras, lenses, and image editing applications do you prefer?

MARTIN: The camera that goes most places with me is a prosumer camera, the Sony F717 (for examples, click here). It’s bigger than the average consumer would want to carry but the image quality is very good in part due to its huge lens. I’ve owned it for nearly three years so I’m not too precious about it anymore.

When I go out specifically to take photographs I use a Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera. It’s the consumer Canon model, the Digital Rebel, also known as 300D (see here for examples). All the lenses I use are Canon consumer models, not the high-end, professional L-series lenses. My standard, walkabout lens that lives on the camera is a 28-105mm (f3.5-4.5). When I need something wider I use the 18-55mm zoom lens. When I need something longer I use a 75-300mm image stabilized lens. When I need something faster for low light I use a 50mm f1.8. It all gets a bit complicated with reduced frame cameras like most DSLRs are (the sensor size on most DSLRs is smaller than a 35mm frame), as you have to multiply all focal lengths by 1.6x to see how the lens will really perform. In 35mm film terms my lenses range from 28mm to about 480mm that covers most things I encounter.

I also use some film cameras when I’m looking for a change of pace. I have a lot of old cameras that I have collected but I often use my old Olympus OM system, (examples here) some 1970’s rangefinders, (see here and here) a monster Russian medium format SLR and a couple of Japanese medium format TLRs (Twin Lens Reflex).

I used to use Photoshop 7 as my image-editing program. About six months ago I switched to Photoshop Elements 3 as I needed the ability to handle RAW files from my DSLR but I didn’t have the money at the time for the latest flavor of professional Photoshop. I thought it would be a temporary move to the consumer version of Photoshop but I’m really enjoying having a truly integrated organizer and editing suite and I haven’t found that much missing from Elements that’s in the professional version of Photoshop.

NEMO: Do the images need to stand on their own, or do they require text?

MARTIN: Some photobloggers augment their images with words. Although I do sometimes add text to my posts I rarely “explain” a photograph. I do use the post title to provide some context but, in the end, I want each image to stand-alone. Photobloggers run the gamut from those who write paragraphs to accompany every image to those who very strictly never write anything.

One of the great things about photoblogs being visual is that you don’t need to share a photoblogger’s language to enjoy their work. Although the majority of photobloggers are still in the US and most write in English I do visit photoblogs in Japan, Europe, India and South America. And it’s great to be able to just step into those worlds.

NEMO: Are certain types of photos more effective than others for web presentation?

MARTIN: Some photographs do work better as large prints than they do on the web. In general those images have a subtlety in detail or in their range of tones that doesn’t come through in an electronic format. Other images simply look better big, which you can’t achieve on the web if you don’t want to swamp the real estate of your visitors’ screens.

With those provisos, most other images work well in web presentations. Photos that stand out though often have vivid colors, which makes sense when you consider that the average computer monitor more closely resembles a light-box than a paper print. Both strong contrast and strong composition stand out especially when you’re trying to achieve maximum impact in the smallest number of pixels. The smaller the display size is, the stronger and simpler the composition has to be to really translate.

NEMO: What image size and file size are your JPGs on the site?

MARTIN: I always try to remain aware that my visitors may be seeing my site on a sub-notebook with a 10″ screen not the 21″ screens I have available to me. To begin with I made my images 600 pixels on the longest dimension. The trend in the last year or so on many photoblogs has been towards larger images and I have caved a little. My images are now more typically 650 or 700 pixels in the longest dimension. I do try to keep their physical size to 100k or less but with images that contain more complex elements that is sometimes not easy. I rely on Photoshop’s “Save for Web” command to find the compromise I want between compression and byte size.

NEMO: How do you make the black and white photos?

MARTIN: When I was using Photoshop 7 I used to use the channel mixer to do this. This gives you a huge amount of control but the channel mixer is one of the few things that is missing from Elements. These days, if I’m in a hurry, I often use one of the preset settings from the free Photoshop plug-in Virtual Photographer. If you haven’t tried it you have to give it a go. It gives you many different photographic effects and it’s totally free.

If I have more time and the effect I’m looking for is more critical I use the layers technique for Elements described here.

NEMO: How much $$ cost initially and afterward will people need to spend on a photoblog site?

MARTIN: You can start photoblogging for no cost. Even with a free blogger account you can post images in your blog and that’s all you need to get going. I started off using the free service which was fine until I wanted more freedom and control. These days people also use flickr as an photoblog of sorts. All these services come with the advantage of the camaraderie of a built in community.

These days I pay for my own domain ($7 a year) and web hosting (less than $10 a month and I use it to host other sites than just my photoblog). The costs are pretty modest, because I’ve spent more on dinner for two here in San Francisco than I spend on my photoblog in a year.

NEMO: Can you suggest a few other top quality photo blogs?

MARTIN: Some of my favorites can be found on my links page. It’s also worth checking out and look through the top 100 there for what is most popular among photoblog readers. I’ll point out a few I think are exceptional:

• From San Francisco, Jose who runs EXP has a very modern aesthetic that I really admire and enjoy.

• From Japan, Appareil has a refreshingly minimalist approach to composition.

• From Canada, Worksongs takes you places you otherwise wouldn’t see with his ‘urban exploration’.

• From Michigan, the Snowsuit Effort takes intimate portraits of street people and humanizes them with snippets of their stories.

• From the UK, Shots has some great environmental portraits.

NEMO: Which pictures on your site are your personal favorites?

MARTIN: I like this one of jellyfish because it was taken in the early days with my first reasonable digital camera, an Olympus 2000z, (for example) and I was starting to understand the potential digital photography held for me.

I have a similar emotional attachment to this one of an Egret fishing because it was taken within days of getting a next generation prosumer camera; the Sony F717.

From an aesthetic standpoint I like this shot of my work place, (See picture on right) this one of Santa Monica beach life, this more local beach shot, this urban San Francisco scene and this dog shot.

Ask me tomorrow and I will probably select totally different images.

NEMO: How much cropping and image editing go into a typical finished JPG?

MARTIN: This varies picture to picture. I’m not a purist that believes you have to show every image full frame without straightening or cropping. I find off kilter horizons very distracting and will straighten my images to remove that distraction but I try not to edit just for the sake of it. In my most extreme case, my shot of the moon is cropped to about a third of the original frame. Why? Because you really need a telescope to take this kind of shot and even my longest telephoto doesn’t have the reach I needed to see Luna details.

Most shots are much less cropped but they are touched in other ways. Usually I tweak the levels. I straighten horizons and occasionally correct skew. Depending on the camera I used I may increase the saturation a little (DSLRs under saturate colors compared with digicams). My final edit is always to resize for the web, sharpen appropriately and then save for the web.

NEMO: Explain any techniques you used for the photos of “Carmel Mission” and “Tree and Concrete.”

MARTIN: The Carmel Mission shot I actually manipulated in PS Elements more than most of my shots. The original image suffered from a typical problem encountered when you’re shooting a subject against a bright sky; I exposed for the building which left the sky washed out. To rescue the sky I created 2 layers in Photoshop Elements; on the first I set the levels so the building looked good to me and on the second I set the levels for the sky. I then cut through one layer to revel the other so that I could have both the sky and building that I wanted. I was actually in a bit of a hurry when I did this so the effect isn’t as subtle as I would have liked but that’s the joy of photoblogging; you don’t have time to polish everything to perfection.

For Tree and Concrete I took a shot of a large, modern church here in San Francisco relatively early in the morning while the light was still at a low angle as I wanted to emphasize the structure’s shape with strong shadows. The original was taken in RAW format using my Canon DSLR so I got to tweak the exposure in the Photoshop RAW converter, from, even before the image made it into the editor. Using the slider settings in the RAW converter allowed me to get both the shadows and highlights as I wanted them from the outset. When I examined the picture I actually found the color distracting to the form and composition so I converted it to black and white using the Photoshop plug-in Virtual Photographer I mentioned earlier (the setting I used supposedly mimics a traditional silver film and print). I finished off with sharpening to try to emphasize the lines of the blocks of tiles.

NEMO: What distinguishes superior digital images from all the others?

MARTIN: Digital photography is no different to chemical photography in this regard. That an outstanding image is good technically almost goes without saying. As with most arts and crafts, clichés are boring. Being new without being gimmicky is a fine line but I’m always looking for photographs that demonstrate a unique way of looking at the familiar.

I think the one temptation that digital has over chemical photography is to over-Photoshop an image. Once you’ve got a few software skills it is too easy to over-sharpen, over-saturate, and to add artful vignetting to every shot you work on. I see this on quite a few very popular photoblogs where the images to my eye look too artificial. Don’t get me wrong, I love Photoshop and the digital darkroom but I want the images to still look real and honest even after the photographer has played with them on the computer.

NEMO: Why are most digital photos so boring?

MARTIN: I’m not sure this is exclusively a problem with digital photographs but the fact that digital photography allows anyone to shoot the equivalent of half a dozen rolls of film a day does make it more obvious. I think the biggest problem is that people see what they want to see when they’re taking a shot rather than what is actually there. A camera doesn’t see things like we do. When we see a beautiful sunset we just see the wonderfully saturated sky. We tune out the overhead cables and we chose to ignore the fact that the foreground is boring; we just focus on the sky. The camera isn’t so selective. If there are overhead wires in the frame it will include them. If the foreground is flat it will be obvious in your prints to an objective observer. But we are emotionally invested in a shot. We just remember how beautiful and intense that sunset was even if the resulting photograph doesn’t reflect that.

Learning to critically evaluate and edit our own work is a difficult skill to acquire. You have to learn to see your work in a way that your audience will view it. It often helps to get someone else’s opinion. Often I show my electronic proof sheets to my wife and she helps me pick out the shots that are worth additional attention. On a similar theme, it’s better to leave your audience (be that your family, friends or strangers on the web) wanting more. This again has to do with editing; if you have ten great shots of the same subject from different angles, be ruthless when you edit and only select one to show people. It doesn’t matter how great the other nine shots are, because if you show all ten images your audience will begin to switch off around photo number three.

NEMO: Which camera should a newcomer purchase?

MARTIN: I often get asked, “What camera should I buy?” It’s a hard question to answer unless you know the level of experience a photographer has and what they want to use the camera for and, obviously, what their budget is. Even then my answer would be tainted by my own loyalty to certain brands and models. Buying a new camera can be intimidating and it’s really easy to get embroiled in one of the many ongoing debates such as film versus digital, DSLR versus digicam, or Nikon versus Canon and forget to go out and actually take pictures.

When I first got into photography in the 80’s there was a quote that many people referenced: “Buying a Nikon doesn’t make you a photographer. It makes you a Nikon owner.” A lot of camera owners are very snobby about their equipment that it’s not an attitude that helps them be better photographers. The best camera for you is one that you will carry and use. For some people, one camera suits all their photographic needs. Others of us have an arsenal of cameras and we choose the best one for a specific situation.

A new camera these days usually means digital and most consumers want something small, light, and cute. Most photographers who want to be taken seriously gravitate towards a Digital SLR. These are opposite ends of the spectrum and in the middle there are the “prosumer” (or “bridge” cameras). There are pros and cons to each category that would take too long to go into here.

The best advice I could give is to use the camera you already own for a while, be that film or digital, compact or SLR. If you don’t already own a camera, borrow one from a friend or family member. From using that camera for a while work out what you really need (and to a lesser extant, want) from a new camera and then go from there. What are its shortcomings? What features do you need to get the shots you want?

The old adage that a bad workman blames his tools holds true for photography. I’ve seen great photographers create fantastic photographs with cheap, horrible cameras. I’ve seen many more wannabe’s with expensive, top of the line cameras, who produce horrible snaps. The camera you use really doesn’t matter that much; it’s how you use it and that you use it frequently that really counts.

NEMO: Tell us about your camera collection and online tutorial instructions.

My wife will tell you that I’m a packrat. I’ve collected all sorts of things but I’ve collected cameras since my teens. Nothing very high-end, but good quality items. I particularly like cameras from the 60’s through the 80’s as they were made of metal, chrome, leather, and glass. They are manual, mechanical, and relatively easy to repair and they just look and feel how I imagine a camera should. These days, with the digital revolution, you can pick up nice, useable film cameras for pennies on the dollar compared with their original values. I’ve bought cameras from flea markets, CraigsList and eBay recently. Also, when someone finds out you collect old cameras there’s occasionally an old camera in their closet they’ll pass on to you.

When I set up my photoblog I was interested in how the blogging CMS software could be used for something other than a traditional journal blog. I played with templates and formats a little and found that the software could be adapted to store collection/hobby or tutorial type information so that’s what I did. Also, you can interlink one blog from another so I can write about my opinions on a camera model in my camera blog and link to pictures I’ve taken using that camera in my photography blog. It just takes a little planning about how you are going to categorize your posts.

The tutorials are currently scant but I have put up a couple of things that I’ve learned how to do so that others can learn from my mistakes. The interesting thing about putting this kind of information into a blog if you allow comments from your readers is that they can correct your mistakes and express their own opinions. In this way, static pages can be kept alive and current to some extent. That’s one of the reasons that I’m a great advocate of using blogging software for things other than traditional blogs. Just about anything you used to put into a static site can be adapted to a blog format and it will be easier to maintain and to develop as a result.

NEMO: Tell our readers about your “dog blog” picture series.

MARTIN: Flickr is a web service owned by Yahoo. You can upload and store your images on Flickr but it isn’t a service like Shutterfly or Ofoto for getting prints. On Flickr you can organize, describe and tag your photos. You can also comment on other people’s photos, join groups and post your images to them so it’s more about community than prints. Accounts are free or low cost.

I am dotty about my fur-baby, Babalu, but dogs, along with flowers and kids, are very clichéd fodder for photoblogs so I didn’t want too many pictures of him appearing on my main photoblog. I find that I use flickr to publish those pictures I want to post and share but I don’t want on my blog so it has become something of a sandbox or playground for me. I’ve created a group there for Havanese dogs where I share photos from the dog park and doggie play dates. Like most flickr groups, anyone can join the group and add their own pictures of their dogs too. That’s how I use flickr but other photobloggers use it in different ways to supplement their main photoblogs. Some use it to display alternative or B-list shots or to show expanded sets of photographs.

NEMO: Who is Martin Taylor (the guy who isn’t you) and do you know him?

MARTIN: The “real” Martin Taylor is a jazz guitarist from Scotland who is well known in muso and guitar-geek circles. I only know him through his records although I have seen him play live once. I doubt he has heard of me unless he has Googled himself recently. I’m convinced that many of my site’s visitors are confused jazz fans as a huge number of hits to my site come through search engine results.

NEMO: When you’re not photoblogging, who are you in real life?

MARTIN: I am a software engineer working for Oracle. At the moment I work in a group that develops tools for documentation authors (XML, HTML, XSLT, etc.). I am an expatriate from England, and I began working for Oracle in the UK twelve years ago before they moved me over to HQ in Silicon Valley ten years ago. I live with my wife, Patti, and our dog, Babalu, in a very foggy part of San Francisco.



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