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Thoughts

How Google’s AI can eliminate the need to keyword photos

Here’s a video I made that points the way forward when it comes to indexing and searching our photography libraries:

Google has built some truly amazing object and scene recognition AI (artificial intelligence) into its Google Photos service. By comparison, the drudgery of manual keywording we currently have to do, not only after we import our photos into the software we use to manage them (Photos, Bridge, Lightroom, etc.), but also when we upload our photos to stock photography websites (for those of us who do that) is downright archaic. The artificial intelligence algorithms that Google uses on the photos uploaded to its service do all of that automatically. They index every photo and identify every object, scene, face, logo, etc., whatever you can think of, and they’re constantly being improved.

You don’t have to be a pro photographer to take advantage of this AI. Even your personal photographs become easily searchable once you upload them to Google Photos, without any manual keywording. Try it and you’ll be amazed, just like I was.

By the way, Google is not paying me to say this. I just love the work they did on their photos AI. Furthermore, I wrote a post critiquing their buggy desktop Backup and Sync software which uploads our photos to their platform.

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Thoughts

Thank you TH!

It goes without saying that Thomas Hawk loves photography. It also goes without saying that he writes about photography. In spite of all those givens, I still got a pleasant surprise when I saw that he took time out of his truly hectic schedule and went to the trouble of identifying 1,500 great photographers who are active on Google+. He posted the full lists on his blog and also on Google+.

What surprised me wasn’t that I was on the list (although that was nice). The real surprise was the effort involved in manually identifying 1,500 people. It takes a lot of time and effort to do that! It shows genuine interest in others and a desire to see them succeed and be recognized!

I’ve known TH since 2006. We’ve met and talked during his trip to Miami in 2010. The man is consistently nice, online and offline, obsessed with his art, works punishingly long hours, is constantly working to improve his craft and trying new things, is always pushing the envelope when it comes to photo sharing technology and is concerned with the welfare of other photographers.

While I’m fairly sure that I came across as a bit odd to him in person, because I’m much more comfortable interacting with people online, we had a nice conversation and a nice little photowalk on Hollywood Beach. Here are a couple of photos I took of him back then.

Thank you TH! Keep up the great work! 🙂

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Reviews

Google+ gets social networking right

On June 28 at 10:17 PM UTC, I got an invite to Google+ from Brian Rose (a Googler). I was in for a treat! 🙂

Here’s what the home screen looks like:

After multiple previous tries, I think Google’s finally got it with Google+. I’ve used both Wave and Buzz, and while they were interesting and innovative in their own ways, I just wasn’t drawn to them to the point where I wanted to use them multiple times a day, like I do with Facebook.

With Google+, I’m naturally drawn to the platform, because of its capabilities, and because of its design. I think Google finally bested Facebook.

Selective sharing and contact grouping

The feature I consider most important is Circles. The equivalent feature on Facebook is Lists, but there, it’s almost impossible to manage and use. On Google+, the platform was designed from the ground up around Circles, and this offers me the capabilities I’ve always wanted on a social networking platform:

  1. To share stuff selectively and privately, if I so desire, and do it effortlessly and safely. Facebook doesn’t do this. When you post an update, it goes out to everyone, and by that I mean all your contacts on that service.
  2. To easily group my contacts into categories. Again, Facebook doesn’t do this. There, you’re forced to Friend someone regardless of their relationship with you (online contact/person you barely know/acquaintance/actual friend/vip/business contact, etc.).

Here are a couple of screenshots from Google+ that demonstrate this.

I can’t emphasize enough how important selective sharing truly is on the web, and how refreshing it is to see it working so beautifully on Google+. The service even includes safeguards against accidental re-sharing of posts outside their intended group, with a feature that disables resharing. (I know you can still copy and paste or take a screenshot, but with this feature, you can indicate clearly to your contacts that you want that post to stay private. What they choose to do with it depends on their respect for you and your wishes.)

Gorgeous design

I’m floored by Google+’ gorgeous design. I love the whitespace, the clean color scheme, the layout and the button styles. I love that this same design now extends to my Google Profile, and to the photos posted to my PicasaWeb account. (Incidentally, isn’t it about time to change the name of PicasaWeb to Google Photos?)

All this design beauty makes me wonder where Google will stick the ads that will pay for Google+? I do hope they’ll use the same design philosophy for the ad boxes.

Instant video chat and topic-based web filtering

The other two important features of Google+ are Hangout and Sparks. Hangout is a super-easy group video chat, and Sparks gives you the chance to subscribe to topics of your choice, which then Google uses to filter the web and to present you with articles for your perusal.

Hangout is another fantastic (and sticky) feature for Google+. It builds on the power of Google Voice and Video Chat, which has been a feature of Gmail for years, and expands it to the point where you can chat with up to 10 people, live. This is going to be incredibly useful for families and (perhaps more importantly) for businesses. They’ll be able to hold web meetings instantly and easily now.

Sparks is a neat feature, but it still needs a bit of work. I’m not sure how the articles it presents are curated. And I get that you simply type in the topic you want, then click Add, but some (or most) people won’t get that. Perhaps a directory-like interface, where more choice and sub-choices are presented to people, will make it easier for them to use Sparks.

Areas of improvement

Right now, when I upload a video to Google+, it gets stored in a new album named after that day, in PicasaWeb. Same deal for new photos uploaded to the service.

This is the same approach used for Blogger. It’s a headache-free approach to handling media storage, but for those of us who have YouTube accounts, I’d rather have a choice of storing the video at YouTube instead of PicasaWeb. I want to manage all of my videos in one place instead of mixing them with my photos, particularly since I’m a YouTube Partner.

I’d also like to have the choice of storing uploaded photos in a gallery of my own choosing, or in a new gallery that I name myself. I think Google engineers will readily see the advantages of this without further explanation.

Where’s the integration with Google Docs? It’d be great if Google+ allowed easy sharing of documents from that service.

I like that you can’t auto-publish feeds to Google+, because it makes it harder for spammers to pollute the service. All of the input is manual, which means you have to physically be there and type it in. It does mean a bit of extra work after you’re written a blog post and want to share it. Perhaps some middle ground will be reached in the future, where blog posts, photos and videos will be automatically brought in.

That’s it for now. If I have further feedback, I’ll write another post. If you’d like to add me on Google+, here’s my profile.

Thank you Google, for the service and for the early invite! 

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Thoughts

My wishlist for Flickr

I joined Flickr in December 2004, and stuck with it since then because I like it. In spite of the various censorship issues that have plagued it over time, it’s still one of the best (if not the best) places to share photos. (Videos are another matter…)

Here’s a short list of what could make it even better:

  • Ability to view ALL of the photos that my contacts have uploaded. This is already available in the Flickr app for iPod touch and iPhone, but it still hasn’t been implemented on the Flickr website. It should be a simple option that would allow me to choose between seeing All or Five or One new photo(s) from my contacts. If I choose All, then when I go to my Contacts page, I see everything they’ve uploaded. It would be really useful.
  • Ability to set a licensing price for our photos. Flickr should get a bit of that money, and since they’re in with Getty these days, I suppose Getty ought to get something too, but certainly not what they’re getting now with the “Request to License” option, which is obscene when you consider they’re doing no work whatsoever on behalf of the user to market those photos.
  • Ability to set a custom domain to our Flickr photostreams, if we so choose. WordPress and Blogger already let people do this, so it’s clearly something that’s feasible to do for millions of users — the path has already been paved.
  • Smart sets, that update automatically based on criteria we set. This would eliminate the need to use third-party tools and websites, which are nice, but let’s face it, things would be even nicer if we could do it directly on Flickr.
  • Grey and black backgrounds for our photostreams, in addition to the standard white color.

You can find me here on Flickr.

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Flickr launches People in Photos

Flickr launched a new feature they call People in Photos a few hours ago, on October 21, 2009. It lets you tag people in your photos or in your contacts’ photos. I guess it was only a matter of time before this happened. While Riya and iPhoto went the route of computer-aided facial recognition, which is a pretty cool feature indeed but processor-intensive, Facebook and now Flickr have gone the more low cost route of letting members manually tag people in their photos.

At any rate, the process is easy and real-time. You start typing in some identifier for a person you want to identify in a photo, such as a name or screen name or email address, the database of members is searched live, and you’re presented with a drop-down list of people that narrows down with each letter you type. Pretty cool. Flickr also went the extra mile and included the ability to let you determine who can add you to photos, and who can add people to your photos. Very nice touch there.

I added my wife and myself to a couple of photos where we appear, and took the following screenshots to show you what the new feature looks like. The only reason I noticed it is because I logged into my Recent Activity page a few minutes ago and saw a small change in the options, as you can see below.

flickr-people-in-photos-1

The option to add people to a photo is located in the sidebar, below the photostream and groups thumbnails and above the tags.

flickr-people-in-photos-2

As soon as I got done tagging my wife and I in the photos, I got an email from Flickr where they explained the new feature to me and allowed me to set the privacy options I mentioned above.

flickr-people-in-photos-3

Like I said, pretty cool implementation, user-friendly, too, and it was something that was bound to happen sooner rather than later. There’s also a post on Flickr’s official blog announcing the feature launch.

What I’d like to know now is if Flickr can read the iPhoto person tags and somehow match them up with Flickr members, so that photos uploaded to Flickr from iPhoto get people-tagged automatically. Or is that the next step down the road?

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Thoughts

An announcement about my photos

I’ve been mulling over this decision for some time. As I thought about it, I wanted to balance my desire to let people enjoy my photos with my very real need to retain the ability to sell my photographs, because I do want that to become a larger source of income for me than it has been thus far.

I think I may have reached a happy medium, and I hope I won’t regret what I’ve already begun to do. As of last week, I’ve been publishing my images at a much larger resolution — 1920 pixels on the longest side vs. 800 pixels previously. This means that you, the reader who sees this, will be able to download them and use as desktop backgrounds, without seeing a decrease in the photo quality as it fills up your screen. As a matter of fact, you’ll be able to use my images on monitors up to 24″ or more in size (1920×1200) or on HDTVs of any size, without seeing a decrease in quality. I am also resizing all of them to an aspect ratio of 16:10, so they’ll fit natively on widescreen displays.

Now, what am I not doing? I am not posting them at their native 240 dpi, as my Canon 5D gives them to me. I am posting them at 72 dpi, which is the native dpi spec of computer screens everywhere. I am doing this because I want to discourage the making of large prints from my photos, since I’d like to make money from those prints. This also makes it a little harder for people to blow them up to larger sizes for serious commercial work, which is where I also hope to make money.

I am also not removing my copyright notice from the photos. You’ll see it as a small watermark in the lower left corner that says “(c) raoulpop.com”. I want to keep that there to let people know that while I may be giving my photos away, I am not relinquishing my copyright, nor am I moving to a Creative Commons type of license, which I believe is inadequate for photographs. I also realize that the photos will get edited in various photo editing programs, and any meta-data will unwittingly get wiped from them. The watermark is the only sensible way to tell people down the line that I made a certain photo. I do wish Lightroom would let me format the watermark in some way, but for now, that’s what it gives me, and I’m not going to run all my published photos through Photoshop just to put a watermark on them.

Am I opening myself up for theft? Yes. There’ll be unscrupulous people (I hesitate to call them people) who will likely steal my photos and try to profit from them. For them, I should point out that I do register my images with the US Copyright Office, and I wouldn’t mind getting a six-figure payout.

For you decent folks out there, I’ll be happy to know that you get a little joy from looking at my photos at a resolution where you can actually enjoy them. Go ahead and download them and use them as desktop backgrounds, put them on your HDTV, email them to your friends, use them on your website, whatever. As long as it’s personal, non-commercial use, and you give me credit, it’s okay with me.

If you’re a company or some kind of organization that wants to use my photos in some way, please get in touch with me first to clear that use with me and to pay for the license. I’ll do my best to accommodate your needs.

Okay, so where do you partake of this fantastic offering? There are wo places where you can get it:

  1. My photo catalog.
  2. My Flickr stream. I’ve opened up access to the All Sizes button. Download away.

Remember to play nice. Here’s how to use my photos. Please obey the rules listed there when using my photos for free, and if you’ll end up licensing some, then you’ll make me very happy. Thanks.

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Photography, take two, part two

I continued to work on replacing photos hosted with third party services. The list of modified posts is provided below. This has proven to be a huge effort. I had to locate the photos in my digital library — not all of which is keyworded yet, though I’ve got location information for all my photos — but I also chose to re-process, keyword and re-title the photos. You see, most of these photos were keyworded through bulk uploaders, for the purpose of displaying that data on third party photo sharing sites, not for my own library. Clearly that effort was wasted, but I didn’t know that back when I did it… Where applicable, I am also re-writing some of the text.

I want to make sure that the content I provide here at ComeAcross is truly top tier, as much as possible. What does that mean? Well, it means I spent my entire weekend, including Monday, working on the posts listed below, and on the posts listed in part one. I still have more posts to go. I don’t mind doing this — actually, I look forward to it — but I do hope that you, the reader, appreciate the effort that goes on behind the scenes. 🙂

Also see Photography, take two, part one.

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Photography, take two

Over this weekend and the last several days, I’ve gone through posts that contain photographs, and replaced all of the images with ones hosted directly at ComeAcross. In the past, I’ve used photos hosted with third party photo sharing services, and I realize now that’s a folly.

If a third party service goes down, which is very likely with beta services, my photos become unavailable. Even if that service is not in beta, a simple action like closing one’s account shuts down access to all of the photos uploaded there. It’s much more practical to host the photos together with my website. That way, I am fully responsible for making sure that all of my content is accessible. If something goes down, I can take care of it. If I need to change web hosting providers, I simply transfer all of my files over to another server.

It’s not as simple to transfer one’s content with photo sharing services, no matter what they may promise. Image and meta data portability is still not 100% there, and it doesn’t help when a photo sharing service advertises their API’s availability for more than a year, yet fails to put it out for public use. It also doesn’t help when said portability is rendered useless by the amount of compression used on the uploaded originals, or the deletion of meta data embedded in the originals…

You see, everyone is ready to promise the world to you when they want to sell you on something. Quite often, that “world” is nothing more than an empty little shell. I speak in general terms here, from the things I’ve learned through my various experiences — mostly recent ones…

At any rate, I’ve still got to modify a number of posts, but I thought I’d point out the ones I’ve already worked on. They’re quite a few, and I’m happy with the results so far. Here they are:

Also see Photography, take two, part two for more updated posts.

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How I handle contacts at Flickr

When you add me as a contact on Flickr, you may notice that I may not add you back. Please don’t think I’m ignoring you. It’s just that I handle contacts differently at Flickr.

I like to go through all of my contacts’ photographs. I try to view every photo they’re posting. I know that’s a rarity, but I consider it my responsibility. I’m not going to be a false contact that jumps on someone’s photo stream once in a while and comments on a couple of photos, then you don’t hear from them again for 6-12 months, if ever.

Since my time is limited, and I do try to go through every photo that my contacts post, I can only have a limited number of contacts. I’ve found out that I can handle about 100 or so contacts.

I also look for photographs that inspire me. I look for a high concentration of artistic or creative photographs in someone’s photo stream.

I also encourage my contacts to do the same with me. If you’re not inspired by my photos, take me off your contact list. There’s no reason for you to be frustrated with the photos I post. Life’s too short to be frustrated with things you can change.

Does that mean I forget about the people who’ve added me as a contact? No. I go through my Recent Activity regularly, and when I see that people who aren’t on my contact list have taken the time to interact with my photos, I return the favor.

I hope this explains my stance, and I also hope that those of you who’ve added me as a contact don’t feel offended. Feel free to contact me at any time through whatever means I’ve provided to you (phone, email, blog).

If you’d like to get to know me, a good place to start would be this blog, which is where I spend most of my time. Read my work, comment on it, start a dialogue, etc. Life is one big et caetera. It’s not limited to a contact list on one social networking site.

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Flickr tightens up image security

Given my concern with image theft, I do not like to hear about Flickr hacks. A while back, a Flickr hack circulated around that allowed people to view an image’s full size even if the photographer didn’t allow it (provided the image was uploaded at high resolution.) The hack was based on Flickr’s standard URL structure for both pages and image file names, and allowed people to get at the original sizes in two ways. It was so easy to use, and the security hole was so big, that I was shocked Flickr didn’t take care of it as soon as the hack started to make the rounds.

It’s been a few months now, and I’m glad to say the hack no longer works. I’m not sure exactly when they fixed it. Since it’s no longer functional, I might as well tell you how it worked, and how they fixed it.

D

First, let’s look at a page’s URL structure. Take this photo of mine (reproduced above). The URL for the Medium size (the same size that gets displayed on the photo page) is:

http://flickr.com/photo_zoom.gne?id=511744735&size=m

Notice the last URL parameter: size=m. The URL for the Original size is the same, except for that last parameter, which changes to size=o. That makes the URL for the original photo size:

http://flickr.com/photo_zoom.gne?id=511744735&size=o

Thankfully, that no longer works. If the photographer disallows the availability of sizes larger than Medium (500px wide), then you get an error that says something like “This page is private…”

Second, they’ve randomized the actual file names. So although that image of mine is number 511744735, and it stands to reason that I would be able to access the file by typing in something like http://farm1.static.flickr.com/231/511744735_o.jpg, that’s just not the case. Each file name is made up of that sequential number, plus a random component made up of letters and numbers, plus the size indicator. So the actual path to the medium size of the image file is:

http://farm1.static.flickr.com/231/511744735_b873d33b12_m.jpg

This may lead you to think that if you can get that random component from the URLs of the smaller sizes, you can then apply the same URL structure to get at the larger size, but this is also not the case. It turns out that Flickr randomizes that middle part again for the original size. So although it stays the same for all sizes up to 1024×768, it’s different for the original. For example, the URL for the original size of that same photo is:

http://farm1.static.flickr.com/231/511744735_d3eb0edf2d_o.jpg

This means that even if you go to the trouble of getting the file name for one of the smaller sizes, you cannot guess the file name of the original photo, and this is great news for photographers worried about image theft.

While I’m writing about this, let me not forget about spaceball.gif, the transparent GIF file that gets placed over an image to discourage downloads. It can be circumvented by going to View >> Source and looking at the code to find the URL for the medium-size image file. It’s painful, but it can be done, and I understand there are some scripts that do it automatically. The cool thing is that after Flickr randomized the file names, it became next to impossible to guess the URL for a file’s original size. The best image size that someone can get is 1024×768, which might be enough for a 4×6 print, and can probably be blown up with special apps to a larger size, but still, it’s not the original.

Perhaps it would be even better to randomize the file name for the large size as well, so that it’s different from the smaller sizes and the original size. That would definitely take care of the problem. Still, this is a big step in the right direction.

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