A Few Thoughts on Photo Licensing and Creative Commons

August 11, 2010 at 11:26 am (Linux, Photography) (, , )

You may or may not have noticed that I license my photographs fairly permissively. For all but shots of humans for whom I have no model release I use the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license, and I would like like to talk about my experiences with that for a bit today. Now, before I was into photography, I was hardcore into computers, and to an extent I still am. Years ago I discovered open source software such as the Linux operating system, Firefox (then Mozilla) web browser, and many others. I discovered a community of computer geeks who were disenchanted with the typical commercial offerings and decided to write their own software that performed the way they wanted it to, and rather than locking it down, they released it to the world so anybody else with the time and ability could enhance it and make it better, and once again continue the chain by sharing their enhancements.

It rather reminded me of kindergarten, where we were taught that if you had two apples you should share one. If you had a bag of candy, you should let each member of the class have a taste. We were taught that this was the proper thing to do. So why have people strayed so far from these basic principles of sharing your assets if you have an abundance of them? Why is it now considered more correct to hoard your abundance and charge as much money as you can for it?

Ah, perhaps that’s a question for another day, I’m straying rather far from my point now anyway…

Back to Creative Commons. The crux of the license focuses on two points, the first is that the author of the work must be attributed. This stands to reason, everyone deserves credit for their work whether they sell it or give it away free. The second is the so-called ‘share alike’, that is, if you take an existing work and change, enhance, remix, or just plain make it better, you must release your enhancements under the same or a similar license. For a person like me, this just makes good sense. It fosters a community of support, mutual benefit, and produces a pool of work available for anyone to enjoy and use no matter what their personal means may be. It just feels right to me.

Now, a lot of photographers seem to hoard their work like coal barons, clutching it to their chests and allowing people but a brief look at it. They only allow you to view a very small resolution version, often so small you can’t even tell if the work is good or not. They put watermarks on it which detract from the quality and impact of the work. They use digital hacks such as disabling right-clicks so no one can download the work. I posit that these artificial barriers do little more than lower the value of your work, and keep honest people (and potential customers) from evaluating it properly. It is, as the saying goes, defective by design. Crippled on purpose. Why would you want to cripple your work?

Here’s a sad fact of life: If it is on the internet, someone will download it. It doesn’t matter what you do to safeguard your work. If someone wants to steal it, they will. That’s why we have proper legal procedures to redress such situations. Not always the quickest, not always the easiest, but they are there.

Now, the main argument I see against using a Creative Commons license is this: “If I give away my work how will I make any money?” Let’s think about that. Speaking from personal experience, there are generally two distinct groups that may want to use your work. The first is bloggers, and I am also going to lump in regular folks who may want to use your stuff for personal use, such as wallpaper for their computer. Now here’s the thing: If you think you are missing a sale by allowing these folks to use your stuff you are delusional. A blogger is not going to shell out $$$ to use your picture of the Chrysler Building to illustrate their blog post on New York City urban issues. Sorry, they’re not. They will scour flickr and other sites and find a public domain or creative commons picture to use instead. So what have you gained by barring them from your work. Nothing. What have you lost? Exposure. Some of these blogs and other sites draw a lot of eyeballs. How much is it worth to you to have a few hundred, or even thousand new people exposed to your work? There are even a few crazy folks who pay good money to get their stuff on popular blogs, it’s called advertising. Why not advertise your work for free?

Now our second group of people who may want to use your work are commercial interests. They want to use your images for an ad campaign, packaging, to illustrate their websites and promotional materials and whatnot. Again, think of the attribution clause. Do you really think a commercial interest is willing to put a conspicuous “Photo by Joe Blow” on their materials? Of course not. These people will pay to license your work so they do not have to conform to the attribution clause. Case in point: I was contacted by a web developer who wanted to use a picture I took of the Alberta flag for their clients website. At first the guy asked if he could attribute in the source code. I of course said no, that is not sufficient. Nobody reads the bloody source code looking for photo credits. So: The guy said he’d do a mockup of the site using the image and talk to his client. What do you know? A few days later he got back to me and told me his client loved the mockup. We then discussed licensing terms. Another example, Hasbro Canada contacted me about using one of my images on the gameboard of ‘Canadian Monopoly’. Do you really think Hasbro wanted to put ‘Photo by Darren Kirby’ on the gameboard? Of course they don’t, and I had yet another sale.

So: I hope I have properly conveyed that those who are willing to pay for your work will still do so, and those who are not willing (or are unable) will provide you with valuable exposure.

I have seen some folks who license their stuff Creative Commons, but add the No Commercial clause. Their heart is in the right place, but this is still misguided. A large part of the problem is what exactly is commercial use? Is a blog with advertisements on it commercial use? Is a registered charity’s website commercial use? As far as I know, no court of competent jurisdiction has yet ruled on what exactly is commercial use pertaining to the Creative Commons license. Are you willing to spend the time and money to become the test case? Besides, I think I explained well enough above that commercial interests will pay for your work anyway, as they do not want to uphold the attribution clause cluttering their product or service.

I challenge all who read this to give Creative Commons licensing a try. You may be surprised just how good it makes you feel to share. You may be surprised what a weight off your back it is to no longer need to be vigilant and paranoid about people ‘stealing’ your work. Most of all, you may be surprised how much more exposure your work gets, and how many sales you still manage to close…

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December 8, 2009 at 11:48 pm (Camera Gear, Computers, Linux, Photography, Software) (, , , , , , , , , )

So I get lots of inquiries on flickr and other places where I post my pictures on how much ‘photoshopping’ (terrible verb by the way, Photoshop doesn’t exist on my chosen platform) I do if any, and people want to know what software I use and all that. So: rather than repeat myself every other day, I am just going to write a detailed account of my workflow here, and link folks who ask directly to it.

When it comes to hardware, it’s pretty simple. I built my photo editing and main desktop rig myself. A few main stats:

  • AMD Athlon 64 X2 Dual Core Processor 5200+
  • 4x 1GB 800 MHz DDR RAM for a total of 4096MB memory
  • 3x Hitachi HDP72505 500GB SATA HDD for a total of 1.5 terabytes of disk space

I have it running dual-head and have two identical Acer 20″ flat screen LCD monitors. As far as camera gear, I have a Nikon D40 body, and a Nikon D90 body. For more info on my camera gear please see the about page, there is more info on lenses and all that.

On the software side of things, I should mention that I don’t run Windows, no, not Mac either. I’m one of those crazy software hippies that use Linux. This has, of course, shaped my digital photographic workflow to a large extent, as most commercial software available to Windows and Mac users is not available to me. To be perfectly clear, I am just fine with that fact as I much prefer to use open source software if it is available.

So: say I’ve been out for a long hard day of shooting. I should mention here that I always shoot RAW format, in my case, producing Nikon’s ‘.nef’ files. Upon returning home the first thing I do is import all my files to my photo organizing software of choice: digikam. My directory structure goes like this -> ‘Raw Photos’ -> ‘year’ -> ‘month’ -> ‘day’. If I was shooting with both bodies, each will get its own directory suffixed with the body model. So pictures I shot on December 4, 2009 look like this:

My Albums/Raw Photos/2009/12/2009-12-04-D40/
My Albums/Raw Photos/2009/12/2009-12-04-D90/

I put the full date in the last directory name as the full path is not always visible, and I find the exact date to be useful information. I will immediately tag all photos in digikam with the geographic location of the shots, and with any other tags which may apply. Now I will begin with my inspection and culling of all the shots. I will ‘star’ any exceptional shots, and delete the obvious duds. All others, which make up the large majority, remain status-quo.

Next, after deleting the crap and identifying the pictures I wish to publish to flickr, I open my RAW editor, Raw Therapee. When I first started shooting RAW, I tried both Raw Therapee and UFRaw. Nothing wrong with UFRaw really, I just prefered Raw Therapee, so I standardized on it. You would do well to try both if you are looking for a RAW editor.

Raw Therapee screenshot

Above is a screenshot showing a typical view of Raw Therapee. Now as for actual editing, there’s a few things I do by default, and you can see from the capture on the left side that I have saved them as a preset called “Darren’s Default”. Basically it is only two things, and increase in contrast, and an increase in saturation (Raw Therapee calls this ‘color boost’). If the photo in question has some poorly exposed areas, I will try to lighten them using the ‘Highlights and Shadow’ tool in the ‘Exposure’ tab. Generally a small tweak here will lighten up the dark areas nicely. I find you don’t want to be too heavy-handed here, as it will make the photos a bit too tacky and HDRish. Yes, I have been guilty of this a few times. For some long exposures I will also do a white balance adjust at this point, for example, if street lights are creating an ugly orange/yellow cast on the photo.

That’s it for Raw Therapee. At this point I save the picture as a 16 bit TIFF file straight into the same directory in digikam that the RAW file came from.

So digikam has a few handy editing features built right in. At this point I will open the TIFF file for (lossless) editing. I use digikam to perform any black & white conversions and crops. I also use it to straighten the horizon if I flubbed it in camera. Obviously the previous steps only apply to a few photos. At this point however, almost every photo I take gets run through an unsharp mask. If the picture requires more drastic editing at this point such as cloning or selective desaturation (very few do) I would open the TIFF file with The Gimp at this point, and save back into digikam when finished.

So now I save each TIFF file I intend to publish to flickr as an 8-bit JPG to save on space and bandwidth. Here’s a screenshot of digikam, with the main window filtered to show only JPG files ready for upload to flickr:

digikam screenshot

So that’s about it. I use FlickrUploadr which is built right into digikam to upload my pics to flickr. This is also where they get resized to 1600px on the long side. I wish I didn’t have to do this but I was finding it took way to long to upload the original sizes. Perhaps if I ever get a superfast OC3 internet connection I may reconsider this 😉

To recap, the large majority of my shots, probably about 85% of them only have the following ‘photoshopping’ done to them:

  1. increase contrast
  2. increase saturation
  3. unsharp mask

That’s it!

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