August 19, 2015

Flicker's Aviary Photo Editor


My how the world has changed. I first made an effort to become a better photographer back in the early 1980s while I was still in the Army. I took a correspondence course from a place called, "The New York Institute of Photography". Back in those days, there was no internet. ARPANET was already online, but it only had about 70 nodes, all of them either academic or military. There was no internet to provide online study. If someone wanted to learn something on their own time they had to search magazines and libraries for a suitable school, contact the school by mail, get the information, fill out a dozen or so forms, mail everything back along with a check, and then wait for the first module to arrive.

Because I was in the Army and spending 20 days out of every month in the field, my study time was extremely limited. Not to mention finding time to actually go out, take photos, develop the photos, print the photos, and so on. The one advantage I did have over ordinary civilians is there was a photography club on the post with a fully function darkroom. The guy who ran the club was an old war photographer who worked part-time, taught a couple classes a week at the club, and had a shop in town where he did portraits by appointment. In all honesty, I probably never would have finished the 12 unit NYI course without his help. Now, over thirty years later, I don't even remember his name.

I bought my first digital camera in 2001. It was a gigantic 2.1 megapixel Olympus Camedia C-700 Ultra Zoom. Well, gigantic for its day. In today's world most people wouldn't accept 2.1 megapixel camera as a selfie camera on their digital phone. I took hundreds of photos with that camera, almost all of them pure junk. Here's a picture of myself taken while my wife and I were on vacation in Hawaii. It was taken on Sunday, August 19, 2001, exactly fourteen years ago today. It was also taken barely three weeks before 9/11 destroyed all of my old assumptions about America's place in the world. I suppose, thinking back on it now, this was one of the very last "innocent" photos I ever took. I am uploading the raw, unretouched photo in 1900x1600, the default format for the camera. I'm not sure how badly Blogger will change the size, but we'll see!

Even with that old Olympus, I managed to take a few creative shots here and there. Like this one. This is a photo of a Japanese dancer performing in an annual dance competition held in Koenji, the town I live in here in Tokyo, Japan. Every year Koenji sponsors an "awaodori" style traditional dance. Troupes come from all over the country to compete and this little suburb becomes even more insanely crowded than it already is. Back in 2001 we had about 40 dance troupes. Last year there were over a thousand, about a third of them from overseas. It is a loud, colorful festival that is quite popular with both the performers and the tourists. As before, I am uploading this in the native 1900x1600 format. This photo was taken on August 27, 2001.

Now, both of those photos are completely unretouched. They look pretty good. However, with a good photo editor such as Adobe Photoshop, they could easily be transformed into something much more dramatic. In 2001, my photo editor of choice was called "Painter". It was shareware that could be tried for free and if the user liked it, they could pay $15 for a full license. I paid the $15. It did okay, but I never really enjoyed it. Most of the time I found it confusing. Learning to think in RGB after fifteen years of CYM proved to be extremely difficult for my poor brain. I'm much better now, some fifteen years further on, but even now I sometimes get confused and add when I should be subtracting or vice versa.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you'll know I recently published a short story collection called, "The Yellow Hummingbird and other stories". In learning how to create a Kindle book, I had to also learn how to create a Kindle cover image. I knew I was going to be doing this when I bought this computer, so one of the software packages I made sure to include was "Adobe Photoshop Elements/Adobe Premiere Elements". I was not the least bit surprised to find out there was a bit of a learning curve involved in mastering this new software. I jumped in and played with it for awhile.

Unfortunately, it doesn't handle certain aspects of the book cover creation process very well. Mostly because it was never intended for any kind of page layout work. I picked up a Kindle book called, "Creating Your Own Kindle Book Cover". This book is short and sweet. It breaks down the creation of a Kindle cover into a handful of discreet steps. It recommends a freeware program called "Paint.net". Yes, that's the name of the program. It relies on Windows .NET Framework to accomplish several key functions, thus the ".net" name. If you decide to download it, please ignore all of the giant green "get it here" buttons. None of them work. All of them are advertising for malicious programs you neither need nor want on your system. Use the small, inconspicuous link inside the table on the download page. Anyway, sorry for that divergence. The key point I was trying to get to was that between the two programs, Adobe Photoshop Elements and Paint.net, I was able to create a series of covers, finally selecting this one:

I did not take the picture of the hummingbird. That picture was taken by a fellow at Flickr who uses the name, "jefferyw". You see, I learned from, "Creating Your Own Kindle Book Cover", that Flickr users often upload images that other people can use commercially under the Creative Commons license. There are millions of photos and drawings at Flickr that are available under this license. Ordinary people, like me, who would love to see their work distributed widely and used commercially but who, like me, don't want to go through the time, expense, and struggle of making their work available through traditional publishing companies. I am publishing on the Kindle because I know for a fact my work is not good enough for a traditional publishing house. However, I still would like people all over the world to have the opportunity to read my stories. The cover price is not the main purpose of my publishing. Making money is a nice side effect, not the final goal. For example, at the moment I have sold only three copies of my short story collection. That means I have made less than $10. Amazon won't even transfer the royalties into my bank account until the total passes $100! I effectively have given away three copies in the hope that someday enough of them will sell for Amazon to deposit a hundred bucks in my bank account. Obviously, getting rich is not part of the plan here.

Of course, this also puts me in a bit of a quandary. I am using Creative Commons licensed work in my cover. I really ought to be giving something back to that community. I can't afford to pay anyone, so I will have to return "payment in kind" to the community pool of available resources. I'm going to have to build up a catalog of images at Flickr that other people can use for free. It is only fair that if I am drawing from this pool of resources I also give something back to it. Before I could ever hope to contribute, I had to learn how the community is organized and how to use the Flickr upload and library system. I joined Flickr, which meant I also had to join Yahoo, which in turn meant joining the Tumblr social network. Finally, after three weeks and a couple of false starts, everything is set up. Yesterday I uploaded a few images from my library to figure out the nuts and bolts of uploading. Turns out it's pretty simple. So today I tried to upload using email. That has not gone as planned, but it went well enough to get this image from my phone into my catalog at Flickr:

My family and I went to Universal Studios Osaka last week. In the evening of the 14th and again in the morning of the 15th we visited the Harry Potter experience portion of the park. It was great fun! I love the Harry Potter books! Visiting Hogsmeade was a wonderful experience. I bought a blank diary style notebook, a hand towel, and a chocolate frog. I was too big for the rides, but then again, at 5'10" and 280 lbs., I suppose I should not be surprised. I am not a small man and I have not been a small man since the United States Army piled muscle and bone mass on my once skinny frame. Thirty years of stress eating has added a comfortable layer of fat on top of the muscle and bone. I like being this size. I honestly do. I have no desire to be a skinny guy again. Unfortunately, that means sometimes I am too big for high speed roller coasters. In all honesty though, this is probably a good thing. Not only am I no longer small, I am no longer young, either!

As I was learning the Flickr interface I came across an "edit" link. This caught me completely by surprise. I have never used an online photo editor before. Never once. I did not even know they existed! This is a completely new experience for me. Remember, I learned photography in a borrowed darkroom on an Army base! I have never owned a full edition of Adobe Photoshop. The idea that someone could create a photo editor so compact it could run in a web browser was a complete shock for me. So naturally I had to try it out. Since the camera in my Japanese mobile phone is even worse than my old Olympus (hey, it was free phone! who am I to complain?), the photos it takes are far below the standard I am used to. My Ohio mobile is even worse, but then again, it's a $20 smart phone, so it's even a lower quality than my Japanese smart phone. I will definitely have to upgrade both phones one of these days, but until someone finds a way to make a global digital phone system that is both fully functional and highly affordable, I'm stuck using the bottom of the barrel in each country. I cannot afford two top quality phones with two super high speed network contracts. Not unless millions of people buy my book!

The Flickr photo editor is called, "Aviary". It is compact, fast, and functional. It does not do much. However, it has a pretty good contrast function, a pretty good bright/dark function, and a decent sharpen function. Those are the only three functions of the seven or so it offers that I used on this image. It also features crop, color adjustment, and some special effects filters. I'll get around to trying them eventually. Today though I decided to see if Aviary could bring my picture of Hogwarts a bit closer to how I saw it and how I wanted it to be seen. Half an hour or so of experimentation produced this image:

I have to admit, I'm impressed. The retouched version is a dramatic improvement over the original. It's not perfect, but the base image was pretty awful. I certainly could have done much better with either Adobe Photoshop Elements or Paint.net, and naturally those two will remain my primary photo editors. Still, if I had not seen it with my own eyes I would not have believed how far photo technology has come. To go from a chemical darkroom with paddles and filters on a gigantic print camera to a few clicks with a mouse in only three decades is an incredible rate of advance. It is, in many ways, unbelievable. I know from first hand experience how hard it is to create a program to edit images, even with modern programming libraries and integrated development environments. To find such an editor available as a web app is, for me, completely stunning.

It kind of makes we wonder just where we are going with all this. Will we reach the point where we wear a camera ring on our finger and the images are automatically uploaded and cleaned up according to a standard we establish ahead of time? Has digital photography and digital photo editing brought us to a place where even a child can produce in a single afternoon an image that thirty years ago would have taken me a month to create using 35mm film, a top quality camera, and a full darkroom? This is kind of amazing, so amazing I don't mind that I spent today messing around with old digital photos rather than working on my novel, "Magic Lessons." It was worth every minute of "wasted" time.



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