A note on contests

Photography Contests… they’re fun, and I have won a few, which is even more fun. So why not participate in every photo contest you see?

Sure. Within reason. And that means, in my mind, two things:

First, I never take part in contests where you have to pay to enter. A lot of these exist, and they come in two flavours: vanity contests (“we are so honoured to be allowed to place your work”) and plain scams (“the annual XYZ Great Artists contest and book”). Now, “never say never”, of course: there are a few contests that I would pay something for, sure; but these are by reputable organizations and the cost is minor, and covers actual expenses. Other than that, paid contests are a hard “nope” for me.

Second, there are many contests like this one:

Looks great. Wow, a legit organization and it’s free. The BIA (Business Improvement Area) is real and local. And you can send as many pics as you like. Great!

But….

Now read that last paragraph. Permission, promotional materials: you are giving away the rights to your advertising photo for free. Yes, you are working for them, for free.

Yes, this is the BIA trying to get away with obtaining free work rather than pay a photographer for their advertising photography.

Now, in the spirit of full disclosure: the BIA are not my friends. BIAs were founded to fight malls, and this shows. Last year I applied for a “Digital Main Street” government subsidy, paid for by provincial and federal governments and administered by the BIAs. I qualified on all counts (a long list of requirements – the forms took me a few days to complete).

One of these requirements was “You must be in or near a BIA”. This mall is right next to the BIA, so I was sure I’d get it. But to my astonishment, the BIA decided that even though I met all the requirements (in, as said, a long list), I wasn’t getting any money: the mall is the enemy. So I guess since they want to be my enemy, they’re not in my good books either.

But that’s not why I mention this example. There are many of these efforts to get free work from unsuspecting amateur photographers, and I think it is a shame that amateur photographers do not realize the value of their work.

Bottom line: If anyone is interested in your photo, it is worth money. Don’t give it away. And certainly not to the BIA. 🙂

Instead, find legit contests, like those held by photography magazines and photography clubs, local art organizations, and so on. There’s plenty of them, and you can fill a lot of time submitting. And that is fun.

Why you do not make your own passport photos…

We love doing passport photos – precisely because they are a challenge.

And I do not mean the taking of the photo. Yes, that too needs to be done well: pure white background, neutral expression, looking straight at the camera, no shiny skin refections, no shadows, well lit, good colour, veils must not cover eyebrows, glasses discouraged but if used no refections – and so on.

But the really fun challenge is to get the format right. Here, for example is China’s required format:

Take a good look at that – the specificity of all the different dimensions. And if you get them wrong, your photos are rejected.

What if the person has an afro? Or if the hair is wild? The top means “where the skull is”. It can be hard to tell…

And what if a person has a very wide face – like a small child? Then it may be almost impossible to get the picture to meet those requirements. So this needs care and attention and, dare I say kit, some artistic feeling as well as mathematical insight.

And then there’s digital. “354 x 472 pixels” – specific much?

And of course most countries’ specifications differ from most other countries’… and they can change over time – as well as per embassy!

And this is why we love doing passport photos: because others do NOT do them well. We virtually never get them rejected. And it’s always fun too do a good job.

Mars Ethics

So NASA released this amazing picture of a spacecraft actually landing on Mars:

Fantastic.

But the first thing I, as a photographer, think is “Damn. That’s not sharp”. Click to see the image full sized to see that it is indeed not sharp. Hey, it’s from a dangling spaceship on Mars, so this is not criticism!

But still… I can make that better.

Using the AI sharpening software I use, with only very little effort we get this sharpened image:

Again, click and view full screen to see the sharpness. Amazing, no?

Now. Is this unethical? Am I altering, doctoring even, a NASA image?

There’s two ways you can materially change a photo:

  • Manipulating images to make them art is OK if you say it’s art.
  • Distorting for nefarious purposes (like to “prove” that the earth is flat) is not OK.

But this is neither art nor distorting the image. This is simply bringing back a clearer picture of the reality that there actually is. Just like correcting the white balance would be.

So I think we’re good here. Enjoy the sharpened image.

Go wide.

It may be tempting to think that to take good pictures, you need a long (telephoto) lens. And that is sometimes true – but not always, and not even usually.

Like the photo of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, August 2007.

Wide angle: 16mm on a full-frame camera. And above all: close to something – it is that factor that gives you the feeling of “reality”, perspective, 3-D. In this case, the ground is the “something” I was close to.

Nope.

You know, I though I’d found a good photo sharing site in YouPic. Not American, not Puritan, a good way to share some of my work. Even the work that American platforms do not allow: violence is ok, but the human body is not. Yes, the American excuse for morality is skewed, and wrong.

But at least they’re honest.


As for YouPic: Puritans they may not be, but tacky East Europeans, they are. My advice: stay away from these people. They send messages from aliases, people without surnames – God knows if they actually exist. If you send emails to the addresses they send email from, these emails immediately bounce. A sure sign of a scam. Even on their web site you can’t send them a message without allowing all sorts of “compulsory” nonsense. And no phone numbers you can call, obviously. All giant warning signs.

And if you ever sign up for a paid account, then without warning, they charge you double the next year, without warning – and refuse to refund if you ask, quoting agreements, rules, and policy. Apple may be dictatorial, but they’re hones5 and would refund. As would I: it is inconceivable to me that I would have an unhappy customer and I would force them to pay against their will. I guess the ex Soviet nature of whatever Baltic state these people are from shows its history.

Do I sound pissed? Yes. And that is because I am. Because these cheap kind of scams annoy me. This is 2021. You don’t tell customers that this is allowed, that is compulsory, or such-and-such is “forbidden”.

These people seem to think that they are doing me a favour by publishing my work. It is the reverse. I’m doing them a favour by being on their platform, obviously.

All right, so the search is on for the next platform. No Puritans, but also no scammers. Any ideas welcome. As long as they’re not YouPic.

And otherwise we’ll set up our own!

Opening Again Soon!

While I have been working non-stop, the mall has been closed since Christmas, so the only business my store has been able to do is curb-side, and emergency passport/ID photos.

But on Tuesday Feb 16, the mall is re-opening, and we’ll be fully open to the public again. In this quiet period we have been doing much to further improve our efficiency and workflow, to serve you even better at Michael Willems Photo.

At the same time, I see how COVID-19 is hurting everything. Not just in the obvious way of disease and death, but also the business environment, especially in logistics. Items that would arrive in days from China now arrive in weeks or even longer. Even in Canada – essential supplies that I had sent “expedited delivery” via Canada Post ten days ago from Toronto have not yet arrived in Ottawa – a four hour drive.

Prices, too – photo frames that we buy for resale, for example, as well as paper and pigments: everything is going way up. Some $20 frames now go for $85 – seriously.

But as much as possible, we have tried not to have things affect our customers: in most cases we have been able to keep prices the same. We even have new initiatives for students and members of the military: see here.

So while the supply-issues may mean I may not be able to do all of the prints you want the same day, they will be done with the usual care and attention. See you in the store Tuesday and beyond!

Buy a used lens, or not?

Jim asks:

Hi Michael just wondering about your advice on a used camera lense….. I am looking at on Facebook market place …. it’s a canon wide angle zoom 10-22 for my canon 70D …. I am a little leery about buying a used lense and also buying and having it shipped sight unseen …

I understand the hesitation. The world is full of cheats and thieves.

But there are also at least as many honest people. Here’s my thoughts on buying a used lens.

  • Lenses tend to work practically forever, so I am generally in favour. You get a great lens for less than the new cost: why not? DO not expect a really really big discount though: lenses keep their value for decades.
  • Always ask the seller to promise that the lens is undamaged and in fully working order. Communicate via email or some other way that keeps a record.
  • Make sure you agree some course of action if that should not be the case.I am not talking about a full warranty, but what if after three hours the lens dies?
  • Ask for history: why are you selling, what did you use it for, do you have the box, etc. A good reason to sell would be “I am upgrading to full frame and this is a crop sensor lens”, for example.
  • Always ask for full contact details. I check them, and if it’s an expensive lens I have been known to take a copy of the seller’s driver’s license. After all, the lens could be stolen: it’s no more than a sensible precaution.
  • I am weary of Kijiji, so this caution doubly applies there.
  • As does this caution: “meet in a public place”.
  • eBay has warranties, so that is a little safer.
  • I like Facebook marketplace too: much fewer ‘flakes’ than on Kijiji. Check how long the Facebook user has had an account. If that’s “one week”, then you know there are alarm bells ringing.
  • When looking at a lens, take some photos at the extremes: fully zoomed in and out; lowest and highest f-number.
  • Check the prices on eBay – only look for “sold listings”!

Of course always keep in mind the old adage that “if it seems to be too good to be true then it probably is too good to be true”. But there are many good lenses to be had. So if the above all checks out, you should be fine. And there’s nothing like a new lens – fun!