How 360 cameras are revolutionizing photography

Sailing on the open sea....
Sailing on the open sea….

Perhaps the most defining characteristic of a photograph has always been how it is framed. Not the actual frame you hang it on (though that too plays a role) but exactly what the photographer chose to capture with his or her camera. Framing a shot, its composition, has always been the most important part of what makes a photograph work, or not.

The technological constraint of a lens, until very recently, required photographers to make choices.

I, photographer, am somewhere where something is happening. I can look around and see everything that’s going on, but when I put the camera to my eye, I am immediately (and quite literally) putting on blinders. I am looking through a kind of keyhole, and almost like a symphony conductor calling out the lead violinist during a performance, am visually selecting the element(s) of the scene that I wish to focus on and draw attention to.

The resulting image, stilled into permanence, has a beginning, middle and end, just like a story. It has edges. You can’t see what’s happening outside the frame, and often that which is not shown reveals something as well and can add poignancy and another layer of meaning to the image.

All of that, of course, is completely upended (if a sphere can be said to have an up or a down) when you use a 360 camera like the Ricoh Theta S, for example as I have begun to do at the events I cover. Suddenly, the image the photographer has chosen to take, is no longer fully within his or her control. Once it’s created, anyone who chooses to view it, can also chose to spin it around, and transform the view from whatever was in the photographer’s mind, to their own.

While these devices are still in their early days, and their use still largely treated as a novelty I wonder where it will take us. As brand marketers and other message-makers are pondering – how do you tell a story when you no longer can restrict the narration to a controlled point of view?

How does a photographer focus on a visual element that resonates with some emotional quality or narrative thrust when the image is no longer bound by a frame?

Virtual reality is another way forward on photography’s perpetual technological evolution and expansion. Photography has always been driven by technological change and will continue to be. With each new development, photography has expanded its reach and moved deeper and deeper into a wider audience of both consumers and practitioners.

The distance between photographer and subject is foreshortening. We are all both photographer and subjects now. And with 360 images, the compression is complete, as in every 360 taken (by hand), there appears not just the photographer’s subjects but the photographer him or herself.

I am certain, as with every techno-driven change in photo equipment, we are on the cusp of a whole new way of experiencing photography, and of course even more so with video. I don’t think VR will replace traditional photography, just as cell phones haven’t killed the DSLR, or the DSLR the SLR for that matter, to wax technogeekily for a moment).

We’re just now entering a new and thrilling phase where professional photographers can now use multiple points of view to document and create a record of what has happened. The images produced – with or without edges – can convey an even deeper and more resonant sense of the experience. And that’s very exciting.

The new event photography

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I’ve been covering events – from multi-day, multi-site, city-wide conferences to intimate gatherings – for close to fifteen years and much (everything) has changed since I began.

(Not in the mood for Long Form content? Skip to the checklist here)

Consider: my career predates the iPhone, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and Snapchat to name some of the widest reaching platforms of the modern age that helped usher us all into the socially connected economy. When I was landing my first gigs as a wedding photographer and later a corporate event photographer, digital cameras were still in their early days and Photoshop was in its first iteration.

old rotary phone
How do I check Facebook on this thing?

Fast forward to today: camera technology is ubiquitous and embedded in the daily lives of virtually everyone in some way or form on the planet. We have become blasé about being able to see satellite imagery of anywhere in the world. Seeing – in real time – what someone else is experiencing on the other side of the planet via simple hand held devices hardly registers anymore despite it being really quite amazing.  Surveillance technology is pervasive – but not only are we being watched from the skies, on highways as we drive, throughout the corridors of our commutes and inside most venues we frequent, we too are bearing our own – technologically enhanced – witness, recording daily moments, protests in the streets, encounters with each other, and the beauty of the natural world ad infinitum.

Look up!
Look up!

What was once novel is now commonplace. We have time-lapse cameras, all manner of image-enhancing filters, virtual reality and flying cameras mounted on drones capable of tracking moving targets. We have lenses that can photograph the surfaces of distant moons and others the finely filamented wings of bees and butterflies. We can see in the dark. We can see through clothes. We can see, virtually anywhere or anything we wish to with no more effort than it takes to swipe your finger across a screen.

With this Cambrian explosion of technology you would expect professional photography to be a dying trade, going the way of blacksmithing and door-to-door Encyclopedia Britannica sales.

But the opposite has occurred, driven – paradoxically – by the same trends that have put a camera into the hands of most of humanity in the developed (and developing) world.

Content, content everywhere but nary a word to read….

One of the main drivers, I’ve seen from my front row seat on the industry, is the massive and constant need for ever replenishing content created by the sharing economy. As human behaviour itself is being altered by the omnipresent integration of the internet in daily life, we’re not just heading into the oft touted Internet of Things (IoT) but really the Internet of Everything. And every search, click, swipe, haptic touch, blink or thought wave generated by a firing neurone, is seeking out a piece of content that is enriched with photos and videos, often to the exclusion of much, if any written text.

We’re spending hours daily looking at pictures, and videos, and animated GIFs, etc, and companies are paying attention. The smart money knows that more, really is more, and feeding the plethora of content distribution platforms everyday people just call Facebook or Instagram, or Snapchat…is where the real money is made. Not, of course, by crassly monetizing the stuffing in the pipe (“I never click on a Facebook ad!”), but rather through the magnetic ability of quality content to draw customers to whatever it is you are trying to sell, when done right. That is, professionally done with enough skill, amplification and repetitive force to ensure it gets seen by as many of the right people as possible.

From mega brands spending billions a year on advertising to micro-brands of one, selling through content is one of the main ways of discovering, reaching, connecting with and engaging new customers. That content feed drip continuously through the funnels of social media platforms we’ve barnacled our minds to, relies on an equally steady stream of mainly imagery that needs to be produced on a continuous basis.

UGC ya later

We're connected
We’re connected

And while much of it is, and will be, user generated content (UGC), that alone just isn’t enough. Just because everyone in the world holds in their hands tools for taking high quality photos and videos, doesn’t mean they will use them. Even if they do, it doesn’t mean they’ll do it as consistently, and with the same (er) focus, as professional content creators (writers, photographers, videographers) contracted by businesses with a clear intent to generate specific types of images that create a sense of excitement and elicit interest from new (and existing but no longer loyal) customers they need to attract every day to stay profitable.

Events like conferences, or major sporting events, aren’t sold by sharing the selfies and beauty shots taken by past attendees. They’re sold by professionals capturing and curating content that is purposely published and distributed to targeted individuals and communities that matter to those people organizing the event.

Materializing experiences

As the next large cohort of consumers grows in influence, (yes, I’m talking about millennials again despite that being an omni-term covering a slew of micro-communities), we’re witnessing the ascendance of experiences over materialism.

While owning the latest fashionable pair of sneakers and wearing jeans ripped just so is still a way of marking oneself as “in”, there are now legions of younger people who prioritize having experiences over owning more stuff (and not just because many of them are priced out of the market). The new rule is that anything that can be shared, will be shared. Transportation is particularly susceptible to this as shown through the rapid growth and expansive reach of ride sharing companies like UBER and Lyft, but everything today that has a hope of getting taken up by a large group of people has sharing embedded in its design.

Product libraries are cropping up where people can share things like lawnmowers and stock pots, and successful brands are paying attention. How do you keep making a profit if you are selling fewer things? You sell something that can’t be held onto….except in memory. You sell experiences. And how do people share experiences? In their story streams, with photos, captions, videos, silly animated filters and really good thumb work on messaging apps.

And this is exactly what is happening. Brands like puravida bracelets aren’t just selling pretty little handmade bracelets that remind you of  your beach vacation. They are selling you the feeling of your life as a beach vacation. They are selling a lifestyle. They are selling you access to a story of entrepreneurship, of helping local communities, of sunsets on the beach, surfing and living in a timeless way that cares only about the moment. And they are doing it largely through social media and largely with well-curated photography and videography.

While having the experience is core to the success of experiential marketing – selling the experience, enticing people to partake and encouraging the spread of participation is still being done through marketing that shows off the experience in its best light. (I’ve written more on experience marketing here and here and here.

Plus ça change…

Without an audience, conference attendees or a hand-picked curated list of bloggers you hope to influence so they spread the word about your company, event photography can’t exist. Engaging these people, making the experience they’ve chosen to participate in fun and memorable, is the core function of the event organizer. Part of doing that right is working with the right photographer who recognizes that event photography has changed, even as it has grown in importance.

The new event photography is more than just great photography. It has to be fun too. Interactive. Exciting. A mix of images from candid closeups to well composed groups is just table stakes now. Covering events now includes offering a blend of image types – from drone photos and videography to virtual reality 360 photos and videos – to simply stay in the game.  Having this kind of kit and knowing how to use it helps keep the professional event photographer one step ahead of the curve. But most importantly, it makes participating in event photography more fun for the increasingly  hard to please people who go to events and make an event what it is. And don’t forget social mediagraphy: live tweeting, Instagramming, Snapchatting and sharing links on LinkedIn is also part of the event photographer’s bag today.

To help you get the job done, I’ve put together below a short checklist for event coordinators and managers, experiential marketers and conference organizers on some of the new tools and techniques to look for when booking your next event photographer:

Checklist for the new event photographer:

  • Min. two up-to-date cameras and min. 3 lenses (wide angle, short-mid range, telephoto)
  • Ability to shoot in 360 (virtual reality ready photo and video)
  • Ability to shoot from drone (photo and/or video clips)
  • Time-lapse cameras
  • Rapid turnaround on event images (highlights reel post-event, finished product within 24 hrs)
  • Digital delivery from secure, online gallery
  • Visible social media presences across multiple platforms (I.e. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Pinterest and yes, even Google+)
  • Demonstrable ability to engage and interact with wide range of people
  • Active blog / good writing ability
  • Brand awareness / understanding of the marketing goals behind the event
  • Can do, team-player attitude
  • Creative, visual storytelling skills

If the goal is reach and engagement, cutting through the noise of a world buzzing with distractions has made the work of marketers more challenging than ever even as the tantalizing opportunity for engagement and hyper-targeted messaging has never been better. In the panoply of digital tools marketers leverage today to create real and meaningful connections with their communities, strong, fresh and professional developed visual assets are crucial in forming real and lasting connections with the people that matter most to your business.

How does your profile picture rate?

Using profiles to sort through people is a bit of a dirty word in policing but online we’d all be lost without one. We’re now “seen” hundreds if not thousands more times by people (and bots, and spammers, and other internet undesirables) online than we ever are in real life – but are we paying a proportionate amount of attention to how we -or our avatars– are being perceived?

You probably wouldn’t leave the house without at least a cursory glance in the mirror to check your hair, scan your complexion and make sure you had nothing large and green stuck in your teeth but how long have you had that cropped vacation pic up as a placeholder on LinkedIn that you’ve been meaning to change but just haven’t got anything better to replace it with?

Here’s something fun you can try out. I discovered PhotoFeeler while listening to a great podcast from Terry O’Reilly’s The Art of Persuasion . The site lets you upload a photo of yourself and have it ranked across three metrics (that change depending on whether your purpose is business, social or dating). The “free” test actually requires 10 credits which you can get easily enough by voting on ten other photos of random people the site serves up to you. The results, as this excerpt from an email I got today show, can be quite revealing, showing marked differences in opinions on the same person from photos taken seconds apart:

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Here are my results (for the first two I selected “Business” and the last one “Social”):

This is my current LinkedIn photo (soon to be old LinkedIn photo as you can see from the results):

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 3.05.24 PM

Not what I expected, but then maybe I should have sprung for the $12 evaluation which gathers more than 10 quick hit votes. Or maybe I need to change my photo. I do think that with half my face hidden behind the camera I may be turning off people as it’s hard to trust someone if you can’t see their eyes and a smile.

Now here are the results from my last LinkedIn photo that I just changed away from (but looks like I’ll be switching it back in!):

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My personal Facebook photo did alright, though I care a little less about this one. I think the hat is pushing up my grade in the Fun category.

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All in, though this was only the free version and a rough vote, I think it probably correlates well to how these images are perceived. A handy tool for anyone on the job/dating market looking to get a bit of insight in what their profile picture says about them. I’d like to see, in addition to these raw results, a few guidelines on how to improve the photos selected and more detail on what elements people are reacting to in particular, but perhaps that comes with more votes/the paid version.  In any case, a fun way to get a look in the mirror through someone else’s eyes.

 

 

Create your own photospheres

Oh the places you'll go

As Google busily gobbles up the world’s data you may not yet have noticed a change in its Maps program that allows anyone to create immersive 360° images enabled by its Streetview technology. (UPDATE: You can also do this easily now with a Ricoh Theta S camera that shoots in 360º. Check out my post on VR here.)

Here’s one I did for a restaurant in Montreal, The Monkland Tavern, as well as a much larger one for the Gold Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities

Gold Centre Photospheric Virtual Tour
Gold Centre Photospheric Virtual Tour

While professional photographers like me can still work with fish eye lenses, or high-priced spherical cameras (and you can hire me to shoot your venue for you), you can get pretty decent quality photospheres (as Google calls these panoramic images sewn seamlessly together) using just your smartphone and Google’s Streetview App on Android or for your iPhone.

Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Download the app.
  2. Review the Tips section of the app
  3. Start shooting!

To get good results you’ll need a little bit of practice. Try starting outdoors (once you get the hang of it you can try an indoor space but it’s easier to get it right outdoors on the first try).

Also remember to hold the phone close to your face and shoot vertically

Finally, be sure you shoot a complete set of images rotating in a circle several times to cover a full sphere

Once you’ve created your photosphere you can save it to your camera roll and then decide if you want to publish it directly to Google Maps. The default option is set to private so you don’t have to worry if you don’t like the look of your photosphere or captured any indiscreet imagery you do not want to make public.

If you do want to publish it, just tag it, provide a brief description and hit publish. You can learn more about how to use the app here or within the app itself.

Currently photospheres contributed to Google Maps this way lack the connectivity that professionals in the Trusted Photographer Program can enable using an access restricted photosphere editor. If you want to offer a full virtual tour your site visitors can virtually walk through you’ll still want to work with a professional, but if you are just looking for the free option that provides good value and showcases your interior or exterior spaces in its full 360° splendour, then download the app and give it a whirl.

What makes an image “real”? A reaction to the discussion on the future of photography

But is it real?
But is it real?

Since the birth of photography, 175 years ago, there seems to always have been a debate between whether a photograph is a “real” accurate representation of an objective reality or a manipulated, “fake” version of one. The discussion continues today and recently resurfaced in articles by Stephen Mayes (The Next Revolution in Photography is Coming) in which he argues there is no such thing as a “straight photograph” (quotations used to question if ever there was such a thing) and references several authors (whose work and innovative thinking inspired this piece) such as Taylor Davidson (Software is eating the camera) and a longer form analysis, The Integrity of the Image, by Dr. David Campbell.

Something about the way a photograph seems to mimic the way we see the world burdens it with the weight of expectations. While we would never assume a painter produces anything but a work of art when painting a picture – no matter how realistic – the opposite is true of photographers. The prevailing assumption is that the work produced is without artistry, a mere “mechanical” process of pointing a lens and pressing a button positioning the photographer as a documentarian, a human tripod supporting the image capture system that is a camera which today can be anything from a phone to a flying drone in the sky.

I was out with a few teenagers the other day who took some amazing photos with their phones. They were completely nonchalant about it. “Anyone can take a picture. It’s nothing. It’s soooooo easy.” And it’s true. Anyone really can do it and it is really easy to do. This democratization of photography has always been feared a little by professionals who feel their world shrinking as it grows exponentially for others who can now do what was once reserved for someone with expensive and specialized equipment and a knowledge of chemicals and light.

I see you
I see you

But to fear the progress of technology in any field is to cease trying to adapt to it, and imagine new uses for it. I think those photographers who bemoan the ubiquity of cameras today in all their myriad forms and pronounce on the demise of photographers maybe really were just mechanics, pressing buttons and not deploying any creativity in their image making. Their prognostication on the death of photography is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you can’t embrace technological disruption in your industry and have the flexibility and adaptability to learn how you can repurpose what you do in the changed context that disruption has created, then you are on the way out.

If, on the other hand, you look at this digital age as an age of wonder then the future is truly boundless and limitless. Yes in some ways it is more expensive and time consuming – there are new tools to learn and gain expertise with, new skills and languages to master. But what profession today is immune from the same forces? Does a doctor dread the discovery of a new drug or surgical technique that renders the old one obsolete because the new one offers a much higher survival rate? Does the architect bemoan the use of building imaging technology that lets them see in three dimensions where the pipes and electrical will flow because it diminishes the value of a hand drawn blue print?

Anyone who is uncomfortable adjusting to the change technological innovations wreak on their profession is accepting a path towards obsolescence as their future instead of one of continual growth, learning and discovery. Perhaps this is more common in photographers because, unlike many professions, they are a tribe of loners, independent practitioners. Maybe it is a function of having only one lens to look through, though perhaps in future even that will change (actually it already is), offering devices with multiple viewpoints capable of being operated by more than one photographer at once. This will draw in different personality types to the trade, and I think this is partly what is going on today.

New technology attracts different kinds of people. The teenage girl in love with taking selfies of herself may not ever have been interested in landscape photography, but now she’s got a handy tool to explore her passion for her own image. The drone operators creating stunning aerial views of their worlds may not be the same kind of personality as the event photographer smiling and blending into a crowded room of people gnoshing on hors d’oevres and quaffing red wine, and that’s the point. The new technologies in photography today are creating new breeds of photographers who probably don’t identify themselves strictly as photographers.  A modern photographer is no longer one thing. And this, I think, is what some photographers recoil from  but also what makes photography great.  It is a tool for creativity and the more creativity we can unleash in the world, the better.

Photography is constantly changing. New technology brings new adopters of that technology and scares away those who resist change or can’t adapt as quickly, but whatever your particular stance towards change, the future of photography is bright and full of limitless possibilities for those who embrace everything it is – and will be – capable of doing.

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Sources:

Stephen Mayes: http://time.com/4003527/future-of-photography/

Taylor Davidson: http://taylordavidson.com/2014/camera

David Campbell: http://www.worldpressphoto.org/sites/default/files/upload/Integrity%20of%20the%20Image_2014%20Campbell%20report.pdf

History of Photography: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_photography

Michael Zhang: http://petapixel.com/2015/09/21/fire-breathers-captured-in-slow-mo-and-bullet-time-using-50-cameras/

Time lapsed in-office corporate portrait session

My Brinno in action waiting for squirrels

I recently purchased a Brinno TLC200 f/1.2 Time Lapse Camera to play around with to incorporate into my conference and tradeshow coverage photography gigs. There is a child-like fascination with watching time speed up, like the thrill you used to get pressing fast forward and play at the same time when watching an old VHS tape (if you’re old enough to remember what a VHS is, if not check here).

Here’s my first attempt, shot recently at one of my client’s offices while we were doing a corporate portrait session.

While I haven’t quite mastered it, I can see how this will be a useful tool to showcase construction projects, or intermittent flows of people moving to and from convention halls, or the setting up and tearing down of trade show booths. The cameras are quite inexpensive relative to most photography gear and I suspect I’ll be getting a few more to play around with.

I also serendipitously came across this article on Springwise (one of my sources for finding out about new products and innovations and really really good for slacking off a bit on a Friday afternoon) about a company using a time lapse camera kit to teach kids about wild life: Camera kit teaches kids about tech in nature which inspired this afternoon’s project, where I’ve set up my Brinno out on the deck to try to capture shots of the squirrels ravaging my garden.

I think it’s a fun camera to have in your kit as a pro, and equally fun for anyone who enjoys messing around with cameras. You could bring one on your next camping trip to document setting up your campsite, and finally have proof that in fact the bear beside  your tent was really just your friend snoring. Happy trails!