Tuesday, September 14, 2010

55 Station RIP

After compiling a series of photos I'd taken over the past year for a project onto a Compact Flash disk, I took them to my local 55 Station print shop to get prints made. I inserted the disk into machine number one, disk recognised, no images found. Machine number 2, same. Machine number 3, number 4, all the same.

Noticing my apparent frustration, the shop owner approached and asked if I was having troubles. I explained the content of the prior paragraph, and she told me something that came as a bit of a surprise. And not a good, positive surprise that would allow me to leave the shop with my prints in hand and a skip in my step, but one of those dumbfounded face-palming surprises that makes me question the collective intelligence of the people chosen to make decisions.

"If the images on the card have been post-processed in any way, the machines will reject them. They've very strict on security now."

New Kimono
Not an image, apparently.

I explained that this is of course ridiculous – I post-process most of my photos before printing, and when I shoot RAW I don't even have a choice in the matter. The machines are effectively enforcing my copyright against me.

The lady shrugged her shoulders.

"It's to try and prevent people making infringing prints from pictures they grabbed off the internet. It's frustrating because we're losing customers."

She continued.

"However, if you use the web interface to order prints, you can pick them up here within a couple of hours. The web interface lets you print anything."

I explained that if I were wishing to make infringing prints from pictures grabbed off the internet, that would certainly be my preferred method as opposed to going to the trouble of putting them onto a disk and using the shop's machine. Again, she shrugged her shoulders and apologised for the inconvenience.

I took my business to a different store under a different chain.

Anyway, this sparked an interesting discussion as to how exactly they're determining that a photo file is original. At first, I thought it might be in the EXIF data – cameras and software such as Photoshop will normally leave their own names in the meta-data to identify themselves as the file creator. However, most images grabbed off the web, or produced by older cameras and many camera phones have no EXIF data, so it can't reasonably be that. It would either be too easy to get round (strip all meta-data on Export etc.), or it would produce far too many false-positives, rejecting all kinds of genuinely original pictures.

Then, an equally curious friend drew my attention to some software that can with reasonable accuracy distinguish post-processed images from originals using a combination of meta-data and a database of compression signatures. I have no idea what that means, but it sounds very clever.

And that's when I realised the real reason they started to reject post-processed images.

Because they can.

It's a danger that's inherent in any kind of system of DRM, that because a data can be electronically protected, it therefore should be. Because the print service is primarily targeted at people printing pictures straight out of their cameras, and they can prevent post-processed images being printed, they therefore should. Doesn't make any sense, but that's the allure of technology.

It reminded me of a conversation I had a few years back with a representative of a movie distribution company over the use of regional coding, which roughly went as follows:

Me: "As you're only releasing this movie (with obvious international appeal) in Japan, have you considered making the DVD region free?"
Rep: "It's not region free though; we're only distributing it in Japan."
Me: "Yeah, but If you make the DVD region free, you can still play it normally in Japan. Additionally if people living overseas want to buy a copy, then they can play it too."
Rep: "But we're not selling it overseas, and have no plans to ever do so."

So they went ahead and region coded it with no clear reason why, ensuring in the process that the majority of the world's population could not enjoy lawfully purchased copies (not without purchasing a chipped or Region 2 DVD player anyhow), and would have to resort instead to pirated copies if they wanted to see the movie.

Japanese social networking site Mixi is also guilty of this same common sense violation. Most Japanese mobile phones support a copyright flag in image file meta-data. Any file containing that flag can be saved and viewed on the phone, but cannot be copied to a flash disk, mailed to other people, uploaded, or retrieved in any way. This enables companies to sell for a dollar or three, tiny images of around QVGA size and less to use as a phone wallpaper or screensaver, or simply just to look at, safe in the knowledge that it can't be shared. It's a similar system to selling a fraction of a popular song as a ring tone for the same, or even more than the full version. Mixi being a social networking site hosts user generated content, but if you attempt to download even your OWN photos to your phone, it adds the copyright flag so it can't be copied again. What is frustrating is that the user who uploaded the picture is not given any choice in the matter – they're not even told. I licence most of my pictures under Creative Commons, and applying a digital lock in this manner violates that license.

But they can do it, and I guess that's all the incentive they need.

iPhone 4 Camera - Update #4

Apple finally rolled out the IOS 4.1 update last week, and despite making no promises, there is a marked improvement on the quality of the camera's white balance under warmer lighting conditions such as tungsten. It could still be tweaked and improved upon, but my first impression was that if the camera had worked like that when it was first released, I would not have made nearly as much fuss about it as I have.

Apple called me this morning as part of their response gauging efforts. It's good to see that Apple haven't lost touch, and continue to understand that a satisfied consumer base is a loyal consumer base.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Fake Miniaturisers != Fake Tilt-Shift

Fake miniaturisers have been a popular toy-camera style application for a while now. The principle behind them is that the brain can instinctively recognise certain visual clues such as an absurdly shallow depth of field and interpret them as meaning that the scene in the picture is very very small. Anybody with experience with macro photography knows how tricky it is to get very close-up subjects in focus as the depth of focus is often less than a millimetre front to back. So basically, large scale has a nice wide focus range, small scale has a narrow focus range. Your brain gets this, even if you're there scratching your head trying to figure out what I just said.

What the fake miniaturiser does is to take a nice large scale scene which is probably mostly in focus, and then fakes a shallow focus to give the impression that it's much smaller than it really is. It's not an exact science – all they're doing is making the assumption that the camera is looking diagonally down onto a scene with the top furthest away, picking a line that will be the focus "distance" and making everything above and below that line increasingly fuzzy. Often they'll increase the saturation and brightness too to give the unspoken impression that the scene is comprised of brightly painted models under clear artificial lighting. Some Creative Commons examples from Flickr:

Prague - Fake Miniature
By fionaandneil
Tilt Shift By The Sea
By jfravel
Tilt shift - the easy way
By swhite99

Evidently, some work better than others.

A similar effect can be achieved in-camera by using a specialised lens known as a tilt-shift. The lens elements can be physically displaced left, right, up and down, and can also be tilted in all directions so it's attempting to project an image onto a plane that isn't parallel to the film or image sensor. This allows a wide range of perspective correction and distortion, and focus related effects to be achieved.

For example, by pointing the camera diagonally down onto a scene, focussing around the middle (or wherever you like really), then tilting the lens a little downward, you can get the focal distance to be based on distance from the ground upward rather than distance from the lens, meaning your entire landscape near and far is in focus (but with the tops of trees all blurred). Tilting the lens up on the other hand gives the opposite effect – the focal distance is closest to the lens at the top of the picture (where the furthest away scene elements are) and furthest from the lens at the bottom. This exaggerates the natural focus depth significantly giving an effect that's similar to shooting a miniature close up, as in the example below (used with permission):

© Alfie Goodrich

I'd show some more examples, but unfortunately they're very hard to find, the reason being that any search for tilt-shift pictures returns page upon page of shots that have been fake-miniaturised by software. Somehow it has entered the public lexicon that any kind of fake miniaturisation is by definition a "fake tilt-shift". In fact, most of said fake-minaturisation applications are calling themselves just that. Two of the faked pictures linked above even have "Tilt-Shift" in their titles.

So let's make it clear once and for all:

Fake miniaturisation by way of post-processing is as much a "fake tilt-shift" as a battering ram is a "fake credit card".
(Hint – motel room doors...)

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Adobe CS Corporate Licensing

Something that never sat right with me about Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (the Peter Jackson movie) was when Gandalf took Pippin off to Gondor, and Aragorn and Merry have their little exchange. Merry makes a joke about the foolhardiness of the Tooks, and Aragorn just looks bemused. It leads me to believe that the full scene probably read out as follows:

Aragorn: "One thing I've learned about hobbits; they are most hardy folk."
Merry: "Foolhardy maybe. He's a Took."
Aragon: "Yeah, you see, that's lost on me. I haven't really had any dealings with any other members of his family, so to even acknowledge the apparent humour in such a remark would be kind of presumptuous and rude, do you not think?"
Merry: "A fair point well made good sir. I will refrain from such comments, insofar as such comments are there to be made. Now let us make haste for the luncheon table, and eat assorted meats and rhubarb crumble."

Which brings me to the main point about Adobe's licensing of their Creative Suite set of products, including Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Dreamweaver and other such professional design tools, and the foolhardiness thereof you will simply have to take me at my word over.

It's as if the legal team responsible for the corporate licensing have intentionally gone out of their way to penalise the honest. Of course, products such as DVDs also penalise paying customers by making them sit through mandatory accusations and threats, and many games require a permanent internet connection to play offline, none of which applies to those who acquire the products dishonestly, but Adobe's corporate licensing really takes it to the next level and beyond. Let's take a look at why.

Adobe's Creative Suite has a fairly regular upgrade cycle of 1 year to 18 months. This always results in the following:
  1. A new file format which is not compatible with older versions, with "export" only available the most recent version.
  2. Approximately zero support for older versions once a new version becomes available (e.g. camera RAW updates are only ever available for the most current version, even if it only came out last week, and that bug fix you were waiting for just isn't going to happen).
Because of #2 above, many businesses in the design field want to upgrade as soon as a new version becomes available, as opposed to hanging back and waiting for the bugs that will become evident through field testing have been ironed out, or god forbid skipping a generation. But because it's virtually an industry standard, and people in, say, the print industry are having to exchange proprietary format files, then #1 above means not upgrading on the day of release ensures you can no longer be active in that field. Were Adobe a monopoly, then this would certainly classify as monopoly abuse, though with sensible licensing it doesn't have to be that way...

Yeah, sensible licensing, right... It's bad enough that every year or so when they decide you have to upgrade, you have to shell out retail price (or a slightly discounted upgrade price if you had a license for the immediately previous version) for every installation. To add to that, you are only allowed to have the licensed version installed; my boss came round earlier to make sure we were all complying with this clause. So the license you purchase to use CS5 actually includes a clause that says the licenses you purchased for CS4, CS3, CS2, CS1, and all previous versions of the software are no longer valid. The implications for #1 and #2 above are more than self evident; if you wanted to keep older versions available so that you could still exchange files with businesses who haven't upgraded, then businesses wouldn't be forced into the upgrade cycle quite as badly.

There is a sensible way around this in which everybody wins. The upgrade philosophy from the developers standpoint and the strict licensing conditions make this an ideal candidate for subscription licensing. Put simply, why not utilise a model whereby an annual fee is paid in exchange for use of the latest version. This way, Adobe get paid, they no longer have any moral obligation to support prior versions, all businesses get to use the latest versions as they become available, and nobody feels like they're being ripped off at gunpoint. Businesses will pay, because they're going to pay anyway, but this takes all of the stress and randomness out of the equation, and allows them to include it in the budget as a fixed maintenance cost. But they refuse to do this.


UPDATE: Since writing this, Adobe have gone ahead and done exactly what I said.