Shoot because you love what you’re shooting”

John Carey has written an excellent article on the current state of photography, titled Don’t Forget to Remember This. It is difficult to quote bits of it, because one is easily tempted to quote everything. The following is what especially resonated with me:

The challenges present in photography today are not in the devices we use to capture, it’s not in our approach, skill level, or what we think we need to create good photos; the problem today is in social pressure. Photography has quickly evolved in its short lifespan from revolutionary, to useful, to ubiquitous and full of expectation.

Like the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, or the houses we live in, our photographs are another vehicle to which the world judges us because the world expects to see proof of our beautiful, happy lives and we have grown to crave that attention. In this light, photography has grown vain in its old age.

We shoot, we shoot, and we shoot… and then we share. Sometimes to prove our good taste or creative ability, but also, in many cases, as a means to feel alive because we have generated this need to prove something to others and to ourselves.

When I left Instagram in early 2013, the reasons behind my choice were essentially two; the first was ‘political’: Instagram had been recently acquired by Facebook, and I didn’t (and don’t) want anything to do with Facebook. The second reason was tied to that ‘social pressure’ Carey mentions. As I wrote in Life after Instagram about my Instagram photography and experience, I realised that it had become more of an Instagram dependence than a form of expression. I realised how mechanical a habit it had been. I realised the cheapening effect it had on my photography in general. Posting to Instagram had turned into a meaningless daily hunt for the cool ‘Instagram moment’. Later in the article, Carey’s advice is don’t shoot to share, shoot because you love what you’re shooting and I realised I was doing exactly the opposite — at least on Instagram.

Another great piece of advice from Carey:

Your tool of choice is your choice. Spend money on a camera, or not, but don’t do it to feel more confident or to fit in. Buy a camera that suits your lifestyle.

These past years I’ve considered the purchase of a DSLR more than once, because I was feeling I had hit the limits of my ageing Nikon Coolpix 8800, an 8-megapixel bridge camera from 2004. Then my interest was piqued by more compact, mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses. But one day I just realised I didn’t really need a new, cool, expensive digital camera with 14 or more megapixels. On one side, I have a few film SLRs with very nice lenses that still give me great pleasure when shooting and great results at the end of the process. On the other, my digital, instant-gratification needs are certainly met by my iPhone. And the Coolpix 8800 may feature 10-year-old technology, but it’s still capable of delivering satisfactory results. My wanting a new photographic toy, it turns out, has little to do with actual photographic needs. It’s a passing fancy I can do without — upgrading my iPhone will probably be enough.

The format and approach I have taken through the years has varied a fair amount but has always been a big part of defining the feelings I carried while shooting. I shoot film when I feel a deeper connection to what I am shooting, I shoot digital when I simply want to remember. My compositions and developing have similar fingerprints in that they tell me a lot about how I felt when I made the photographs. Every click of the shutter for me is a moment worth remembering and it’s the memories that make photography so gratifying for me.

I, too, shoot both film and digital, with more or less the same intent as Carey. Shooting film has taught me to be more restrained and to really look for the scene or subject to shoot, not just be trigger-happy at the first hint of ‘something interesting to capture.’ It’s been such a significant change that I maintain the same behaviour when I’m using a digital camera. (I know, digital is more forgiving and one can be more wasteful, and that’s a great thing when one is learning; but I’ve come to a point in my photography in which I want to waste much fewer shots to catch what I’m trying to catch — the ideal being capturing the scene or subject I want with just the one perfect shot.) My iPhone remains, in a way, a sort of photographic sketchbook, where photos with an artistic flair are interspersed with snapshots of fleeting moments or experiments taken with a particular app.

Whether you’re serious about photography or just take snaps to share a moment and quickly forget about it, read John Carey’s piece in its entirety. Let it sink in. Think about it the next time you take out your DSLR, compact camera or smartphone. Don’t simply focus on what you’re shooting — focus on why you’re shooting.

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Legibility over aesthetics

John Gruber, replying to this article by Thomas Phinney, writes:

Here I disagree with Phinney. I don’t think Apple has ever promoted Helvetica Neue as being more legible than, say, Lucida Grande. Apple has moved to Helvetica because it’s more attractive, and, with modern display resolutions (especially retina displays), Helvetica is legible enough. One may fairly argue that legibility should always trump aesthetics — but one could argue thus for all font choices, not just UI fonts.

I think that it really depends on the specific purpose for using a particular font. Sometimes æsthetics may be more important than sheer legibility (the first example coming to mind is music album artwork), and let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that there are many fonts which are both legible and æsthetically pleasing. But when it comes to user interfaces, I believe that legibility should really always have precedence over æsthetics in the design process. That doesn’t mean that a UI font can’t also be nice to look at, but a UI font is, above all, something you use, not something you show off. A system font is a UI element (perhaps even the most important UI element) whose main job is to help users with their work. It’s a means to an end. Icons may afford to be just pretty. Not system fonts. System fonts should be, first and foremost, clear to read in the most diverse scenarios.[1]

I don’t know how exactly Yosemite’s system font looks in the latest OS X beta, but the people I’ve heard so far all agree that it’s harder to read on non-Retina displays, and that’s unfortunate. At the moment, only MacBook Pros come with Retina displays. Even if Apple introduces Retina MacBook Airs and Retina iMacs later this year or in early 2015, OS X Yosemite is going to be compatible with a lot of non-Retina Macs. And even if Apple introduces an external Retina monitor, you can’t expect all those buying Mac minis and Mac Pros to choose that over more affordable, non-Retina solutions.

If Yosemite’s system font is clearer to read on Retina displays than non-Retina displays, that in itself is enough to demonstrate how a step back it is from Lucida Grande, which is very legible on both types of displays. Taking a design choice that from the start is going to make your operating system look worse on a lot of compatible machines is not, in my opinion, also a good typographic choice. OS X is not iOS. Helvetica Neue, while not a optimal candidate for any system font, is tolerable enough on iOS 7 because at least the majority of devices supporting iOS 7 has a Retina display.

I never liked to express opinions in the form of “Apple should do this and that,” but from a typographical standpoint, I think a better course of action would have been to slightly tweak the already more readable Lucida Grande to look ‘fresher’ rather than trying to adapt a more difficult font such as Helvetica Neue to serve a purpose for which it’s not really suitable by default.

(For other personal objections on Helvetica Neue, see also Helvetica Neue as system font is a bad idea.)

 


  • 1. Chicago and Charcoal, the two system fonts used by Apple up to Mac OS 7.6 and in Mac OS 8/9 respectively, are indeed the perfect example of fonts that are perfect for their purpose — to be, above all, legible UI fonts — but rather ugly and not really versatile as typefaces out of their context.

 

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Writing doesn’t pay

Jared Sinclair’s A Candid Look at Unread’s First Year, where he openly talks about how his (great) iOS app Unread has fared so far, how much he invested in it and how much he’s actually gained from it, has started a very interesting debate. Other developers have chimed in and offered their experience and insight. Read Nobility of Effort by David Smith: it contains an amazing list of relevant articles on the subject.

I haven’t read all of them, but from my understanding, the general takeaway is that developers put a great amount of resources (time, money, dedication) to create apps, and what they gain in return is disproportionately little. (Jason Brennan says it better: The basic gist seems to be “it’s nearly impossible to make a living off iOS apps and it’s possible but still pretty hard to do off OS X.”)

I’m not a programmer and I don’t develop apps. My products have to do with the written word — articles and fiction. I have an ebook of short stories, Minigrooves, on the iBookstore; and a compact digital magazine, Vantage Point, in Apple’s Newsstand. Both products are essentially packaged as apps, and could be considered apps for the sake of discussion. Both are available for purchase/subscription in their respective ‘App Stores’ and, like with apps, Apple keeps 30% of what I earn through the sale of the book and the magazine.

Minigrooves has been in the iBookstore for a year now. I won’t post ‘the numbers’ because it’s just not worth it. Suffice to say that, if it were my only source of income, I’d be sleeping under a bridge. If the situation seems dire for an indie Mac/iOS/Android developer, for a self-published writer and one-man operation such as I am, the situation is abysmal.

I admit my marketing efforts have been limited and a bit naïve: knowing full well what it means to be at the receiving end of marketing and advertising tactics, I haven’t had the heart to be overly aggressive in promoting my products. And I certainly haven’t the money to pay someone else (like an agent) to do the dirty PR work for me. But I feel that even if I invested more in marketing my short stories and my magazine, the result would be only very slightly less disappointing and disheartening than the current situation.

If you think that it takes quite a lot of convincing to get people to buy your (great) app, and to generally pay for software, you have no idea how hard it is to get people to buy your ebook or to subscribe to your magazine. Both of which have actually a free sample option, so that people can try before they buy. Words are way harder to market. People can listen to a 30-second preview of a song and can decide whether they like that song or not almost immediately. People can decide whether a game may interest them or not by looking at a series of screenshots and a brief video, even if the game is in beta; it usually is enough to give them an immediate ‘feel’ (How are the visuals? Is it a platformer? Is it yet another variant of the military-flavoured first person shooter? Is it a point-and-click adventure? Is it an RPG? Etc.)

But a book or a magazine have little to offer in the immediacy or instant gratification departments. Sure, one can come up with a little ad campaign, but people are (understandably) putting less and less trust in ads and slogans. Those are not enough to demonstrate the quality of what you’re offering. There’s no way around it: people have to take some time to read at least a bit of it. The first volume of Minigrooves consists of 42 stories. The free sample you can download in the iBookstore contains 3 full stories. Choosing 3 stories out of 42 to represent your product is hard, harder than choosing five screenshots of an app. Those three stories may end up involuntarily misrepresenting your book or your style. Especially with short stories so varied in tone and themes such as the 42 you’ll find in the first volume of Minigrooves. Similarly, people will largely rely on the Demo Issue of Vantage Point Magazine to decide whether they’ll subscribe to it or not. It’s a bit of a lottery.

The problem, however, presents even earlier in the process: the problem is convincing people to buy your words — literally. The sad thing is how writing online (or digitally spreading the product of one’s writing) is generally perceived today: as something that anyone and their dog can do; as something that is easy to do; as something that is not worth paying for. We have come to this, in my opinion, mostly because the Web is littered with an incredible amount of bad writing. Consequently, readers think you don’t need that much skill to be a writer and they undervalue your profession. There’s that, and there’s also the expectation that every bit of information provided digitally should be free. So, people don’t seem to have issues with purchasing physical copies of books, newspapers, magazines; but their digital counterparts? Those have to be free. As if, by the sole reason of being intangible, they should be valued less, or had less value.

Writing good stuff isn’t easy and it doesn’t come quickly[1]. Whether it’s an article, an op-ed, an essay, a short story or a novel, one needs time to do some research, then there’s the composition itself, then the editing/proofreading process, then the re-reading part and yet another stage of checking and refining. At least, this is what should happen ideally and what happens behind the scenes with everything I write. One may take a look at my humble magazine, Vantage Point and ask: why pay for a small selection of articles + a serialised novel, when all the contents on your website are free? There are different ways to answer this question.

  • You may just consider Vantage Point Magazine as a different product than this website, and therefore priced differently. Just as a musician can make available some of his/her songs as free downloads or free streams, but sell his/her new album or EP at a price.
  • You may consider Vantage Point Magazine the equivalent of a paid membership for this website. After all, I run this website alone, I pay for domain registration/renewal and hosting[2], and offer nine years’ worth of material free without a single ad to disrupt the reading experience or otherwise bullshit the reader.
  • Vantage Point includes original content that I find especially valuable (i.e. deserving a price tag): Low Fidelity, my novel in serialised form, is a huge project with a rich background. The setting for the novel isn’t just a fictitious city, but a whole world I’ve been mapping and building for a long time. But it’s not only that: on Vantage Point I may feature content never published anywhere else before and that will never be published anywhere else afterwards.
  • Creating an issue of Vantage Point takes a different time and effort than just publishing an article or a brief review on my site. I think that charging the meagre amount of roughly $1.50 per issue is fair enough, considering the work.

There is a very interesting project on Kickstarter called App: The Human Story, that I’m glad has been founded. It’s a documentary about developers and their work. I especially like this bit in the project’s description:

Just as apps have made their way to the world stage, a small community of developers has emerged as modern day artisans. Their obsession over the details of every interaction and pixel has given these unlikely leaders a voice in shaping software in a way that respects what it means to be human.

At its core, App: The Human Story is a vehicle to look at what it means to be human in a world of technology.

And this, in turn, has made me think that there should also be a similar documentary on writers and what it means to be a writer today — in this world of technology that has had an incredible impact on the written word in its transition from analogue to digital media, and the struggles self-published writers have to face on a daily basis.

I said before that, as a writer, the problem is convincing people to literally buy your words. I’ll add that, more accurately, the problem is convincing people that quality writing is worth paying for, that there’s content which is fine to provide for free, and content that’s worth a premium. The problem is making readers realise that behind an article that can be read in 5 minutes there can be hours of research; that behind a short story that can be read in 2 minutes, much more time has been spent editing and refining the narration. Considering the amount of bad writing and rubbish content thrown at readers online every day, the hardest step in this whole process is educating readers to be discerning and separate the wheat from the chaff. I don’t have definite answers on the matter, but it would be great to create some debate over this.

 


  • 1. I like what Jonathon Duerig replied to me on App.net: It is a lot easier to write a really bad story than it is to make a really bad computer game or app. Of course, it is harder to make a really good novel than to make a really good game.
  • 2. Granted, as you may very well imagine, these aren’t huge expenses. But when you have little money, everything’s expensive.

 

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Old / outdated / discontinued iOS apps I still use

The sheer quantity of iOS apps available today, combined with low average prices, means we end up trying a lot of apps, quickly replacing older ones. Sometimes it’s because a new app in the same category offers interesting new features. Sometimes we delete an app because after the initial appeal we discover we rarely get to use it again. Sometimes an app simply ceases to be updated, or perhaps it just doesn’t get frequent updates, we think it’s no longer developed or maintained, and we discard it just because of that, even if the app is still capable of doing its job. All in all, there’s a sort of ‘disposable culture’ around mobile apps.

Getting rid of an app because it’s no longer developed (or effectively discontinued and removed from the App Store) in some cases is justified because of security concerns, or because some features no longer work, like when an app connects to a series of services which, in the meantime, have updated their APIs. Other times the reason for deleting an app is æsthetic: there are still many apps with a pre-iOS 7 look out there, and their dated interfaces badly stand out when we launch them in our otherwise updated iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. Meanwhile a fresher alternative has come up in the App Store and we choose the new over the old.

Earlier today, out of curiosity, I did a small census of the apps on my iPhone 4, and discovered that I still use a bunch of them that are old, no longer developed, or have been discontinued for a long time now. Generally speaking, some of the reasons I still use them are:

  • Habit — Maybe there is a newer app in the same category, but I’m so familiar with the old app’s interface that I can do things more quickly and efficiently with it.
  • It was a considerable investment at the time — Despite the ‘disposable culture’ I mentioned above, I don’t like wasting money on apps. If an app cost me more than $5, I’ll use it until it can reasonably be used. Paying for another $5 app in the same category only because it has a fresher UI is silly, as far as I’m concerned. (Unless of course this newer alternative offers a stellar set of features and improvements.)
  • It’s still good at its job — There are apps on my iPhone I’ve been so satisfied with that I’ve never bothered to look for replacements.
  • It’s still unique in some way.
  • It keeps being fun — I’m a very casual iOS gamer and I still have a few old games I love to return to when I have five minutes to kill.

Here’s a list of such apps, in no particular order[1]:

  • Mill Colour — [Free · iTunes link · Last updated: Dec 15, 2011] This app is not even Retina-optimised, but I still use it every now and then because of its colour filters. A small selection, but created by professionals.
  • addLib S — [$1.99 · iTunes link · Last updated: Feb 13, 2013] This app has been updated rather recently, but if you consider the app activity (as reported by AppShopper), the previous major update was in March 2012, and before that there was no activity since September 2010. It’s a cool photo/design app, whose interface never looked outdated, which still offers the occasional interesting result.
  • KitCam — Discontinued and no longer available on the App Store. There is a clone, however, called KitCamera [$2.99 · iTunes link], which is your best chance to use this incredibly versatile and complete photo app on the iPhone. I’ve explained what I love about KitCam in My essential iOS apps.
  • Momentile — Discontinued. I still use it to upload photos to the site.
  • Design Observer — [Free · iTunes link · Last updated: Oct 18, 2010] I use it to browse and read news and articles from The Design Observer Group website. The site was recently redesigned, but the app still sports the old look and colour scheme. I like the site redesign, but I must say I use the app more frequently.
  • Meernotes — [$2.99 · iTunes link · Last updated: Nov 7, 2012] I still love certain instances of skeuomorphism, and I’ve been using Meernotes since day one to keep a sort of micro-journal, so I haven’t given up on it yet.
  • The Typography Manual — [$3.99 · iTunes link · Last updated: Mar 26, 2012] It’s still a handy and excellent resource.
  • WhatTheFont — [Free · iTunes link · Last updated: Dec 16, 2011] Again, I keep it around because it’s a practical resource. Sometimes the results are a bit hit-or-miss, but often it helps me have an idea of which kind of family a typeface may belong to, especially typefaces I stumble on when I’m out and about.
  • Tuner Internet Radio — [$4.99 · iTunes link · Last updated: Oct 28, 2010] Honestly, I kept this app on my iPhone for a long time because when I bought it in 2008 it was one of the most expensive apps on my iPhone (it was originally priced at $5.99) and I wanted it to be a lasting investment, so to speak. As it turns out, it has been exactly that. I got it at a time when I listened to internet radio stations much more than now, and I always liked its simple, clean interface (now, of course, it looks dated), so I never felt the need to replace it with another app of the same kind. Now I use Radium more often on my iPhone 4, but still use Tuner on the iPhone 3G/3GS.
  • Deep Green Chess — [$7.99 · iTunes link · Last updated: Apr 19, 2011] Well, it’s still a beautiful app, and for my occasional game against the AI (or to study famous chess matches) it’s more than enough. Bit of trivia: It’s from the developer of Deep Green for the Newton: here’s a screenshot from my MessagePad 2100.
  • SlotZ Racer — Discontinued. Now it has been replaced with SlotZ Racer 2 HD [$0.99 · iTunes link] but I still find the original game to be simple and fun, so I’ve kept it.
  • Air Sharing for iPhone — [$8.99 · iTunes link · Last updated: Sep 12, 2013] True, it’s been updated recently, but it’s been around for a long time and it was one of the first apps I bought back in 2008. I still find it quite useful for quick document exchanges from Mac to iPhone via Wi-Fi.
  • MotionX Dice — It appears to be discontinued, as I can’t seem to find it on the App Store anymore. It was probably last updated in 2010. Still my favourite to roll virtual dice.
  • ShakeItPhoto — [$1.99 · iTunes link · Last updated: Aug 18, 2011] This app does one thing, and does it well. You take a photo with the iPhone camera, or choose a photo from the Camera Roll, and ShakeItPhoto turns it into a fake Polaroid. There are other apps which achieve the same result, including one made by Polaroid itself, if I remember correctly, but I still like ShakeItPhoto because it has no filters or effects. It’s all meant to be as immediate as taking a photo with a Polaroid camera.
  • Cocktails+ — Discontinued. Last update was probably in 2009. Here’s a brief Macworld review. I love this app for its large database of cocktails and the various ways to search for recipes (you can search by Base, Type, Flavour or Tag[2], or browse everything alphabetically). I’ve tried other similar apps, but I still haven’t found a worthy alternative to Cocktails+.
  • Scotty — [$2.99 · iTunes link · Last updated: Sep 27, 2012] I use Scotty almost daily. As I wrote in My essential iOS apps, This app transfers photos and videos between iOS devices or from an iOS device to a Mac, over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. There are probably a lot of similar apps out there. I find Scotty to be a no-nonsense, fast, reliable app and so I don’t see why I should look for alternatives.

 


  • 1. There are a lot of iTunes links in this article. If you want to prevent iTunes from opening every time, I suggest an excellent Safari extension called NoMoreiTunes.
  • 2. Some interesting examples of search by Tag include: Caffeinated Drinks, Contains Dairy, Has Defunct Ingredients, Historical, Non-Alcoholic. Searching by Flavour is also useful, because sometimes you don’t know what you’d like to drink exactly, but want, say, something that has Citrus, or Coffee, or Grapefruit, or Hazelnut, or something Herbal, or with Lime, or spicy, or with Irish Whiskey, etc. Searching by Flavour helps a lot in this regard.

 

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Readmill is still useful as an eBook reader

When Readmill announced it was acquired by Dropbox and that it would cease operations on 1 July 2014, I was as sad and disappointed as when Sparrow was bought by Google. The Readmill app had quickly become my favourite reading app on the iPad, having a lovely, elegant interface with beautiful typography and just the perfect amount of surrounding controls. The Highlight feature, in particular, was very well implemented and I found myself using it a lot.

Thankfully, even the export tools have been well designed, and I could download all my reading history and preserve all the highlights I had made over time in various books. But I was curious to see what would happen to the iOS app after July 1. Somehow I’d missed this FAQ in the Epilogue post over at Readmill:

Can I continue using the Readmill app?

You can, but we do not recommend it. The app will not be updated or supported after July 1, 2014, and we’d like to help you transition to another service now.

Well, despite the lack of updates or support, I still think Readmill is a very useful and elegant eBook reader, and I’m still using it.

Readmill library

George Orwell’s collection of Essays successfully imported just a few days ago

Of course, since the underlying service doesn’t work anymore, you can’t sync your library, or make highlights, or connect to any of the social features of Readmill. The only thing that works is the book reading part — you can still import ebooks into the Readmill app locally via iOS’s “Open in…” feature. (All the books you imported in Readmill before the service closed retain your reading history and all the highlights you made.)

Perhaps for many people this is not enough, but if you only care about reading ebooks in your iPad or iPhone through an interface which, in my opinion, is better than Apple’s iBooks app, then you might want to keep the Readmill app installed on your device.

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