Staging Nature Photos

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) Nectaring on Arrowhead Groundsel (Senecio triangularis), Yosemite National Park © Mike Spinak

A few weeks ago, Jason Reed asked me for my thoughts about staged nature photos. I told him I’d write an article on my website to answer fully, rather than give a brief, incomplete answer, elsewhere. So here it is.

When I started nature photography, I read a book by Leonard Lee Rue III, called How I Photograph Wildlife and Nature. Among other things in the book, he extensively discussed staging techniques he used, such as getting butterflies too drunk to fly, and placing them in good positions on pretty flowers, cooling snakes in an ice chest until they can’t move, then setting them in dramatic poses and aesthetic locations, and so on.

After reading the book, I came to conclude I’m not keen on staging nature photos. This is for several reasons:

1) To begin with, one of the main reasons I’m a nature photographer is because I want to enjoy experiencing the natural world. The more one stages one’s shot – with baiting, or using captive and trained animals, or building sets and background, etc. – the less it’s nature on its own terms, and thus the less of that experience one gets. In that sense, staging doesn’t sound fun or thrilling, and doesn’t have the same appeal to me as making unstaged photos.

2) When staging with wild creatures, you risk harming the animals, in a number of ways. You may increase the exposure of the animal you’re baiting to predators. For example, I’ve seen Cooper’s hawks hang around feeders for songbirds, waiting for an easy meal. Additionally, the bait used to bring animals in is often “junk food” – less nutritionally complete than the animal needs – such as the sugar water commonly used in hummingbird feeders, rather than the more nutritious wild flower nectars. Baiting animals may also increase their exposure to pathogens, especially in cases like a bird feeder, where many birds feed from the exact same hole, or when bringing bait animals from a different area. Getting animals to come to you by playing recorded animal calls wastes the precious resources which many animals need for their knife-edge subsistence livings, just for the sake of photos. And so on.

3) By staging pictures, you’re likely to get what you’re after. Or, to put it another way: you’re unlikely to get what you’re not after – you’re less likely to be surprised by unusual situations and unusual behaviors. You’ll probably get more consistently good photos, at the expense of fewer superlative photos.

4) Staging photos may come at the expense of some useful natural history information. Staged photos are likely to contain less informative content about natural history, overall, if they involve creating scenes or situations which are simplified versions of the full complexity of nature. Staged photos are also likely to often contain false natural history information – the staged setting or situation is likely to be one that an animal wouldn’t have chosen on its own, and is also likely to include inaccuracies about what an animal eats, how it behaves, etc.

For example, there was a scandal, last year, where José Luis Rodriguez was stripped of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year award, for staging his winning photo of an Inberian wolf jumping over a farmer’s gate to hunt livestock. One of the tip-offs that the picture is a fake, using a tame, trained wolf, is that the picture shows false behavioral information. A wild wolf on the prowl, as opposed to a trained wolf performing a trick, would have sneaked through the bars of the gate, rather than jump over the gate.

 

Now, all of the above may sound like a harsh critique. Let me be clear that I’m not completely against people staging nature photos in all circumstances. Simply put, there are some things we would likely never succeed in photographing without staging to a high degree. Stephen Dalton is a master of staging nature photos to get pictures of things we’d never see otherwise, such as this. There’s obviously value in getting such pictures. I do think one should weigh the risks to the subjects against the potential informative value, and minimize the staging of nature pictures when the likelihood is small of the pictures conveying significant information.

It did bother me when Darrel Gulin, as the President of the North American Nature Photography Association, discussed gluing hundreds of dead butterflies to a bush to make unique photos – because I felt like that diverges too far from the nature in nature photography, and because the message was coming from someone in an influential position, who represents the nature photography community.

Nonetheless, I’m not categorically against staged nature photos. I am against passing off highly staged pictures as unstaged pictures, but I’m not fundamentally against staging nature pictures when that’s the only way to get certain photos with significant informative value. If you’re going to stage photos, then (1) be educated enough to avoid conveying false natural history information; (2) weigh the risks to the subjects versus the benefits of the pictures; (3) be educated and careful enough to minimize risks to your subjects; (4) be honest that the pictures are captive animals, or were baited, or in a birdbath, or whatever.

Do those, and you can make staging a valuable part of nature photography.


Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) Nectaring on Arrowhead Groundsel (Senecio triangularis), Yosemite National Park, California


All pictures and text are © Mike Spinak, unless otherwise noted. All pictures shown are available for purchase as fine art prints, and are available for licensed stock use. Telephone: (831) 325-6917.

  • Patty Bitterman - Mike, this may be my favorite of your articles because I could totally relate to the subject. I have had opportunity of taking photos of captive and even dead animals such as a butterfly to stage a photo, somehow no matter how well the photos turned out, the feeling of accomplishment was completely absent and was as hollow as a chocolate Easter bunny. Thank you for this excellent insightful review.ReplyCancel

  • Alan Majchrowicz - Good article, I completely agree with you. I don’t photograph any of these subjects but I can imagine how tempting it would be to stage them.ReplyCancel

  • Cindy Bendush - I am in TOTAL agreement with you on this subject Mike. I was told that I could have perfect butterfly pictures if I put the poor creatures in the frig overnight then put them on a dewy leaf in the morning. This just seems wrong in my opinion Doing something to any creature that is unnatural or potentionally harmful is just not something I’m willing to do for the sake of a photograph. Its not worth it. Gluing butteflies to a bush? First of all – your’re right, there is no nature here. Secondly, were does one obtain all of these dead butterflies? Evidently, some people take their photography a bit too far, losing respect for the very nature that nature enthusiasts respect.ReplyCancel

  • Len Wilcox - I think you are describing the difference between documentary photography and creative art photography. There’s a lot of both in each of us, but I think we tend to fall on one side or the other. I know I do – I’m a journalist. While I respect the artistry and technical expertise of the beautiful artwork many of us do, my desire is to photograph what someone would see if they went where I was at. I want to honestly document the world as it is (for me). So staging nature photos would not be an option.ReplyCancel

  • Rolf Hicker - First of all – great article Mike. Thanks for sharing, that was a lot of work.
    I’m very proud to say that in my 25+ years as a nature,wildlife and travel photographer I never staged a wildlife shot, unless a bird feeder would be considered staging.

    I’m not surprised that some well known wildlife photographers are using what ever it needs to get the shot – that is why they became the “top” of wildlife photographers because they had unique pictures – ethics of course out the window.

    It is great to see this discussion coming up because it will open the eyes of some people which think those photographers are the greatest on earth – to me they aren’t.

    Staging it “easy”, yes you will make more money, but in this matter I’m proud to struggle my way through over so many years, not becoming famous for something which I actually need to be ashamed for.

    My ethics are on top of all my work – and I’m very proud of it too!ReplyCancel

  • Cyren - Hi!!! Just came across this amazing site from networked blogs and I couldn’t agree more with what you said about staging nature-shots. They wouldn’t be very ‘natural’ if one staged them now, would it? Besides, drugging butterflies to snap pictures of them prettily placed on wild-flowers would be like getting models drunk to make them more agreeable to photographing nudes… or something.ReplyCancel

Join Me On Google Plus

Sea Nettle (Chrysoara Fuscescens), Moss landing, California © Mike Spinak

I’m going to get right to the point: I’d like you to sign up for Google Plus, and “circle me“, there, if you haven’t already.

Some of you might be thinking, “But I’ve already invested a lot of time and energy building up my accounts on Facebook and Twitter. I’m happy enough, there. All my friends and clients are there. I don’t want to have to go through all of that work, again.”

Let me explain to you why I like it there, and why I’d rather connect with you, there, than on other social media sites.

To begin with, as a photographer, I like that Google Plus shows pictures better than Facebook. The thumbnail sizes for photos are much larger. The full size pictures are also larger. The gallery view is better, too. And Google Plus shows pictures against a dark background. And I think G+ is not compressing the picture files as much as Facebook, because the pictures appear better quality. All in all, it’s a much better place to display pictures than Facebook, and perhaps better than Flickr, too. (It’s also free for unlimited photos uploads, unlike, Flickr’s $25 per year.)

I also get a much higher rate of engagement, when I post on Google Plus than when I post on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, or anywhere else. For example, I posted this picture on Google Plus, a few hours ago (as of when I was writing this). So far, it’s received 42 “Plus Ones”, 11 comments, and 5 shares. When’s the last time a picture of yours has had that kind of response on Facebook? For me, the answer would be “never even once”. Also compare that to the the 6 “favorites” and 11 comments that the same picture has received on Flickr, since I posted it 45 months ago. Post a topic, and it’s the same thing: I get far more replies discussing the topic on Google Plus than on Facebook, Twitter, etc.

I also get more visitors clicking through to my website from Google Plus than I ever got through Facebook and Twitter. Much more. In fact, I started getting more traffic to my website from G+ than from Facebook and Twitter combined when I had only about one-tenth as many G+ contacts as Facebook and Twitter contacts.

That brings up another notable metric. As of today, I’ve been on Google Plus for about two months. Over that period of time, I’ve made three times as many contacts on Google Plus as I’ve made on Facebook over the last three years. You might think that this was boosted by a lot of the community I’d built up on Facebook and Twitter then becoming contacts with me on Google Plus. Actually, the opposite is closer to the truth. Rather few came from Facebook and Twitter, however, my numbers of contacts on Facebook and Twitter wouldn’t be as high as they are, but for the fact that a lot of the contacts I first made through Google Plus later made contact with me on those sites.

Also, take a look at this chart of how long it took Google Plus to reach 50 million users, compared to how long it took Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and MySpace. It took Google Plus less than three months, whereas it took Facebook over three and a half years. Then, look at this article, that Google Plus’s traffic grew by 1,269% in the past week.

It is also worth noting that participating on Google Plus appears to be one of the best things you can do for your website’s Google search ranking.

The quality of the content posted on Google Plus tends to be much higher, too. For example, looking at the very first post to come up in my stream, right now, on Google Plus: it’s a post discussing a science article about propulsion issues being a major hurdle which is likely to prevent interstellar travel for a long time. And looking up the very first post to come up in my stream right now, on Facebook: It’s a post about someone trying to gather the motivation to go on a bike ride. For whatever reason, the culture of what to discuss on Facebook tends to be more along the lines of what you are doing right now, while the culture of what to discuss on Google Plus tends to be more about ideas, projects – substantial content. These are just broad generalizations, but I think you’ll find Google Plus is a more conducive place for engaging in meaningful conversations. Of course, it’s still possible to have superficial interactions on Google Plus; notably, you now also have much greater likelihood of holding conversations with depth, if you want them.

On the subject of meaningful conversations, Google Plus has no character limits on the length of posts and comments. I’ve seen a person post an entire novella he wrote. Lengthy, in-depth posts are more possible, and thus, more common, on Google Plus. Not only are you less constrained about the length of a post, the number of pictures in a post, and the number of links in a post, you also have richer formatting options, with stuff like strike-through text. Google Plus also allows you to edit posts and edit comments, which helps facilitate meaningful conversations.

Additionally, Google’s sophisticated search engine and features make it easy to find others who share your interests, while Google Plus’s way of organizing with circles makes it easy to organize by your interests, and select your news feed accordingly. You end up with a cornucopia of quality content and conversation, relevant to your interests, easily accessible.

Further, Google Plus allows “circling” others regardless whether they circle you back, and circling people makes it possible to comment on their posts. Since reciprocation is not mandated for interaction, Google Plus is a much easier place to meet new people than Facebook.

These various factors have lead Google Plus to be a more community-oriented place than Facebook or Twitter, with lots of people helping each other and doing a lot of things together. For example, I’ve been organizing a project for the photographer community to collectively make a photo book as a fundraiser for Doctors without Borders. I’ve also been using Google Hangouts (video conferencing with up to 10 people at a time) to run discussions on understanding visual art. Many others have been using Google Hangouts for helping each other, too, and for doing projects together (and for socializing, of course). And I’ll be joining many other Bay Area Google Plus users for a Photo Walk at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, tomorrow.

As is typical for Google, Google Plus has a comparatively clean, elegant design which is easy on the eyes. Meanwhile Facebook’s design is an eyesore, and seems to be degenerating toward this or this. Have you noticed Facebook’s new ticker? Ugh.

Beyond just the way it looks, Google Plus’s interface is much more straightforward and easy to figure out. If you’ve done much of trying to change settings in Facebook, you know that it can sometimes seem like navigating your way through a secret labyrinth to get important settings done. That’s why we so often see people posting detailed instructions how to change their Facebook news feed to show all their friends’ posts, or to update important security settings, or to turn off features like the one that lets people order prints of the pictures you post.

Both Facebook’s design and interface are the result of endlessly kludging and endlessly festooning more features into a legacy system that was never meant for this scale and never meant to do these things. This is the same reason we have the confusing system with the new “subscriptions” added in the last week, in addition to the already existing “fanning” people’s business pages, which was kludged onto the system of “friending” people, which is now newly broken down into family, close friends, acquaintances, restricted, and so on. All this badly implemented kludging comes from the underlying issue that things were haphazardly designed to begin with, and continue to be badly designed anew with each update, due to poor planning. The managers and coders seem to me to have very little idea of what they’re doing, both conceptually and structurally, and seem to be flying by the seats of their pants. This differs from the quality of coding and planning that goes into Google’s creations.

Beyond this, the people in charge of Facebook routinely and purposely ignore and subvert the wishes of Facebook’s users. For example, they sent me this email, a week ago:

Hi Mike,

We’re trying out a new feature to reduce the amount of email you receive from Facebook. Starting today, we are turning off most individual email notifications and instead, we’ll send you a summary only if there are popular stories you may have missed.

You can turn individual emails back on and restore all of your original settings at any time.

Thanks,

The Facebook Team

One would think that something so obvious wouldn’t need to be said, but: When I previously went though Facebook’s email notification settings and set them the way I wanted them, I did that because that’s the way that I wanted them. Now they’re rudely presuming they know what I want better than I do, ignoring my settings choices, and wasting my time with this nonsense.

Facebook seems to come up with lots of disastrous (for me) ways to mess with things, out of touch with my needs and usage patterns. For example, when I went to Facebook a  few days ago, suddenly all of my “Top Stories” were from people I barely knew. As far as I can tell, the people who wrote Facebook’s questionable algorithm made it heavily weight the fact that these contacts were also photographers who live in Palo Alto – as though that’s what’s important to me. Meanwhile, Facebook’s new algorithms apparently are filtering the posts of all my contacts, not showing me every post (!) – and are using this quality of algorithms to choose which posts I see and which I don’t. Every time I go to Facebook, I feel like I’m getting in the car to start a grand adventure – and then, as I try to open the door to get in, the door falls off its hinges.

[Edited to add: This cartoon sums this up well.]

On the other hand, the people running Google Plus, and – in fact, the people running Google – are present and engaged on Google Plus. Sergey Brin, one of the co-founders of Google, joined a friend of mine in a Google Hangout,  a few weeks ago. Pretty much all of the people at Google involved with the Google Plus project regularly post, and regularly interact with other posters. They’re meeting G+ users in person, too, such as joining on Photo Walks. They’re actually listening to feedback and implementing changes to bring people the features they want and ask for. As of today, they’ve been implementing about one big improvement per day, such as their addition of the ability to share circles, as of yesterday. And they’ve been far more innovative than Facebook, in my opinion.

On a deeper level than this, Facebook repeatedly earns my distrust in ways that Google doesn’t. For example: this week’s cookie scandal. In case you missed it, it was found that Facebook’s cookies monitor and report where you visit on the web, even after you log out of Facebook. This was followed by Facebook denying the allegations. Then, when they couldn’t get away with denying it, they admitted it, but told Facebook users to trust them. When that position was no longer tenable, then Facebook fixed their cookies to no longer track people’s internet behavior after they sign out of Facebook. Meanwhile, this cookie scandal has lead people to test whether Google’s cookies similarly monitor your web activity, which resulted in the answer that Google is not doing this. This is just one in a long series of similarly concerning stories about Facebook that seem to come out every few weeks.

[Edited to add: A few days ago, Facebook stated, “Generally, unlike other major internet companies, we have no interest in tracking people.” Meanwhile, Facebook also filed a for a patent, with the following description in the patent application: “In one embodiment, a method is described for tracking information about the activities of users of a social networking system while on another domain.”]

You might not trust Google, either. Heck, you might not trust any major corporations. That’s probably wise. Nonetheless, if I had to choose to trust my data with one or the other, it seems to me that Google deserves more trust than Facebook.

There are other things I could mention, such as the fact that Google Plus (so far) has no advertising; and that you are not constantly bombarded with requests to “fan” people’s business pages, or to accept invitations for events in far off lands that you can’t attend, or to play Farmville, or Mafia Wars; or the fact that you don’t constantly get added to people’s groups without having been asked, or tagged in pictures which have nothing to do with you; and that spam from fake accounts is much, much rarer. Or the fact that Google+ doesn’t have applications which leak private information to advertisers and others, like Facebook does, nor phishing scams to steal your password or other sensitive information, like Facebook does, nor computer viruses, like Facebook does. Or the fact that the emphasis on real identities, and the exclusion of minors, have lead to people being much better behaved, and lead to trolls being comparatively rare. Or the fact that Google already owns so many of the pieces and has them in place – Chrome, Android, G mail, YouTube, Picasa, Blogger, Google Search, Google Maps, Google Documents, Google Earth, etc. – and is in the process of effectively integrating them all into a very useful, powerful platform, in a way that no other company can compete with. Or the facts that Google has the wherewithal to make this the next biggest thing on the internet, considers Google+ of primary importance, and is giving it their full backing. Hopefully, by now, I’ve said enough to make my point.

I like the benefits that social media allows, in terms of staying in touch with friends, family, customers and clients. I’m not so happy with Facebook as the intermediary. I’ve been putting up with Facebook because, as a small business owner, it’s been necessary. Now, I think something better has come along, and I’m in the process of transitioning  from Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and so on, to Google Plus, as much as possible. The level of engagement is so much higher on G+, that putting equivalent energy into Facebook and Twitter seems uneconomical, by comparison.

Google Plus is by no means perfect – to some degree, it suffers from many of the same flaws that all social media outlets do. (I’ll discuss those in a future post.) But I do like it better than the alternatives.

Now, you may have read very different takes on Google plus than mine, elsewhere – such as this article which describes Google Plus as “Worse than a Ghost Town”. In the article, Dan Reimold states, “…my circles are sparse. The stream of updates has basically run dry – reduced to one buddy who regularly writes”. Why the discrepancy between my description of the most vibrant social media community on the web, and some other articles describing the place as dead and deserted? Understanding the reason is key to your success on Google Plus.

If you want activity and interaction on Google Plus, you can’t just sit there and wait for it to come to you. At the time Dan Reimold complained about how dead Google plus is, he had circled just 28 people, and he had never once made a public post. (He still hasn’t.) Of course, you won’t get any interaction, if you’re not connected with anybody. Of course, nobody will take an interest in you if you never say anything to anyone. You have to take an active role. Search for topics that interest you, and circle people who are discussing those topics. Join in on conversations. Post things that grab other people’s interest, and will make them want to connect with you. Invite your friends over to Google Plus. Join hangouts to meet people – or even start hangouts, yourself. And so on.

In short: You get out of it what you put into it. So, make it happen.

If you do, you’ll find Google Plus the most rewarding social network currently around.

So, sign up, and connect with me, here.


Sea Nettle (Chrysoara Fuscescens), Moss landing, California


All pictures and text are © Mike Spinak, unless otherwise noted. All pictures shown are available for purchase as fine art prints, and are available for licensed stock use. Telephone: (831) 325-6917.

  • Jenn - Great post MIke! I agree with nearly all these points, especially that on quality/subject of discussions. I’m totally in the google+ camp :) ReplyCancel

  • Mitch Miller - Unfortunately, G+ doesn’t yet support Google Apps accounts, so I’ll be waiting.

    And incidentally, *cookies* don’t track your move; it’s the websites you visit that do. The issue only exists on websites that have little Facebook LIKE buttons. Facebook cookies are only ever given to Facebook. What most people don’t realize (nor possibly expect) when visiting a web page is that the website might contain links back to Facebook, by way of the little thumbs-up “Like” buttons (which then allows your browser to send your cookie to Facebook).

    – MitchReplyCancel

  • David Adams - Thank you Mike! Couldn’t have said it better myself. (IRONY ALERT: I just posted this on my Facebook wall!)ReplyCancel

  • Carole Pivarnik - Great post, Mike. I shared it on my facebook page via a direct link.ReplyCancel

  • Chloe - These are all the reasons that I’m migrating. It’s just better.ReplyCancel

  • Kathleen - Good post, Mike. Well said. Great photo of the Sea Nettle, too.ReplyCancel

  • Joe Azure - well thought-out analysis :) I agree on all fronts.ReplyCancel

  • Google+ for beginners (that’s us) « wiseupmarketing - [...] Mike Spinak from Naturography gives great insight into his experience with Google+ http://naturography.com/join-me-on-g-plus/ [...]ReplyCancel

  • Roberta - I have to admit I didn’t read through all the post here, but I wanted to comment on the photo. I absolutely love this. The colors especially, but the whole image has a real painterly feel to it. Nice work!ReplyCancel

  • Cesar A. Gonzalez - great! a must readReplyCancel

  • Facebook for Photographers and "Pay to Play" Post Distribution | Jeff Sullivan PhotographyJeff Sullivan Photography - [...] I mostly abandoned Facebook a little over a year ago, for many reasons I discuss here: http://naturography.com/join-me-on-g-plus/ [...]ReplyCancel

  • Google+ for beginners (that’s us) | Strategy Nuts - […] Mike Spinak from Naturography gives great insight into his experience with Google+ http://naturography.com/join-me-on-g-plus/ […]ReplyCancel

Goodbye, My Friend

Ocean Reflection, #3 ©Mike Spinak


 

I’m going to take things in a different direction, today. This post is not about photography.

When I was 14, I met a kindred spirit. He had a fiery spark of creativity, and so did I. We rapidly became closest friends. Every day, we’d get together, and draw and paint for hours, learning draughtsmanship, and learning about art. I was a fine draughtsman; my friend was better. We also wrote poetry, and made mixed media sculpture out of everything from melted LP records to animal bones we found. He was very much a part of my development as an artist, which is, obviously, a big part of who I am today.

We also played with our chemistry sets together. We learned about the opposite sex, and discussed girls. We discussed anything and everything. We discovered and listened to music together – The Doors, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Blue Oyster Cult, King Crimson, Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and many others. We read and discussed literature together – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Siddhartha, The Stranger, and more.

We dropped out together; hitchhiked around the West together; lived homeless together; lived on a commune together. He was my closest friend for a number of years, and my partner in many adventures.

We eventually drifted apart, somewhat. We focused on different arts; I became a writer, and he became a guitarist. We settled down hundreds of miles apart. We got busy with other stuff – lovers, kids, work, and so on.

I still always thought warmly of him, remembered the good times with him, and considered him a dear friend. We stayed loosely in touch. We’d call each other once or twice per year and catch up, and write each other emails on each other’s birthdays.

Last year, on his birthday, I sent him an email, and never got a reply. I tried calling some time later, but couldn’t reach him. Somehow, I’d lost contact with him, I thought.

This last Wednesday, I got a notification from Facebook that his little sister requested to be Facebook friends with me. She told me that he’s dead. He’d died last year, and she didn’t know how to get in touch with me, until now. She asked me to call her, for her to tell me more about his death.

I called her on Friday, and she told me.

She told me that the sheriff and the coroner said it was apparently a murder-suicide, and closed the case. Their official version is that my friend shot his (common law) wife (who survived, with a shot to the shoulder), then shot his step-daughter dead, and then killed himself.

She then told me that she saw the crime scene, read the autopsy report, and she doesn’t believe the official version. She thinks his wife shot their daughter dead, then shot him dead, then shot herself, and then framed my friend.

She told me about a number of discrepancies in the case. For example, he was found dead with the gun in his right hand – when he’s left handed. Also, his supposedly self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head was not from point-blank range (i.e. not with the gun pressed against his head). He was found to have fractures on the back of his head, as though he’d perhaps been bludgeoned from behind, before his death.

I have a very hard time imagining my friend murdering his kid, shooting his wife, and then killing himself. I’ve known him for a long time, and for a large part of that time, I knew him better than anybody else. He was a very kind, loving, gentle person. Murder-suicide is just inconceivable, completely in contradiction with the person I knew. He was perhaps somewhat unstable – he cared perhaps too deeply about the plight of others, and took on all the burdens of the world – and they weighed too heavily upon him for him to handle. But he was utterly kind, and he was pacifistic.

I recognize that personalities are somewhat plastic, and they can be changed quickly and without foreshadowing by such things as schizophrenia, clinical depression, drug addiction, brain tumors, traumatic head injuries, and so on. And, from this distance, with such little interaction, it’s possible that there were things going on of which I was not aware.

Nevertheless, I have a very hard time believing he did this. As I’ve come to find out, his wife was arrested for stabbing him, in 2008. It seems plausible to me that she did this.

I did a bit of research, and found out some stuff. But my ability to research this sort of thing only goes so far – and there’s probably nothing to be gained by researching this, anyway.

I’ve been quite stricken by the revelations of the last few days. I’m deeply shocked and saddened.

I’ve been thinking about this. Here are some of my thoughts:

Every time I say goodbye to my loved ones, I make it a point to give them hugs and kisses, thank them for spending time with me, tell them that they make me happy, and tell them I love them.

My friend’s death underscores the importance of doing this, while we still can.

I’ll never know exactly what transpired, nor why, but the whole thing makes me realize that there’s more I need to tell my loved ones, emphatically and often.

I need to tell them that I will do absolutely whatever I can to be there for them and help them in their times of need, and they should never hesitate to ask me to help when they truly need it.

I also need to tell them how much I value them.

I need to do my best to make sure they know these well enough to come prominently to mind, in times of desperation.

I feel like ,”If only I had known that things were so dire…”, and also “If only he’d known I’d have done anything to help him to get into a better situation…”. Thus, I wonder how I could have done better at knowing and conveying.

While I don’t think I was negligent nor responsible, I do wonder whether this all could have been prevented or lessened if I’d intervened. On some level, I have to see this as a profound failure of our friendship “safety net”, so to speak, to recognize and avert impending crisis. It means I need to refine my social habits with my loved ones, to do my best for those I care about.

I’m still trying to figure out how to do better, but it seems clear to me that conveying love and fostering open communication must be necessary starting points.

To everyone reading this: Please, go give your loved ones hugs and kisses, now, tell them how important they are to you, and let them know that you’ll always be there for them.

Thank you for reading this.


Ocean Reflection, Number 3, Santa Cruz, California


All pictures and text are © Mike Spinak, unless otherwise noted. All pictures shown are available for purchase as fine art prints, and are available for licensed stock use. Telephone: (831) 325-6917.

  • Kathleen L Reams Cavender - How tragic. Thank you for sharing this personal part of your life. It is such a good reminder that we should not hesitate to let our loved ones know how important they are to us & always send them off with a hug and a kiss. I am so sorry for your loss, Mike.ReplyCancel

Interview With Ian Sobolev, 500px Creative Director

Slumber Party, 2, California Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus) ©Mike Spinak

Most photographers, these days, make use of one or more of the major photography websites, such as Flickr or Photo.net, for a variety of functions. Unfortunately, photographers often have a love-hate relationship with these sites (which I’ll  discuss more, in another article, soon). I’ve recently become aware of a photography website which seems a lot more agreeable and promising than most: 500px. I asked Ian Sobolev, one of the founders and the Creative Director of 500px, whether I could briefly interview him. He kindly agreed. I would have liked to interview him through video conference, and record it; unfortunately, that was not possible, because I currently have laryngitis. So, we did the interview by email.

Here is the interview:


Mike: Thank you for taking the time for this interview.

Anyone who visits 500px quickly discovers that the quality of the photography tends to be much higher than the photography on most other sites. Is this due to a purposeful decision on your part? If so, what’s the thinking behind this decision? And how did you implement it?

Ian: 500px started a while ago, more than 8 years actually, as a community in LiveJournal. I wanted to get the best photos from photographers around me, so I created and managed the community for a while. It’s a deliberate decision on my part. The community grew, we launched a web-site in 2005, and in 2009 I and Oleg Gutsol co-founded 500px Inc. and completely redesigned and re-thought the site, and launched it on Halloween night in October 2009.

We did implement some interesting solutions for that. First of all, it’s the algorithm that keeps fresh and awesome photos in constant rotation. The formula itself is quite complex, but the idea is simple — fresh photos get higher ranking, and the more people vote, the higher the rank. We don’t want to focus a lot on rankings, so we try to tell people that photo quality has nothing to do with it (and the rating falls with time, so even greatest photo of all time in just a year will have a really low rating). We also adjust our rankings of inclusion to Popular, so it’s getting harder to get to the Popular with time, thus increased quality of photos.

Secondly, we have a team of editors, who create and promote different collections of photos. These collections are posted on Facebook, Twitter, Blog and are picked up by other blogs, so photographers get a lot of extra attention to their works.

And thirdly, by showing only great photos and reinforcing this principle helps people realize that this is not a place for their family photos, even though we are not against those — they will be just ignored by the public. All this lead to an interesting effect — the quality of the photos in Popular is constantly improving, and comparing top photos from just half a year ago shows a great leap in quality. So I’m very excited to find out how it will play out in the future.

Mike: Beside making efforts to showcase great photography, 500px’s mission statement, Terms of Service, design, and features all seem to indicate a friendlier attitude toward photographic artists than one finds on many other sites. What is 500px’s philosophy about its relationship with photographers?

Ian: When we started 500px, we wanted to make sure it can represent all the aspiring and professional photographers out there. So, for example, when we crafted the terms, we wanted to make sure that all the copyrights are retained by their authors, and that all photos can have a chance to be shown on 500px, including artistic nude. Of course, there are some limitations (and a lot of work that has to be done), and we don’t accept pornography in any commonly-understandable way, so we try to talk with such authors and/or hide their photos. But mostly, any photo and any author has a chance to participate. We love our users — and as we grew from a community of about 3-4 thousand members at launch to about 65,000 (and will probably add 15,000 more this month), it becomes a little harder to support and reply to everyone. But we still try to do that, by giving advice, commenting, solving problems, etc. That’s part of our team’s philosophy to be open about everything and to be there to help when we can. We actually try to build the most open company in the world, and so we are never ashamed to reveal any stats, or to acknowledge any problem that may arise. This is something we ourselves believe and love, when we see that in other companies as well.

Mike: Could you please explain how 500px would like to benefit photographers, and outline how 500px’s features help photographers with their needs?

Ian: There are actually several things that we do. First, it is our mission to help photographers excel in their field. We do that by showing their photography to the world. We have algorithms that help even amateur photographers get to the top of the Popular and become successful (e.g. someone could have average photos, but everyone has their gems — so the system helps find and promote them). Which means thousands of viewers for popular photos each day. We also have editors, who pick the best photos and feature them in our communities. These collections, selected by Editors, are theme-based, and can be named, for example, as “Red Hair”, or “Orange Mood” and feature different photos. Those collections are often picked up by different blogs, so the authors get all the attribution and their art is distributed way beyond just one site.

We are photographers ourselves, so when we build something, we always have a thought in our minds — would we use it ourselves? So that’s why we try to do things that are relevant (like integrating a store to sell prints — available for free to all users), or useful (like portfolios, which take away the pain of hosting and promoting own portfolio) or just pleasant (like promoting author’s work). And as for upcoming features, we want to build iPhone and iPad apps — so that photography can be truly mobile and available to millions more users that can, with help of striking imagery, help them discover their new hobby — photography.

Mike: On the subject of upcoming features: I’ve heard from photographers who are considering migrating from other sites to 500px, asking about a a few things they specifically want. Do you have plans to make 500px read title and keyword data, and automatically populate those fields? Are there any plans to make posted URLs appear as working links? If so, can you give us an idea when to expect these? Also, are there plans to add forums to 500px? If so, can you share with us what you envision, and when?

Ian: That’s some very good questions. Firstly, yes, we are working on meta data, so how we already support description and some geo-tagging, and will continue to work to automatically add all the meta data that is in the files, as well as allow geo-tagging. That’s a high priority for us. With respect to comments and links that appear as links — is it not that simple. Reworking commenting system is a complex task, and we plan some very interesting changes to it, but I cannot give any specific schedule as to when it may happen. It we add more hands to the team, we will be able to plan a little better. We’ve heard some requested with regards to the forums, and it is something we discussed a lot within the team. My personal opinion is that forums by itself are outdated — they are old, often hard to find and usually consist of a very small (but tight) community. What we considered making in the foreseeable future is special pages, divided by cities, states or provinces and countries. So each geographical unit will have it’s own page with photos from this place (e.g. see all photos of Paris), as well as a discussion for all Parisians or people who plan to visit and take picture of Paris. So that should touch a very important point — organizing people by their natural habitat:)

And on the other note, I know it sounds strange to say that we don’t know when some of the features are coming out, but it all depends of the schedule. For example, this week is super-crazy for us. We’ll have our first TV appearance [Editor's Note: This will be on the Business News Network in Toronto, on the show The Pitch; the airing date will be soon, but is not yet scheduled], first big media interview (with GigaOM), as well as our first DemoCamp (we’ve been on a couple, but never as presenters), and first TEDx talk (we are presenting too). So that takes a big chunk of our time. Another part is our quick growth — that means supporting much larger systems. Just a week ago we served 5 million files a day, now the number is 10 million. That means taking time from development and putting it into support so that the site works smoothly. That happens when you grow too quickly — you have to manage unmanageable, but everyone still expect only the top results from you. And that’s what we hope to do.

Mike: Is there anything else you’d like to let readers know about 500px?

Ian: The idea behind 500px is to make it a great place not just for other photographers, but for ourselves as well. Just today I was looking through Upcoming, and occasionally taking a look at Recommended photos below and realized that I’m discovering new photographers that were with us for months, and I’m absolutely unaware of them (here’s one example: http://500px.com/Cauta). And I’m adding more and more wonderful photographers to my list, and I’m simply amazed at all this talent that keeps coming here (and I keep discovering it, to much of my surprise).

We are also here for the long term. We have plans for the next 3 years, and we don’t plan on a quick turnaround or anything like that. We love our users, and we love photography. So we want to make it a beautiful and friendly place (actually, I want to make it the friendliest place ever — so we have no tolerance for hate comments of stuff like that). Of course, as the site growths, it is getting tougher, but we keep on trying, and hope that our users are here for us — to support us as well, as we support them, to allow them to build lasting relationships with each other and discover more great art, people, and places.

So that’s what 500px is about. We want to make it big, like Flickr big, but at the same time we want to stay small and cozy place. That’s a one tough goal, but everything we do now and will do in the future, we hope, will be reflective to that goal and values. And if anything is wrong or there’s any chance I can help — I’m always open at ian@500px.com and at my cell +1-647-271-3356.

Yes indeed, you can publish my email and phone number. Just this morning I helped one Toronto user, who called me (that was novelty to me!) and I helped him activate his account. So if there’s anything, I’ll try to help.

Mike: Thank you, again.


Slumber Part 2, California Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus), Monterey Bay, California


All pictures and text are © Mike Spinak, unless otherwise noted. All pictures shown are available for purchase as fine art prints, and are available for licensed stock use. Telephone: (831) 325-6917.