Front Street, Marquette, Michigan, ca. 1909

Photography: a time capsule everyone can contribute to

On this fine Sunday morning, I discovered a website that I’ve immediately fallen in love with. It’s called Vintage Everyday, and its tagline reads “bring back nostalgia and memories”. And it does, oh if it does, although technically it’s not even nostalgia: most of us simply don’t remember those times because we just never lived in them. Still, it’s an unbelievable collection that will keep you browsing for hours.

It contains photos of times past: people dressed in the style of their time, billboards with traditional advertising, cities shaped in ways now alien. It’s mesmerizing, and in a different way from sites collecting pictures of actors and actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood, such as the appropriately named Old HollywoodVintage Everyday is different because it collects images of everyday people and everyday places, not famous movie stars, and in a sense it shows the human side of history. A similar feeling can be had by browsing one’s own family photo albums, but in that case the familiarity of the faces prevents from observing the surrounding elements: when a photo depicts someone you know, you notice them and don’t pay much attention to what’s around them, or even to the details about themselves. Oftentimes people have pointed out things about my own photos of models that I had completely missed, despite having taken and worked on the image for a while.

A few pages into Vintage Everyday, I had an epiphany that I want to share with you. I noticed that at the time these photos were taken, they probably weren’t that special. Certainly in the 1940s having a camera was not an ordinary thing as it is now, as they were harder and more expensive to operate: I have this romantic idea of a photographer being seen if not as a full-fledged artist, at least as someone with a special ability, to speak: you couldn’t just pick up a camera and start shooting. A posed portrait, as many of our own family albums clearly show, was a big deal. However, I’m quite confident that all these pictures at the time were just that, pictures. “Oh look, there’s a photo of a lady walking down a New York street.” “Ah, these kids are playing with a make-believe car.” These images, at the time, must have been relatively uninteresting except to the parties involved.

Fast forward a few decades, and they become treasure troves. History gets in the way and gives these photos a whole new meaning. That lady isn’t just walking in New York City, she is walking confidently in New York City; and the workers in the background, blurred in distance to the point that maybe nobody had noticed them before, are stealing a glance at her while unloading crates of fruit from a truck. Is it the first time they see a woman being that confident? It may very well be: times were a-changing. And those kids playing are blissfully enjoying their own fantasy world, oblivious to the fact that their fathers are fighting a war on the other side of the Atlantic; perhaps that’s why their mothers look at them from the kitchen window, undecided between hope and concern.

At the center — or rather at the side — of everything, always the same thing: a camera and a photographer. That’s how everyday history is documented, with rolls of film by unnamed photographers preserving reality for posterity. Every single photo that was ever taken and that will ever be taken is by its very own definition unique, because at any given moment in time and at any given place in space there is room for only one camera. Every time a shutter fires, life as it is right there and right then is immortalized. Time stops as the image becomes a frail and irreplaceable time capsule.

Even a photo that looks plain or boring at first sight may acquire significance over time. Just look around you: how many things have changed in the last ten years? How many benches have been added or removed, how many shops have changed names, how many buildings have been repainted? And how many times have you seen photos from other countries and felt that even seemingly familiar landscapes were not that familiar after all?

The ubiquity of cameras today means that we can effectively document the changes brought by history, virtually without any effort. That doesn’t mean that it’s become a useless process; on the contrary, it means that we are all empowered and we all should use this ability more often and with more dedication, once we grasp how far-reaching this may be.

Perhaps it’s finally time to stop taking useless selfies and turn the lens towards the world, so that the generations to come will be able to feel the same nostalgia for a time we never lived in as we do when we look at photos from a century ago.

(Image on top: Front Street, Marquette, Michigan, ca. 1909 — From Vintage Everyday)

Of art, dreams and goals

What is art? According to Dictionary.com, “[art is] the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.” That’s a pretty neat definition. Note the last part: “more than ordinary significance”. That means that the viewer, or listener — or more generally, the recipient of art — has to be influenced and affected by the work, for it to be defined art. If that doesn’t happen, it means that it’s not really art after all.

It’s a very subjective matter, of course. For instance I personally don’t like most of Picasso’s works, but I do find his Guernica quite unsettling. It affects me, so to me it is art.

Some say that you have to be “trained” before you can appreciate some kinds of art. I disagree with that: while it is true that some people may learn to “get” it after being exposed to some theory (I still don’t “like” most of Picasso’s works, but I understand them better now), it’s also true that real art should trigger responses so ancestral not to require any training. But does this make it any easier to produce real art? No, not at all; au contraire, mes amis.

It is extremely difficult to come up with something that makes something happen in the recipient’s soul. Whether it’s a piece of music, or a photograph, or a painting, or  a sculpture, or a theatrical act, or a film, or even a comic book, it is hard, extremely hard, to leave a mark.

My favorite painter of all times, Salvador Dalí, was a master at it. He blended perfect technical skills with deep thoughts that reach anybody. You will have a hard time finding someone who says that Dalí wasn’t that good. You may not like surrealism, or you may not like his subjects, but his works… work. Of course, having some training will make it even more amazing, yet it will be accessible to anybody. You don’t need to know the meaning of the melting watches in The Persistence of Memory to appreciate it, and certainly you don’t need to understand every detail of The Temptation of Anthony to be spooked by it.

Was he trying to leave a mark on people? Most likely. Was he trying to be an artist? No. You cannot decide to be an artist. If you refer to yourself as an artist, take a deep breath and think about it logically: can anybody call themselves an artist? It’s others’ response to one’s work that can potentially turn the author into an artist.

This is why I reject the idea of an “artistic manifesto.” It’s difficult enough to get rid of labels gotten by someone else; why would I want to label myself, and lock myself into such a cage?

When I have an idea for a photo, I ask myself: what kind of feeling do I want to convey with it? What is the best way to approach it, technically and emotionally? More often than not, it’s entirely unrelated to my previous images. I do have my temporary obsessions, no doubt; but I easily go from “industrial” macrophotography to astrophotography to landscapes to portraits to whatever else I feel like working with. All the photos I linked to in the previous sentence have undergone some amount of post-processing, too. If I had locked myself within a “no post-processing” movement, I wouldn’t have managed to publish any of those.

However, many people seem to think that, by merely adhering to an artistic movement or manifesto, or even by simply getting hold of a compact digicam, they become artists. Photography is arguably the most accessible of arts: cameras are cheap nowadays, not much thinking is necessarily required, and the Internet allows for worldwide instant exposure. They start taking pictures, uploading them, sprinkle some allegedly soul-deep titles and descriptions. Is that art? I don’t think so.

I am not saying that one needs an expensive camera to produce photographic art, and indeed I have taken many of my most appreciated photos with a tiny, old Canon A70. Limited equipment certainly introduces forced constraints that may not be worked around, which may actually stimulate creativity: it wasn’t until early 2014 that I got hold of my first stabilized lens, and not having such luxury forced me to learn how to use what I had more effectively. The equipment itself does not define an artist, for better or worse: a big camera won’t make you a real photographer any more than using filters on Instagram will. Would you ever think that a painter is better than another because she has a bigger brush?

For instance, many people ask me for advice about which lens to buy. They will normally have had their basic kit lens for a while and feel ready to expand their gear. That’s perfectly reasonable, but they should already have an idea of what they want to do. They should be asking me: “which lens among these do you think is the most appropriate for what I want to do?” Yet they expect me to give them a direct answer, and when I ask what kind of photography they have in mind, they shrug.

To me that just means one thing: they haven’t reached the point where their craft hits the limit imposed by their equipment, let alone try to overcome it; they just want a new toy, which is absolutely fine as long as they’re being honest with themselves. Most of them simply aren’t. And how can you impress others with what you’re trying to say through a medium like photography if you’re not being honest with yourself about the very approach you take with it? To put it in perspective: what’s the use of an expensive guitar if you’re only playing three chords and can’t be bothered to learn how to replace the strings? How can you expect me to get goosebumps if you’re disguising the sheer desire for a new toy with artistic claims that you don’t even truly endeavor to fulfill?

Too many people focus on the end result, on dreams of fame. The internet is a worldwide stage, and it makes seem easy. But why do we do this? Do we take photos, compose music, paint drawings, write stories for the fame? For the honor? For the money that might or might not come? What is our one, true goal? I would like to hope that we do this because we enjoy the process. The biggest reward should be knowing that someone, somewhere, was moved by what we made. If money and fame come, good. If they don’t, then it’s not the end of the world: we didn’t do it for that. As long as at least one person will tell me they appreciated my images, I’ll keep doing them; not every day, not every week, not every month, for bills ought to be paid and work ought to be done. But I will not quit until I’m sure that nobody ever looks at them anymore: only then I will feel like I’ve failed. I don’t need to be called an artist, in fact that makes me a little uneasy when someone ventures out and does so: it’s such a big word, and I honestly don’t feel like I’m worthy of it. I just want to share what’s on my mind, whether through words or light, with anyone who may be interested.

That is my one, true goal: I want to communicate.

Orwell vs. Huxley: two dystopian worlds, compared

In 2009 Stuart McMillen, famed Australian comic artist, published a drawn rendition of a short passage from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death.

The passage compares the radically different worlds depicted by Orwell in his “1984″ and by Aldous Huxley in his “Brave New World.” Both novels show an Earth whose inhabitants have been rendered helpless and brainwashed, and are considered the quintessential dystopian novels. The term Big Brother, after all, was coined by Orwell for his novel. Yet they depict a radically different approach to enslave humankind.

I’ll leave you to the word of Postman and to the wonderful, if not a little spine-chilling, imagery of McMillen.

What Orwell feared where those who would ban books.
What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one would want to read one.

Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information.
Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would reduced to passivity and egotism.

Orwell feared the truth would be concealed from us.
Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

Orwell feared we would become a captive culture.
Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.

As Huxley remarked in “Brave New World Revisited”, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “Failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”

In “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, people are controlled by inflicting pain.
In “Brave New World”, people are controlled by inflicting pleasure.

In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us.
Huxley feared that that what we love will ruin us.

It is worth noting that Huxley, 26 years after publishing his novel and with World War II having happened in between, wrote an essay entitled “Brave New World Revisited”, in which he analyzes how correct he was in his prior assumptions.

Both novels, and possibly also Huxley’s and Postman’s essays mentioned above, should be — in my humble opinion — read by anybody who has any interest in the future of humanity, even though it might mean having to deal with uncomfortable truths.

Add money to your likes: Flattr’s microdonation system

Many social networks today employ the concept of “favoriting” items: images on Flickr, Instagram and 500px; songs on SoundCloud; videos on YouTube and Vimeo; tweets on Twitter; repositories on GitHub; and so on….

When you “favorite” or “like” something, you’re essentially telling the author that you’d like more of that. Yet, when it comes to creative endeavors, it’s money that makes the difference: not only it helps cover the costs of production, but it also frees up time to produce more. That’s why many of us resort to selling prints, crowdfunding and other ways of raising money.

One of such other ways is Flattr. And it’s G-R-E-A-T.

The idea behind the Sweden-based company is both simple and genius: instead of actively sending money to an author, which can be complex and, in some cases, awkward, you can prepay your Flattr account using pretty much any credit card (in addition to Paypal) and the system does the rest. All you have to do is “connect” your Flattr account to your social network accounts, which usually only takes a couple of clicks for each. This allows Flattr to track your likes and pay creators.

The only slightly more complicated one is Twitter, but it takes just a couple clicks more: since the chirping network changed its terms and conditions, Flattr cannot directly track your favorites. The problem is easily worked around by using SuperFav: just connect it to both Flattr and Twitter, and you’re good to go.

Afterwards, when you favorite or like something on any of the connected social networks, that thing is said to be “flattr’d” by you and the author gets some money from your balance. You don’t have to do anything else, just top up your Flattr funds once in a while and then simply use your social networks as before. Neat, eh?

But it gets better. You can support as many artists as you like, and you don’t pay a cent more than what you want to. You can top up your Flattr funds as much as you want, and then set a monthly budget. At the end of the month, your monthly budget is equally divided between all the artists whose items you favorited or liked. You always know exactly how much you spend.

To make it even clearer: let’s say that you top up €15 and set your monthly balance to €5. During the first month, you “flattr” 5 authors, by liking their contents: each one gets €1. The next month you “flattr” 2 authors: each one gets €2.50. The next month you “flattr” 8 authors: each one gets €0.62. It doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up; and a little is better than nothing.
(Technically speaking there is a 10% fee that Flattr rightfully retains when paying credit out; but that’s of concern only to creators, not supporters.)

Why sign up as a supporter, you ask? Because you like what authors make and feel that their productions are worth a few cents. It’s great to get thousands of views or dozens of favorites on a photo, or 110,000 views on a video. But if you like those things so much, why not take a step further and buy prints, buy books or, even more simply, Flattr? And of course, you can sign up as a contributor too, so you can both give and receive.

And while you’re at it, give it a try by using the Flattr this button right on this post.

Thanks!

I am a photographer. I am an observer.

These past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about my photography.
As many of you probably know, during the last year I’ve been cooperating with my friend, make-up artist Stefania Di Gregorio, on portraits of models in my home studio. The studio is actually a work in progress itself, as I build it piece by piece as I go.

Taking photos of people is something I had wanted to do for a long time, but I never managed to convince anyone to pose for me before. My origins as a photographer, in any case, are in the field of landscapes and macrophotography.

There is something about macrophotography that always fascinated and attracted me. I don’t have specific high-end equipment for that kind of images: I use basic extension tubes that allow my Sigma 18-200 zoom to focus much closer than normal. This way, I can be as a close as I want to my subject, at the expense of doing everything manually, including forcing the lens to be stopped down; the only help I can count on is assisted metering, which needs to be manually biased anyway.

The whole process is tedious, frustrating, annoying; and yet, it is also exceedingly pleasant at the same time. I have been meaning to write about this for a while, but for the longest time I felt that something eluded me. Then I realized what it was.

Some photographers find comfort into setting everything up; they can create exactly the scene that they want to shoot. In a way they work like abstract painters: they create something that’s not there. It’s their way of telling a story: they are fable tellers, they conjure up a tale and make it real in front of the lens, then play with it in post-process until it’s exactly what they had in mind. There is nothing wrong with it, and it’s an approach that eventually all photographers tinker with. There is indeed a fine line between a setting up staged picture and giving an existing scene a little help.

But staging an image is time-consuming, requires perfection that can only be achieved through long attempts at trial and error, and can be expensive: good equipment certainly is, as I was recently reminded by cheaper alternatives that broke down on me on day one.
Some people build their careers on staging shots. Fashion photographers, for instance, literally do that for a living. Many amateurs also enjoy fiddling with props until they get the shot just right, just for the sheer pleasure of creation.

I am a little different. While I have my own share of fun helping scenes “pop” in my pictures — for instance through the use of off-camera flashes or the like — I am more of an observer.
When I first started playing with digital cameras, over a decade ago, I was strongly against post-processing. You must forgive me here: I was young and, let’s say it, quite stupid. Being against something on the pretense that “straight out of camera” pictures are inherently better is, to say the least, preposterous. When I switched to reflex cameras, and especially to shooting RAW, I realized that post-processing is as important as exposing the scene in the first place. Still, I’m one of those people who would rather spend more time with a camera firing the shutter than with a mouse applying layer masks.

That is it: I am an observer.

When I set out to do macro work, for instance, I spend what to others must seem like an eternity on the same flower, taking countless images of the bugs hovering around it. I don’t even take my eye off the camera’s viewfinder. Everything around me is blackened out, and I am concentrated exclusively on the scene I watch through the lens, forgetful of any awkward position I may be in (I am usually reminded of that by muscle pain that arises a few hours later.)
I take hundreds of pictures. Many will be out of focus or blurry; that’s the price to pay for using cheap equipment: no autofocus, limited depth of field that can’t be easily changed, and so on. Some of the photos will be good to publish, with some little help in post-process, mostly to tweak colors and exposure. I like the challenge.
But that is not the reason I go through all of this. I could get a €400 dedicated macro lens and make it all easier, and eventually I will.

I do it this way because it lets me observe. After a few minutes of looking through the lens and seeing bees dancing over petals, bugs crawling on leaves, caterpillars embracing stems, spiders meticulously knitting webs; after a few minutes of this, I am part of that small, huge universe. I start seeing things that I wouldn’t see otherwise. I’ll notice the patterns, the rhythms, the details, and sometimes even the creatures, that are so small that upon first glance they appeared invisible.
Sometimes I don’t even immediately take the pictures off the memory card. The experience alone is worth it, regardless of whether any image is usable or not.

I recently realized that I do the same thing with landscape photography. In truth, I tend to do this with any kind of photography I am working on. Instead of setting up the scene, I observe it and document it without changing it. My strongest urge is to retain the purity of what’s before my eyes, so that I can capture it as fully as possible. I don’t try to make up a story to tell; rather, I record the story that’s already there. It is not always easy, and indeed at times I think it would be easier to just go ahead and set things up.

This is not to say that I will not try to optimize the results of my work: I often add light as I need, though the ultimate goal of that, for instance, is using the extra light to enhance what’s already there. You need specific light to make whirling puffs of smoke or falling droplets of water show on an image, but that’s where I’ll stop most of the time. Even my post-processing is fairly conservative: I will enhance the imageto match the feelings I was having when I shot it, but I never go too far with changes. Even with people, I’d rather have my models use props at the time of shooting than waste hours in Photoshop. More simply, I’d rather tinker with lenses and equipment to capture the scene than to change it beyond recognition.

I think that my approach to photography matches my personality. I was never the one who wanted to be in the spotlight; I’ve always rather enjoyed being on the sides, looking towards the stage instead of being on it. I feel that my role, as a photographer — and why not, as an all-around reporter — is to describe what’s there instead of making it up. It is just who I am, and what I like to do. I like to provide my viewers with the reality I see, enhanced in a way that I see fit, and have them derive their own version of the story that I wanted to tell. I am not as presumptuous as to think that I will always be able to convey my own emotions into an image, nor that the feelings I have about a scene are the same as those of any of my viewers.

This is, I believe, the beauty of photography. There is no good or wrong way of doing any single thing. Everything is open to choices across all the steps that go from the original emotion to the final image. No two photographers will take the same picture, and that’s what makes this art truly magic.

All I know is that I will keep observing reality and occasionally fiddling with it, to achieve what my ultimate goal is: to bring you stories to enjoy.

Phil Steele’s GREAT video course on shooting portraits with small flashes

Over the weekend, I had the chance to follow Phil Steele’s “How to Shoot Professional-Looking Headshots and Portraits on a Budget with Small Flashes” video course. Quite a title, I know; perhaps he’s a fan of Lina Wertmüller’s films, or something like that.
You may know Phil from YouTube, he’s somewhat of a celebrity in the world of photography tutorials (and definitely one of my favorites, together with The Slanted Lens, Phillip McCordall and others. When I saw that he had a full-length video course about studio portraits with small flashed, I jumped in. Read below for more.

Let me go back in time a little: as many of you probably know, I’m an amateur photographer and in 2012 I started photographing people in what I like to call my studio, which is really my laboratory, which is really a room in my house where I work and hack things. I have had 7 models so far: Valeria (who posed for me twice), Francesca, Federica, Maila, Daniel, and Ylenia.
Lack of cash couples with a passion for tinkering led me to research ways to get things done without spending too much. Over the course of the years I managed to get extreme closeups (here is a self-portrait in a drop of water, and here is how I did it) without a dedicated macro lens, images of eclipses including sun spots without dedicated equipment (other than a few filters) and of course, I’m part of the strobist movement using off-camera flashes, and sometimes I just mix it all in.
When photographing models, I used what I had and applied what I knew: I have two flash units (a Sigma EF-500 DG Super and an ancient Agfatronic CS222) and a Cactus wireless kit with one transmitter and two receivers. Life’s beautiful. However it doesn’t quite work when taking photos of people: shadows get in the way, the light is harsh, and so on.
In late 2012 I purchased a softbox kit. I was actually undecided between whether I wanted softboxes or umbrellas, but I knew I wanted continous light. It would have made it easier to set things up, I thought, so I got that kit: three light stands (one with an extesion arm) with three 40×40 cm soft boxes, each containing a huuuuge CFL rated at 100 W, with a common E27 connector. Is it better than flashes? Eh. Not so much. The light it gives is definitely softer, and very nice to work with. However even when using two of them (or all three of them), the light is still not so powerful. With my new Canon 60D I can push the ISO up to 1000 or more without much of a problem, especially compared to my old 350D, but it’s still not optimal. I also got a small 60 cm silver/gold reflector, which isn’t getting much use so far.

In the light of all of this, and yes that was a very crafty pun, I jumped in. The price tag for the course isn’t hefty at all: a mere $47, which at the time of writing is €36 for us in Europe (and £31 for you Brits.) Subscription is painless and activation is immediate. Logging in is a breeze and you get a list of the “episodes”, allowing you to jump into any one of them and possibly resume whence you left off. In reality, the course is very engaging — Phil’s a good teacher — and you will discover you spent two hours watching it only when you’re done.

If you are a complete beginner, you will appreciate the fact that he lists his equipment and shows you how he uses it (including very detailed explanations of how to set up flash units, which may or may not apply to what you have), and talks you through the end results. I wish I had seen this before starting out, and before purchasing the softboxes: while I still retain the light stands out of the kit (here in Italy they are hard to find on their own for less than €50 each), I would have definitely gone with umbrellas and flash brackets.
Phil actually goes beyond showing what he uses: the first few episodes of the course, that is the ones dedicated to the equipment, are accompanied by lists of alternative items you could get, and even links to the actual stores where you can buy each single item.
Unfortunately, for those of us living in the Province of the Empire, and with that I mean outside the US, things are a little more complicated because we need to check what we can buy locally or not, and possibly factor in extra costs for importing items from abroad. In any case, these lists are a great starting point for your own research.

The videos are well done and the atmosphere is cozy, including during the shoots. It gives a good idea of what a photo shoot should be like, especially if you’re starting out. Too many of us think of high-end sets and a bunch of people working together for hours to get six pictures out of a model (ever watched America’s Next Top Model?), but in his course Phil shows that you can take great photos in your living room. Sure, living on the 18th floor of a building and having floor-to-ceiling windows helps a little bit, but that’s not strictly necessary at all. Many people have turned garages into complete studios, after all.
Phil’s also very clear in his speech and reiterates the main concepts, making sure you get the point across.

So, are you buying a “high-end” course? It depends on what you mean. Are there special effects? No, unless you mean the models’ eyes. But is the course effective in teaching you stuff? Most definitely and absolutely.

Personally, I knew a lot of this stuff and as I said I had most of the equipment already; I mostly wanted to see how a pro gets it done, yet not only I learned what I’d better buy if I want to improve my studio portraits, but I was made aware of a few things that I had never really thought about, such as how shutter speed and aperture take on different roles when using off-camera flashes.

I had encountered this behavior before in my tests, but it had never occurred to me to think about it (and I admit that a bit shamefully, being the nerd I am); when Phil pointed it out in one episode of the course and elaborated on it in the next one, a huge light bulb went off in my head (umbrella and reflector included; that’s another crafty pun for you) and it suddenly all my failed tests made sense.

One thing I particularly appreciated is that every time a shot is shown in the video, the main EXIF data are listed beside it, such as lens, focal length, shutter speed, aperture, ISO, etc.. This is great for newbies and pros alike. The only minor issue is that sometimes the photo don’t stay on screen long enough to hunt for that one value you’re curious about, but it’s not a big deal as the videos can be paused, rewound, fast forwarded and replied at will.

Speaking of which: someone may be not-so-thrilled about the videos being streaming only. There’s no option for downloading them, and as an IT guy I understand the reasoning: what if the site goes down? what if he decides to revoke my access to it? Well, that makes sense, but it’s very unlikely to happen. On the other hand, streaming videos allow Phil to expand the course over time, and he did indeed add one extra episode to explain how he sets the flash power. You’ll also find the freshest links to get the equipment, possibly saving you money if you buy stuff a piece at a time over a longer period, in addition to the money you save by buying the right things in the first place (anyone wants three virtually unused softboxes…?)

There are also two extra bonus episodes included at no extra cost: one about using reflectors as the sole source of light outdoors, and one about the “glamour blur” editing technique in Photoshop.

To sum up, “How to Shoot Professional-Looking Headshots and Portraits on a Budget with Small Flashes” is very well worth the (low) price tag of $47, I can personally vouch for it. The course is well thought out and well made, touching on the theory but getting you deep into practice. It makes you want to get some basic equipment and ask someone to pose for you. And if you can’t find anyone, Phil gives a suggestion that will make you laugh out loud, but like anything else in the course, it makes perfect sense.

Want to jump in? Here’s a handy link to the course, where you’ll find screenshots and more information and, of course, the “purchase” button if you’re interested:

(One question remains: where are the trained moose?)

Get rid of those apps in iTunes that you never sync anymore

If you’re like me, you’ve had an iPhone, iPod Touch and/or iPad for a few years now and have probably amassed a fairly big collection of apps, both free and paid. Until last year’s iOS 5, this meant having to keep a local copy of each and one of them on the computer you used to sync your iOS device.

My “Mobile Applications” folder contains 924 items, weighing a whopping 18.78 GB. iTunes only lists 920 apps, so something is out of sync already.
Obviously, I do not use that many apps. My iPhone 4 only has 163, and I could delete many of those as I don’t use them. My father’s iPad, which uses my Apple ID to get apps so that he doesn’t have to purchase the same ones I have already paid for, has about 250, most of them being games he tried once or twice and left there.

I’m about to phase out my glorious 2006 iMac in favor of a new Mac Mini and I’m going to just move the iTunes Library folder; this way, everything is retained and I don’t have to convince a brand new iTunes not to nuke the iPhone and iPad just because they have been synced to a different machines. As for the music itself, I could also use iTunes Match to carry it over, but I’d rather just drop the folder in and be happy about it. The point is that I really don’t want to waste about 20 GB on the new computer for apps I honestly don’t care about.

The most immediate method, deleting the apps from iTunes, kind of works… except that if you delete an app that’s used on your device, it will be removed from that device upon syncing. The proper way to do this would be to manually delete from iTunes the ones you’re not using. There’s a little problem with that: there is absolutely no way of knowing whether any local app is being synced to any device or not, unless you manually check whether every single app is on any of your devices. This sounds dreadful enough with my iPhone, with which I’m very familiar; doing it with my father’s iPad sounds like a nightmare.

Thankfully, after a little searching, I found the way to do it in a much easier fashion. Of course, if you follow these instructions and you delete important data or things like that, I’m not responsible. Do this at your own risk.

I’m using iTunes 10.7 on OS X 10.7 Lion, but it should be the same on OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion. When iTunes 11 is released in a few days or weeks, it’s probably going to be much different.

The first, very important thing to do is to disable automatic syncing. To do this, open iTunes’s preferences, go to Devices, and check Prevent iPods, iPhones and iPads from syncing automatically. You can do this even when your device is not connected, but I recommend doing this when it’s already connected so it’s even less likely that something goes wrong.
After you’ve made sure that the new device does not start to sync automatically, go ahead and run a full backup, just in case something goes wrong. Find your device in the sidebar, right click on it, and choose Back Up. It will take a while.
After it’s done backing it up, it’s time to rock and roll.

Click Apps in the the Library section of the side bar, and either choose Select All from the Edit menu, or hit Command-A on your keyboard. Now all your bazillion apps will be selected. You can either delete them, which I do not recommend, or you can move them to a folder. With all of them selected, just drag them into a folder you previously created with the Finder to make a manual backup of all of them. Again, it will take a while. Once all the files are safely copied, you can delete them: just press backspace on your keyboard, or choose Delete from the Edit menu. At this point your may get a scary message warning you that the apps will be deleted from all devices to which they had been copied. Confirm the deletion and move to trash; that’s why you just copied them out.

Now, here’s the nice part. With your device still connected, right click on its name in the sidebar and choose Transfer Purchases. You may be asked for your Apple ID password, and iTunes will make a local copy of all the apps that are currently on your device.
Rinse and repeat for any other extra device, and you’re done: at the end you will only have a local copy of the apps that you currently have on your devices.

If you want to be extra sure that everything has been copied correctly, you may want to run Transfer Purchases again for each device. At the end, you can safely re-enable automatic syncing. If you start the syncing procedure immediately, it should not copy (nor delete!) any apps in any direction, meaning they are already synchronized.

At this point, if you want, you can delete the backup folder you had copied your apps to when you began this whole ordeal. I’d suggest keeping them on a backup disk just in case, but unless the apps are pulled from the App Store, you can safely download them again at no extra cost at any time.

Personally, I ended up recovering about 13 GB by doing this. Not bad, considering that from my point of view those 13 GB were filled with pointless fluff!

Italian luddites: the downfall of a country living in the past

If you were to describe my country, Italy, as a country fearful of change, you wouldn’t be too far off from the truth. If Italians could live under a bubble preventing time from passing, most of them would jump at the opportunity. I have come to the conclusion that most of my fellow countrymen are luddite by nature.

Technology is seen as something to be feared, rather than embraced. Something new comes along, and people of all ages — including part of the youth — will complain that it’s unnecessarily complicated, that things worked just as fine before, and that “back then” nobody was forced to learn anything new. I have wondered why people think this way for a few years now, and I think I’ve come to the conclusion that it has to do with history.

Even today, a hundred and fifty-one years after the unification of the country, most Italians don’t really feel like they are Italian. They are more likely to label themselves as coming from a certain region, city or even neighborhood. The North has been blabbering about independence for decades now, and the South is still stuck in the grip of organized crime, the mafia and its cousins sometimes being more popular and better-considered than the State. Indeed, the roots for such criminal organizations can be traced back to the bandits who fought against the forced “Northernization” of the peninsula — more specifically, the so-called Piemontesizzazione, as the first King of Italy just exported the Piemontese laws to the rest of the newborn country — immediately after the unification.

In a sense, that’s why Italians still today consider the State to be inherently evil and should leave people alone instead of meddling with their lives. You seldom find someone who thinks that she, as a citizen, is herself part of the State. Rather, most people will complain about the State and, why not?, rip it off if possible: after all, from their point of view it’s just reciprocation.

For this reason, each and every change is perceived as preposterous, required by the evil State for the sole reason of complicating the citizens’ life, not unlike the way a big, seemingly almighty cat plays with a tiny mouse solely for its own amusement.

But it’s with technology that Italians show their chronic opposition to change. Most people over 50 have no clue whatsoever about computers. Unless they are introduced to them by some younger member of the family, or through some mandatory course on their workplace, most senior citizens will be completely oblivious to computers. Even among those who do use them, most of them will remain antagonistic to the machine.
Even more worrying is the fact that many young people are virtually as uninterested to computers as such, save for the fields in which they are deemed useful from the ir point of view: illegal file sharing, homework plagiarism, social networking, porn and the like. The interesting thing here is that the same young people spend most of their time with a smartphone in their hands, yet refuse to learn the basics of computing. I personally know an eighteen-year-old woman who claims that she never really learned how to use a computer because she never found a use for them.

Most of my foreign readers are probably shocked at this point, but see, the sad truth is that in Italy the internet is not necessary to carry on with your daily life. Nobody expects you to have an email address, or to submit documents online. I know doctors who proudly take note of their appointments on a dear old paper calendar, rather than using a computer, an iPad, a smartphone or even a measly “data bank” from the 90s. They are completely oblivious to the capabilities that a digital system can provide — such as keeping an easily searchable long-term log of appointments, cross-referencing notes — because they are not familiar with the possibilities, and even if they were, they wouldn’t want to spend some time to learn how to use the system.

In this country, most companies don’t even have a one-page website. Those who do, seldom update it; it quickly turns into a stale flyer, but they don’t care. Who goes to the website, anyway? After all, if a client wants some information she’d better just call: writing to a company’s e-mail address almost invariably results into never receiving a reply, or immediately receiving a notification that the recipient’s mailbox is full, a clear sign that it’s been left unchecked for the longest time.

When it comes to money, Italians and their fear for change goes into overdrive. Given the incredible level of corruption in the country, there have been feeble attempts at reducing the maximum amount that can be paid in cash, forcing any higher-value transaction to be carried out through means that leave a paper trail. Recently, this limit has been lowered to a thousand euros. One would expect that the strongest opposition would come from lobbying entrepreneurs, but no: the ones who complained the most were retired senior citizens. The new limit would prevent those of us who make enough (and the numbers are getting fewer and fewer) from picking up their whole pension in cash in a single visit to the post office. Of course, having it deposited to a checking account would solve the problem immediately, but many people in Italy do not have a checking account altogether, in part due to the fact that they have the highest fees in all of Europe. Indeed, many people only open up one when they are required to, such as when their employers insist that they are paid with a direct deposit, or when they need to purchase a house and need a mortgage.
Credit card usage is also lower than most of Europe, as many people simply don’t trust them (or lack access to them, if they have no checking account). I know people who only use them with ATM to withdraw cash, which — albeit useful in emergencies — is quite a silly thing: why not just use them directly to pay in stores?

When I read that Sweden is starting to consider the wholesale (pun intended) elimination of cash as most Swedes use other means of payments and micropayments, I was stunned. That will never happen here. The people, the commoners if you will, would object too strongly, failing to see that it would actually lead to a greater accountability that would reduce most of the corruption. It would not make it entirely impossible to use money for bribes, of course, but it would require more careful planning than just not releasing an invoice or a giving out a receipt to clients. That alone would be an immense improvement, but then again, it requires a paradigm shift that most people are simply not willing to take out of laziness, rather than out of genuine concerns about privacy and tracking.

About a month ago, my region switched off analog TV transmission, finally entering the all-digital era. This was supposed to happen two years ago, but it kept being postponed over and over, in part due to the political agenda, and in part due to the fear that people would not be able to survive — metaphorically speaking, of course — the switch. It’s not hard: if you have a new TV, you’re already set; if not, you need to get a cheap converter box that you connect between the antenna and the TV. In some cases, as ironically happened to my very own household, you may need to call and pay a technician to replace and/or re-aim your antenna to improve reception. The government, years ago, even started a controversial campaign that allowed people to buy converter boxes at a discount, effectively semi-subsidizing the purchase of these devices. Yet, even today, many people are incredibly confused about the whole matter, and the refrain is always the same: why does my grandma need to learn how to use a converter box with a different remote? why does my grandpa have to spend money to get his antenna replaced? And mind you, these are the same people who complain that there’s nothing on TV. They may have to shell out some cash in some cases (though for most households the expense is simply the cost of the digital receiver, which retails for prices as low as €15), but they would get many more channels to watch for free after that. In most cases, moreover, the switch would be so simple that any nephew or grand-daughter can explain the eldest how to proceed.
The people who complain about how “the government did this to make us spend more money” (without realizing that the money spent, if any, goes to private companies, such as stores and antenna technicians) also fail to realize that the frequencies that get released will be auctioned off for mobile broadband, which will improve the availability of Internet access in areas currently not covered by DSL.

But, then again, who needs the Internet in Italy? The “Internet use in households and by individuals in 2011″ report by Eurostat tells a fairly discouraging tale. A note for non-Europeans: “EU27″ refers to the whole European Union, which includes 27 Member States (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom) as opposed to “Eurozone”, which refers to the 17 Member States currently using the Euro as their currency.

Whereas 73% of the households in the EU27 had Internet access in 2011 and broadband availability was at 68%, only 62% of Italian households have Internet access and barely 52% have broadband. This is in stark contrast with other Western European countries such as France (76% and 70%, respectively), Belgium (77% and 74%), Germany (83% and 78%) or the Netherlands (94% and 83%.) What’s most amazing is that Greece jumped from 25% and 7% in 2007 to 50% and 45% in 2011, and Romania jumped from 22% and 8% to 47% and 31% during the same time span. Italy’s increase is still remarkable (43% and 25% to 62% and 52%), but we remain steadily behind the average.

It gets worse when the actual usage of the Internet, rather than its bare availability in households, is taken into account. An average of 71% of EU27 citizens used the Internet within the 3 months before the survey, 73% used the Internet within the 12 months before the survey, and 24% never used the Internet. The report doesn’t state whether this means never used it at all, or never used it within the past 12 months; in any case, this is only marginally relevant for the sake of the analysis.
In Italy, only 54% used the Internet within the last 3 months and 57% within the last 12 months, while 39% never did. Comparatively, in France these values are 78%, 80% and 19% respectively, in Germany they are 81%, 83% and 16%. Scandinavian countries lead the chart, with Sweden chiming in at 93%, 94% and 5%, and Norway at 93%, 94% and 5%. Iceland shows an even higher Internet penetration, but I’m concentrating on mainland Europe here.

The important fact here is the number of people who never used the Internet. Italy’s value is 39%, the highest in Western Europe after Greece (45%) and Portugal (41%), while the EU27 average is 24%. That’s almost half as much.
Moreover, only 51% of Italians access the Internet at least once a week and only 49% do so daily, while in Germany these values are 77% and 63% respectively. Unsurprisingly, 82% of Norwegian users access the Internet daily, and 91% do so weekly.

Italians are also not very keen on purchasing goods or services over the Internet. Compared to an EU27 average of 43% over the past 12 months, only 15% of Italians carried out economic transactions over the web. This is an incredibly lower value compared to France’s 53%, Germany’s 64%, the Netherlands’ 69% and Norway’s 73%.
The report doesn’t tell the reasons for this negative achievement, but I think I can elaborate a little bit on that. As I’ve said in the first part of this article, Italians are somewhat afraid of change and are particularly opposed to payment methods other than cash. However, while you can enter a store and pay with notes and coins, you cannot do so over the Internet unless you choose the cash-on-delivery options, which is normally more expensive. This, together with the ancestral fear of frauds, lack of widespread Internet access — Italy had one of the strictest law on public wi-fi that simply killed the so-called “Internet cafés” —, generalized computer illiteracy, very high shipping costs and incredibly complicated bureaucracy, effectively hinders any possibility of widespread adoption of electronic commerce. This is not to say that e-shops cannot thrive in Italy; many of them do (and I have first-hand experience of this, because in 2008 and 2009 I worked in a small store that also sold its products online), but most of the buyers are usually returning customers. It’s hard to make a company grow in such an environment, and online businesses shut down daily.

All of this unfortunately triggers a chain reaction: since few people use the Internet and therefore few people will buy online, few companies will be eager to make business online (and the few public authorities will invest in letting users deal with them over the web, given the investment required and the current state of the economy.)

In the EU27, 41% of people interacted with public authorities over the Internet in the last 12 months, but only 22% did so in Italy. The pattern repeats again: France chimes in at 57%, the Netherlands at 62% and Norway at 74%.
Italy’s percentage is only about half of the average, and that’s frankly not surprising. Our bureaucracy is so heavy and complex that moving even if new material were handled digitally, old certificates will probably never be transposed to the 21st century.

Again, I can provide first-hand experience: my parents live in Chieti but they married in my mother’s town, Vasto, which is located about 75 kilometers away. They need a marriage certificate, and the only way to have it is to go to the city hall in Vasto and request it there. There is simply no way to request it at the local city hall and have them get it via fax or something like that, let alone obtaining it directly online. Moreover, since it’s a semi-private act, the request cannot be delegated to some relative who lives there, so they have to be there in person. The most ironic part of this is that not only this will take the better part of a day and money to pay for gas and highway tolls, but the certificate itself will not even be free. But, once again, since very few people would request this kind of data online, there is no reason for public authorities to invest into a massive digital upgrade.

This whole chain reaction leads to an unpleasant conclusion: one of the reasons for Italy’s economy downfall is this country’s inability to change and become modern by embracing technology. What’s even sadder is seeing hordes of youths, the same youths who fiddle with their parents-funded smartphones all day long, puzzled in front of a computer screen. How can we expect things to improve if our future doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs are confused by paragraph styles in word processors?

Hulu, Pandora, Netflix and more from outside the USA, with IPVanish VPN

One of the pains of living “in the province of the empire,” that is to live outside the United States of America, is that access to many online services is precluded on the basis of geographical restrictions.

Hulu, Pandora, Netflix, just to name a few, will simply refuse to work for you — no matter how much you’re willing to pay. In fact, it is extremely frustrating to know that such companies are forced by copyright vultures to refuse access to international customers, and ultimately lose income. It’s a matter of origin: these services see what country your IP address belongs to, and decide whether to let you in or not.

If you can appear to be online from the US, they will often happily accept international credit cards: after all, if it were for them, there would be no silly geographical restriction in the first place. How do you pretend you’re coming from the US? You use a VPN.

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Amazon Kindle 4 review

Shortly before Christmas, I sold my Cybook Opus – which I loved, if you recall my review – and purchased an Amazon Kindle. I have been enjoying it for the past few days, so here is my review for it, especially with regard to how it compares to the Opus.

If, after reading this post, you decide to purchase a Kindle, please do so using the links at the bottom; that way, you support this blog’s costs and expenses.

I cannot provide side-by-side comparisons because I sold the Opus before receiving the Kindle, but I used it for the last year and a half, so I am very familiar with its merits and its shortcomings.

The first thing I noticed is the screen. In addition to being slightly bigger, six inches versus the Opus’s five, the e-ink technology is – not surprisingly – better. The Kindle supports 16 shades of grey rather than the Opus’s 4, and the background looks brighter and the text darker. It is worth pointing out that while the Kindle’s screen is bigger, it is theoretically less sharp because the resolution is the same (800 x 600 pixels). In practice, however, the Kindle still appears better due to the improved technology, dubbed “e-ink pearl.” Amazon shows it off to great effect by employing detailed (and no doubt optimized) pictures as screensavers when the reader is not in use.

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