Every story deserves a picture

Winton sunset
Winton sunset by Laurel Wilson

Other people at the Winton caravan park were trying to get the same sunset photo of a horse in a paddock. I took a few with my Iphone but none were as good as the one taken by Laurel Wilson. Our mate Giulio Saggin, photo editor for ABC online, wrote and asked if he could include it in the audience submitted photos section of the website. Flattering as that may be, news organisations who offer this kind of “exposure” do not pay their contributors. Our local paper the Sunshine Coast Daily publishes a reader’s picture Monday to Saturday. Same deal, you get the byline and the thrill of seeing your work in print, but sorry, no cash.

As we noted in an earlier column, there are 31 million mobile phones in Australia and all have cameras, some rivalling the most expensive digital cameras. If you are first on the scene at an accident or newsworthy event, your Iphone photo will be on page 3 tomorrow or even in today’s online edition. You may or may not get paid.

News photography is not the life-time career it once was and the smart snappers figured that out years ago, drifting off into photo-journalism, free-lancing, specialisation and book publishing. The aforementioned Giulio Saggin is one such entrepreneurial snapper. His evocative book So I Did captures black and white images of everyone who gave him a lift on a hitch-hiking trip around Australia in 1998. Giulio has done a few other things since then. His current gig as photo editor for ABC, is a classic case of a job that did not exist 10 years ago.
Back in 1995 I was among a small contingent of journalists flown to Mt Isa, Darwin and eventually, to Borroloola in the Northern Territory and next day to the McArthur River mine, which was due to be officially opened by then Prime Minister Paul Keating. I remember this well, as it was my first ever taste of the top end (it took 12 hours to get there by commercial airliner, private jets and a bus).

The miners put on an NT barbie with buffalo, kangaroo, crocodile and barramundi and they opened the wet canteen for the regulation couple of hours. There I met an unusual character, a fiercely independent free-lance photographer who clocked up huge mileages every year taking assignment-specific and what the trade calls “stock” photos around the top end. He was constantly on the road, this bloke, saving news media outlets the hideous expense of sending photographers from Sydney or Melbourne on an outback assignment.
Who knows what this enterprising fellow is doing now, but clearly his business model will have changed. Recent developments suggest that all news organisations, Fairfax in particular, plan to lay off full-time photographers and rely more on agencies and the few determined free-lancers still in the game. There is just too much competition and the agencies that pay have all but given up the fight to chase people republishing material in blogs and on Facebook without permission or attribution.
The BBC reported in March this year that Getty Images, the world’s largest photo agency, would release up to 35 million photos free to use. This move, said to be an effort to combat piracy, infuriated professionals who have been submitting their work to Getty for years.
Photography journalist Daniela Bowker told the BBC News website her Twitter feed lit up as angry photographers vented their feelings.
“They feel very strongly about that because photographers don’t work for free and they don’t work for exposure.”
“But at the same time, the genie is out of the bottle. There are so many images that are being shared and liked and tweeted and clicked on.”
Getty will continue to charge “commercial users” like news outlets, televisions stations and advertisers, to use images. But some images may never be used commercially and the photographers who took them will never get paid.
Maleny photographer Steve Swayne has taken some stunning pictures of the outback on his lengthy tours. He says it is now too difficult to make a living taking photographs.
“About two years ago the image agency I use (Getty Images) radically changed their royalty policies and now the income that used to be up to $700 for a photo for use in advertising has diminished to a few dollars per image.

“The proliferation of good DSLR cameras means that millions of people have the gear and are willing to sell their photos for a few dollars due to the flattery angle as much as anything. Lots of agencies now scour the internet to find suitable photos and then they approach the photographer to use the original full sized image.”
Some former newspaper journalists I keep in touch with occasionally get ticked off with the whole business to the point where they vocalise on Facebook. The most recent kerfuffle was when Tennis Australia opened up opportunities for “volunteers” to take photographs during the two-week Australian Open. A special Facebook page was set up “Tennis Australia – pay your photographers” which attracted 967 “likes.” Tennis Australia (no doubt horrified by the Facebook outrage), issued a statement which described their initiative as more of a way of encouraging an army of young photographers to gain high level experience and that (of course) TA would continue to employ professional photographers.
Dr Sabrina Caldwell,  thinks professional photographers are in the same position as someone reapplying for their own job.
“They have to show that they can create better things than others. They need an edge not just over others, but over who they once were.”

Tandem Surfers – photo by Jon Toogood

I took my brother-in-law Jon to Kings Beach Caloundra when he was over here from Canadia. We were watching a couple doing a tandem surfing exhibition for a television crew. While Jon got a couple of great photos with a telephoto lens, what interested us was the film crew’s remote-controlled helicopter camera. Anyone can buy one of these helicopters for as little as $160 (you also need one of those tiny sports cameras and attach it to the chopper). Of course you can pay thousands for sophisticated models which come with 20 megapixel cameras. Whatever the level, it is demonstrably cheaper and easier to take aerial photos and video using a remote-controlled drone than it is to commission a professional aerial photographer.

As for the privacy issues…well, that’s a topic for another Friday



Perils of the click track

I’m enjoying regaining all those lovely shimmering high frequencies my audiologist says are gone forever. All I have to do is wear these smart hearing aids that adjust automatically to zoom in on what they think you’re listening to – like the person opposite you in a noisy coffee shop. That was interesting, working in the studio yesterday. You have to listen to a click track and try to follow it. It gets harder later when you over-dub a vocal. I was doing OK until we did one of my songs that slows to half-time at the beginning of verses and picks up the tempo on the third line. That is so easy to do when you’re playing live. But recording a guitar track first then trying to make the vocal fit – that’s an entirely different process. We got there in the end. My producer Pix then wasn’t all that happy with my next guitar track as it didn’t sound “awesome” like my home demo. Thinks: why not produce the home demo then? It’s not that easy. My home recording system is incompatible with software based programmes like Pro Tools and QBase. Nevertheless I now have to extract my two guitar tracks from the demo and we are going to try to replicate that in the studio (next week). It’s all to do with the “feel” or the “vibe.” As all songwriters know, turning out an ambient, cruisy version of your newest song at home, when you’re still all excited about it and it shows in your voice, changes quite a bit when you’re alone in a sound booth, trying not to think about what a wasted hour costs in a professional studio when you’re not completely prepared.
All producers and sound engineers will do their best with all your songs, but when one particular song excites them, they will be so far into the detail you’ll be sick to death of it the time you’re done. That’s how it is for Bed 27 – Pix loves it and I’m glad he does because the few people I have played the demo to have given me the “It’s a bit much, isn’t it?” raised eyebrow look.
So now I have to revisit my multi-tracked home demo from six months ago and work out what the hell I was doing. I’ve never played the song live, so in a way it is like giving birth when nobody knew you were pregnant.
Meanwhile we now have 12 songs “bedded down” which means other musicians can come in and add their creativity to the songs with no issues about tempo or out of tune instruments. My Maton six-string has a serious intonation problem so I have been borrowing other people’s guitars for this project, although my Yamaha 12-string is getting a work-out. We’re off on a three month road trip in a couple of weeks* so there won’t be time to do the other three songs – maybe some vocals and harmonies on the others. So we’ll come back in late September and take up where we left off. You can’t rush these things!
Whether you have done a lot of studio recording or none at all, I hope you find these insights useful. Songwriters tend to be too controlling about their material. I was lucky in a way that a 25-year career in journalism where editors are sometimes literally looking over your shoulder and saying “That’s boring as bat-shit, Bobby,” makes you less precious about changing lyrics. If you meet a sound engineer/producer you feel right about working with, you’re half-way there. Now go home and spend six months doing home demos and knocking those half-done songs into shape.
*lucky house-sitters!

All ears on Day 5

This will be interesting, trying out my new hearing aids in the confines of a recording studio. I had been in denial about the loss of high frequencies in both ears but finally trotted along to an audiologist and parted with a four-figure sum for what so far seems to be a much-enhanced living experience. The acid test will be when I go into the sound booth and put on the cans (enclosed noise-cancelling headphones), and record a couple of guitar tracks and then some vocals. This is my fifth half-day session at Pix Vane-Mason’s studio near Conondale. We have been working with multi-instrumentalist and all-round good bloke Steve Cook and so far have 10 songs “bedded down”.
For those of you who have no experience of the sound recording process, the usual deal is to record guitar tracks to a click or metronome without vocals. There may be a “guide” vocal to keep the guitarist on track. Guitarists follow a chord chart hopefully prepared by the songwriter (who, we assume, has done a lot of pre-production on the song). That is, the song has been recorded at home and then dissected. The more work done before you go into the studio the less time it should take.
I have a Roland 16-track recording desk at home. In theory I should be able to record my own album at home. So far I have managed to turn out some useful “demos” but let me tell you, there is a big gap between what you can do at home with one good microphone and putting yourself in the hands of an experienced producer with lots of microphones, audio gear and years of experience.
Home-based recording studios are doing it tough at the moment, with so many singer songwriters and bands choosing to buy an Apple Mac and Pro Tools (a computer-based multi-track recording system) and churning out downloadable albums. The DYI trend has come about because of rapidly dropping CD sales (a global trend), the rising popularity of downloads (Itunes) and a festering mind-set among the general populace that music should be free, or at least cheap.
After I finish the so-far untitled legacy album with Pix I will probably buy a computer-based programme and go that way, although for a relatively small investment, a professionally produced recording will have a much better chance of being played on radio. Our first EP “Courting the Net” was produced by award-winning record producer Rupert Pletzer, who was between jobs (at the time he was Tina Arena’s tour manager). His studio was across the road from my employ so we teamed up with Silas Palmer, a brilliant young musician we’d met at Woodford Folk Festival, and plunged in (I so did not know what I was doing). Straight away Rupert identified two songs he thought might get played on the ABC, so on the strength of that I sent it out to a few radio stations, including Ian McNamara’s Australia all Over. Some 12 years later we have had a long association with Australia all Over. Three of my songs have been included on Macca’s compilation CDs and we have toured with Macca and the band.
So yes, I trust the professional studio approach. Steve and Pix have already ironed out a few kinks in what I thought were watertight songs (they never are) and come up with the all-important “feel” or groove.
Too many songwriters spend months and year locked away in a bedroom perfecting their masterpieces with no input from anyone else and consequently develop a controlling attitude about the “finished” songs, brooking no criticism and refusing to make changes (I used to be guilty as charged).
Putting yourself in the hands of gifted professionals can rid you of many bad habits. Of course you have to jump in when you think they are doing a Deen Brothers on your song.
“Mate, the banjo is great on the train song but it needs to be just behind everything else, OK?”
So I’m off in an hour or so. I’ll let you know how I went with my new hearing aids. Last week I went in to the sound booth to record a 12-string with a capo on the fifth fret (we were aiming for that shimmering harp-like sound).
“Pix, mate, I can’t hear myself – turn me up!”
“Mate, you are turned up!”
Like I said, my high frequencies are shot to pieces. But now I can hear a crow fart 200m away.

Fixing your PC with a hairdryer

“I look at clouds from both sides now” Joni Mitchell

The thing about my generation is we expect things to last for years, if not decades. My 12-year-old laptop, for example, has recently gone to a good home for a parcel of bunyas (more about that later). The new laptop, meanwhile, bosses me about, telling me to back up data in the cloud, wherever that is. The why of that appears to be based on the need to keep a retrievable copy of all your irreplaceable photos, videos, and music in the likely event your cheap new laptop, tablet or PC blows a fuse. Most of the computer-savvy people I know buy a portable hard drive from the Post Office and back up their own data. Then they will spend countless hours tweaking, customising, and nursing their computers along into the old age they were never designed to have. The wastemakers have been at this game for a long time, and the constantly evolving world of computers and consumer goods has delivered a highly profitable new generation of planned obsolescence.
So no surprise to learn I’m patiently waiting for the next Fixit Café (a fortnightly community effort in our village), to yet again repair our ancient lawn mower. This time it needs a perished fuel line replaced (I paid $3 for the part). Last time a Fixit Cafe volunteer replaced the mower’s broken starter cord ($4 for a length of cord). The time before that the front wheels fell off. I took the mower to a repair shop. The bloke looked at me like I was an impractical folk musician with long fingernails. “Mate,’ he said. “It’s not worth fixing.” I looked up petrol mowers on Google and decided I didn’t need to pay $700 to mow a garage-sized piece of lawn every three weeks or so. I tied the front wheels on with fencing wire and carried on regardless. It reminded me of the time I took the then new-ish mower in for a service in Brisbane. The mechanic looked in the oil reservoir then looked at me as if I had just played the first two bars of Duelling Banjos: “Mate, there’s no oil in here! It’s a wonder it was working at all.”
Dear old mower, with your fist-sized rust holes, wired-up wheels and blue smoke. I’m sure the friendly folk at the Fixit Café will do the right thing by you.
The Fixit Café is a concept started in Amsterdam, with the primary aim of making things last longer and sending less garbage to landfill. We go along to the Community Centre every second Thursday with our broken stuff, pay $5 and wait for a volunteer to fix it.
Around the same time as the mower cord broke, I was having this weird problem with my desktop computer. The bloody thing is only six years old! Most mornings it would not power up (although the green power light on the back was flashing). I found the solution on an HP support site.
The best way to fix this problem, they said, was to get a hair dryer and blow warm air into the power vent for a few minutes. (It may not work for you, but it worked for me). The only issue was when She Who Reads Newspapers wanted to use the hairdryer.
Eventually I accepted that I would have to replace the desktop with something more reliable. The local computer shop had a new laptop for $849. My first laptop (the one mentioned at the outset), cost $3360 in 2002. The $849 version has 8GB of RAM, a 2GB video card, 750GB of hard drive storage, card readers and other stuff that no-one understands except Geek Boys (and girls).
IT equipment and accessories are now very cheap, but don’t expect anything to last. They are being assembled at warp speed in offshore sweatshops by poor people earning $1 an hour. The young guy in the computer shop told me that while laptops are getting cheaper all the time, they don’t last. He seemed genuinely amazed that my old laptop was still working (on Windows XP). The battery died, so I kept it plugged in all the time. The keyboard was also dead so I used a $20 USB keyboard. The fan no longer worked so I bought one of those USB fan bases for $20 and no longer got the message that the cooling system had failed and to shut down the machine and return it to the authorised dealer. Whatever.
So I bought the $849 laptop, stapled the receipt to the 12-month warranty and retired the old desktop PC to the music studio (it just needed a new power supply unit). Then I decided to let go of the XP laptop, which happily coincided with a local LETS (Local Energy Transfer System) market. LETS is a local, not-for-profit community enterprise that records transactions of members exchanging goods and services by using LETS Credits (known as ‘bunyas’ in The Village). So the 2002 laptop went to a good home for 50 bunyas, which I plan to “spend” by employing a young person to mow my lawns (using the old mower, soon to be resurrected by the Fixit Café).
This will give me time to confront the daunting nature of Windows 7 (“at least you didn’t get Windows 8”) I hear you say. Times have moved on since Windows 98 and XP. Computer users are encouraged to trust people they don’t know who live who knows where to store all of their confidential files, contact lists, photos, videos, audio files and so on in anonymous data banks located, well, somewhere.
Many of us do this already without realising. Like on Facebook, where we post photos, videos, audio clips and inane or inflammatory comments that are stored off-site for what may end up being a very long time. Far too many of us have our confidential banking details stored in the cloud. If the recent hacking of Ebay was not a warning sign I don’t know what is.
Like it or not, we are all enslaved to this brilliantly flawed technology – its makers rolling out new versions and updates so fast it makes planned obsolescence seem obsolete. I’ll bet that when the late Vance Packard wrote The Waste Makers in 1960 he was probably not thinking it would still be around 54 years later – in paperback and ebook!
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