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Posts from — September 2012

Retina Revelations — A Photographers Perspective

(Note: This review was made testing a MacBook Pro 15-inch, 2.3 GHz with Retina display. Under the keyboard was 8 MB of RAM and 256GB flash storage — the introductory level MacBook Pro with Retina display)


For those of you who know me — though my dear friend, fellow tractor owner and VII Photo agency Chairman, Mr. Neal Jackson, will beg to differ — I’m the Anti-Tech.

I truly do distain discussions on kit, gear, gadgets and tech. Pour me brilliant cups of coffee and I’ll surely wax endless about what we can do with these tools, however to analyze them, ogle about their design or babble on how they work is tantamount to placing my head in the frame of a doorway, slamming it shut.

There is one specific reason for making this review — I’m utterly excited about photography’s newest and truly amazing enlarger/film editor, the new MacBook Pro with Retina display, and what it means in regards to the potential in the digital darkroom.

Or to express it more succinctly — what it means in regards to both being a photographer in these digital (dry) darkrooms AND having clock time left over to actually have a life.

While teaching a workshop in Bali this July, monkey's found the Oreo bag next to my MacBook Pro, fortunately not the coffee. These are indeed the proudest monkeys I've ever seen.

Some background…for over six years I’ve had the privilege (more so, the honor) to collaborate — and to literally be heard — by some of the smartest minds in the photographic industry; The team at Apple who create the photographic imaging program, Aperture. To say they are geniuses would be an epic understatement. These are women and men who take 0′s and 1′s, turning code into a tool which brilliantly handles all my photographic workflow as efficiently as an iPhone flows and functions all my (and likely your) professional mobile needs. To this day, Aperture continues to push the limits of how we work in what I like to call, the dry darkroom.

Another disclaimer — I know nothing about code. Haven’t a clue what a megapixel is from a pimple pixel. Not a lick of understanding what a MHz is from a GHz nor can I figure out how to set up email if it weren’t for all those Assistant tools. Can’t even fathom how or why when I press these keys, semi coherent words appear on a glowing screen.

Actually, I don’t want to know such things.

Not due to the lack of caring.

It’s simply not my art nor my purpose. Such art — truly is an art — is in the minds and hands of those geniuses who create these tools we use, an art which is well beyond my comprehension.

A beautiful grasshopper decides to check out my first MacBook Pro as I edited along the beach in Rinondoran village in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, in 2008 while on a story for Time Magazine. Since 1996 I think I've been through seven different — always improved — Apple portable computers.


Recently, I had a MacBook Pro with Retina display sent to my home as a loaner from Apple to test pro apps performance — Aperture, Final Cut and a few other photographic based tools we tend to use.

The timing was perfect for Cupertino to contact me — last month I was heading to South Sudan for work on two projects with MSF (Doctors Without Borders) — first, to highlight a breaking health crisis in Yida and the other, of a multi-month MSF/VII health initiative collaboration. This MacBook Pro I’m still writing upon is on its last leg. Actually, more like exhausted after beating the beheebers out it after a few years of using, creating and playing with it, no different then as kids we used Legos, Barbies or a Stretch Armstrong…remember that wacky guy?. Needless to say I was giddy as an eight year-old when Apple had called upon me to use the MBPr for a month, perfectly falling over the three weeks I’d be in Africa.

When Saturday morning of August 11 came — the day I was leaving for the airport in Hartford — no package from Apple had arrived other than the loaner agreement in a separate envelope a day earlier.

Calling repeatedly to Fedex, I learned the plane carrying the MBPr had been delayed out of Texas, missing it’s connecting flight to Albany, leaving the delivery truck for the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts to never consider stopping by the farm before I left. In a desperate attempt to still bring a MacBook Pro with Retina display to Africa, I called the Apple store in nearby Holyoke where I planned to swing by and purchase one en rout to the airport. Fortunately August 11 was Massachusetts Tax Amnesty Day. Unfortunately, I was told the lines were so long, all MBPr would likely be sold out before I could ever got there. Frustrated, I’d have to bring this 2010 MBP, hoping it would see me through a grueling three-week trip.

Ironically, upon arrival three days later to a dusty airstrip in Yida, South Sudan, I couldn’t help but twistingly ponder whether this Fedex plane hadn’t maybe diverted to Yida in order to somehow deliver food and that Dallas delayed MBPr.

Fortunately no one was hurt when this Fedex plane landed a few months ago in Yida, South Sudan. It simply was too heavy to land on a dirt runway where (as I was told) the landing gear burrowed into the soil, causing the front landing gear to break and the plane to skid down the runway on its nose. If you're wondering why there are no engines and whatnot, every piece of the plane was taken apart so it could not be used to fly ever again. Presume it's next to near impossible to repair such a plane in this remote region of Africa.


Returning Stateside three weeks later, sitting in my studio was a Pelican case containing the loaner MBPr.

Coming home from South Sudan — and after hugging the kids — I opened a Pelican case containing a MacBook Pro 15-inch, 2.3 GHz with Retina display. Cute purple tie straps Apple uses, eh.

Like a grade schooler, I immediately opened it. Actually had to do so and quickly — there was only 8 days left before needing to ship it back to Cupertino.

Having never written a review (I’m no David Pogue of the NYT’s), I’ll simply tell it like it is, as an end user but more so, as a professional photographer who uses these items on a daily basis, most often in extremely demanding situations.

In the shortest most emphatic way possible, here’s my entire review:

MacBook Pro with Retina display is astonishing.

MacBook Pro with Retina display on the left and my 2+ year old MacBook Pro on right. Both may look like siblings however their differences are enormous. By the way if you're wondering (and I hope you are), the coffee I was drinking was delicious Piece Brothers Fogbuster roast.

Wait. That’s too simple.

So much has changed and is new about this MBPr, I need to begin with the basic act of simply starting it up. Pushing the power button on is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg regarding differences between every previous computer (creating tool) you’ve ever owned.



What stuck me immediately was how quickly the MBPr went from simply sitting there like a dormant placemat (it looks almost that thin), to allowing me to begin work — just over ten seconds from pressing the ON button to full active application usage.




What hits you like a ton of lead after the Retina MacBook Pro is on, will forever change the way you work within the dry darkroom/film editing room.

The screen.

This Retina screen verges on the near indescribable.

Why do I use the word, Indescribable?

Because working on Apple’s MacBook Pro Retina screen renders images in such astonishing detail, it’s like reliving what you had seen previously with your own eyes.

Now back home, it was as if the events I recorded with my camera (a Canon 5D Mark II) were reappearing in the exact visual reality I’d witnessed back in South Sudan.

I became re-depressed, even more angry, reviewing so frighteningly clear (in such unflinching detail and subtle nuance) the horrors of just weeks earlier.

Another way of putting it — this screen to our world no longer presents a diminished perception of reality, but rather an actual visual presentation of reality.

Not a single detail is missing.

Only thing lacking are three dimensions and scent — sound is sorted through dramatically improved speakers (more on that below).

When looking at an image at 100% magnification, going back to this old screen is as if I put a sheet of cellophane across my eye or drugstore quality reading glasses, the difference is that astounding.

Recently, I was working one afternoon in the dining room. The kids were home — after a few weeks away from the family, I always try to reconnect by being as close to them as possible rather than buried in studio located in the barn. At times I couldn’t help but gasp by the MBPr clarity and sharpness. My middle child, Konstantin, would say while on the living room sofa, “DADDY! What are you making all that noise for, I’m trying to do my homework!” Little did Kon know I was oohing due to seeing elements in my photographs which I’d never seen before.

In fact, photographs I’d toned while in South Sudan on this older MBP clearly showed signs of incomplete/improper (to my liking that is) aspects of burning and dodging, something I’d never be able to see except either in a final print.

In fact, that’s what working on a Retina screen feels like — as if you’re actually toning a physical print.

In addition, I realized why the editor in NY had emailed me while back in Yida, asking if they could lighten up a few of the photos I’d sent — they were too dark in certain areas. Obviously I couldn’t completely see every aspect of the image clearly on what already is a mighty good screen on older MacBook Pros, yet I thought at the time they were toned smack on. Unfortunately I cannot show these toning difference right now. They are part of a project VII and MSF are working on to be released in November.

Immediately realized I’d have to re-tone a few, the task flew effortlessly in Aperture on this MBPr, faster than even on my studio iMac…and that iMac is pretty darn fast.

Now here is where the Retina screen really causes near visual rapture — zooming into an image, barely a pixel appears. In fact look at these screengrabs off the MBPr (SHIFT+COMMAND+3) of the chimney sweep who cleaned our fireplace just over a week ago and note the zoom factor in each image caption — also on the full image mini preview in Aperture on the far right which shows there’s nothing hidden up my sleeve — and then be astonished:

Our neighborhood chimney sweep — as if appearing straight out of Mary Poppins — stopped by while the Retina MacBook Pro was still here. I took some photos simply because he's such a wonderful fellow. This is a vertical portrait in Aperture and viewed at 100%.

Now at 200%…

At 200%, image details/pixels are like those seen at 100%. It gets more intense as we go further in.

Let’s go to 300%…

At 300% magnification, the only thing I notice is that my focus wasn't actually on his eyes but on his checks, which are tack sharp and yet still no pixels to be seen. Take a sip of coffee, it gets even better.

How about 400%…

Now at 400%, unless WordPress is taking these 1440 x 900 pixel, 72 dpi, screengrabs which I exported the .PNG original file out as a Jpeg compression 12 (BTW, I haven't a fucking clue what any of this nonsense I just wrote even means), I'm hard pressed to find any pixel appearance. In fact what I really begin to notice is all the tiny specks of soot on his face...and the fact my focus really was not on his eyes.

Time to enter a new dimension of detail at 500%…

At 500% magnification, we begin to see what might be Jpeg compression noise. More unusual, the eyelashes of the chimney sweet are beginning to look sharper — this might be due to the ultra-sharp cheek area no longer in view, removing the visual reference of staggering sharpness and detail.

And now to journey into the center of the eye at 1000%…

At an astonishing 1000% magnification, I can barely begin to see any pixels.If anything, maybe there is Jpeg pixel noise, digital grain or indeed the first visible signs of screen pixels on the Retina display. Who knows. More so, who cares — if you walked this close to someones face and tried to focus with your own 20/20 vision, this fellows eye would also appear out of focus. What is noticeable is that a Retina screen presents the world as clearly as our very own eyes.

Another WHOLLY SH_T moment happened when moving my physical position about in the dining room chair — there was no change in tonal nor brightness on the screen.

On every previous portable MBP (and likely on every portable PCs monitor), you have to find juuuust the right tilt of the screen in relationship to your eye perspective/view. Then and only then could you feel you were going to be toning photographs or color correcting video properly.

Those days are gone.

The MBPr is so smack on, you can move the screen back and forth by 30-40 degrees, never witnessing a tonal nor density change in the screen. No more neck cringes caused by concerns if you move your head or shift your body, where then every aspect of toning needs monitor repositioning.

We’re now all free to move about, even turning screens for sideways views so others like Kon, who after too many oohs and ah’s, wandered over to ooh and ah himself.

Continuing on the screen — yes, there’s far more bits still to share — on the final full day of using the MBPr, I stumbled into the unexpected…the screen is much less reflective than all previous glossy screens. Here, take a look:

At first I could not believe what my eyes were not seeing — I never heard that the often gripped about issue of glossy screens being too reflective had been, though not completely, resolved. Sure, if you take a MacBook Pro Retina screen outside by a pool or smack in the middle of football pitch, you'll catch your mug reflecting in the screen. However in a shaded area or indoors and in situations like this where a very large window is pouring in light all over me, even wearing a while t-shirt the reflective image is hardly noticed in the black areas of the display, and never did I notice myself while working on an actual image.

Loads of websites and magazines have surely mentioned how crisp and sharp letters/fonts are now on the retina screen so I’ll skip that part — Yes, it’s true, you can read as if letters were chiseled in stone, not pixels.

What matters in the world of photography and filmmaking is the image, and wholly cow has image viewing been raised not just to a whole new level, it’s nearly like viewing reality before you, all over again.



Pushing the MacBook Pro with Retina display as hard as I could using Aperture — using certain brushes that are processor hungry — rarely did it slow down, even while working on the most entry level MBPr.

Only twice did Aperture take a half second to catch its breath when adding complex definition brush strokes to an image (maxing out the RAM would surely stop any chance of a spinning pizza from rearing its twirling colors).

Every other action done in Aperture and a few playback tests in FC flowed and responded in real time. No delays.



Like surely all, I relish the moments of down time, unchained from all this nonsense so we can be with our families, have a drink at the bar after a long day on the streets (as we did during film days), to read a book or dare I verge on delusional with the notion of getting to bed early.

If I could bring back all the time lost while waiting for 8GB and 16 (now 32 and 64GB) cards to download, I’d have more lives left than a cat.

I can remember the days when myself and a number of Time Magazine colleagues rented a house in Kabul, Afghanistan. It was November 2001, to be exact. I was covering the departure of the Taliban and the emergence of an society aching for change using my first ever digital camera — a Nikon 1Dx which cost well over $6000 yet produced images (in Jpeg) little better than a $300 iPhone 4s.

Downloading images off a 1GB Micro Drive (now here’s an example for not complaining about the costs of being a photographer today…those 1GB IBM CF cards just over 10 years ago where $350++ each. Last month I bought a 32GB Lexar cards for less than $100), it took 20+ minutes via what I presume was then a USB 1 connected to a USB 1 hard drive.

This was state of the art.

When Apple brought Firewire 400 (and then FW800) to a MacBook some years ago, it was liberation, where downloading meant less time lost, however not nearly enough when downloading from today’s massive storing SD and CF cards.

When copying the South Sudan Aperture library from this 2+ year old MBP over to a portable hard drive (USB 2 to USB 3 — had purchased new USB 3 HD’s to use for the Fedex delayed MBPr loaner…), that 11GB Aperture library chockablock full of preview files, metadata, toning layers and whatnot, copied in just over 15 mins.

The same Aperture library copied from the exact same USB 3 HD over to the USB 3 MacBook Pro Retina — hold on to your seats:

2 minutes 39 seconds.

Enough said.



Maybe it’s because this older MacBook Pro has been dragged up and down too many stairs in a Think Tank bag, wedged into countless overhead bins or received the crumbs of too many sandwiches into the keyboard crevices. It’s just not as fast as it use to be nor is older battery technology able to truly disconnect me very long without AC power and a wall socket. I’m lucky if I get 1 hour on this battery — surely the battery could use replacing but I’m upgrading so why bother.

My sister-in-law, Maria Bakkalapulo, a stellar ethnomusicologist and radio journalist, has a relatively new MBP. She tells me she gets around 2-3 hours on her kit when unplugged using basic apps. When crunching heavy processor apps (like Final Cut) while on battery power, she receives a decent 1 to 1 1/2 hours of battery time….and that, Maria says, is with the screen slightly dimmed.

To see what this MacBook Pro with Retina display battery can handle regarding working say on long haul flights, I unplugged the power cable, cranked up the retina screen to full brightness and pushed the processor as hard as possible with complex brushes in Aperture like definition, repeated burning/dodging, slideshow creations, viewed a video file, etc.

After 1 hour there was still 80% batter power left.

At 4 hours on battery power and having to stop to eat dinner with the family, it was only nearing 20%, likely still able to cruise at full processor speed for another 30-60 more minutes.

It’s not in perpetuity battery flow (perpetual motion is the holly grail of scientific invention), however we no longer need to wander about in search of a power supply as often and that flight across The Pond can indeed be a purposeful, work productive (or movie watching) experience, basically all the way on battery power.

Wow, could I have used that oomph while in South Sudan, where the generator often knocked off for hours, rendering my ability to work on preparing images for MSF impossible.



Simply put — the MBPr is thinner and lighter than any previous MBP. It’s not as light as my wife’s MacBook Air, however I reckon it’s a safe bet that Jony Ivey and his fellow geniuses will sort a way to pack the same power into the size of a MacBook Air well within the next few year and then we’ll all have better posture and re-leveled shoulders.

How they pack so much more power and battery life into an even thinner/lighter piece of kit is beyond comprehension. Simply put, it's art. By the way, only after taking this iPhone snap did I truly realize how much abuse this older MBP (right) has taken over the years.


Being a field recordist for over 20 years and now being asked to produce more films, sound quality is paramount. No idea how they did it but the sound emanating out of the Retina MacBook Pro is significantly better. The speakers even received the WDiiB (Wow, Daddy, it is Better!”) Seal Approval from my son, Konstantin, when I played him a film excerpt from South Sudan, watching the exact same film clip on this MBP and the loaner MBPr. I wouldn’t throw away your Bose or other high-end stereo external speakers just yet, however the sound (more so, the quality) coming out of this computer is noticeably better.



Did not have access to any Thunderbolt peripherals but when reading about — and understand with my limited tech knowledge of such things as transfer speeds — it’s very safe to say that the insane speeds of UBS 3 will feel somewhat impish once using a completely Thunderbolt connected system.



After sharing realtime thoughts recently over Facebook and Twitter while working with the MBPr, I received some very constructive but somewhat misplaced grips. Initial concerns on a key matter were indeed realistic — the lack of connection ports. Rghtfully so, because the myriad of connecting ports we’ve all gotten use to over the last decade (like ethernet connection, Firewire, data card slots, etc) can and will compromise certain aspects of creative workflow now that everything (other than USB 3) is connected via a thing called Thunderbolt. However most if not all have been addressed, either by Apple or third party peripheral makers.

Here’s a rundown of concerns I heard over the 8 days of testing while sharing thoughts through social media:



There were complaints — and some potentially serious concerns — about legacy connectivity with older, less rapidly upgrading third party items such as digital sound cards and other connecting peripheral bits, not to mention the loss of 800FW.

Right while these constructive discussions where occurring, my good friend and VII colleague, Marcus Bleasdale, emailed me the this link, solving pretty much each and every legacy connective issue possible — a simple, elegant Thunderbolt to everything else connecting dock made by Belkin.

Order it, then create with peripherals which likely were even invented over a decade ago — that’s centuries in computer years.


No 17″ MacBook Pro with Retina Display

Sorry, no behemoth to carry on to a plane which only can be opened comfortably in Singapore Air business class seats. If you want a 17″, it will likely have to wait until Apple sort this (if they even choose to) or plain and simply do the following because it’s an excellent workflow when wanting large screens; Work/create just as brilliantly as many of us have done for basically a decade, doing so on a lightweight, extremely portable and powerful computer with a staggeringly brilliant 15 inch Retina screen, then if needing a larger monitor, do final editing back in studio, connected to a brilliant 27-inch Apple Thunderbolt Display where we really have visual real estate space.


Photoshop Compatibility

I heard from a few friends who were wondering whether any of the Adobe image programs (CS/Photoshop/etc) presented images properly on the Retina screen. You might be shocked to know…I don’t use CS (Photoshop), using instead Aperture for my entire still image workflow (even for video storage/organizing). Yes, I do have a licensed version of CS5 but rarely if ever use it. And no, I did not test any Adobe products on this MBPr. CS was not preinstalled (Apple knows I’m an Aperture user) so you will have to reference other sources for this potential compatibility issue. Most important to realize regarding this matter — Apple has always been THE graphics/artists based computer. Sooner than later Adobe will upgrade all their programs just as they have done during previous major OS updates from Apple. In the mean time, try Aperture and you’ll quickly realize just how more efficient, powerful and liberating this entire dry darkroom madness and image organizing chaos can be.


Power Cable

The new MacBook Pro with Retina displays has a wider AC connector so your old MBP power supplies will not work as a backup…let’s not whine about cable changes as has been happening with the new Lightening iPhone connector — things do change. They have to, nearly always for the better. There is however a perfect solution in order to keep those older MBP power supplies useful, a MagSafe 2 Converter which sells for just $10 bucks.



Back in 1997 I was living in Hong Kong. After much buildup and excitement within the tech world (sorry, I don’t get excited about new gear. I simply get excited by what I can do with it), by late November of that year, Apple had finally released what was considered the mac-daddy of portable Macs — the PowerBook G3 (Kanga). My portable computer at the time, a Powerbook 5300, was also on its last leg and was needing to be replaced. Even with Hong Kong being the capital of low cost discounted electronics (and without a sales tax), I went out and bought this powerhouse of a computer (directly at the home of an authorized reseller — his shop had already closed for night) for a staggering $4,000 USD. It had a whopping 5GB HD with processing speeds likely now be found in an Apple Nano.

Part of 30+ year personal project on my feet, that's $30,000 Hong Kong Dollars (or $4000 USD) laying on the floor in exchange for that PowerBook G3 computer over on the far right. Still have that computer, part of the Stanmeyer Museum of Computer Relics collection.

The MacBook Pro with Retina display I tested (the 15-inch: 2.3 GHz Retina display) is selling for $1,800 less than that 1997 Powerbook G3, for $2,199, or with a full 16GB of RAM for $200 more.

The max-ed out MacBook Pro with Retina crammed with gobs of flash HD space, screaming amounts of RAM and processor MHz whatnot thrown in, is selling for $3,749, $250 less than that then brilliant brick I bought well over a decade ago in Hong Kong.

The max’ed model is what I’d recommend if you can push the bank account (or credit cards) that far, simply for the full power of 16 GB of RAM and the fastest possible processor along with loads of storage space.

To say all this is not inexpensive is a truth for most of us.

To say our photography is important  — along with the the time saved to be a photographer and spend time with your family, friends or just plan rest — is priceless.

I have so much more to do in this life and it doesn’t include being tethered behind a glowing screen.

Time for me to order a Retina screen MacBook Pro — and though I adore Fedex (they are smack on brilliant, only two delays to the farm in the last four years of countless deliveries) — I do hope the max’ed MBPr arrives to the doorstep before my return to South Sudan on October 8th.

MacBook Pro with Retina display loaner, heading back last week to Cupertino.

All the best,



(Photographers wanting to discover how to empower their digital archives — and spend less time behind these glowing screes — I’m hosting a Organize all this Digital Madness workshop in my studio next weekend. Only a few spaces left. Visit my workshop link for registration and complete details for this Aperture workshop and future workshops to Indonesia and India in 2013)

September 21, 2012   14 Comments

Instagram — It’s About Communication

60,000 Sudanese refugees seek safety in Yida, South Sudan, located 20 kilometers from the border with Sudan.

With discussions continuing on whether Instagram is just a fad or a publishing entity to embrace, thought it might be interesting to share the complete discussions I recently had with Olivier Laurent, editor of the prestigious British Journal of Photography. Last week he published a well written and researched article titled The New Economics of Photojournalism: The rise of Instagram. Everyone who uses any form of communication should read his story.

As a means to share more insight into this revolving debate on whether or not professional photographers should use iPhones or Instagram — and a whole host of other related debates swirling about — Olivier was kind enough to let me publish the complete email text of our discussions. My responses won’t answer every specific question being bantered about online or in lectures at universities, however I do hope you might be able to garner some insight via the reasons I choose to publish photographs not only on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter but emphatically yes, also via ink on paper.

Some added bits to express before letting everyone dive into my email Inbox — the discussions on whether to use an iPhone or a 35mm camera are completely mute points. Don’t waste your time nor mine on any bit of that dinosaur debate.


Because the iPhone 4s, which is nearly always located in my shirt pocket, produces (albeit for now as jpeg only) images in bright sunlight and shade nearly just as well as my first ever digital camera, purchased nearly 11 years ago in 2001 to cover the war in Afghanistan — a Nikon 1Dx. At the time it cost well over $6000 USD.

If you are into image quality nostalgia, you can purchase a 1Dx today on eBay for less than the cost of an iPhone 4.

It is rudimentary to mention, however I will for the sake of brushing this key aspect not just out from under the rug, but off the cliff of Mount Useless Discussions — a camera (any camera) is a tool, no different than a paint brush, hammer and nail or cooking pots. It is to be used to do something, to create something. Nothing more, nothing less.

Mark these words deep into your conscious — within the next five to tens years (likely less), most professional photographers will be primarily using a camera which is indeed located within something as portable and ubiquitous in our purses/pockets as an iPhone.

I relish the day when the kit used to document the world around me all fits into the palm of my hand.

More so, the power — and the purpose of photojournalism and photography in general — is not the camera, it is what we do with a camera (any camera) in regards to COMMUNICATION.

All the other bits everyone is debating or concerned about are, with all due respect, useless.

Now here is what’s key regarding Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and whatnot; Some of these images we publish, the text we write on various social media outlets, etc, they can be pieces of a far greater, even deeper, more richly layered project which has a commodity element behind it. These images can, for a lack of a better way of putting it, be glimpses, headlines, instant breaking information of a much larger project waiting to be presented. Like seeds, images can be sent out to one or millions, dropping seeds of information into the consciousness of others, nurturing a project to grow, both in marketing and funding. The final product, brought to the consciousness via meaningful bits and pieces, is the entity to be leveraged both as information to an event, as product or as a printed photo essay, as a commodity. This is, until the next leveraging aspect of social media is attained, the greater purpose and potential.

Hope each who reads this garners some element of enlightenment so we can bring these discussions to the level we should be discussing regarding Instagram, iPhones, Facebook, Twitter and whatnot — how we can leverage these publishing outlets even further, rather then wasting our collective time going in circles, missing the greatest potential of communication humanity has ever known.

All my best,



Instagram: @JohnStanmeyer  •  Twitter: @JohnStanmeyer  •  Facebook:


Blind mother carries her malnourished daughter to an MSF outreach clinic in the Yida refugee camp located in Yida, South Sudan. Although there is enough food in the camp for the 60,000 refugees from Sudan now living in the Yida, an extreme high level of deaths from diarrhea and now malaria is spreading through the refugee camp, creating a health catastrophe in recent month. According to MSF, there isn't enough toilets, proper sanitation nor water in the over one year old camp, causing diseases to spread rapidly, creating the worst emergency health crisis on earth.

First Email, 17 August, 2012

OL: Why and how you are using the network?

JS: Rather new to Instagram.

Presumably as others, I use Instagram for communication, no different than other venues of communication such as ink on paper publications, exhibitions, websites, Facebook, and Twitter. I use the word “publishing” because that is what Instagram actually is — publishing/distributing a visual to others.

In the decades (let’s hope far less) to come, the entire discussion of whether to use this thing called social media will be a mute — archaic — point of view, no different than likely it was centuries ago when previous commonly used means of information distribution where invent/debated; Should I write on papyrus leaf or this new fangled material called paper, or a typewriter instead of block type printing presses, etc.

A peculiar aspect of being human rest in the notion that what we do now is it, when in fact every aspect of life — in this discussion, communication (visual and text) — has always been in a constant state of evolution. An evolution most often connected to even greater communication.

With all due respect to the topic you’re writing about, I find such discussions to be healthy but a rather mundane, where the evolution of time will dilute any notion of why or why not to use Instagram, or who knows what else in the future.

As to how I use Instagram, I use it both through my personal account (@JohnStanmeyer) as well as through National Geographic Magazines account (@NatGeo). VII has also begun an Instagram account (@VIIPhoto).

Malnourished children have their weight checked on follow-up visits to an MSF outreach centre in the Yida refugee camp located in Yida, South Sudan.

OL: What kind of photos you publish?

JS: Interesting timing to this question, making it important to discuss in detail…

At the moment I’m in South Sudan, along the South Sudan/Sudan border. There’s a dreadful health crisis occurring right now in Yida. Over the past 8 months, 60,000+ Sudanese have fled fighting/indiscriminate bombing around the Nuba Mountain region of Sudan. In the last month, health conditions have deteriorated to catastrophic levels. Death rates due to acute malnutrition among children has reach more than double the typical crisis level — the problem is not the lack of food, it’s sanitation and clean water. With the beginning of rainy season in recent weeks, malaria is exploding.

I was already coming to South Sudan on a joint VII/MSF health story project. MSF had the smarts to have me arrive early, first spending 4-5 days in the north helping raise awareness to the crisis, using the duality of VII and MSF’s reach to spread awareness.

A few days before leaving home I had a chat with Jason Cone, head of communications with MSF USA, to discuss the option of going as far and wide as possible via both print and social media. He supported the idea wholeheartedly, taking an important social issue well beyond the printed page/website, in turn reaching an additional quarter of a million via MSF’s Twitter readers, tens of thousands on Facebook and even more on Instagram. While on layover in DC, I wrote assistant director of photography at National Geographic, Ken Geiger, asking if he wouldn’t mind if I published about this crisis on National Geographic’s Instagram account (@NatGeo). Once in Nairobi, his email arrived with an emphatic yes, allowing this important issues to reach over 200,000 more eyeballs/minds.

In what would have been considered meaningful issue awareness in print magazines is now amplified, spreading the message of the crisis in South Sudan to well over half a million more.

Incredible power of communication.

As for other photographs I publish (noticed only now your own wording of “publish” in your question instead of post…well done), I only publish moments of meaning, or at least try. In recent months, I’ve been in studio working on projects, exhibitions and most important, trying to spend some time with my family. Living on a farm in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts often means the photography being published is on my family — also part of a year long project VII is producing termed mile square, photographing within a mile or less of our own homes. Not having many neighbors, my family became the reportage, photographed using an iPhone with Hipstamatic and a specific minimal effect filter/lens combination.

There has to be some purpose in what I publish on Instagram. I consider each (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter) to be no different than various publications.

BTW, I only use Instagram as a means to distribute/publish. Prefer to use specific minimal manipulating Hipstamatic films/lens. The endless tweakery of Instagram filters are too much for me to deal with, preferring the approach of choosing a film/lens (no different than analog film), photographing and when the image develops, that’s the final print, with the only potential post production being conversion to b&w, maybe burning/dodging. When I first tried Instagram a few months ago (via inspiration/nudging from National Geographic Photo Editor, Pamela Chen), I was overwhelmed with the options, most of which manipulated the photograph far further then felling comfortable with.

In the future, I hope to distribute more on Instagram. Most of my work in recent years has been with National Geographic, where stories we’re working on are not often openly shared until published. Months, even a year or more passes before the final story is seen in the magazine. Fortunately, all that is changing at the magazine. With the advent of NGM Instagram feed and the importance social media is playing in pre-story interest building, NG is embracing Instagram in a big way, allowing us to publish aspects of stories we’re working on as we’re producing them, reaching a large visual audience.

Exciting times indeed for communication.

The grave of Hassan Kako, 13, being covered with dirt by family members in the Yida refugee camp in South Sudan. Hassan died of acute malaria which is spreading among the 60,000 Sudanese refugees now that rainy season has arrived.


OL: What does it bring you?

JS: Communication.



Instagram also support numerous aspects of photography — the marketing of books, exhibitions, workshops, lectures and interest in stories that are in progress, allowing for greater connectivity with the general public, both immediately and down the road.

Decades ago, I often thought how brilliant it would be to publish photographs of issues I’m passionate about, placing them on roadside billboards to scream what mattered to me. Almost did just that till discovering how expensive physical billboard space cost. Instagram (and again, other social media) does just that, reaching the potential consciousness of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. Even more.

And it’s free.

We all have to put food on the table. Publishing to Instagram doesn’t directly (emphasis on directly) pay the bills, however it does add information/marketing value in a huge way. It also seems to play a significant aspect for new photographers to be seen. I’ve read some photographers are building their careers by leveraging Instagram. Well done.

It’s about communication.


Second Email, 22 August, 2012

OL: Why did you choose to join Instagram?

JS: Answered in previous notes.


OL: What use are you making of the network?

JS: Answered in previous notes. Let me know if I wasn’t clear.


OL: What kind of images are you looking to share (behind-the-scenes, etc.)?

Answered in previous notes but I’ll try to expand more because it’s relevant to the greater purpose of why I do this — communication.

While in Yida, I used Instagram (and other social media) as loud as possible, trying to spread awareness of the crisis. Nothing behind-the-scenes. Only frontline, what was happening, doing so more rapidly then I could with the other (similar) work I was producing with a 35mm camera. Hopefully what we did in Yida — my direct social media connections in addition to MSF social media/newsletters and VII’s distribution/social — helped raise awareness.

Too exhausted to stand after walking with his mother to the MSF clinic, Yasin, 7, weighs only 13.6 kg (30 lbs) yet should weigh 18.5kg (41 lbs) for his height. Acute malnutrition is running rapid among thousands of Sudanese children at the Yida refugee camp in South Sudan with a death rate from acute malnutrition two times the crisis level.

OL: With MSF, how did Instagram come into the mix?

JS: As I believe mentioned in my previous email…While on a phone briefing before leaving, I bridged the idea with MSF on leveraging social media, most specifically due to the scale and importance of the health crisis in Yida, the first part of this multi-week visit to South Sudan. There had been some discussions on MSF’s end to Tweet/Facebook at times while in Yida, but I asked if I could ratchet communication even further with my own Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feed, additionally publishing 1-2 photographs a day to the National Geographic Instagram account. MSF agreed and so it went.

Oh a bright note…photographs which I published in my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts seemed to have been felt — photographs were shared widely on all social media outlets. NGM’s Instagram feed seemed to have spread extremely wide with thousands of likes (difficult to like photographs of sick/starving children. There needs to be a stop this madness button). Even more interesting — comments. Where most photos on the NGM Instagram feed seem to receive hefty 100-200+ comments, a photograph of a young boy suffering from acute malnutrition generated over 800 comments, most discussing how they can help.

I am extremely grateful that NGM agreed for me to post frontline issues of the health crisis in South Sudan to their over 200k followers. What a powerful reach of communication.

When you combine the potential viewership of MSF, VII, National Geographic and personal viewers/followers, the collective reach through Instagram, Twitter and Facebook was well over 500,000.

Powerful means of communication.


A respite from the heat, children enjoy the rain which fell today in the Yida refugee camp in South Sudan. With the start of rainy season, cases of malaria are skyrocketing in the camp of 60,000 Sudanese.

OL: Are you using your own account or MSF?

JS: My own and National Geographics.

Seems MSF USA (@MSF_USA) is somewhat new to Instagram with a decent but not broad Instagram following, however their Instagram viewership does seem to be growing. MSF does have a massive following through on Twitter and Facebook. I made certain to send photographs through Twitter as often as possible while in Yida using @MSF_USA on all photographs and text comments, reaching and additional 225,000+ direct twitter followers.


Arriving mid-Sunday, an extremely malnourished elderly man suffering from severe diarrhea is placed in the isolation tent at the MSF hospital in Yida, South Sudan.

OL: Do you use filters?

JS: No.

Instagram filters (boarders and whatnot) are just too much, too many to choose from. Feels like walking down the breakfast isle in an American mega-supermarket, trying to choose a cereal box after spending three months on the road where your choices each day were one or two options, and you were happy.

Only photograph with a very minimal (if any) manipulating Hipstamatic film/lens set, then if wanting B&W, desaturate, only doing basic burning/dodging.

Analyzing this workflow while writing, it seems as though I work in three realms…A camera with a specific minimal evasive lens/film combination, Aperture if on a laptop (Snapseed on an iPhone), then using Instagram, FB and Twitter as the publisher.

I’ve seen some rather non-manipulated photographs on Instagram posted by friends and colleagues, especially in B&W, sometimes even in color. Presume it’s all done in Instagram however no idea how.


Malnourished child are measured at the Ambulatory Therapeutic Feeding Center run by MSF in Yida, South Sudan.

OL: Do you interact with your followers and their comments?

JS: Try to.

With Instagram, it seems a bit odd to interact when people comment with repeated one word notes such as “brilliant”, “awesome” or funny looking thumbs up and hand clapping icons. What’s there to comment about unless being asked a question?

On the NGM Instagram feed sent while in Yida, there was actual issue discussions taking place on Instagram. But as mentioned, there was so much dialogue (specifically on one photograph) it becomes next to impossible to read them all. If Instagram was interactive on a computer and not just a small screened iPhone, maybe one could manage reading more than the first few notes. Also didn’t help in Yida that Internet access was extremely limited, only at the UN compound and with a 7PM curfew, leaving not much time left in the day post photography to read tiny print.

On Facebook and twitter, I do try to interact. With Facebook, there’s more space and easier ability to read. Twitter as well. Twitter and Facebook feels to be more a venue for word communication in collaboration with visuals or at least that is how it seems to me.


OL: Do you gain anything from it?

JS: Communication.


OL: Do you see Instagram as a marketing tool or a social tool?

JS: Both.

There are success moments in Yida ~ Islam, 2, is eating well and gaining weight after 3 days at MSF hospital in Yida, South Sudan. He arrived at MSF acutely malnourished.

OL: Would you want to financially benefit from this community of followers you’re slowly building? And if so, how would you approach this?

JS: This indeed is a question often asked.

We’re likely all asking this same question, with no definitive answer.

Sure, the time it takes to interact with these various tools of communication can cause a significant time vacuum. I do not sense financial benefits can/will come directly from posting images to Instagram. Lateral income potential is very possible, both presently and surely more so into the future as people likely far smarter about social media than I am figure it out.

Examples I see happening now (regarding financial benefits) are when you have a new book coming out, or an exhibition, workshops, speaking engagements, etc, and you have a relevant image which can be published, connecting thousands of people directly to X, Y or Z project you’re creating or a part of.

So yes, there are already potential financial benefits available. I feel them and have noticed an increase in various aspects of my entire photographic business portfolio (meaning, connective work aspects). They just are not immediate — i.e., not a view-read-buy-consume commodity item which brings to the photographer a tangible (immediate) returning financial benefit. The financial benefit aspects are again more laterally dispersed, dimensionally layered.

At a time where everyone is a photographer (whose ranks will grow by the number of births on this planet), the former commodity of a photograph or series of photographs that had a direct (tangible) financial returns based upon a resale to an ink on paper publication (or online), that avenue of income is going to dwindle even further than it already has. Example, resales at VII are not dreadful. They are still ok, however as all agencies and photographers have been noticing in recent years, resales — how we actually pay our bills between assignments — are dramatically lower than say 3-7 years ago. This declining bell curve isn’t likely to change. However the act of self publishing via Instagram (or Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, blogging, etc) will, likely over time, create an even greater potential for economic return, IF the photographer has a commodity to offer (books, prints, their time, etc) which is either lateral or directly connect to the photography they are publishing. It’s happening already. This process of lateral income potential from social media will only grow, just as it has in the last few years.


You bet, because we’re still at the infancy of where this road we each paving is taking us.

Exciting times with limitless potential?


Once again, thank you to Olivier Laurent, who agreed to letting me share the email correspondence I had with him while in South Sudan last month, making a much belated update to this blog far less daunting then penning it all from scratch.

NOTE: If you wish to limit the illegal usage of your Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc, images being used as ads or uncredited on websites, I strongly suggest you watermark your images before publishing. Thanks to photographer, Yunghi Kim, who turned me on to the brilliant iPhone app, iWatermark. It’s super simple to use, just make sure you buy the Pro version because it allows for full-size saving of each photo imbedded with a watermark — the app is less than a tall latte at Starbucks. iWatermark won’t put at end to the rampant illegal use of photographs, however it might make someone think before posting your photographs as their own, or have those running Facebook rethink before using your photographs as ad space images along the right side of the FB page — read the fine print in Facebook’s Terms & Conditions, each image you post has the ability to potentially be incorporated into an ad, without you being paid for it.

September 11, 2012   21 Comments