The Balancing Act: How Big of an Image Online?

As photographers, both professional and would like to be professional, when we put images online there is a balancing act that we have to make.  I would regularly have friendly disagreements with good friends of mine about how big of an image we should make available online.

Back in the early days of the web and digital photography, there really wasn’t much of a balancing act to do.  My first digital camera, an Olympus D-220L, had an amazing .3 megapixels.  And in late 1998 and early 1999, that was an acceptable number.  But when it came to the images themselves, the maximum size was 640×480.  The only real choice was to post images full size.  And printing them resulted in postage-stamp sized images.

I quickly reached my ceiling for knowledge with the point-and-shoot, but going to a digital SLR platform was not a viable option.  In 1998, a friend of mine who worked as a photographer in the Air Force bragged about the $10,000 camera that they had purchased for him and the great images it was capable of making.  That camera had 1.3 Megapixels.  We’ve come a long way in 11 years.

So I moved back to the film world for a while until technology and price came better into alignment for digital SLR’s.  And if you shot film as I did, the only way to get images online was via a flatbed or film scanner.  Eventually I bought the film scanner (actually a series of film scanners).   This gave me the ability to make images that far surpassed the size of images from digital cameras in those days and until the last couple of years still could not be duplicated with consumer and prosumer level cameras.

But now that I had bigger images I had a choice to make:  How big do I make the images?

The reasons for this choice?  First was Internet technology–most of us were on dial-up at 28.8 and there was always a battle to find a good equilibrium between a beautiful image that loaded quickly and a big image that took a long time to load.  That problem, in most cases, has since left the building with the proliferation of broadband Internet solutions.

Second was and is the ever-present possibility of people stealing my images.  Sadly, people see the Internet as a source of free stuff.  Free music, free movies, and free pictures.  Both the average user who finds an image online and wants to print it for his refrigerator or an unscrupulous magazine editor who wants to pluck an image from the Internet and publish it rather than paying a photographer for their work.  It is sadly a wide-spread occurrence for those of us who make images available to the public.

And as such, most of us who do photography make the conscious decision to keep sizes small to discourage the latter group of folks.  I’ll make no apologies–I do not do photography for free.  A lot of time and effort goes into making these images in the field and making them presentable in the digital darkroom.  Photography is my passion and is main source of stress relief, but it doesn’t take away from the fact my time is worth something and I spend an enormous amount of time on each image that makes it online.

I have no issues sharing my images online as long as there is no money involved.  And I’ve been known to donate images for the right cause and at the right time.  But if I made my images available online in their original sizes, I would lose sales both at art shows and in the bigger photo marketplace.  I have no grand visions that my photography will buy me a chateau in France and a yacht anchored off of Aruba.  But I do make a decent amount of change here and there that pays for my habit and allows me to go out and make more images.  To continue my ability to do this, I purposefully keep the image sizes both at SmugMug and on my Pictures from Iceland site and watermark the images.  And this size:  Around the old 640×480 pixel range.  Same size as in the late 1990’s.

Sadly this is not foolproof.  But it provides the level of protection that I feel somewhat comfortable with.  Do I wish things were different?  Certainly.  Do I wish it were easier to prosecute and sue those that steal copyrighted materials?  Absolutely.  Do I expect either anytime soon?  Nope.

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~ by Jim Miller on Friday, 11 December 2009.

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