Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Dictionary Print Photoshop Tutorial

As promised, I'm going to show you how to make cool-looking overprinted dictionary (or other text) pages in Photoshop. This eliminates the need to try to feed dictionary pages into your finicky printer. Plus, it means you can use your favorite pages over and over.

You can see some of my own prints in various stores and online ( has a good selection). At first, I was hesitant to do the tutorial, even though a lot of people who know Photoshop probably already know how to do it. I wondered if it would hurt retail sales of my own prints, for example. But finally, I concluded that the DIY audience and the print-buying audience are probably two distinct groups. And of course, there's the fact that the print-buying audience is paying for my work, not for a tutorial. So here we go:

Step 1. Find a photo you want to use, and convert it to black and white. I highly suggest that you do something high contrast, with some white space to avoid a muddy final product. Now is not the time to get all Ansel Adams about things. Go ahead and blow out the highlights and destroy those details in the shadows. It's OK.

Step 2. Find a page of text that you want to use. When I first did these for my home with a printer and actual pages, I used pages from an old dictionary. Then, I dug up some art magazines (circa 1899) I bought years ago at a Paris flea market and started using those.
Once you have chosen your page, scan it at a fairly high resolution. Because I make 27x27" prints, my files end up being huge. If your page is roughly the same size as the print you want to make, you can scan it at 300dpi. If it's smaller, go higher.

Step 3. Open both digital files in Photoshop. You might want to crop your photo to the size you want before you add the text. Then, you are going copy and paste one of your files onto the other. I usually copy the page (select all and then copy) and then paste it over my photo. It will appear as a new layer that completely covers your photo.

 If your file is too large (like mine was), then you can use the transform tool (command-T for Mac users), find a corner (see those lines in the gray area? that's where the little boxes are), hold shift (to make sure you don't skew the perspective) and drag until you get a size that works. Then hit return to apply the transformation.

Step 4. Last step. Already. Make sure that your top layer is active. Now, look in your layers palette and change the blend mode (see where it says "Normal"?) to "multiply."

And magically, you can now see your black and white photo as if it were printed on top of the page.

And that, my friends, is one of the fastest tutorials ever.

UPDATE: And of course, if you want to buy some of the ones I've done in virtually any size print, you can get them at my site for very reasonable prices.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

An Art Print and Licensing Story

A few posts ago I mentioned the dilemma of how much commercial stuff to share. But then I also said that my impulse tends toward disclosure, so I'm going to give you a true story of a commercial endeavor and in my next post, a tutorial.

And now, the true story of the commercial endeavor.

Remember this post?

No? Well, it's been repinned a billion times on Pinterest. The summer of 2011 my wife and I bought an old window frame and I knew that I wanted to use it for photos. It just so happened that a massive old dictionary I have had pages that fit nicely. I printed some black and white Paris photos directly onto select pages, tacked them onto the wall with old upholstery pins, and hung the window frame on top. I posted a tutorial on it, which subsequently got pinned an re-pinned on Pinterest.

From my wall to the mass market
Obviously, I liked them enough to put them in my own house, so I decided I might as well try out their commercial appeal. I am under exclusive contract with Wild Apple Graphics for all things mass-market, so I sent a link of the blog post to the art director along with some sample images. And I figured it couldn't hurt to mention that it was "trending on Pinterest."

The submissions process is somewhat mysterious. From my end, it goes like this: I make some art, I send it (usually via email), they get back to me (mostly) and tell me if they think it fits their needs (I'm sure they know the market better than I do. It is their job, after all.) Next, I prep the files in the appropriate size (often, this has been either 27x27 inch for the square ones and 16x20 for portrait) and then upload them via ftp.

On their end...who knows? Do they print them out and throw them in the air and read them like tea leaves? Do they meet in a boardroom and decide what they like? Does the owner's pet llama have any influence? I couldn't tell you. I know that they work (selling wholesale) with hundreds of clients and go to various trade shows. I know that they run things by some clients to test the waters. Some of the photos they have me upload are never seen again (such as some book prints that I love), and others make it into the catalog. More on that mystery in the future...
A file I once submitted that apparently failed to impress. Source: via Marc on Pinterest

Finally, after a few months, a royalty check arrives with an itemized statement that shows me how many of which prints have sold (but it doesn't say which companies have purchased them, for whatever reason). Art licensing royalty rates are not high, but I have no complaints because I realize how many people (and possibly, llamas) are involved in the marketing, printing, and distribution of my photos. In January, for example, about 11,000 of my prints sold. If I thought there were any way I could sell that many prints by myself, I probably would, but that is hard to pull off as one person. Even when my ABC Paris photos were featured on Design*Sponge (which, incidentally, is what got me the contract in the first place), the sales from all of that publicity were relatively modest.

A Paris dog print that has done well.

From printer to digital files
Back to the dictionary print story...I shipped a bunch of actual prints on dictionary paper (and others on paper from old art magazines (circa 1899) that I bought at a Paris flea market years ago. The printing was a nightmare. The printer heads often hit against the edges of the old paper (the dreaded "head strike" that made the manager of the print lab cringe) and I lost of few of my favorite pages to misfeeds, margin errors, etc. One day, I sent my assistant to run off some prints and half of them came back upside-down (not his fault). The ones that worked were shipped off to Wild Apple, where the best of those were digitized. I don't have the files on hand, but you can see an example here.

Source: via Marc on Pinterest

That was the hard way. Once I started to prepare new files, I did it digitally, as in the "Paris" typographic photo above. This was so much easier to do. If you are pretty good with Photoshop, you can easily figure out how I did it. If you're wondering how to save yourself from the headache of misfeeds and other printing nightmares, stay tuned. In my next post, I'll show you how it's done.

If you want to see more, you can check out some of my prints at

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

5 Smugmug Pro Alternatives

I recently renewed my Smugmug account, so I've got months to think about whether it's worth it to jump ship. Here are five alternatives to Smugmug that are popping up in discussions among the disgruntled:

1. Zenfolio

Advantages: A "Premium Account" is only $120/yr. That includes way better templates than Smugmug, unlimited storage, reasonable lab fees (12% for partner labs as compared to 15% on Smugmug), and most of the features a pro would need. See their pricing for details.
Disadvantages: You only get access to the pro labs with the "Premium Business" plan, which at $250/yr, is comparable to Smugmug. Some say the customization is more limited, but from what I see the templates would be sufficient for me.

2. Photoshelter
Advantages: Nice templates, SEO and marketing tools built in, a large network of labs for worldwide print sales, takes RAW, PSD, and all the other file formats you could want, and many other features you can see on their site tour.
Disadvantages: Price. A Pro account is $549.99/yr. It's just the kind of thing that makes Smugmug's price increase seem reasonable.

3. Photoswarm
Advantages: Unlimited photos, customization, your own domain name, commission-free Paypal sales. $99/yr for Pro account
Disadvantages: Frankly, I find their site confusing and their sample galleries uninspiring. Compared to the sites above, it seems to be lacking in features.

4. Exposure Manager
Advantages: Unlimited storage/uploads, packages, automated email campaigns, only 10% commission fee (compared to 15% on Smugmug), pro lab or self-fulfillment, etc. See more features on their site.
Disadvantages: Premium account is $25/month, customization is apparently limited to simple changes like headers/footers, colors.

5. Pictage
Advantages: Full spectrum of service, from scheduling and contracts to print fulfillment. Album design service, packaging, and many others you can see by scrolling down on their plans page.
Disadvantages: Price. The cheapest plan is $29/month. The Pro plan is $99/mo.

Disclaimer: I haven't used any of the above. However, these are alternatives that I see mentioned in discussions on forums, facebook, etc. All of the above offer sales and galleries. I have chosen to ignore standard website options or photo sharing sites (such as Flickr), because I am interested in exploring comparable alternatives to the Pro Smugmug plan.

My conclusion:
As much as I hope the Smugug caves to the pressure and cuts the price hike, the proposed price point does not seem unreasonable compared to what I've found elsewhere. The plan I would most likely choose would be the Zenfolio "Premium Business" plan.

Please add to the list in the comments if you have other suggestions. If you've used any of the above sites, what was your impression?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Smugmug Pro Price Increase

Smugmug's recent announcement of a massive price increase for pro accounts is making some unhappy customers compare the move to the Netflix fiasco. That's a bit harsh, given Smugmug's incredible customer service, but judge for yourself:

No customer is happy with a price increase, but some objections are more substantive than others. For example:

  • Why not introduce some killer new features along with your announcement (or at least give specifics about future improvements)? Wouldn't major improvements mitigate the price increase?
  • Wouldn't incremental price increases be less painful, or was this a ripping-off-the-band-aid philosophy? (note: Baldy says in a forum that he regrets not doing it incrementally over the last 7 years)
  • If all that storage is costing so much, why are only the pros seeing a price increase? My wife, who has a basic account, probably uploads more than I do with my pro account, and I doubt this comparison is unique to my home.
  • If Smugmug is in such urgent need of new revenue, it hardly builds confidence.
  • The new "portfolio" level doesn't offer enough features for hobbyists who need to sell prints. Why not bump up the price once a certain level of sales is reached?
I have been nothing less than blown away by Smugmug's customer service. I love that I can let Bay Photo fullfil customers' orders online—saves me a lot of hassle and the quality is excellent.

While many customers claim they will downgrade or take their business elsewhere (Zenfolio is the most likely competitor), I have decided to see if I can get my money's worth out of Smugmug. My goal: customize my site to the point where I can dump my website and run everything through Smugmug. I've spent all weekend finding tutorials about advanced customization (CSS, Javascript, etc.) and I am nowhere near my goal. If you want to pay hundreds for someone to do the coding for you, Smugmug gives a list of "certified customizers," but if you want to do it yourself, you have to cobble together what you can from their forums and this post. Why oh why can't Smugmug give pros some good advanced templates? And while we're griping, what about giving pros the ability to upload RAW files at no extra cost? If those two things happened, I'd stick with Smugmug. As it stands, I don't have to renew until next April, so we'll see what happens between now and then.

What about you? Any Smugmug users out there? What about Zenfolio or other alternatives? Do you think this is a disaster à la Netflix or will it all blow over in a week?