Wednesday, March 18, 2009

PDF as a valid end in itself

bar italia, soho

A thought-provoking podcast from Brooks Jensen on PDFs, over at Lenswork. Brooks pitches the PDF as the next big thing for publishing and the medium where photographers who are interested in working on the cutting edge should be publishing their work. I've heard Brooks talk about PDFs in the past as a great means for publishing but he seems to be going further this time. I assume that's the experiences he's gained with the Lenswork Extended product. Typically photographers think about the published, physical book as the ultimate end goal, but here the PDF is put forward as a better option, particularly as a means of distribution. I've produced a few PDFs and it is a good experience to go through, making the selections, doing the layout and editing. It does always feel home-made - without that stamp of authority that a publisher, other than yourself, gives to work.

But here the argument is made that the PDF is worthwhile goal in of itself, which certainly matches well with the goal of SoFoBoMo. Even there, the PDF decision often can feel like a forced compromise - we'd all really like to have it be a 'real' book, not an electronic file. But perhaps the PDF can be thought of as a higher goal than a printed book. More opportunity try new things. Perhaps even mix in audio with the images. Also, thinking on last year, I was able to see over 50 photographic books, that I'd never be able to see if I had to buy them - because of the cost, and the physical space required to store them. PDF certainly enables more people to see the work. Given how few of my pictures see print, PDF probably makes even more sense. There is the downside that the resolution of a PDF isn't currently as good as physical book. Also you've got the issues of controlling the viewing environment - you have no idea what sort of screen or calibration is being used to look at the end product.

At the same time, photography always feels like a successive series of disappointments, or reduction in quality. The images in your head aren't often as good as the image on the back of the camera. Those small images on the back of the camera often don't live up to the full size version on a screen. Once it's been processed, the prints are always one step removed from how it looked on a screen. Each stage reduces the quality of the image, real or imagined. PDF removes one of those levels of transformations. Maybe it can even be a truer representation of the image than a print, if we can sort out these resolution and calibration quandaries.

So what do you think? Is a PDF a good end in itself, or just something to settle for when you can't make a real book?


memory said...

I'm a bit new to your blog - but thought I'd chime in. I like the idea of the .pdf book - if nothing else than to flex our editing muscles. I'd like to do one where I have to answer this question for every image: "Why does this photo need to be here - in this spot - in this project?"

Now... actually doing this is another thing on my list to do!

Gordon said...

thanks for taking the time to comment.

The whole sequencing and layout of a book is a good thing to experience - you start realising how pairs of images have to go together on a page, facing each other, as well as within the overall flow.

Anita Jesse said...

For me, the affordability of the PDF makes it a strong choice. One could do a PDF every month without leaving a mark on the budget. Of course, I notice that magic conditional word, "could". I certainly haven't accomplished that.

You have posed some very interesting points that have me thinking. Thanks for putting this out there.

Kjell said...

I think PDF is an excellent end product. They are easy to distribute, and the cost is nothing once you have spend the time to create it. Not to mention the excellent quality of a good LCD screen. And when it comes to screen presentation, it is probably the medium that gives you best control of the viewing conditions and layout.

As for adding a sound track, I have just started to investigate that now. Not an easy task, but very interesting and much fun.

Markus Spring said...

Hmm, not so sure about the pdf here. It certainly is one of the best possible methods to enforce layout and presentation of a collection of images, but then - it is for computer users only!

Think of the amount of time you yourself do not spend in front of the screen, do think about the times where you relax, enjoy coffee/tee/whiskey, sit and chat with friends: these are the times where a real book comes into handy and maybe is more cherished than a screen version. So I guess pdf is more a means then an end.

Scott Jones said...

I would like to know what resources exist to show how to actually create PDF presentations like we are speaking of. In other words, the layout aspects of creating PDFs to substitute as books. Screen sizes, navigation bars, sizing etc.... Any leads?

Gordon said...

Hi Markus, thanks for the comment. What you described is certainly my normal view of PDFs - a sort of second best option to a book. Brooks seems to be arguing that really PDF is the future and a better alternative than a real book. More opportunity for creative control and expression going forward. Maybe it isn't entirely there now, but I suspect he is right that PDF or similar is the long term future of this sort of work.

Think of a Kindle with a decent screen, for example.

Gordon said...

Hi Scott - a good question. I'm working on getting something in place to help answer your question.

Gordon said...

One example for creating a PDF is contained within the 'goodies' information for Lenswork Extended. The info is biased towards creating a submission for Lenswork, but it gives you an idea of what you could do

For SoFoBoMo there are no such guidelines - you produce a PDF, how it is formatted or laid out is up to you, so don't feel like these have to be followed, but they might help you get started.