Musings on Photography

Changing My Mind

Posted in My Main Website, PDF, Websites by Paul Butzi on August 17, 2009


Way back in 2004, I wrote:

The WWW is not a book

In a book, the author and editor contrive to make the best possible decisions about every variable. Not only is content subject to great editorial scrutiny, but every aspect of the graphic design is controlled by the folks publishing the book – graphic design, the exact layout, type style, type size, how the type is set, what paper the book is printed upon – the list is endless. The WWW is not like this, because not only is it not possible for the author/publisher to control many of these variables, the web is a place where many of those variables are explicitly under the control of the viewer.

Some (many, maybe even most) web sites try to set the absolute font size. Generally, they set it to be reasonable (or maybe a bit small) for a lower resolution monitor, with the result that the web site is unreadable on a high resolution monitor. Setting absolute font size is a Very Bad Idea, because it conflicts with the idea behind the WWW – “The publisher provides the content and make suggestions about presentation. The viewer controls how things are displayed.”

On the web, all of the technologies for ensuring that the viewer sees exactly what you want her to see are obnoxious and bad. A good example is PDF – Adobe’s answer to ensuring that something looks the same no matter what. In the beginning, PDF was bad because search engines couldn’t index PDF content. Now they can, but PDF is still bad because it’s slow, requires a plug-in to work, and the plug-in is obnoxious and slow. If you want to provide PDF versions of documents that can easily be printed, fine. Just don’t think people will like it when your entire website is done in PDF files, because they won’t.

I might be in the process of eating those words.

Here’s the deal: I’ve been looking at a lot of PDF files lately. Nearly all of them are ‘photo books’ but some of them are PDF photo ‘portfolios’. Don’t ask me to distinguish between a ‘book’ and a ‘portfolio’, because I can’t except in a very vague way.

And at the same time, the urge to redo my static website (did you know I have a static website?) remains. I’ve started the revamping several times, and each time it comes down to not being quite sure I want to invest a lot of effort in material I consider dead, or outdated. And I’m more and more convinced that the static photo pages I have suck because of their very staticness, and at the same time I hate the web gallery thing where you get a little slideshow or you click and it goes through fancy transitions a la Powerpoint. And I’m doing these book things, and it occurs to me that maybe what I want is for the photos on my website to be in PDF portfolios. Maybe the PDF portfolios for some of the work would be display resolution/more easily downloaded versions of the book/portfolio, and you’d be able to buy a copy of the book off Blurb.

I’m thinking out loud, here, not stating conclusions. But much has changed since 2004, and part of it is how much PDF has become a standardized thing that most people have either built right into their browsers, or plugins that most people have installed.

At the same time I thinking PDF as the display mechanism for these portfolios, I’m wondering about all that static text – old reviews of obsolete equipment, essays, etc. Don’t know what to do about all that dreck. I get emailed questions about it regularly, so clearly people are reading it. Beyond that, though, it feels like dead weight.

Got thoughts on this? Share’em with me, please.

17 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Timothy Gray said, on August 17, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    Paul, I think this is a great idea, and one I have been tossing around as well.

    Did you know that John Paul Caponigro has been doing exactly this sort of thing (PDF “web portfolios”) for a couple years now? I don’t recall when he did the revamp, but it is an ideal way (in my opinion) to present and share photographic work online.

    PDF is great as it is more accessible than Flash.

    My only hangup with PDF at this point is security.

  2. Martin Doonan said, on August 17, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    I think ISO picking up PDF has been a bonus, it means more vendors have got behind the technology for display and the advances in the standard have focussed on getting more content to the viewer more consistently. Actually the big weakness in pdf is printing.
    I also like the moves on wiki engines (something I’ve been spending a lot of time researching recently).
    I’m thinking website design is more in reach than ever. I’m thinking of going wiki for text and pdf for images. Finally I might be able to put the time together to write my own site.
    I get the feeling the internet was written for text, hence the idea of viewer controlled display. Images turn that on its head.

  3. Jack Johnson said, on August 17, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    I’ve been thinking about this, too, and am considering creating ebooks from some of my images. I do plan to have photos viewable directly on the site, though, mostly because I want to be able to link to specific images, allow comments on them, etc. The inability to link to specific images is what’s driving my site redesign – I regret having gone the Flash gallery route.

    – Jack

  4. Paul Butzi said, on August 17, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    My only hangup with PDF at this point is security.

    The latest versions of PDF seem to include DRM sorts of things – the ability to require a password to restrict opening the document, printing the document, editing it, being able to copy text and images out of it, and so on.

    So I’m wondering what security issues you have, and how does PDF not help?

  5. Paul Butzi said, on August 17, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    Actually the big weakness in pdf is printing.

    Care to elaborate on that a bit?

  6. Timothy Gray said, on August 17, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    So I’m wondering what security issues you have, and how does PDF not help?

    There have been a couple of recent security exploits in PDF which Adobe has had to plug, mostly flaws with how Reader handles Javascript.

    As for DRM, there are programs available which can easily bypass basic PDF security.

    I realize no system is perfect; if Adobe can keep ahead of (or keep up with) those pesky Javascript issues, then I see no reason why PDF shouldn’t be used as a solution/replacement for online gaaliers, portfolios, ebooks, etc.

  7. Martin Doonan said, on August 17, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    Care to elaborate on that a bit?

    pdf is structured as an electronic file format (the original intent) and really printing structures are something of a bolt-on. The X-3 standard is a bit of a fudge, IMO, and not well integrated with the main standard. Very much an after-thought. It would be nice if the main standard had printing built in.

  8. Anita Jesse said, on August 17, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    I vote for maintaining that “dreck” on your static site. Like some old, outdated books, it’s a good one; and it seems a shame to trash all that information. Of course, I don’t have to deal with the upkeep.

    This discussion is just what I have been waiting for; and, as usual, I am learning here, rather being able to contribute information. I can only add that I am another of the many who wait for more tips on security and general acceptance before we make the leap to pdf display of work. SoFoBoMo certainly whetted my appetite for producing additional ebooks, or portfolios. I was already flirting with the idea of moving in that direction.

  9. Alexandre Buisse said, on August 17, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    @Timothy: I don’t get how PDF security would be a problem. The idea behind having a website, be it HTML or PDF, is to make the images publicly available and viewable, isn’t it? And I don’t see why PDF should offer more “security” than simply displaying an image on an HTML page. You can still add all the restrictions you want to getting to the PDF download page.

  10. Timothy Gray said, on August 17, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    @Alexandre: There’s this little thing called copyright. The idea is to make your images viewable, but only available under the terms and conditions you outline. I may want people to view my work online, but that doesn’t mean I want them to be able to print my work (or re-print/re-purpose my work).

    Since PDF security features can be bypassed (albeit with more difficulty than a right-clicking on a static image), I have some concerns with transitioning my portfolios to this format.

    The bigger concern though, is that hackers could potentially exploit a hole in the Javascript features which are part of Reader, and inject/execute a malicious attack on your website.

  11. Alexandre Buisse said, on August 17, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    @Timothy: the format is completely irrelevant to the discussion, then. If someone is going to violate your copyright, he won’t care whether he does it with a jpg or a pdf. You just have not to provide the same low resolution in your pdf than you usually do on a website.

    As for the attack in reader, I don’t know the details, but since the reader executes on the client side (the viewer) and not the server (you), I don’t see how any injection can harm your website. What can happen is that an evil server gives an evil pdf and executes an attack on the computer of the viewer, but as long as you are distributing nice pdfs, that shouldn’t be any problem.

  12. Alexandre Buisse said, on August 17, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    Hum sorry, the sentence should obviously read “you just have to provide the same low resolution” in the last comment.

  13. Timothy Gray said, on August 17, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    @Alexandre: I didn’t come here to get into a pissing match with you, but to make both the author and the readership aware of the potential security risks.

    You’re absolutely right – anybody can steal anything regardless of format. So what we should do is transfer all of our images which are already in a thief-friendly format (JPEG or FLASH, what’s it matter, right?) to PDF so we can then spend all of our waking hours monitoring illegal usage in yet another one of all to many proprietary formats.

    I’ll start my revamp immediately. TinEye is going to love me re-submitting some 3500 images to their search engine. I can almost hear the sound of their server choking.

  14. Paul Butzi said, on August 17, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    @Alexandre: I didn’t come here to get into a pissing match with you…

    Whoa, ease up. I don’t see a pissing match, here.

    You’re absolutely right – anybody can steal anything regardless of format. So what we should do is transfer all of our images which are already in a thief-friendly format (JPEG or FLASH, what’s it matter, right?) to PDF so we can then spend all of our waking hours monitoring illegal usage in yet another one of all to many proprietary formats.

    Sure, anyone can steal anything. That doesn’t mean that it’s equally easy for someone to steal anything.

    If you’ve got a jpg on your website (the way ALL of my images are currently displayed on the static website as well as the blog) it’s dead easy for someone to either cut and paste, or simply link directly to the image from elsewhere on the web. People do it all the time, sometimes with evil intent but mostly because they don’t know any better.

    If you’ve got a PDF portfolio that’s available off your website (instead of an HTML page with jpgs), sure, it’s easy to download the PDF, either buy or use free cracking tools to break the encryption and DRM, and get at the images. Heck, they can use screen capture if they want. But to do that, they need to make a much more conscious decision to circumvent what you’ve set up.

    So in some sense, in this arena a PDF portfolio is a win over HTML/jpg.

  15. Ed Richards said, on August 17, 2009 at 7:07 pm

    Re: your old site

    LF never dies. Your info is useful for folks starting out, and some of historical interest – who would have guessed that Grafmatics would outlive readyload? I would keep the site, but tag the pages with an obsolete banner explaining that folks are on their own.

    Re: copyright

    For most of us, unauthorized use of our images at least gets them used. If you are trying to be in the stock business, this discussion is irrelevant anyway. One of the virtues of SoFoBoMo was that it was intended to get people to just do their work, and not let sham issues like whether someone is going to steal it get in the way. We pretty much have the choice of putting images on the WWW with the risk of theft or leaving them safe in boxes under the bed to thrown away by our children when settling our estates.

  16. Hugh Alison said, on August 18, 2009 at 3:44 am

    Your old site: some very insightful and valulable writing there – please don’t discard it.

    Your new site: I’ve recently redone my website ( using only WordPress as a content management system on my own hosted site – doesn’t even have a blog at present. Very pleased with the speed and ease of updating, quite happy with the layout considering how little time it took.

  17. Peter Szawlowski said, on August 19, 2009 at 5:25 am

    I have had similar thoughts about my website and my so called “portfolio”. If the content is bad, fancy Flash slide-shows will not make Art from it.

    Re: Static web sites – Unless I misunderstand what you are trying to do, I don’t think PDF’s will help you to get you away from spending a lot time and energy maintaining the content of your web site to keep it alive. I know this from my work for a small rural Fire & Rescue Service. One has to be constantly at it to maintain it or the audience gets bored and does not go back and look at it more than twice. PDF’s are great, I have used them for many years in a non-art related field to transmit and share engineering information, drawings, and photographs, but again, once the PDF file is out there, its content may be outdated and dead very quickly, superseded by new changed content and/or ideas.

    I like the basic idea of Blurb, but I would suggest a look at the Blurb User Forums, I am not so sure that Blurb has completely resolved some of its quality control problems related to printing/binding of the final product.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: