Photoblog: Dead yet Strangely Effective

Posted by Arlo on May 5, 2005 under Life of Arlo, Photography, Website

Mendenhall Glacier Panorama
Last month I made my first sale from my photoblog site.

Or, if you want to get technical about it, I made my first sale back in January.

Let’s go back to the real beginning. April 1st, 2004 was the day I posted the first image to my photoblog. The weeks leading up to that foolish day, I had been struggling mightily with the Greymatter software, trying to wring some sort of decent design out of it. I was happy with the final results, but the weekly process of uploading a new picture was, to put it simply, a pain in the ass. Lots of html code, lots of writing, lots of image preparation.

Still, I enjoyed doing it. I kept it up, posting one image a week, all the through late October. I wish I could blame the end-of-posting on the back-to-back business trips I took in late October and early November, but really, it was just another case of blog burnout.

So, there the site sat, forever displaying on the main page the last uploaded photo. Neglected but not forgotten – you can tell by the way I categorized the site on my main page’s redesigned index: “Optimistically Updated.”

And then, late in March, Oksana decided to start work on our taxes. While sifting through our small business’ records for the previous year, she encountered a suspect PayPal charge for $18. I didn’t know what it was off the top of my head, so while she looked over my shoulder, I logged into my account and checked its history. Problem solved.

Before I logged out, I noticed something – a balance in my account for 280-some dollars. What the heck? I followed some links and discovered that someone had placed an order for the Mendenhall Glacier Panorama print from my website almost two months prior!

I immediately scoured all my e-mail addresses that might be even remotely connected with the photoblog website… to no avail. I suspected one of two things had happened: Either PayPal screwed up or the message had been eaten by an over-aggressive spam filter. Either way, I was never notified.

The very next morning I sent an extremely apologetic message to the potential buyer. I told her that, even rushing things, it would still take at least a couple more weeks to fulfill her order. If she was tired of waiting, I would be happy to refund her money in full. I got an e-mail back that same day saying she was still interested.

I was relieved to hear that, but let me tell you: She couldn’t have picked a worse photo.

Of the reasons to create a photoblog, making money was low on my list. Much more important to me was having the structure and schedule in place to force me to sort and catalog my best photos. Some of the images I posted were poor scans, but I knew that if someone actually ordered something from the site, it would force me to take the time to rescan them, polish them up, and then archive the final – hopefully perfect – digital image.

The Mendenhall Glacier Panorama was a textbook example of an image that needed more work. Stitched from 13 photos by hand in PhotoShop, the original was nothing more than an experiment. A few friends saw it, though, either in the digital format or as some of the experimental poster-sized prints I had made at Ofoto, and they liked it a lot. Seeing it anew through their eyes, I thought it might be good enough to post on my photoblog.

With real money in the PayPal account, though, I took another look at it and decided it was a long way from being finished. Granted, other people might not have seen any problems with it, but my eye was always drawn to the blotchy colors in the sky and a few, still-noticeable stitching lines. I couldn’t, in good conscience, sell it for almost $300 like that.

As a matter or course, I archive almost everything, so it wasn’t hard to find the PhotoShop files of the original image on some old CD. Unfortunately, the final image had all the layers merged together and that made it nearly impossible to “correct” anything. I fiddled with some of the previous stages of the panorama – I had half a dozen different stages saved as .PSD files – but I soon realized that many of the worst errors had been created very early on in the process.

With building stress from a self-imposed shipping deadline, I finally decided to start from scratch with the original 13 images.

It took me about 6 hours, start to finish, to get it into a form with which I was happy. I still worried over a few things: The horizon wasn’t quite as level as in the first stitching, and a last-minute, impulsive color correction (a general lightening of the image and a very slight bump in saturation) had me second guessing myself. And because of a lack of photographic overlap between two of the original 13 images, there was still a strange gradient across one, tiny section of the sky. To tell the truth, I wasn’t “happy” with it so much as comfortable with it being “good enough.”

I showed it to Oksana, gained her approval, and uploaded it to Fortunately, I had taken copious notes when I had posted it to my photoblog and I had the exact sizes, colors, and paper quality ready to plug in. I was relieved to note that, in the six months since I had posted the image, Zazzle hadn’t increased their costs at all.

Though I had printed some items through Zazzle in the past, I never tried their high-end archival framing and matting service. I was fully aware that, if the quality wasn’t what I required, I might have to eat whatever slim profits I might make on this sale by ordering a second print from somewhere else. With time running out, I crossed my fingers and began the online ordering process.

And that’s when I kicked myself for not ordering a test print earlier. On my own order form, I had added a $35 shipping and handling charge which I figured would be more than enough to cover both the shipment to me and another shipment back to the buyer. Uh-uh. Zazzle wanted $49.99 minimum, $99.99 to expedite it, and to Alaska those were the sole options available.

Even though the expedited shipping would result in me paying money to sell this photo, I was willing to do it for this first sale. I was so worried that I wouldn’t be happy with Zazzle’s photo or frame quality that I wanted the security that the extra time expedited shipping would bring. Fortunately, Oksana talked me out of it. I placed the order at the $49.99 shipping price (7-10 days), e-mailed the buyer to inform her of her order’s status, and tried to forget about it for a week.

Nine days later, I came home from work to find a gigantic box on my doorstep – seriously, it was, like, 5ft x ft x 1 ft. I maneuvered it through the doorway in little herky-jerky steps and then let it sit, unopened, for at least an hour. Suddenly I was worried about what I might find inside. What am I going to do if Zazzle’s idea of a quality product doesn’t match my own? Did I over-brighten the final image? Oh, God, did I even remember to turn off that severe adjustment layer that allowed me to better see the stitch blends?

I didn’t actually get over my fears; I simply came to the conclusion that leaving the print in the box would be pretty stupid. After digging through a couple pounds of pink, Styrofoam peanuts, I finally dug out my 36″ x 8″ framed and matted print and It. Looked. Great!

It was hard to tell if the (admittedly very subtle) sky-stitch errors came through in the final product because of the texture on the paper – the same canvass-like texture that, in my mind, changed my picture from a photograph to a work of art. The brightening worked wonders – the shadow detail was much better than in the Ofoto prints. The mattes were laser-precise and their color, exactly as advertised, complimented the blues in the glacial ice well. The frame, though one of the least expensive models offered, was perfectly acceptable and the back side was even covered with black paper. With a wire already attached to each end of the backing, it was even ready to hang.

I was impressed. I only hoped the buyer would be, as well.

Never having sold a photograph before, I had to decide if and where I wanted to sign it. There wasn’t really any way to sign the textured paper and I was hesitant to sign the front of the matte – what if I messed up? That left the back, but it was all black…

Oksana and I brainstormed for a bit and we finally decided to print an adhesive label with our business logo and the name and number of the print at the top. I signed my name in the white space left below and we simply stuck it on the back. It doesn’t put my name out in front, but that’s fine with me.

With the print signed and approved, it was time to mail it off to the buyer. I suspected that FedEx or UPS would charge me my other arm and leg for shipping in back to the east coast, so I decided to try for the USPS instead. The box, obviously the standard for a 36″ square print, was just crazy overkill for my skinny panorama, so we attacked it down the middle with a pair of scissors, slid one end into the other, and liberally taped it back together.

The next day, at the post office, they broke out their measuring tape and wrapped it all around the box. Their limit was 100″ total; the newly-cut box came in at 96″. Sending it priority mail, with tracking and insurance, cost me only $22 – less than half of what Zazzle forced me to pay.

Later that evening, I sent one last e-mail with the tracking number to the buyer. She replied that I shouldn’t worry if I don’t receive an immediate happy e-mail when the picture arrived; she planned to be out of the country. About a month ago, I received a note in my mailbox confirming that the package had been delivered, but I have yet to hear from her.

Since then, I’ve been keeping an eye on her blog – she’s a fairly prolific writer – but I hasn’t yet slip any information about the print. I really want to send her an e-mail asking her what she thought about it, but I don’t know how to phrase it without sounding vain. That, and I worry that she may not have liked it.