Thursday, April 5, 2012

Surviving the Facebook Facelift

Completed Denuine Facebook cover photo featuring Margot MacDonald & Michael Pearsall
  When Facebook announced they were changing the format of pages--including Denuine, I wasn't a happy camper. I didn't have a lot of experience with the new "timeline" and what I did have was all bad. My favorite way of expressing my dislike of it was that if I hit you up on Facebook I'm probably more interested in seeing if you might be free for lunch today than to find out what you actually had for lunch two years ago. My view didn't seem the least bit unique either. Whereas some of my posts about perfectly wonderful live music shows get as few as two enthusiastic responses, bashing the timeline was guaranteed to bring scores, including people I hadn't texted with in years. The only person I knew who seemed to like it at all was my contact for awesome band Sing Me Insomnia, bassist Wes Beale, who was using it to relive precious beginnings with his girlfriend. Still, I thought, can't Facebook just leave the non-Wes rest of us alone? I was hoping it was all just a cruel joke with a last-minute popup proclaiming, "Hey, you really didn't think we were going to pimp your page like that, did you? April Fool's!"

  No cigar. In place of that popup, I awoke the morning of the 31st to find a decimated Denuine. I felt like one of the tornado survivors too often in the news lately, wandering around, looking for something familiar I could pick up & hug to cut through some of the numbness of losing my home and provide a clue to how to begin to rebuild it. The most obvious new feature was a big "drink me" button begging me to upload my "cover photo" to a new gaping hole sitting on real estate where important content had been the night before, as if I was supposed to know what a cover photo was and have one ready to share. Okay, I know photos; just give me the specs, and I'll start to think about this. I did a quick "Facebook timeline" Google search & found their video on the subject. I was impressed they were actually sharing some documentation. Then I watched the movie & discovered it's a story about some guy named Andy who grows up, gets a FB page, gets lucky and himself has a kid. (I'm guessing the daughter that's born signs up for a Facebook profile of her own & starts the cycle all over again to prove the sustainability of the business model.) The video made the purpose of Facebook profiles very clear, but I still had no specs & no clue to how to get my music page back. Finally mustering the courage to click that big button, I was rewarded with what I wanted to know in the form of a suggestion: To get the best quality image and fastest load times for your Page, upload an sRGB JPG file that's 851 pixels wide, 315 pixels tall and less than 100 kilobytes. Thank you! I wanted to ask why Andy couldn't have told me that himself, but I guess he had better things to do. I'm hoping whoever slipped that helpful note into the site code doesn't get fired for being out of touch with corporate culture.

  Hmmm, 851x315 pixels--that's one flat, wide image! It's more of a mural really and not something likely to be spit out by a 35mm-based camera (DX or FX, film or no film) without some serious
Even playing down & dirty like Jonny Grave fails
to guarantee a successfully horizontal cover image!
panoramic stitching. That's probably the reason so many of the ones I've seen so far are sunsets or similar landscape photos. The only common snapshots I can think of that might fit the format are the ones your friends take of you when you pass out somewhere interesting after a rough night of partying. Most people don't otherwise get that horizontal--at least not in public. My pictures are primarily of decidedly vertical rock stars; so, I wasn't getting a lot of ideas. I've seen Margot MacDonald drop to her knees to punctuate particularly poignant passages & photographed Jonny Grave playing excellent Blues guitar with his back closer to the ground than I would attempt with any reasonable hope of getting back up again, but even either of those photos would have been much too vertical to work here. Yes, I do have a wide-angle lens, but that 24mm only recently joined my arsenal. Even then, I use it mostly to get shots of an entire band when I'm at a venue that's too crowded for me to simply take a few steps backwards. Rather than shooting wide, I'm usually just trying to get a usable shot in spite of being too close to the action.

  I finally remembered one of the few situations where I actually do shoot landscapes--summer visits to the beach at Ocean City, MD where I usually go to recharge my batteries after all the spring & winter shows. My
Lightning strikes twice in Ocean City, MD
latest trip's timing turned out to be inopportune for several reasons. First of all, Margot was invited last minute to gig at IOTA, and I wasn't going to be there to photograph her. Then out on the water where I normally find wonderfully colorful sunrises to capture, was the biggest ocean storm I had ever seen! Of the photos I shot that night, my favorite was the one in which I captured not one but two simultaneous lightning strikes. Not only did they have the good sense to hit at precisely the same moment but also managed to position themselves in strict obedience to the rule of thirds! Even more helpful in terms of cover image proportions, the sky above the clouds discharging themselves and the ocean below them were nearly perfect (ffffff) black. To give you an idea of the composition's fit, I cropped it to my liking (cutting black pixels from top and bottom), shrunk the image proportionally to 851 pixels wide and then measured it to see how much additional canvas I would need to trim from the top & bottom to get it to 315 pixels tall. As it turned out, I only needed to reduce 4 more pixels total--2 from top/2 from bottom! My plan up until this point was simple step-1 triage to undo as much of Facebook's damage to my page as I could immediately & to be followed by longer term tweaking as time and inspiration allowed; so, I uploaded the "finished" photo to Facebook & christened it tentatively complete.

  Even though I was warming a bit, both to my prospects for actually succeeding at doing this as well as to my nascent design, I was still by any definition far from finished. Yes, I had proven myself cooler than the Facebook timeline equivalent to Twitter eggs with no cover image, but I was still only slightly cooler than those who had simply given up and posted some pretty scenery from a recent vacation. That's basically what I had done, and my only real advantage here was not being smart enough to read a weather report before heading to the beach. Ocean City, MD has precious little to do with Washington, DC music--lightning or no lightning. Still, there was something in those arcs of electrical energy that captured my imagination. It's maybe the closest force in nature to what I feel while listening to live music. Maybe this heavenly battle scene could be salvaged by something as simple as some Titans--only this time ones awesome enough not to get their butts kicked by Zeus & his peepz. Maybe all I needed to do was to get Margot MacDonald amazing!

Margot MacDonald

  I needed to look no further than my favorite from Margot's BlackRock concert last year. The photo isn't a particularly good capture of her beautiful face, but the positioning of her arms,
Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam
hands & fingers is so graceful it puts her in a league with (& in my opinion a decisive winner over) Michelangelo’s models for his The Creation of Adam Sistine Chapel painting. Don't take my word for it, check it out; comments welcome below. Regardless, if my heavenly battle needed a goddess, I now had one. Luck was with me once again, for when I selected her off the original background (conveniently black at the default "as shot" exposure) & pasted her into my sky, her size was perfect. Appropriately, the being who supplies so much of the lightning I experience in the venues of DC & NYC, looked very much at home in my heaven as well. The image was also working well with my other inspiration. I've always liked Bollywood movie posters with their colorful, dramatically positioned characters; I was feeling something along those lines here as well. Following the rule of thirds (as I mentioned earlier), the bolts divided my photograph into three sections. The first third would be an appropriately empty backdrop for my Denuine U47 microphone logo on the left-hand side of the Facebook page. The third third would be lovely Margot. That left an empty middle section to fill. I needed one more DC music superstar--rock god a plus.

  The next name to come to mind was Michael Pearsall, dashing lead singer for favorite DC band Honor by August, one of (if not THE) best bands in the region with a superb repertoire of songs spread over
Honor by August's Michael Pearsall at Artisphere
several must-have CDs. If you hear these guys once, you'll buy their entire collection of recorded music. (This from someone who did precisely that the first time I heard them!) They're also one of my favorite bands to photograph, because these guys all look like rock stars. The night I took this picture, Michael was performing some of his songs at an intimate singer/songwriter event at Rosslyn's Artisphere. There were some harsh red-orange lights on the performers; so, I started playing with the white balance in camera until I got a natural skin tone. At that setting, Artisphere's distinctive dome glowed a deep midnight blue, very much reminiscent of the night sky. Moreover, Michael's eyes were really wide in the photo, suggesting that edgy ion-charged feeling when lightening is crashing around us. I picked him off the blue background and pasted him in place next to Margot--again, no re-sizing required! Things were really looking promising!

  All the basic elements in place, I went to work making them look like they belonged together. Normally, I want my subject to pop out of the picture, really not that difficult with models like Margot & Michael, but this time around, I was going for something a bit more subdued. I'm thinking a cover image should get & hold some attention (much like the cover of a book) but it's really the content on the page that should immediately take over from it; so, I didn't want anything too flashy or distracting. Also, unlike the items posted below it on the page, this image won't change constantly; so, it should be interesting & pleasant enough not to get boring or tiring longer term. This really isn't a "how to" & I don't want to bore non-geeks too much, but some of the things I did to help the elements blend were to apply lighting effects to simulate illumination from the lightning, adjust the curves (highlights especially) in the blue direction, decrease the exposure, adjust Margot & Michael's skin tones to match each other, apply some masks (mostly with brushes and gradients) to make the rock stars blend smoothly into the picture, & finally decrease their opacity a tiny bit for the same reason. At one point during the editing, I was trying to erase the black horizontal boom you can see pictured from Michael's microphone by painting over it in the layer mask, but it wasn't budging. I laughed to realize what I was trying to erase was actually a thick black storm cloud in the identical position in the background (sky) layer!

  I finally had a completed cover image I think does the best job I can of communicating the ion-laden excitement of live music, featuring two of my very favorite artists--not bad for the first full day of mandatory Facebook page timelines! I was in fact so inspired by the new design, I used it as the pattern for redesigning Denuine Twitter. The thing I didn't anticipate was that on the same day I created all of the above & put it in place, I would find myself blogging about the experience as well. To complete this third prong of activity, I'll leave you with a performance that gives me goose bumps. It'll also serve as a good introduction to anyone unfamiliar with the music of either of these two awesome featured artists. (Don't stop here; you're in for a ton of amazing music!) The show captured in this video was a special night at DC's 9:30 Club with Honor by August performing to a packed house. Margot MacDonald joined HBA's Michael Pearsall on stage to sing a duet with him on "Johnny (Pass Me Another One)"--one of the band's signature songs. There was lightning in the 9:30 Club that night, precisely the kind of lightning I want to share with each one of you on Denuine!

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