The Boston Globe stirred much admiration, and blogging about, when it launched its highly successful photo blog – The Big Picture – in June this year. Run by Alan Taylor, I don’t think it’s unfair to say it’s actually a pretty damn simple idea, and makes you wonder why no-one did it before. Pick a subject of the day, a selection of photos to illustrate, and let viewers see them VERY LARGE on the net. The Wall Street Journal then launched a similar effort, also originally called The Big Picture but which has now been renamed to Photo Journal.
Essentially these are the internet versions of a real bricks-and-mortar photo gallery (not quite, but you get the idea), and as we all know pictures displayed large just look great – so why did no-one do this before?
My guess is that it’s a function of the gradual improvements in technology. People used to create websites designed for 800 x 600 pixel monitors because that was the norm. Gradually 1024 x 768 became pretty standard and so that resolution took over. Now most websites are dynamically sized to whatever the reader’s monitor is set to, but it remains a fact that if the photo is larger than the monitor size, you’re not going to be able to see the whole image in one go, and that is very unappealing. The Big Picture uses its photos 990 pixels wide, while the WSJ uses them at 959 pixels, so it seems they are working on the basis that their readers have at least 1024 x 768 pixel monitors. As Alan Taylor remarks “You take a typical 1024 pixel-wide screen, subtract 34 pixels (enough to cover most browser’s scrollbars), and you get 990px”.
Another aspect to factor in is that large images take a much longer time to download and so slow down the loading of the page, but there seems to be an increasing acceptance now that the majority of readers will have reasonably fast internet connections, and so the burden is manageable.
Then there’s the copyright issue. Traditionally websites have tended to use images small in an effort to deter people and other publications from lifting the images and re-using them elsewhere. Certainly I know of many publications, e.g. in the third world, that routinely lift wire-agency news photos from online sources even at very low resolutions, and actually print them in their paper. I can’t work out what has really changed on this score, but perhaps it’s just a realisation that those who don’t care about copyright are also unlikely to care about quality and so restricting the size of images on the internet may be an ineffectual measure.
Regardless of the reasons why a site like this has emerged, it is certainly a very welcome addition that will surely increase the popularity of photojournalism as a means of exploring news, and that’s a good thing.
For more on the development of the Big Picture, read this interview with the site creator Alan Taylor.