1. Introduction

twinIsles.dev >> Photography on the Web

This report, produced for the final project of the Master of Science in Interactive Multimedia course at the University of Westminster, provides a critical review of contemporary web (particularly e-commerce) development principles, tools and techniques. It culminates with the description of the development of a prototype photographic website offering a searchable stock library and other resources for photographers and image users. The prototype provides a practical demonstration of the application of many of the issues identified during the research component of the project.

1.1 Aim
The aim of this project is to use the theme of photography to explore contemporary issues in web site development culminating in the production of a prototype website which will:

  • Promote and market photography via the web.
  • Be centred around an online stock image library for the promotion of my work and that of other photographers.
  • Provide an efficient and effective means of searching and retrieving images.
  • Harness the web's ability to facilitate communication by providing a forum for photographers and image users to exchange ideas.
  • Incorporate the feature of added value to encourage frequent repeat visits even where no business is transacted at first.

Among those issues considered are the origins, evolution and implications of e-commerce, designing for usability, and the problems associated with the cataloguing and retrieval of non-textual material such as photographs.

1.2 Justification
Photography was selected as the vehicle for this project the following reasons:

  • Photography is particularly suited to e-commerce as the entire sales process (search, selection and delivery) can be carried out online.
  • There is a huge market for stock images to satisfy the demands of both traditional publishing (books, newspapers, magazines, advertising etc.) and new media (web, CD-ROM, DVD etc.)
  • Whilst there are already a number of online picture libraries, none of these fully exploit the potential of the web. An analysis is made of existing offerings identifying their strengths as well as those areas in which improvement could be made.
  • As a former freelance, photography is an area with which I have some familiarity.

1.3 Research
The origins, evolution and significance of e-commerce are discussed. The Internet began as a defence communications network designed to be robust enough to withstand nuclear attack. The World Wide Web was originally developed as a means of information sharing among academics. The proliferation of home computers coupled with the development of graphical operating systems such as Microsoft Windows and browsers such as Mosaic, giving users access to text, pictures, sound, animation and video, quickly led to the exploitation of the web for commercial purposes. The Web is now a powerful marketing tool that is set to have an economic impact at least as great as the industrial revolution

An attempt is made to predict the most likely future trends in the development of the web.

The advantages of, and challenges faced by, e-commerce are considered. Businesses and customers alike benefit from having access to a truly global marketplace. However, problems such as information overload inhibit the ability of users to efficiently locate the resources they require, while doubts over security continue to deter numerous potential participants.

Leading search engine Google currently claims to index in excess of 1.3 billion web pages. A substantial proportion of these are commercial. The sheer volume and growth rate of the Web implies that there are few sites offering unique products, and even where such sites exist they are unlikely to remain unique for long due to the low entry barriers for e-businesses.

Furthermore the web provides market conditions approaching those of perfect competition. This means that differences in price will be quickly eradicated, since customers can easily identify the cheapest supplier for similar products. For these reasons successful web sites need to provide some form of added value to their core purpose in order to differentiate themselves from their competitors.

Existing online stock image libraries are examined to identify how this added value is currently being provided in addition to identifying their other strengths and deficiencies.

Online surveys of both photographers and image users have been carried out to discover the desirable features of a site such as that proposed.

The ease with which anyone may publish a web page has resulted in a proliferation of poorly designed sites. Confusing navigation, long download times, distracting backgrounds and poor colour choice are among the many problems to be found on the web. Contemporary web design principles are reviewed with particular regard to usability and what makes for a successful user experience with e-commerce sites.

In the beginning web pages were authored in HTML and offered a passive viewing experience to the user. Since then a whole range of tools have been developed to allow interactivity and enhance the user experience. The range of tools available to the web developer is reviewed with particular regard to their ability to contribute to the effectiveness of the web site in fulfilling its aims.

The range of tools considered includes:

  • JavaScript - A scripting language, developed by Netscape, which is included in web pages to give them additional functionality and interactivity.
  • Java applets - Programs written in Java which can be incorporated into web pages and run on computers of almost any type to provide animation and other fancy features.
  • Flash - Software from Macromedia allowing the creation of interactive multimedia applications. It is particularly suited to the web due to the small file size of Flash applications, and because it is supported by most browsers without the need to download additional plug-ins.
  • XML - Extensible mark-up language. An alternative to HTML allowing authors to define their own mark-up tags in order to facilitate more intelligent retrieval.
  • CGI - Common Gateway Interface. A protocol allowing clients to run programs on the web server. Often used for online form processing, bulletin boards, hit counters etc. CGI programs are most commonly written in the scripting language Perl.
  • ASP - Microsoft Active Server Pages. A technology allowing script embedded in an HTML document to be executed on the server e.g. for accessing a database.
  • Cold Fusion - Software application from Allaire Corporation which runs on a web server processing the Cold Fusion script contained within web pages e.g. for accessing databases.
  • PHP - A server side scripting language embedded within HTML.

Given the sheer volume of material available on the web one of the greatest problems facing users is finding the precise information they require. The ways in which non-textual media, such as photography, may be indexed so as to facilitate efficient retrieval will be examined.

Indexing images poses a number of problems e.g. a picture of a golden Labrador may be of interest to someone searching for pictures of Labradors, dogs, pets, mammals, animals… The vocabulary mismatch problem is also addressed, this describes the fact that different people may use different language for the same thing e.g. a particular vehicle may be called a lorry, a truck or a juggernaut.

1.4 Practical Work
The practical phase was concerned with the development of a prototype web site offering the following:

  • A searchable stock photographic library, which is the core of the site. This consists of work by myself, eventually it is hoped that it will include that of other photographers. For marketing purposes, images of limited resolution are offered for free, unrestricted-usage, download with the stipulation that where used a link will be provided back to this site. It is hoped that higher resolution images will be made available for sale in the near future.
  • A virtual gallery/exhibition space showcasing innovative, fine art photography. Visitors will eventually be offered the opportunity to purchase high quality prints of the images on display. As with a bricks and mortar gallery exhibitions will be changed regularly to encourage repeat visits to the site. Unlike the bricks and mortar version previous exhibitions will be archived indefinitely.
  • A collection of articles and tutorials on contemporary issues of interest to photographers and image users.
  • A discussion area (bulletin board or chat room) in which photographers and image users may debate relevant topics.
  • A comprehensive collection of links to other photography-related sites

N.B. The stock library is intended to provide a model for a commercially viable e-commerce business. The other features are intended to provide added value both to attract visitors who may become either paying customers or contributing photographers, and to differentiate this site from its competitors. Linked-to sites will be invited to provide reciprocal links to this one.

During the development of the prototype particular attention was paid to the mechanism by which images were catalogued, stored and retrieved, and also to the usability of the site. The report makes detailed suggestions for the future development of the cataloguing/retrieval mechanism.

twinIsles.dev >> Photography on the Web

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