Panoramio: To boldly go where no Google car has gone before

Well, how about that?

No sooner had I removed all my photos from Google Places did Google dispatch their fleet of Street View cars to fill in the missing locations in Germany!

It’s just coincidence, of course.

Although both statements are correct they are completely unrelated.

Still, seeing as this year seems to be revolving around nothing but salaried work and digitising my stash of photos, there is a bit of a story to tell. It begins with Flickr.

Flickr is/was a great place to showcase photographs. I’ve been using it for nearly 20 years. Naturally, many of my photos featured city or rural environments with an emphasis on places or objects within them. Eventually I discovered a site called Panoramio.

Panoramio was a geo-located tagging photo sharing site whose goal was to allow Google Earth users to learn more about a given area by viewing the photos that other users had taken at that location. It was sometime around 2008 that I signed up, and Panoramio soon became my new home for (retroactively) geotagged digital photos of mostly Johannesburg (my previous geographic home) as well as any other places we visited.

My profile read that I was…

“On a mission to boldly go where no Google car has gone before. Here are the most clichéd, topical, typical, noteworthy, interesting, relevant, memorable and LOCATABLE photos snapped during whatever trips a person takes with a humble point ‘n shoot digicam or camera phone in tow and which may be worth sharing with other armchair tourists and Google Earth aficionados.”

It’s worth mentioning that, at the time, South Africa had minimal visual online presence. This changed dramatically when the Street View cars rolled into town shortly before the country hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup. South Africa was now firmly on the world map. Photos via social media were plentiful and proved that lions do not roam the streets.

Google, by then, had acquired Panoramio but the latter’s community stubbornly resisted the behemoth closing it down, delaying its integration into their Google Maps service. For a while both services ran concurrently while I diligently added more photos to Panoramio (as did thousands of other devoted users).

Soon after, Google set their eyes on mapping Germany (my current geographic domicile). Now it was an entire country’s population’s turn to protest, with some 3 percent of residents exercising their right to have their houses blurred out in Street View.

People in Hamburg live in strange houses (image via reddit)

Eventually, Google just gave up.

Google Maps revolutionized how we view the world when it introduced Street View in 2007, spreading throughout the world in subsequent years. However, the service wasn’t met with open arms everywhere in the world. One of the countries to shun the service early on was Germany, where privacy outcries and lawsuits led to Google halt the Street View rollout in 2011 after only covering about 20 big cities, shortly after it was launched in the country. — Android Police

I, too, found the Germans’ resistance utterly ridiculous and have yet to meet a living opponent of Street View. It’s all the more absurd when you realise that even many ordinary businesses or public places, seen by hundreds of tourists daily, that got milkglassed.

At one point I was playing with the idea to seek out some of the blurred buildings, knock on their door, ask the residents what corpses they have in the basement, and promptly photograph their house and upload the pictures to Panoramio from where they will ultimately be made visible on Google Earth / Street View too.

Although I never got around to that stunt, I did take the dog and the camera on several photo safaris around my neighbourhood — which the Google cars had not been to.

Seeing my photos appear on Google Earth gave me a small sense of accomplishment.

hmvh single-handedly put the quiet suburb of Dortelweil on the map. Bad boy!

Following several petitions, Panoramio managed to survive well into late 2016 before Google ultimately did shut it down. User photos were migrated to Google Maps, and I also uploaded copies to Flickr (before they, too, threatened to remove them – but that’s another story).

And there my 430 or so photos languished, waiting to be moved to a decent Panoramio substitute that never was found. As time passed, some managed to clock up thousands of views because they somehow got attached to nearby landmarks or businesses. Others didn’t because they were taken in the middle of nowhere. Google couldn’t monetise them.

Courage the cowardly dog in the middle of nowhere.

In November of last year I decided to put them out their misery and deleted the lot.

Just about every place that has a spot on Google Maps has now been photographed by other people — both locals and tourists from the furthest corner of the Earth alike. The range is astounding and the quality is often appalling.

“Fast-forward to June 2023, and [Google Street View] is finally returning to the European country, allowing tourists and residents to explore sights and neighborhoods with up-to-date imagery.”

Post-COVID Germany is gradually crawling out from under its digital rock.

All photos and scans by Herby Hönigsperger unless specified otherwise.

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Photo stitching software

In my previous post I wrote that AI-based utilities have no place in my personal photo enhancement toolbox. Their results have been more miss than hit on my digitised snapshots. One set of utilities, however, has managed to generate results that almost border on the magical: Photo stitching software.

Many modern cameras and smartphones today feature the ability to create panoramic or 360-degree images but it is stitching software that is able to take photos, ideally from the same vantage point, of one or more subjects and almost seamlessly stitch them together into one larger picture.

So long as the focal point and lighting are similar, the results can be quite amazing.

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Photo restoration through AI? Nope!

In late April I was finally able to declare my photo digitisation project “completed”.

It took me exactly one year to clean up, research, name, and sort over 7,000 scans and photos which ultimately made it into my personal “digital photo album” (if that’s what a stringent directory structure can be called) – and that’s excluding the time spent scanning them in the first place, or culling the ones that didn’t make it.

At this point it would be remiss not to mention AI photo enhancement software.

Despite the recent incredible developments in artificial intelligence and image generation, I remain steadfast that AI still has no role in the workflow for digitising personal snapshots on prints, slides or negatives. While I obviously made basic edits like cropping, or adjusting brightness, contrast, white balance and colours so that the viewer can actually see what’s going on in a photo, my experiences with AI services (read: face enhancing) have done nothing but confirm a phenomenon that’s already been termed “identity shift“.

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AI Photo Enhancement: Boon or Bust for Old Photos?

Digitizing old family photos is a great way to preserve family history and memories for future generations. But let’s face it: old photos can be faded, scratched, and just plain old-looking. That’s where AI-powered photo enhancement software comes in. But is it really the panacea it’s cracked up to be? Let’s take a closer look.

First, let’s talk about the pros of using AI for photo enhancement. There’s no doubt that AI algorithms have come a long way in recent years, and can do an impressive job of restoring old photos. They can remove scratches, fix exposure, and even colorize black and white photos. Plus, the process is much faster than doing it by hand, and can be done without damaging the original photo.

But here’s the thing: while AI can certainly enhance old photos, it can also strip them of their authenticity. By applying a uniform algorithm to every photo, you run the risk of losing the unique character and quirks that make each old photo special. Sure, the photos may look “better” after being run through an AI algorithm, but at what cost? Are you willing to sacrifice the authenticity and character of your family’s history for the sake of a uniform aesthetic?

Before and after automatic photo restoration

Another issue to consider is the potential for AI to add details that were never there to begin with. While it’s true that AI algorithms can restore lost details, such as color and contrast, they can also introduce new details that were never in the original photo. This can happen when the algorithm tries to “guess” what should be in the photo based on surrounding pixels. While this can result in a more aesthetically pleasing image, it can also result in an inaccurate representation of the original photo.

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Current status: Still sorting photos

It’s March 2023, and it’s been about one year since I started digitising my photo collection.

Once I established a proper workflow, the task of scanning slides, negatives, and photo prints was a surprisingly quick (albeit tedious) process — and I will be writing a few words about that another time. What I hadn’t counted on was the amount of time that researching, naming, and sorting of the resultant scans would ultimately take. I will probably be writing a few words about these aspects, too (time permitting).

As a matter of fact, I’m still busy sorting through scanned photos now: it’s shocking to realise that I have more pictures of a puppy I sold last year than of my own mother’s entire lifetime!

While most snaps have now found a home in a rearranged folder scheme, there’s also a stack of vernacular garbage being deleted because it’s lost all meaning and relevance (which I have written about before).

On the other hand, there are some wonderful photographs among the family stash of slides and negatives which, although I have no personal relationship with the captured moments and they have no place in my (digital) photo album, are good enough to keep for their own sake.

African sunset over industrial billowing chimneys, early seventies

Then there are others such as those my father took in the early seventies during the construction of the Cabora Bassa hydroelectric power scheme that may hold some historical or geopolitical interest to random strangers.

Cabora Bassa Dam under construction, early seventies

These will likely end up on Wikimedia Commons whereas other photos of public interest may find refuge at Google Places. Flickr, too, seems worth returning to, and there’s an assemblage of new material for the Human Clock.

This stuff can keep a man way too occupied. That’s all for now.

Photos via Herbert Hönigsperger Snr.

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Review: 2022

Well, here we are again: it’s Christmas 2022. Another year draws to a close.

2022 was a bit of a blurry blemish despite several significant events in my personal life.

If it wasn’t for calendars, one could be forgiven for feeling that we’re still in 2020 or went way back to the year 1920. Indeed, 2022 may be remembered as the fuzzy period during which the world turned into a steaming pile of shit – but only in part due to pollution or climate change: it’s humanity that’s lagging behind its own technological advances.

In 2022 it became illegal to have sex in Indonesia – unless you’re married. The Iranian morality police also stepped up their game and took to beating women to death for not wearing their hijab correctly while the Taliban decided that Afghani women need not be educated. American women’s constitutional right to an abortion was revoked.

Of course there were the usual mass shootings and hurricanes in the USA.

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Photography: What’s the point?

Here’s a photo of a puppy.

Cuteness overload: One month old labrador puppy

Ain’t it just adorable?

Of course it is! Everyone likes pictures of cute puppies.

But why am I showing you this photo? Because I’m proud of it.

No, not so much for its photographic technique but because I’m rather chuffed about the subject matter and everything that goes with the birth of a litter. Not surprisingly, over the last few months I took many cute pictures for reasons which include not only tracking the puppies’ development but also for advertising: many served as “product photos” (harsh as this may sound) because most of the puppies were put on the market.

Then there’s the aspect of personal memories.

Much in the same manner that proud parents take countless pictures of their children (whose numbers tend to diminish as the novelty wears off), photos serve as reminders of what the offspring looked like at a certain age because “they grow up so fast”. They will never look the same again.

Photos and the memories behind them are priceless – for a period.

With that said and now that certain affairs have been gotten in order and the puppies are bigger, I can return to the project of digitising my photo albums and consolidating what amounts to a rough count of over 8000 photos. There are duplicates, some are plain rubbish, and there are others that have completely lost all purpose and meaning over time.

Consequently, many are being deleted, and this has made me ponder about what it is that makes us take photos in the first place.

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Mixed emotions: Papa was a rolling stone

Life is full of serendipity and awkward coincidences.

I recently wrote about the trip down memory lane which the sorting and filing of digitised photographs was due to take me; what I hadn’t foreseen was how emotional a ride this would eventually become. Anyone looking through old photographs knows to expect to see pictures of those who are no longer with us. This is normal.

We know they’re dead, and they’ve usually been so for a while.

Not so in my case: A few weeks ago I was sorting through old photos of my father while, simultaneously and elsewhere, he lay dying a bitter and lonely man. Life is cruel.

When the police came over to make the announcement the following morning I was overcome by a sense of relief. It was almost… expected.

Emotions were mixed. They covered the full spectrum from elation to grief.

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