The Sky Gradients

One evening in December 2021, I was out with the family for a walk at sunset when we noticed the amazing colours in the sky. I had been taking photography more seriously for a while now, so wished I was at a great location instead of just wandering through a housing estate. Nevertheless, I hadn’t long had my Sony Xperia 1 III and so took the opportunity to take a quick snap of the sky to capture the moment.

A few weeks later, in the second week of January, a similar thing happened. This time there was a really interesting cloud formation accompanying the colours. Again, probably just because I had a relatively new phone, I took my Sony out and snapped a couple of quick photos. But staring at the sky that evening, I suddenly realised that I was looking at one of the best gradient compositions I’d ever seen.

I love a good gradient, and I especially love a good gradient wallpaper. I’d often admired other designer’s compositions, but never thought of designing anything myself because, well, colour matching has never been my forte. But, I thought, these were God’s colours. So I surely can’t go too far wrong! Excited by this new creative avenue, I opened up the camera app again and took a little more time to capture the sky with the Sony’s manual settings, just to make sure I was getting best dynamic range.

Amazingly, we were then treated to a run of five nights where the sunset did something different every time. Sometimes there was a progression of blues, the next night the sky would look like it was on fire, then we’d get a range of pastels. Fueled by fresh inspiration, I merrily captured each one. I really wanted to get at least ten possible options, but after that week it took me until July to feel like I had enough material to start the project.

My original thought was to take the photos and extract lots colours using the eyedropper tool to then feed into a gradient tool in Affinity or Photoshop. I tried both programs, but I found the results extremely underwhelming. All of the subtle textures and shades that I loved about the photos I’d captured were being lost. Maybe this was due more to my skill level than the process, but the results I was getting left me feeling cold.

Thankfully, I decided to try another tack. I went into Lightroom and cranked the clarity and texture slides down. Like, all the way down. This was pretty effective but I knew I’d need to effectively repeat this process multiple times until it wasn’t obvious that you were looking at a photograph, rather than a piece of digital art. It was at this point I realised that I was aiming for something squarely in the middle. My inspiration levels rose again, and I took my favourite image of the lot and brought it into Photoshop.

I don’t quite know how I ended up with the process that I did. Like everything else I do, I assume it came from a lot of Googling, YouTube videos, trial, and error. But eventually I settled on a process I could replicate and control the final results. Let me know if you’re interested and I’ll share my steps in a separate post.

And…voila! Here are The Sky Gradients. A collection of ten 6K wallpapers that you can choose from to your heart’s content when you want to experience a bit of natural colours. I really hope you like them, and if you do, I’d be very thankful any contribution you feel appropriate!

The Sky Gradients Pack

Hitting the Algorithm

I’ve been pushing out creative content in various formats for about a year now, with mixed results. My Instagram page has reached a respectable level given about 80% of the photos are of landscapes taken on a phone. My Twitter profile and newsletter have achieved next to nothing. And as of the 8th March 2022, I’d amassed 1,269 views of my 15 or so YouTube videos. Most of those were a result of me plastering Twitter and Reddit with links to my content wherever I was allowed.

I had not been very productive with my YouTube videos up until this point, averaging just a couple of videos a month. Whilst I enjoyed the process of writing the scripts, I found filming a hassle without proper equipment and I was frustrated by my snail’s pace editing skills.

Then, on Wednesday 9th March, I uploaded a review of my phone, which I’d had for about four months at this point. The phone in question was the Sony Xperia 1 iii. I had borrowed a relative’s Canon 80D for a couple of days, and took the opportunity to quickly film a review which I’d written a few weeks before. Of all the videos I had done I finished this one the quickest. I didn’t even realise until afterwards that I’d forgotten to change out of my scruffy old hoodie!

I also kept the editing process as quick as possible. Somehow having a break had made me faster? I managed to edit the clips, barely touched the colour grading, and did a very quick correction of the audio. Such was my haste I only remembered the lack of B-Roll just before uploading, and quickly filmed some shots in awful light. In hindsight, the worst thing I forgot to do was add any reminders to subscribe or links to my other social media accounts! But I was in a ‘done is better than perfect’ mode, and it felt good to hit the publish button in record time.

In keeping with the hurried nature of the rest of the video, the thumbnail was an added afterthought, and still I reckon the worst I’ve done. It was clear, and people certainly got what they were clicking on, but it broke just about every other rule of YouTube thumbnail design.At first, nothing much happening. For the first few days the views stuck at around 20-50, which was pretty good for me! Then all of a sudden there was a hundred views in a day, then another, then another. Ten days after publishing the video started average over 200 views a day, peaking at nearly 500 views in one day. The graphs on my YouTube analytics suddenly started looking quite ridiculous.

Even before my relative virality, I had found creating this video provided me with something of a creative spark, and so two more videos in quick succession followed over the next couple of weeks. Just simple long-term reviews of my Logitech mouse and keyboard. Nothing special, but in hindsight these additional videos led to my views turning into subscribers. I’ve actually gotten more subscribers as the views have started tailing off, than I did at the beginning.

And that’s about it! Now at the time of writing I have another review ready to upload, and several more in the planning. I’m definitely finding that reviewing products is a more enjoyable experience for me, and indicatively it’s more valuable for my viewers. This is all well and good at the moment, but obviously to review tech, you have to buy tech, so quite how I’m going to manage that, remains to be seen.

I’m also perfectly aware that one well-received video doth not a viable channel make. I’m a million miles from monetisation on YouTube, and there are no guarantees that any future videos will reach these giddy heights. But my philosophy in all of these creative endeavours, be it photographing vistas, writing witty tweets, or making videos, has been to enjoy the process, regardless of the outcome. And if nothing else, I’ve got a fun graph out of it.

Be Careful What You Create

Jolts, Jars, and Jibes.

One morning a few weeks ago I was merrily browsing Instagram when I had a bit of a jolt. For context, I have an Instagram account specific to my photography, which I also use exclusively to follow my favourite photographers and creatives. I’m careful to curate my feed to only those whose work I really admire. I do this for two reasons:

  1. I don’t want to waste too much time consuming content
  2. I want to absorb content I really like, so that it influences my own work

However, I had recently followed a relatively young photographer. I’d been drawn to his unique compositions, and had been enjoying his feed.

But that morning, as I flicked through the stories, I was suddenly jarred by a picture of a news headline, with that photographer’s jibes on the particular content written around it.

Now to be clear, I didn’t necessarily disagree with the points he made, and neither was the content in and of itself extraordinary upsetting. But in the context of swiping through pretty pictures, it was a bit of a punch in the guts.

As I mentioned, the creator was young, with a relatively modest (but rapidly growing) following, and I’ve little doubt that as that growth continues and the creator matures, they won’t want to risk upsetting their source of income with potentially edgy social commentary.

However, this did make me think that whatever type of creator you are, you should be very careful when commenting on social issues. Not particularly because you may not be right, but simply because if people follow you because of your pretty pictures, it’s likely they’re not wanting to have their downtime interrupted by the jolt of seeing one of the many unpleasant events happening in the world.

I recognise this is a nuanced topic in itself, and therefore requires a more nuanced approach than I wish to extrapolate here. But it’s something that all creators should bear in mind. The web is a mentally exhausting place, but proper segmentation can go a long way to making it bearable.

It’s not easy being rubbish

Part of the struggle with online creation now is achieving the right balance between quantity and quality. This predates, but has been exacerbated by, the recent explosion of short-form video content. Think TikTok, Shorts, and Reels. Bizarrely, as I’m writing this, TikTok has announced that you can now upload videos as long as ten minutes on the platform.

Some of the long-form/short-form debate surrounds what constitutes an acceptable production value for online content. This is quite specific to video content, which is the most time and resource intensive form of content creation out there. Really, the shaky TikTok footage saturating the web right now harks back to the early days of social media, when everyone’s photos were blurry, posts still bore the marks of text-speech, and video was relatively non-existent.

Fast forward several years, and the advancement in video technology has meant anyone with a phone is capable of producing content that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the silver screens of the 90s. Pocketable cameras can shoot 4K, which can be edited using industry standard software on a sub-$1,000 laptop, and uploaded for free to the platforms of your choice.

But this amazing advancement brings another problem to the would-be video creator, especially those trying to compete with the already established channels. If you want to produce long-form content, you have little to no excuse for it to suck. And it’s not just your visuals that need to be stellar, research shows that lousy audio = poor retention. So you’ll need to add sound engineer to your expanding skillset. Oh, and graphic design, cause thumbnails are everything.

If this seems a bit depressing, then you have three valid options:

  1. Decide you don’t care, and just do as much as you want.
  2. Don’t create content.
  3. Create less

Both of those seem a touch dramatic, but if you don’t enjoy the entire process, and you don’t have the money to outsource any elements, then why do something that makes you miserable? You can either choose to work on the elements that you do enjoy for another creator, or monetise them specifically.

Like graphic design? Create thumbnail templates.

Fancy yourself an audiophile? Master someone else’s waveform.

Love writing? Start a newsletter.

And if you really love presenting, it’s amazing how many brands are jumping on the content creation bandwagon. Everyone from clothing stores to tech retailers needs people who are knowledgeable about content creation and can talk to a camera.

Or if you’re willing to not achieve MKBHD levels of production, then just know that that’s absolutely fine. I recently started watching a programming tutorial, only to discover that the whole thing was just a screen recording with Pachelbel’s Canon dubbed over top. So what you might ask? Well, that video alone had over 30,000 views, and the channel had 3,000+ subscribers. Showing that you don’t have to create a Hollywood epic in order to be useful.

Finally, if you want to be a perfectionist, just be a perfectionist. YouTube channels like LEMiNO thrive despite only uploading once or twice a year. Don’t buy into the belief that you need to be uploading multiple times a week to any given platform to be successful. That’s just one marketing tactic in a myriad of options, and depending on your niche, it might be completely the wrong choice for you.