Ok ok – we get it. As long-time 35mmc readers and occasional authors, we know it’s pretty rare to see the word “blockchain” or acronym “NFT” on here – and for good reason. Hear us out though: this is a real question, from us to you, the reader. We genuinely don’t know the answer, and this makes asking it quite interesting. It’s like shooting a Lomography film for the first time, or trying out that vintage camera you bought for steal. The outcome will either be great or terrible but either way it will be fun.
(Editor’s note: this article has generated a lot of interesting and healthy discussion in the comments section below. If you are interested in this topic, the comments also include links to further reading on some of the positives and indeed some of the risks of getting involved in NFTs, not least the potential environmental impact)
It would have been hard to miss the recent sale of a jpeg file, by the artist Beeple, for $69 million. A jpeg. For sixty-nine million dollars. What!? While there is a chance that the sale was actually a publicity stunt, it’s still a LOT of money. If you’re anything like those of us in the Pixels and Grain photography collective, the opportunity – however fleeting, vague, confusing and/or technically tricky – of a new opportunity to sell our photos and offset the cost of our film and vintage camera habits was enticing. Hence the question.
Our journey into the NFT world has been pretty interesting so far and it’s not over yet. In this article we wanted to share what it took to create our own NFTs, why we did, and what the benefits might be to this community.
What is an NFT?
Before we get into that question we need to cover a few fundamentals. Not sure what an NFT is? It stands for “non-fungible token”, which is just a fancy acronym that means something digital (like a jpeg file of a scanned photo) that is unique.
Fungible items are like a box full of fresh rolls of HP5: each roll has exactly the same value and they are perfectly interchangeable. Any of those rolls of HP5 could be freely exchanged with any other roll in the box and they would all have exactly the same value to a photographer.
If, however, you took one of those rolls and made photos with it, then that roll instantly becomes non-fungible. It is now unique compared to every other roll of HP5 ever made in the history of the world. Its value now must be determined solely based on its own merits. A non-fungible token (NFT), like a roll of used HP5, is a digital object that is verifiably unique. That’s all.
Are we evangelical blockchain junkies?
No, we’re not. Full disclosure: Pixels and Grain is an exclusive group solely comprised of non-famous amateur photographers based in Australia. We claim no special expertise in NFTs, blockchain or any of these other concepts. Think of this article exactly like most of the 35mmc camera or filmstock reviews: we find this stuff interesting, we’ve dedicated some time and resources to learning about it, but we have no formal qualifications or technical expertise in the area. Just like choosing whether or not to re-skin your beloved vintage camera, rely entirely on your own discretion here. This article does not constitute advice.
Technical Specs, Metaphor and Simile
Many readers of 33mmc.com (us included) seem to enjoy technical specs and getting into the details. In this article, however, we’re not going to get into all the technical blockchain stuff. It’s a huge topic and there are some great primers if that’s what you’re interested in. Most people talk about the blockchain in metaphors and similes, and that is a useful (slightly limited, but useful) level on which to think about things.
Before we jump into the what and how of NFTs, let’s talk briefly why we’re taking the plunge.
Why consider selling analog photographs as digital NFTs?
If you’re a professional and/or famous photographer who wants to sell your prints, then the barriers to selling actual, physical prints are often worth surmounting. For amateur hobbyists however, there’s no way we are going to ever sell enough prints to make the effort worth anything more than as just another aspect of our hobby.
Selling online, however, to a huge new audience who might have an appetite for unique, digitally-signed photographs… well if that helps us buy a few extra rolls of film without getting in trouble with our partners then that sounds great!
There are other more serious reasons too though. Those of us who choose to share our photography for fun almost always do it for free. Instagram, websites, competitions. There’s no need to make money from this (mostly), but the photography we create does have value. Currently that value is to us as creators (though the joy in creating), to recording history (that of public events or even just our family and friends) and in the pleasure it brings people who see it. Could our amateur film photography also have monetary value? We think it could, and that if the barriers to printing and physically selling our photos are removed, then it might.
The big over-arching idea here is that digital platforms, for all the terrible things they have brought us (and there are many), also create opportunities. Many of us are online sharing our work anyway – is it really such a big step to invite people to buy our photos if it suits both us and them? Naturally the market is likely to be modest, but unless analog / vintage camera photographers get out there and consistently offer work to be bought then there won’t be a market.
While we’re not quite the first people to think of selling our film photos as NFTs, we may well be the first to ever offer a collection of NFT photos based on a zine, and either way there are precious few people giving it a go. This article is an attempt to show one way to do it and to see if as a community we might choose to make this something more than it currently is.
The potential value of selling NFT film photos
Most of the rest of this article is details about how to create an NFT. If you don’t care about that, but are interested in our question – please go and have a look at the NFT auction we have just set up. The auction is being launched with this article, and before you are filled with cynical thoughts about why that might be let’s be transparent about the reasons:
- All new markets start with a sale – that’s just how they work. So in order to create a market someone has to sell an analog / vintage camera photography NFT. Imagine what your photo NFTs could be worth is there is a strong precedent out there already.
- Proving that a celebrity or famous photographer can sell one of these does not create a market that most people can participate in. We’re not famous, infamous or anything other than passionate amateur photographers. If we can sell an NFT photo then anyone
- It’s not completely true to say that all four of the photos we are auctioning off are film photos. We say analog / vintage camera photos because some of them were made with digital cameras using vintage lenses. In the auction we have a 35mm and a large-format image, but also one from a Leica M8 and one from a Leica M10-D. This seems to us to be representative of a good portion of the 35mmc community. Again – if these images sell, then there is a precedent set for everyone in the community.
- We don’t want to sell our NFTs to the existing film photography community – we want to create new market amongst people who think it’s reasonable to pay $69m for a jpeg, or who wish they could. To get some kind of attention we need a network effect of people sharing and talking about analog / vintage camera photography NFTs – if you want to.
- Finally, it would be typical in situations like this to donate the proceeds of any sale (if there is one) to a charity. We’re not going to do that because we’re trying to set a precedent, and we think that the default should be that artists are paid for their work. If you want to donate your work or income to charity that’s generous and amazing, but let’s not make it the only option for selling your photos in a social acceptable way.
What are the risks?
For an enthusiastic excoriation of NFTs you can read a thoughtful critique here. To our group, it seems like there are four main risks, though there could be more:
- Spending a bit of money upfront (roughly USD$100 the way we did it) and not earning any from sales.
- Spending your time and energy on something that doesn’t work out as you expect
- The environmental impact of blockchains (mostly electricity consumption)
- Looking like an ass in public
As film photographers risks (1) and (2) are, within reason, no deterrents to us. Risk (3) is a real issue, though the exact amount of energy used (or depending on your perspective, wasted) by blockchains is hard to calculate and a bit controversial. There are also environmental benefits in reducing the paper, chemicals and fuel that go into creating and shipping physical prints. Thankfully the Ethereum blockchain, used for NFTs, is transitioning to a much lower-energy model soon that is supposed to ameliorate much of the environmental impact.
As for (4) – well, fair enough. Ever tried street photography?
What is a blockchain?
The most famous blockchain at the moment is Bitcoin (the Leica M3 of blockchains – classic, elegant if that’s your thing, very expensive and has plenty of limitations), but there are hundreds of them out there. Different blockchains are a bit like the difference between colour reversal, colour negative and black and white film stocks. Superficially they all look similar and do similar things, but really they are very different and mostly not compatible with each other. NFTs, for example, don’t work on Bitcoin. They mostly work on the second most famous blockchain: Ethereum. This is the Cameradactyl of blockchains – much more technically advanced than Bitcoin, capable of doing many more things and also a bit of a niche at the moment.
A blockchain is a method of storing identical copies of secure, verified, publicly-accessible data on hundreds or thousands of computers all around the world. If that’s all you want to know about them, then you can happily skip the next four paragraphs.
These thousands of identical copies is why blockchains are called decentralised. Most of the internet is currently pretty centralised. This means that each website you visit lives on just a couple of computers. Those computers are connected to each other via the Internet and this is how you visit them. The problem is, however, that if the computers that have all the articles on 35mmc.com (for example) break or are shut down then 35mmc.com stops existing.
In photographic terms, the current Internet is a bit like your photography group’s slide collections. Each person has one, they are beautiful and can be shown to lots of people, but each person’s collection only exists in their home. People from all over the world can come to your homes and look at your slides, but if they are damaged or lost then the images are gone forever.
A blockchain is like creating thousands of identical copies of your slide collection and posting them all around the world so that they exist in thousands of places at once. Not only can anyone go and see your slide collection anywhere it exists, but if you lose all your slides you just go get a copy from someone else who has them. Your images now cannot be lost, stolen, censored or damaged – they will be safe for as long as everyone who has a copy keeps them.
If you’re already thinking “why would anyone keep my slides?”, “how could someone looking at my slides in another country know they were really mine?”, or “what happens if I take more pictures – how do I make sure all my slide collections around the world stay current?” – then you’re already thinking about some of the issues that blockchain technology advocates say they’ve solved. We’re not experts on this stuff – there seems to be a mix of financial incentives and ideology that keeps these blockchains running.
What are photographic NFTs?
For photographers, NFTs are essentially a way to use blockchain technology to “sign” a digital photography file. Unlike a screen-shot or an image you simply download, it’s this “signature” by the author that makes it an NFT and therefore unique. The “signature” lives on the blockchain – copied hundreds or thousands of times around the world so that anyone can go and see it for themselves at any time. Most NFT signatures live on the Ethereum blockchain.
Exactly like a signed fine-art print, if you own an NFT you are the only person who can own it. You can display it, share it with friends and enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that you are the only one who owns this specific piece of art. If you’re lucky your fine art print will become more valuable over time, but this only happens to a few people. Lots of people buy prints anyway.
NFTs are pretty much the wild west at the moment when it comes to copyright and intellectual property, but if you’re an artist creating an NFT of your own work then it seems like there is no issue – just like if you made an original print of one of your photos. Also like a print, you’re not selling the copyright to the image – you’re just selling a print.
How do you make an NFT?
We’re going to mix metaphor and practical advice here. In order to create a unique digital photo, signed by you, the steps are a bit similar to selling something on eBay or Amazon. Here’s how it breaks down in comparison to conventional photography:
|In NFT terms
|In photography terms
|1. Create a digital version of your photo (a file, usually jpeg).
|1. Create a physical version of your photo (a print).
|2. Register an account with an NFT marketplace.
a. This will involve buying some cryptocurrency and getting a crypto wallet. It sounds scarier than it is – more below.
b. When you sell your NFT the funds go to your crypto wallet.
|2. Register an account with a print photography marketplace.
a. This could be a gallery, your own website, a shop, café, eBay – whatever.
b. When you sell your print, the funds go to your account – PayPal or your bank account or similar.
|3. Use your new account and crypto to sign (“mint”) your file and turn it into an NFT.
|3. Sign your print with pencil or pen
|4. Put it up for sale
|4. Put it up for sale.
It’s pretty similar, broadly speaking.
Cryptocurrency and Wallets
We’ll skip the part where you digitise your photo to create a file, that’s a given. Signing up for an account with an NFT marketplace is also straightforward – just like creating an account on social media or your latest online subscription.
The hardest step for us was figuring out the cryptocurrency and wallets. As a clique, the world of crypto has a lot in common with film photography. There is a lot of jargon, people feel very strongly about the space, and the barriers to entry seem way higher than they really are.
If you’ve ever given a friend or relative a modern film camera, loaded with film, and told them to “just go for it – it’s fun!”, then you know exactly how crypto natives feel when they talk about coins and wallets. Once you know how to turn it on and where the shutter button is you’re pretty much set.
In short, a wallet is exactly what it says it is. It’s usually a particular kind of digital account that holds a cryptocurrency balance. You can pay for things from it and you can add money to it when you like. A wallet is basically PayPal for your cryptocurrency – and depending on where you live, you might even be able to buy crypto with PayPal or Apple Pay or your credit card or similar.
Of course there are always little details that make it seem harder. You know – just like with that film camera when your friend asks you what the PASM dial does and is it ok that they just put it on “M”?.
With crypto, you can’t always buy cryptocurrency and put it directly into your wallet. Just like changing US dollars to Euros, you have to go to a company that exchanges regular money (also called “fiat money”) for cryptocurrency. Helpfully, these are called “exchanges”. You might have heard of Coinbase – it was the first cryptocurrency exchange to float on the US stock market in April this year.
In Australia, where we live, banks and credit cards view (probably reasonably) cryptocurrency purchases as high-risk for fraud. That meant that we had to use a bank transfer to move Australian dollars to a crypto exchange and it took 24 hours for the funds to clear the first time. Then on the exchange website, we put an order in for ETH. You can read about ETH here [link]. Suffice it to say, ETH is the name of the currency used on the Ethereum blockchain (each blockchain has it’s own current with different names – BTC, ETH, XRP, ADA etc) and that’s what most people use for NFTs.
Let’s recap. What we have done now is used a money exchange to convert regular money into a cryptocurrency called ETH and we have a place to keep that cryptocurrency, which is called a wallet. Everything is done digitally and online. If at this point you’re wondering about security and the possibility of losing your money – yes, absolutely. It’s like internet banking the first time. There are risks. You get used to them. Some people get burnt but most people don’t.
Minting the NFT
It’s finally time to sign your photo and put it up for auction! This is the good part. Just like developing film though – unless you do it yourself, it costs a bit of money. To “mint” or “sign” the image you have to pay someone to take your signature and include it in the blockchain. This is the action that makes it secure.
Remember those slide collections we mailed out all over the world? Paying to mint an NFT on the blockchain is like paying the rent on your slide collection storage. You only pay it once and that’s it forever – there are no ongoing costs. It does cost money though, and by money of course we mean cryptocurrency.
There are dozens of ways to mint NFTs but the one we chose was through Opensea.io. It’s one of the oldest and largest NFT marketplaces. It’s cheaper than some of the other platforms, less exclusive but also a lower barrier to entry. Once you pay your cryptocurrency from your wallet, your NFT has been minted and you’re ready to sell.
Now we’re back in familiar territory. You can sell your image for a fixed price or have an auction – whatever you choose. With a few exceptions, your buyer will need cryptocurrency to buy your photo – but that’s the same in any market around the world. You have to pay in a currency the market accepts. That’s it!
If you’ve made it this far – what do you think? Please visit the auction and have a look. Let us know your thoughts in the comments, say hi on Instagram and/or visit our auction site and share it around. Who knows what will happen!? We certainly don’t, but we’ll send an update when the auction is done, and we will follow the conversation closely. This is a first for all of us, so please be kind…
About the C-scapes auction
We’ve chosen four images to auction off, aiming for a representative collection of the types of images that people in the community might take. We’re also experimenting with a feature to make it more likely that people will want to purchase all of the images – have a look at the auction to see what we decided to try, and let us know what you think!
These images are from our C-scapes zine. “C-scapes” is a response to the COVID-19 pandemic and was made in 2020. It documents some of the small moments of beauty that persist even in the midst of the worst peacetime disaster in centuries. This collection represents an historic period of time by looking at the natural world, our communities and the power of collaboration during adversity.
Author Credit: Christopher, Bill, Alan and Will on behalf of the Pixels and Grain photography collective
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