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Smile: People Like Your Photos More Than Your Words (SXSW Version)

If you’re in Austin for SxSW this coming Saturday (March 9), come cheer me on at 5pm. Below are the slides I’ll be working from. One friend told me I’m playing with fire by talking about digital photos without any mention of cats, so if you have any cute pet pics — or any other ideas on how I might hold audience attention — please send em my way.

Sources for the stats used in the presentation:

–Ten percent of photos taken by humankind were taken in the past 12 months, from 1000 Memories.

–Two-and-a-half billion photo-enabled devices worldwide, according to Tomi Ahonen in Communities Dominate Brands.

–Research by Harvard Business School in 2009 determined that 70% of all activities inside social media involve a photo.

–Google chief economist Hal Varian observed (in 2010) “The average amount of time looking at online news is about 70 seconds a day, while the average amount of time spent reading the physical newspaper is about 25 minutes per day.”

–Flipboard claims its 20 million users conduct 3 billion “flips” per and spend 86 minutes inside the app each month.

–From PostRocket, a blog on Facebook marketing (citing Track Social data), photos attract greater engagement than other types of posts inside Facebook.

–In November 2011, 20% of posts to Facebook’s newsfeed were photos; now (March 2013) that percentage has risen to 50%, from Business Insider’s coverage of Facebook’s announced changes to the newsfeed.

–Sixty-three percent of shoppers value the image more than the product description, according to National Retail Federation data cited in an infographic from MDG Advertising.

–According to Luminate usage data from 2012, neon jeans and jewelry experienced twice the click-through rate as similar products in more muted colors.

–Ad Age coverage of Garnier’s visually-targeted ad campaign across Luminate partner sites, in which it experienced a 116% life in brand preference.


A street crew on the prowl at #SxSWi.

Moving Pictures: Can Companies Create Engagement from the Exploding Imagesphere Online?


(Graphic by Shaw Nielsen, Adweek.)

Let’s officially call 2012 the Year of the Imagesphere. To review: Facebook says its users upload more than 300 million photos per day (up from 31 million in 2009). To support this massive interest in photo sharing, the company acquired Instagram in April for $1 billion.

Meanwhile, Pinterest leapt out of the shadows to become the third largest social network (valued at $1.5 billion by investors in May) because of its unique and popular spin on photo curation. Almost exactly a year ago, Twitter launched its own photo sharing, and earlier this month it rolled out photo filters in a bid to steal usage from Instagram. Within days, Instagram responded by disabling integration with Twitter cards and erecting a wall between the two networks that makes it harder for consumers to share Instagram photos via Twitter. And a few weeks ago, the original photo-sharing giant, Flickr, jumped back into the battle with its own sharing app.

The Internet titans are placing big bets on the future businesses that will be built on the 3 trillion (and growing) online images. The unanswered questions: How will publishers, image repositories (such as Flickr or Facebook) and brands capitalize on the imagesphere opportunity? How will content creators turn the act of flipping through galleries and photo feeds into deep engagement? How will advertisers adjust from a marketing rhythm where they produced one beautiful photo every 13 weeks for a print campaign to one where they need 13 photos a day to feed a Tumblr?

And what’s in all of this for consumers? After a decade and a half of presenting consumers with online photos that they can look at — kind of like we look at photo albums at our grandmother’s house — will the Internet finally bring some interactivity to image content and turn photos into a stepping-off point for a richer experience?
It’s clear that consumers are itching for more. They want more depth, interactivity and the opportunity to explore more images beyond those the editor picked to populate a particular gallery. Publishers who want their attention will need to upgrade the photo experience, and advertisers will need to figure out how to tell their stories inside these photo experiences. This means one thing for sure: Brands and publishers need to figure ouhow to extract precise, granular metadata from the Web’s 3 trillion pictures.

Only when publishers know what’s inside images in their archives can they serve readers with additional relevant content from inside each gallery. Every image, then, will launch dozens more galleries — more Angelina Jolie images here, more pictures of fabulous shoes there. They can also monetize photos with precisely targeted ads, just like they do around other content on their sites.

Without image metadata, photos are the dark matter of the ad-server galaxy. Unlock this metadata, and brands will step into the imagesphere as sponsors. Turn those rectangular clusters of pixels into keywords, and ad budgets will support photo content as enthusiastically as they support keywords found in text. Hiring agencies and art directors to produce hundreds of new photo assets each month would break the bank. But attaching a brand’s message to thousands of photos snapped by fans could deliver the same results at a fraction of the cost.

Clearly, this is an emerging trend that Facebook, in particular, is betting on. It ignited consumer hostility by changing Instagram’s terms of service, raising concerns that the new rules would allow the company to license member photos (your personal photos!) to brands or other corporate entities. Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom responded on the company’s blog that it merely plans “to experiment with innovative advertising,” but will not license user photos to outside parties. It’s not our images Instagram wants — it’s the metadata.

The explosion in the image-based Web isn’t just an issue for brands. Publishers are experimenting with photocentric, responsive-design-oriented tablet sites. They’re also tinkering with images loaded with interactivity, whether as part of editorial or within ad units.

But it’s still early for applications and for ad products associated with images. The big headline in 2013 will be the evolution from photo creation and sharing to getting inside those images. Will you be camera-ready?

(Originally published as a guest column at Adweek.)

The Year In Pictures, In Review

Luminate CEO (and my boss) Bob Lisbonne debuted his Forbes column, Visual Approach, with a look back at “the most widely photographed year in history” and the major developments across the imagesphere in 2012: The Year In Pictures, In Review.

The year in images dawned with an explosive start when Facebook announced it would acquire Instagram. While many fixated on the $1 billion price tag, implications for Facebook’s mobile strategy, or whirlwind negotiations, I found it fascinating that a company whose essence revolved around relationships between friends, would find irresistible a network whose connections centered on pictures.

It was a year of significant hardware innovations, pictures from Mars, break-through interactive galleries and the first skirmishes in a battle of the Internet titans over who will dominate the future of photography. Full column here.

Visual Storytelling for Brands in the Facebook, Pinterest, Insta-gallery Era

In November 1995 I had a job selling ad space for tech magazines. One afternoon the office fax machine scrolled out 12 pages worth of insertion orders from a software company I’d been pitching for two months, and I did a happy-dance in my cubicle. With those orders, the company had committed to running a full-page ad in every issue the magazine would publish in all of 1996. I called the client to confirm the mailing address for our traffic coordinator and the creative instructions — right-reading film, emulsion-side-down — and got the further good news that the ad creative was already on its way in a FedEx pouch. The ad creative. A single photo with ad copy that would serve as the campaign’s creative all year.

I don’t miss the inky mess I’d make of my hands when I had to change the cartridge on that fax machine. But they sure were simpler times in the world of advertising and publishing.

Back then the brands on the other end of those fax machines could afford to sink significant time and resources into the production of each creative unit. Hiring a renowned photographer, a model, a team of set designers, makeup artists, art directors and post-production editors might set them back $25,000 for a single photo for a single print ad. But given the enormous role played by that one photograph — it would likely anchor a $15-million national ad campaign across many magazines for months — the time and dollars invested in getting it exactly right could fairly be called a rounding error. Twenty-five thousand dollars in creative development divided by 15 million in media spend is less than two-tenths of a percentage point.

While the math still works for brands advertising in glossy fashion magazines, there is trouble in paradise. Or rather, paradise has moved to the Internet. If brands want to engage with consumers online (which, more and more, is where their consumers spend time) they need to compete with publishers and social media sites that refresh their bins of eye-candy every few minutes. By the time they’ve art directed, developed and shipped a piece of right-reading, emulsion-side-down film to a publisher, Gangnam Style has been replaced with parody videos of Gangnam Style.

The digital landscape changes fast, and pictures are a main catalyst. Netscape released the first commercially-available web browser in 1994 and fewer than 15 years later Flickr housed more than 6 billion photos — more than 450 times the number of photos held by the Library of Congress. In 2009 more than 2.5 billion camera-enabled devices were in the hands of would-be photogs and in the course of a year would go on to take ten percent of all photos ever taken by humans. Instagram, the photo-sharing apps for smartphones that Facebook bought earlier this year for $1 billion, measures its customer engagement in uploads-per-second; 60 uploads per second, back in the quaint old days of December 2011, pre-acquisition, and before comScore released data showing Instagram’s daily usage is now greater than Twitter’s. By early 2012 Facebook members were uploading to the site more than 300 million photos every single day.

This slurry of data signals “the end of the Kodak Era, where we took photos birthdays and vacations, and shared them only with a small group of friends,” says Bob Lisbonne, CEO of Luminate (my boss) and former SVP for Netscape’s browser group in 1990s. “We’ve now entered a phase in which visual communication is supplanting the written word — what some are calling the dawn of the Imagesphere.”


(Source: 1000 Memories Blog.)

But it’s not taking or uploading pictures that should worry marketers. It’s the fact that there are consumers on the other end of these photos — viewing them, engaging with them, and generally spending more time with images they see on Facebook, Tumblr or Pinterest than they used to spend reading glossy magazines that arrived on the newsstand once a month. comScore’s Mobile Metrix 2.0 survey says Facebook users are spending more than seven hours per month visiting the site by way of mobile phones alone. Om Malik, founder and editor in chief of GigaOM, asserts that photos are the fuel driving the mass migration to social media:

Malik writes, “Photos are the reason many of us continue to engage with Facebook. Facebook has tried many verbs to increase and maintain our engagement with the service — read, listen, watch. But in the end, it’s the photos that work wonders for the Menlo Park, Calif.-based social-networking giant.”

Research from a team at Harvard Business School supports Malik’s claim. A 2009 study finds that 70% of all activity inside social networks revolves around photos. Keep in mind, that was in 2009 — when Facebookers were uploading a mere 31 million photos a day, and My Space was still relevant enough to be included in a study of social-media sites.

These millions of new photos — or at least those shared by friends and organizations we choose to follow — are pushed to us each day in an unending, ever-updating stream of visual storytelling. We watch our friends’ kids grow up, in near real-time, and news stories unfold throughout the day as fresh photos replace those from hours or minutes before. Publishers, too, are responding to their readers’ growing appetite for image content with larger, high-res photography and the gallery-ification of stories as disparate as celebrity news, travel destinations and business analysis.

Roughly one-third of pixel real estate on the web is image content, according to the Wall Street Journal, and those images get old fast. In its first three days on the Internet, the average photo has attracted half the total views it will ever attract. If you look at content shared via social media platforms rather than the entire web, the half-life for content is measured in hours not days.


(Source: Bitly Blog.)

And there lies the rub for brands. The changing dynamic of media consumption has changed the rules of marketing in three fundamental respects.

One: “Professional grade” doesn’t get the mileage it once did.

Sure, the list of most-viewed clips on YouTube includes Justin Beiber music videos, but it also includes quirky independent interviews of people waiting in line for iPhones and home-movie sensations such as ‘Charlie Bit My Finger… Again.’ The same goes for photos. Consumer interest no longer tracks with traditional definitions of “photo quality.”

There was a time when all media was professional media, created and distributed by large publishing companies. It only made sense, then, for advertisers to polish their creative units to a professional, high-production-value shine. Good advertising should always seek to imitate the editorial content around it; ‘native advertising’ has been around long before the Internet. There’s mounting evidence, however, that recall rates for TV spots and display ads in magazines are declining, despite the professional expertise that goes into their creation. Nowadays relevance trumps production value.

Now that amateur photographers have gained access to distribution — Google might lead you to an independent photoblog, Instagram might introduce you to some great photos from an excellent hobbyist — consumers are dividing the world of photos into ‘interesting’ and ‘not interesting,’ not ‘professional’ and ‘amateur.’ Interesting no longer requires the talents of a professional.

Two: Attention Deficit Disorder has become a lifestyle choice.

A trend that’s probably as old as the publishing industry has achieved fever pitch: Content miniaturization. Articles get shorter and shorter, and readers still can’t get to the end of them. I mean, who has time to read the entire tweet anymore? Audience ratings seem to suggest that frequency and freshness of content are trumping quality and depth. In a world where tapping our thumbs on the Instagram icon on our iPhones unleashes an endless stream of photos taken in the last four hours, looking again at last month’s print ad for Prada strikes many modern consumers as boring.

Three: Consumption is giving way to interaction.

There’s something that’s even more popular than posting pictures: Liking them and commenting on them. It’s a sign that we define ourselves not only through our own pictures, but also through association with the pictures of others. It’s this instinct that explains the growth of Pinterest, the social network that rocketed to 10 million users faster than any social network before it. It’s not built on photo-sharing in the sense that Instagram or Facebook are (“Hey, check out my pictures”); it’s about photo-assembling (“I’ve collected these pictures so you understand who I am and what I care about”). Forty-one percent of us, says new research from Pew, find photos and videos online and re-post them on sites designed for sharing with others. It’s one of the most popular things we do on the Internet.

In order for brands to embrace these new platforms for photo mixing and mashing, they need to get comfortable with their images being separated from the carefully assembled context of yesterday’s print ad or the Spring catalog, and being extracted from the traditional models that protect ownership rights and pay out talent royalties. Your customers want to befriend you and play with you, but that game is going to be on their terms.

So what’s a brand to do?

The creative departments at traditional agencies simply can’t adapt to this new world, says John Battelle, founder of Federated Media (disclosure: I was his co-founder there) and the first managing editor of Wired Magazine. The old rhythm of branded storytelling — devise the Big Idea, take a month to convert it into an art piece of advertising, and then enlist the media department to implant it deep into the skulls of consumers through mass media — is losing its efficacy. Agencies will continue to find success producing professional-grade assets and distributing them around tent-pole events, but they’re ill-equipped for the in-between times, the 363 days a year that don’t feature the Super Bowl or the Oscars. The beefy muscles built up over years of pumping out thirty-second TV spots and full-page print ads aren’t well suited for the marathon running required by lasting social-media conversations. “Brands need to catch up to media,” he says, and they’re going to need some help.

“Most creative agencies don’t see themselves as ongoing, real time publishers — that’s the business of, well, publishers,” Battelle continued. “I predict the two will merge over time — agencies must become more like publishers, and publishers are going to have to learn how to service brands like agencies do.”

Federated Media says the solution is a distributed, crowdsourced model for branded content creation. It invites advertisers to tap the talents of “the world’s largest creative department,” the 30 million some-odd bloggers affiliated with FM, from the vast army of small WordPress publishers to large-reach sites such as Boing Boing or Notcot.


(Source: Tom Ryabo, featured on Intel’s My Life Scoop.)

Three years ago, David Veneski, Intel’s director of US media, took FM up on the offer for a program called My Life Scoop. While the site features periodic updates on products like Intel-powered Ultrabooks, the bulk of the content is created by a broad array of independent content producers who speak the native language of Intel’s customers — those young, affluent people who seek out cutting-edge tech gadgets to enhance their lives. The imagery that accompanies the site’s content is not highly produced. Instead the emphasis is on fit, tone and relevance — photos and videos collected, curated and presented to My Life Scoop readers at a fraction of the cost associated with a professional shoots. The content is on-message (‘Sponsors of Tomorrow’ and ‘Ultrabook’), it’s frequently refreshed and it’s inviting social amplification. Nearly 50,000 Twitterers are following the My Life Scoop feed, and 100,000 Facebook members have Liked it.

“It’s important to us that we provide an authentic and compelling brand story for our target audience,” says Veneski. “We find that visuals and imagery, both photos and video, alongside written content, offers a way of telling a story that is more interesting to the people we want to reach.”


(Source: GE’s Tumblr.)

General Electric has taken an even more stripped-down approach. On Tumblr they’ve created (with help from the Barbarian Group) a corporate site that is nothing but photos. You’ll only find text only where it’s used to caption or hashtag a photo. What’s initially surprising is that airplane engines, smart LED bulb testing facilities, and gardens decked out with PulseArc Multi-Vapor metal halide lamps are quite photogenic, especially when they’ve been dolled up with an Instagram filter. Without set designers, models or professional photographers, GE is telling its story with frequent, low-cost iPhone pictures. More importantly, GE fans are spreading this story to their networks, with comments and hashtags included.

And the ‘interactivity’ isn’t just something that occurs after the brand unleashes the content — GE uses Twitter to invite its social-media followers to pick the locations of future photos.


(Source: GE’s Twitter Account.)

Without breaking the bank or getting reckless with its brand, GE found a path to social-media relevance. The brand is leaning into the consumer acceptance of spontaneous, inexpensive photo storytelling, which isn’t just reducing production costs either. It’s giving GE a stream of highly sharable content nuggets to satisfy the short-attention-span types and the sharers.

In other words, they’re speaking our language — the one in which every missive is worth a thousand words.

(This article first appeared on iMediaConnection under the title Why Visual Storytelling is the Future of Digital.)

A Picture Is Worth More Than 140 Characters?

The latest data from Comscore shows that Instagram now has more daily users in the US than Twitter. More at the Business Insider.

GE Continues Its Native Advertising Offensive

GE was an early brand to tell its story through an Instagram profile — with retro-filtered photos of airplane engines, locomotives, radiopharmaceuticals and cool pics from the labs at which it tests the quality of light emitting from concept light bulbs. It posted the images to a Tumblr and the comments suggest they struck a chord. Boring old GE had a social-media hit with the hipsters.

And even before Instagram, GE curated a channel of healthy-lifestyle stories (mostly stories written by publishers with no connection to GE) on Digg, following the healthy-living influencers among the Digg community and building a following of its own.

So it’s hardly a surprise that they’re at it again. Building on the popularity of nostalgia on BuzzFeed, GE is sponsoring “The BuzzFeed Time Machine” — lists that might have made the rounds had Buzzfeed been online in the days before the Internet. In an interview with Ad Age, BuzzFeed president Jon Sterinberg says:

BuzzFeed is focused on nostalgia because it’s one of the most popular types of content that people love to share. It’s some of the most shareable stuff because you send to your friends stuff that reminds you of being together in the nineties.”

Smart: Find out why your customers love BuzzFeed and give them more of the same, this time wrapped in your brand. And not only is GE underwriting the creation of BuzzFeed-y content — lists of retro silliness that you can’t help pushing to your high school friends via Facebook — the brand is dusting off its retro print ads to use as creative.

I’m not currently on the market for a dishwasher, but if I were I’d almost certainly consider the Potscrubber II. Keep it up, GE.

The New Currency of Visual Storytelling


(Photo credit: Betharie)

“Visual storytelling is in renaissance — but with a twist. Photography, rather than video, is fast becoming the lingua franca of a more global, mobile and social society…. Businesses that bank on visual storytelling with images will win,” says Steve Rubel in his recent column for Ad Age.

When you observe consumers using mobile devices, social networks or the web, you see a strong preference for photos over other media formats. Facebookers upload 300 million photos a day, and Harvard Business School study concludes that 70% of all activity inside social networks involves a photo. iPhone users can choose from over 10,000 photo-related apps in Apple’s App Store. All told there are more than 3 trillion images online. Rubel attributes the popularity of photos to three factors: images are global (they transcend language and cultural divides), they’re distributable (small files are easy to share across digital pipes, even skinny pipes), and they’re digestible (full of content that humans can process more quickly than text or video).

Meanwhile big marketers, who credit moving pictures (not still ones) with building their brands, show a different preference — a desire that digital, social and mobile media platforms create space for TV-like ads. They seek out inventory into which they can insert those very same (if slightly reformatted) television spots, and when that runs out they create animated banners they hope will deliver similar results.

Results are bound to be disappointing, however, when consumers gravitate to one type of content (photos) and advertisers try to foist another type (animated banners) upon them. A recent study by some folks at Moat, Accordant Media and the Advertising Research Foundation provides one startling data point. In their experiment, blank rectangles — IAB units with white space in them — performed twice as well as the industry average for animated banners created by brands and their agencies. In other words, the absence of advertising is working better than the average online ad.

Taking Rubel’s advice — telling your brand’s story through pictures — can hardly be worse than what you’re doing today. With a little practice, maybe you can outperform empty rectangles!

Instagram Enables Those Darn Amateurs to Muck Up Another Cozy Guild of Paid Professionals

A lot of people are celebrating the 2nd anniversary of Instagram’s first posted photo by bashing the service.

As Matthew Ingram points out at GigaOM, this kind of criticism has become a predictable rant: members of a professional community are never pleased when the amateurs get a chance to compete.

“This isn’t really that surprising: it’s the same kind of criticism that has been made about blogging, citizen journalism and Twitter, among other things — and in each case the critics have been somewhat right, but mostly wrong…. Running through many of these criticisms is a kind of anti-amateur argument: real photography should be left to professional photographers, real journalism should be left to professional journalists, and so on.”

Traditional publishers in the 1920s expressed similar distain for an upstart weekly magazine that summarized news for the on-the-go professional: Henry Luce’s Time Magazine.

No doubt it’s a bummer when an amateur fill-in-the-blank gains access to professional tools and produces — for free, just because he or she cares — good content that competes with stuff that erstwhile could only be created by a paid professional. (I know, these amateurs produce crap too; and so do the pros — turn on you TV and click upward from Channel 2 to 200 and see if it’s all ready for prime time.)

In the case of media, there are two kinds of tools that were once too expensive for the average Joe: the tools of production (a printing press, an Arri video camera, an Avid editing suite, etc) and the tools for distribution (delivery trucks, some rented spectrum on a broadcast satellite, an expensive pay-to-play deal with a cable operator, etc). New digital technologies have broken down many of these barriers to entry. You can shoot HD videos on your iPhone, publish your magazine on WordPress, your photo-journal on Tumblr or Instagram, and the work once done by delivery trucks has been supplanted by search engines and social sharing.

Most of the time greater competition creates higher quality stuff at lower costs. Sure, it stinks for the railroad baron to watch Henry Ford mass-producing cars or for the big record labels to acknowledge the rise of digital music. You end up with two choices. Mock, threaten and sue the new competition; or embrace innovation. History (and Clay Christensen) is pretty clear on which is the wiser choice.

And come on, people, look at the numbers. There are a lot more eyeballs looking at the 300 million “amateur” photos that are uploaded to Facebook everyday than will look at Vanity Fair’s photos in a month. The photos and videos that gave us access to the Arab Spring weren’t taken by photogs from CNN or NY Times. And if neat iPhone apps make pictures more appealing to your audience, then stop calling them cheap amateur cheats and start using them (like Sports Illustrated is doing). It’s time to change the question from “was this picture taken by paid, professional photographer?” to “does this picture deserve my attention?”

(This post first appeared on Ad Age under the headline Don’t Hate Instagram Because It’s Disrupting Another Profession.)

Tell Your Brand’s Story in Pictures

From Edelman Digital:

Do you remember your favorite book as a child? I was always drawn to picture books, because they allowed me to see an image and then construct a story from the photos on the page. Fast forward twenty-some years and I’m still drawn to “photo stories.” While I don’t flip through picture books like I did when I was younger, I’m constantly reading and viewing other people’s “story” within the social space.

The article argues that brands need Instagram accounts, partly because the photo-sharing service reaches 30 million members, and partly because it has trained those members to engage with image content (575 likes and 81 comments per second). There’s also something more authentic about a photo, say the folks at Edelman: “sharing photos on Instagram doesn’t ‘feel like an advertisement.’”

(Thanks for sharing, David Veneski!)

What’s Next After Taking and Sharing Photos?

In his recent article about Facebook, Instagram and the future of photos, Ad Age’s David Teicher remarks that “there’s more to photo innovation than filters.” Now that we’re taking all these pictures on our phones and sharing them across our social networks, what’s next? Adding functionality that will turn each photo into rich consumer experience, he says.

David interviewed me for the article, and asked me why images aren’t more interactive already:

Luminate CRO, Chas Edwards, notes a few obstacles to making this vision a reality. First is the work that goes into it. Right now, these services either rely on people-powered tagging, image recognition, or both, but the ability to scale this functionality — to make it easy for people to accurately tag the products or outfits in photos, were they so inclined, is not an easy endeavor. Secondly, there’s a reason people tag other people — they get paid, not in money, but in social currency, through ‘likes’ and ‘shares.’

Facebook is the leader when it comes to paying us in social currency for tagging images: There’s no better way to increase your “Like” counts than tagging others in the picture. But there isn’t a similar reward for tagging things in the image other than your friends, and Facebook’s brand tagging product hasn’t experienced popularity anywhere near that of friend tagging.

A few new startups (such as ThingLink) are hoping publishers will start tagging products and brands inside their own images. It’s still early days, but my hunch is that publishers don’t have the spare cycles necessary to add image-tagging to their queues, especially when you consider the enormous (and growing) volume of images posted each day by large publishers. Our bet here at Luminate is that publishers want (need?) to give their readers a richer image experience, but that we need to help them with the tagging. Image recognition gets us part of the way. Human assistance — communities of people working on top of crowdsourcing platforms — gets us the rest of way. Once we know who, what and where we’re looking at, we can deliver image apps that make a photo more delightful for almost anyone.