I noticed the other day that in the darkest corners of my hard drive are some Flash files dating back to 1999. That I've been dabbling with Flash for ten years was a surprise, but these were Precambrian era fumblings and very primitive life forms indeed. As the second Christian Millennium stumbled onwards, every so often I'd come down from my tree and have another go - I remember being quite interested by generating content on the fly from PHP - but working with Flash never ignited my interest, and I fully shared the distaste that many people have for it.
Certainly one thing I always had against it, apart from its use for ads and crappy music, was that I do have this innate bolshiness about photographers having to use Macs, switch to Canon, or have Flash sites. You can have great-looking sites, and have protection against image misuse, without ever going Flash. Was true, is true.
A more substantial objection was to using Flash for a photographic site with lots of text. You see so many Flash sites that remain slick and impressive, but which are clearly out of date and display exactly the same pictures as the day the site's designer had billed his work. No real thought ever seemed to go into the day - a lot sooner than you'd think - when the photographer would have new work to go online or wanted to update the text. Even once it became possible for Flash to load images on the fly, Ben the “I'm a Mac” designer (or the long-gone assistant) would be really into graphics and animation, but have little clue about databases and coding. There always seemed to be built in contradictions between a site's appearance and its need to evolve. Eventually the photographer would need to find a new de$igner and start the time-consuming and costly site building process all over again. Karl Marx, and the Marx Brothers, would be laughing in their graves.
I'm not sure when my attitude to Flash changed. And it still hasn't changed 100% - part of the reason why I've been in no hurry to reveal or work on my Flash site. It's been a steady tipping of the balance. While Flash never lit any lasting flames of imagination, I kept rubbing those sticks together, playing with ActionScript 2, linking movies to databases and XML. Eventually I wasn't learning from scratch each time, so I decided I'd learn ActionScript 3. And once that made sense, I decided to learn Lua for Lightroom. Clearly some people are happier always pushing rocks up mountains.
One motive for my changing was my slowly-growing reliance on Lightroom for DAM rather than Expression Media. For a few years, I'd powered my web site from a self-written database which I updated from Expression Media using some VB and SQL scripts. Adapting that process for Lightroom wouldn't have been hard - in fact it seemed too boring.
Also in Flash's favour was my lack of enthusiasm for the fancy things you can now do with HTML and CSS. I've always liked CSS, but tricks with list items and floating div tags… been there, done that, and they just leave me cold. What's more, I am an optimist but am also certain that sooner or later such things will fail, somewhere. Unless you're lucky, your fancy HTML + CSS + JS will look ever-so-slightly wrong in Internet Explorer 8, or it'll crash Firefox 3 on the Mac. Give me PHP or Flash which if it fails, does so everywhere.
Each time I thought about it, the idea of making a Flash movie for just the pictures wasn't exciting enough. I wanted to be more ambitious and include all the site's content, which meant figuring out how to make Flash load external HTML and XML files, and style the text with external CSS files. As time wore on, I also wanted a wet floor effect too, drag and drop palettes…. And all without being too flashy.
These were my objectives (or post facto rationalisations):
- Must not look like Lightroom - a cliche nowadays - but it must integrate well with it
- It can't be white - too Mac - but I also wanted a change from my grey Peter Saville c1980 default
- Images would be displayed by SlideShowPro with ThumbGrid
- Colour managed Flash in any browser with Flash Player 10
- All ActionScript 3 - though 3's awkward in many ways, I couldn't see the point writing something new in 2 (applies to Lightroom galleries too)
- Use Flash to do fancy stuff that's hard or impossible in HTML - drag and drop, transparency, cross fades, wet floor effects
- Managed images and galleries/albums via an online database - SlideShowPro Director - which could power both Flash and HTML sites
- Generate menus dynamically - uses PHP to write XML and get galleries/albums from SSP Director
- Allow “deep-linking” directly to content - this is done using SWFAddress and ActionScript
- I wanted a gradient-filled background but which would fill the whole browser window, whatever its size, which meant it needed more ActionScript
- External Flash movies - even video - loaded when required
- Text content to be supplied by external HTML (supported tags) and styled with CSS, also stored outside Flash
- Existing blog to be displayed in Flash….
OK, now the Twitter-style punchline. As if the excitement of Windows 7 and Lightroom 3 Beta wasn't enough, today I release my Flash site, beta.