November 01, 2010 — Have you ever wondered what those square 2D (two dimensional) boxes containing black-and-white blocks are doing on food containers, advertisements, posters and even some business cards? I’ll bet most of you are like me—you’ve seen them and just sort of ignored them. But as they’ve become more ubiquitous you’ve probably started to wonder if they might be relevant to you as a consumer and as a photographer.
That’s certainly what happened with me.
Barcodes and other means of encoding information in a machine-reading format have been with us for many decades. The best known of course is the UPC barcode, which you’ll find on virtually every product sold in stores. The UPC code first appeared in 1974, two decades after the idea had been patented. The UPC code is extremely simple because it is only a 1D code (one dimensional) that can only contain a limited number of characters.
The square code you’re seeing more and more often is called a QR (Quick Response) code that was first developed in Japan by Denso Wave, a Toyota subsidiary, in the 1990s. It allows up to 4296 characters to be included depending on the size of the code. It can also encode small images and non-Roman characters.
Most code systems require specialized readers to decode, however, cell phone cameras using scanner programs can decipher QR code. Many of these scanning programs are free. Even better, there are numerous Web sites where one can create QR codes for free. The QR code system is in the public domain so anyone can use it.
Although the QR code is very popular in Japan, it hasn’t yet caught on in the United States. So if you use a QR code you might appear a bit geeky right now, but at least it would be a talking point. That’s why when I made some special business cards for myself, before embarking on a two-week trip to Europe, I decided to include a QR code on my card. At first I just uploaded all my details on my card to www.qurify.com and it created a code, which I then downloaded as a JPEG file. I had previously downloaded QR Reader for my iPhone and it immediately scanned the code on my computer screen and perfectly replicated the text.
However, when I printed it out on a laser printer, the square was too small and my iPhone had trouble scanning it consistently. Then I did some research and found out that the square needed to be at least 2 cm square, and the information should contain no more than 60 characters at that size. I then changed the content and created a simpler code. This worked fine on the business cards I created. The encoded text I ended up using is a simple URL to a page on my Web site containing contact info and a link to my home page.
Wedding and portrait photographers can probably think of many ways in which QR codes could be used to improve customer service and get new business. A code could be placed on flyers or advertisements that would immediately take a visitor to a special page on your Web site. It would be very easy to track responses from specific campaigns because the code could be changed each time.
QR codes could be placed on cards at a wedding reception that would direct the guests straight to a page with photographs from the event. You could encode a link to Google maps so that a customer could scan the code and your studio would immediately show up on their map.
Heck, you could even print a QR code on a T-shirt and let people scan it from their phone when they see you. I’d imagine that if you took a photograph of someone wearing a QR code you could probably scan it from the photo if it was a clear shot and positioned fairly square.
If you do a Google search for QR code creators you will find there are several Web sites that let you create an easy QR code that you could then copy and paste into artwork.
There are also numerous QR code readers for most cell phone cameras. Some companies charge a modest fee for a reader, while others are available free of charge. I actually downloaded three different QR readers from iTunes for my iPhone 4. They all worked in slightly different ways, but they were all able to read the code on my business card. If the QR code starts to become as popular as it is in Japan, I would not be surprised if Apple included a QR reader as standard in future versions of the iOS software.
Obviously, a code like this does not replace other printed information, but it does allow for a relatively seamless way to get a person to visit your Web site, or be given special offers when they are away from their main computer.
DIY business cards
A couple of issues ago I discussed the easy way in which one could get high quality business cards made on the Moo.com Web site. These cards let you place many different images on one side along with the same printed information on the other. The Web site makes it extremely easy to create a high-quality card without you having to prepare the artwork. It is also possible to create the text and upload it as a JPEG or PDF file. That would be the only way of including a QR code.
However, if you wanted to use a separate QR code for different uses, you would have to print different runs of cards or place the code on the photograph, which would spoil the look of the front of the card.
If you only need a handful of custom business cards it is easy enough to print them yourself on an inkjet printer. That’s what I elected to do because I knew I wouldn’t need more than a couple of dozen cards for the trip I was planning.
You’ve probably seen those “home-made” business cards with serrated edges that look so tacky. But not any more, because Avery (www.avery.com) now produces blank business cards called Clean Edge that have such cleanly cut edges.
You download a template from the Avery Web site and then use Photoshop, Word or other programs for laying out the graphics. Don’t fear, Photoshop is perfectly good for simple text layouts—in fact it’s far easier than Word. I experimented with a variety of fonts and layouts before committing to printing actual cards. The ability to experiment and see actual cards is the beauty of making your own.
Although I produced single-sided cards with text and a light-colored background Avery does make two-sided card stock that would let you put a photograph on one side and the text and QR code on the other.
Incidentally, if you only have solid black lettering you could use a laser printer, but I had gray lettering on my card and that looks horrible on a laser output because it has to be made from dots of black ink, whereas a good inkjet printer dithers the output for a smoother finish.
Speaking of business cards, don’t you hate it when you have to type in a person or company’s details into your address book? If you use Mail on a Mac it makes a good attempt at copying relevant data from an email.
However, there is a very efficient way of letting your clients get the pertinent information in one click. It’s called a vCard. There are several online resources that can be used to create a vCard. If you’re on a Mac, the Address Book program can generate a vCard that includes a photograph. If you attach a vCard to the end of an email the recipient only needs to click it once for it to be automatically added to their address book. It certainly makes it more personable if you include a small portrait or logo, as it will also be copied.
You can also upload this file to your Web site so that when someone clicks on it, the file gets downloaded and entered in the address book. This is what I have done with my QR code. When someone scans it on my business card it automatically goes to the link for my vCard.
Unfortunately, the iPhone and other smartphones do not allow files, such as a vCard vcf file to be downloaded this way. They only allow them to be downloaded when they are attached to an email. However, if they are downloaded from a Web site on a regular computer they would then be added next time the iPhone is synced.
I’m sure readers will be able to think up a myriad of ways to use a QR code in their businesses. Perhaps now’s the time to catch smart smartphone users eyes, as they can scan your own unique QR code.
John Rettie is a photojournalist who resides in Santa Barbara, CA. He has been using a computer for 29 years, and has been on the Internet for 14 years. Now he’s learning how it all works—learn more and find links to resources on his website: www.webinsight.info or contact him directly at email@example.com