Posts Tagged ‘photography’

Unusual Badges of Honor

14 November 2011

Dear J-

One thing I’ll tell you about the few photography blogs I read is that equipment is a fungible asset at best. The first question that they ask is what you took that picture with, and you end up forever branded with that appelation — that (system) guy — or (noted photographer), who takes pictures in (genre) with a (system). That leads to photographic equipment envy and/or the pursuit of something unusual for the sake of being unusual. Konica Hexar. Film snob. Medium format. How many times have you heard a particular camera described as a cult camera, in much the same way that cult classic cinema is discussed?

One of the blogs I used to follow and have since stopped showed off cameras of photographers this guy would meet on th e street, but there was a specific pecking order: only film cameras, unless they were Leicas, in which case anything goes. Part of me wants to get back into the world of medium format for that same reason: credibility and pretension. Look what I have to deal with. The more enlightened out there realize that the camera is just a tool — an interchangeable tool — that let’s you capture a slice of the world around you in your specific vision. If that happens to include the characteristics of the tool you’re using, then it’s a valid tool to use.

Most of us would like to take photgraphs that most accurately reflect the way the world is around us; there are a few who do have the ability to envision the way that art filters would affect the end product, but for me that’s usually some happy accident when that turns out well. I sometimes feel like we’re in a game of one-upsmanship to see who cmes up with the most unusual way to caputre the world around us. I remind myself that I still have a medium format camera, albeit one with poor frame registration (those Koni-Omegas were known for the fragility of their film wind mechanisms) and I keep laughing at the notion of free time I seem fixated on lately.



Keep At It

1 November 2011

Dear J-

This is Halloween: laughter and a group of kids trooping up together to the doors and screaming out trick or treat with huge abandon. Repeat and rinse. All the exclaiming over costumes never got old, nor the proud crowing over some particular treats shared amongst friends. We were out for maybe an hour and a half and I spent the entire time with camera in hand and ended up with something like 500 shots, most of which were unusable because of blur or poor focus (I need to be less afraid of manual focus) but not so much blur. I wonder sometimes if investing in a 35/2 wouldn’t be a bad ideaas that would let me replace the huge, heavy zoom with a relatively light mild telephoto (on 4/3rds) instead.

In the cold light of morning though I wonder and worry about the photographs too much perhaps: did I try to sneak too many shots? Was I guilty of making the pictures too dark? Should I have set my white balance better instead of relying on imperfect memories? Noise and grain? I remind myself that it was more about the kids last night and capturing the spirit of the evening but then the paranoia starts to set in and I wonder if I should have spent more time showing how much the parents might have enjoyed it, or what they might say if they were more honest about the whole thing: maybe you should have … or why didn’t you …

In my mind I keep going over what I could have done and try to incorporate for next year: maybe if I prefocus and catch action at its peak rather than rely on the questionable ability to autofocus in dim light, but then I wonder about what I might be able to do if only I had such-and-such piece of equipment but honestly I don’t think there’s much more. It was honestly all I could do to manage one prime lens all evening: throw a zoom into that and I’d be all over the place with composition. I am glad I left the big lens at home — wouldn’t have been able to use it — and the year of shooting with the prime on the other camera has trained my eye pretty well at prime composition, at least with this focal length. We’ll get it next year, and I’m sure I’ll find something else to improve upon, but that’s why you keep shooting.


Stage Fright

11 April 2011

Dear J-

Yesterday as we headed out the door I took the chance to work with the big telephoto lens, not to shock and awe the subjects into submission but just to make sure I had a chance to exercise those particular creative muscles (it helps that the complete rig is bulky and heavy — I get a bit of a workout at the same time). The truth is that lens has intimidated me for a long time, as getting results from it have been inconsistent at best — for my typical photos with the wide zoom my keeper rate is maybe one in five, whereas with the telephoto that balloons out to maybe one in ten when I’m lucky and one in twenty when I’m not. Thankfully digital film is relatively cheap so we chug along and try to improve upon pray and spray.

Yesterday at Sea World we didn’t really get to see any of the animals as again, our tour was directed by our nearly-four-year-old activities director, who had us on rides early and late, stopping off to see the beluga whales* only grudgingly as a consolation prize after loudly rejecting all shows and alternatives posed to her. So as a result I ended up aiming the camera at people, watfhing the human animals in one of their natural settings. It’s the combination of long lens and people you don’t know that makes you feel like a stalker. If you ran into those people again what would you say? “Here’s a picture I took of you when you were doing something else. You may want to keep it as a memento.”

People pay for this sort of stuff, you know. It’s strange to think that you’d pay for wedding photos — extra if you want an intrusive photojournalist style — and id like to think they’d appreciate the photos at other events. Here you are enjoying cake at someone’s birthday. Here you are hitting a pinata. Here you go. Honestly between cellphones and helicopter parents there’s not a place you can go without having a camera handy so the days when everyone groaned inwardly when grandma hauled out a big SLR and announced that it was time for photos (“do you have to brin that thing everywhere we go?”) are over. It’s just a question of degree now but the photos today I think are less staged and more spontaneous and that’s what we should all be working towards.


* Oh, and also sleeping polar bears and otters. No one can be uncheered with an otter to watch.

Christmas Morning

25 December 2010

Dear J-

theVet is not a big photographer, so instead of a misguided attempt to get her something that I think I’d like (in this category: Contax T, Christmas 1996 and later, a Sony DSC-D770, which was intended to be a learning gift) and passing it off as a thoughtful gift, I’ve gone with cameras I would have given my mom — simple modes, lots of storage, full-automation. Her sister got a Kindle today which strikes me in something of the same vein; while it is a great luxury to be able to buy a book from anywhere in the house and have it delivered in a minute, for those diehard lovers of the feel of dead trees, a Kindle is a bitter pill to swallow until you’ve actually experienced one.

The nature of Christmas is that we take the rushed approach over a more considered, thoughtful process any time we can; the closer we are to someone else, the greater the likelihood of forgiveness and therefore we’re convinced we can get away with murder, gift-wise. Or is that just me? The Kindle is the one major device that doesn’t play well with library books, and for a reader whose stated mission in life is similar to mine — as many free, cheap books as possible — the Kindle’s a great thing for Amazon to sell you books, but there are equal or better devices for sucking down free books.

I’m only picking on the Kindle to make a lame point this Christmas; I do wish you all the best, and that your day is filled with as much happiness as ours was. Permit me the bah humbug moment of saying that gifts that cost money aren’t always the best choice; it’s easily the simplest way to suck down new books, but a library card is cheaper yet and a better deal besides. It’s too easy to conclude that there’s a best technological solution to a perceived problem — I’ve been splitting time, camera-wise, between two lately, one with a fixed normal focal length, the other with a wide-to-normal zoom range. There are definite things that one can do that the other can’t, but perspective-wise, it’s almost a toss-up when I can get mobile enough to walk around and get different angles. It may not be the tool: it may all be in your head.


Skill Set

8 September 2010

Dear J-

It feels like it’s been a solid week since I wrote in the mornings, but of course that’s not true; if you’re supposed to practice one thing and do it well, that means getting used to a routine, or, more succinctly, write every day, write something new, write consistently. I dunno; that strikes me as being counterintuitive: as Gurney Halleck, one of Paul Atriedes’s mentors from Dune would have it, there are some skills you can’t turn off (like fighting) just because you’re not in the mood. I like to think that writing is one of them, but you have to have a topic.

Inspiration is serendipity; skills and tools, on the other hand, need regular sharpening. I suppose that’s what I’m doing with homework out of the book for the exam, whether or not it has anything to do with actual test questions. If you’re supposed to be practicing as part of simulating actual exam conditions, well, I’m going to have to drag the cat along to sit on my feet and pipe in recordings of figgy yelling for us to come into her room and find something she dropped under the bed. Oh, and start the exam at 10PM, when my eyes can hardly stay open, let alone reason out a path to the solution. There’s a lot happening now compared to the last time I was preparing for a test, but some things are oddly familiar — the darkness, the hours spent honing skills.

People say you have to develop an eye for photography, which is nothing more than visualizing a scene before you take it. I suppose the equivalent writing skill is knowing where you’ll be by the end (and for as much as I write, I can’t seem to make that click) and removing everything else that doesn’t contribute to the story. Both may be iterative, creative processes, and both definitely demand feedback, which I’ve been demonstrably remiss in sending; I subscribe to several Leica digests* but haven’t been brave enough to submit any pictures for fear of getting ripped to shreds — there’s one guy on there, Dr. Ted Grant, who’s got a keen eye and a teacher’s heart, tempering praise with liberal amounts of suggestions**. It’s the only way to get better, I suppose.


* You’d think that the Leica digests would be full of insecure dentists both proud that they’ve gotten the jewel-like lenses and bodies and worried that their skills aren’t up to the task. Being a recovering Nikon guy, I used to see them that same way, after all. I’m happy to say that I was wrong, as the Leica folks are full of lively discussion and an un-smug certainty that they’ve got the best equipment in the business; from my limited exposure to the magic glass, I have to agree.

** This is the assertion that practice doesn’t make perfect, but perfect practice does make perfect. Alternatively, think of it in hockey terms: keep your head up and stop admiring your passes.

Burning Can

7 September 2010

Dear J-

One of the best things about having multiple cameras is finding pictures that you’ve squirreled away and forgotten about; with storage so cheap (as Kirk Tuck points out, flash memory is now roughly the cost of film if you decide to treat it as a write-once medium) I’ve developed the annoying habit of hanging on to just about every frame I’ve ever shot sine picking up a camera of my own nearly twenty years ago. Will I ever revisit those days? Likely not, but there must be a film scanner out there that’s got my name and a few spare hours on it somewhere.

I know that there’s still film loaded on some of the old Nikons in the closet; I sometimes debate whether it would be better to fire those off and finish off the rolls or easier to just wind the film back in the can so I can do the instant time travel and see what my life was like in pictures ten years ago.

Right now there’s a can burning a hole in my pocket; I finally managed to crack open one of the disposable cameras we lugged around California (and which is now seeing sterling duty as a figgy toy) and I’m perhaps too excited to see what lies within. Digital has really spoiled us for one hour photo shops; soon is always slower than now, after all.


Bankruptcy Plan

21 July 2010

Dear J-

So let’s pick out the perfect thing tonight — for me I’ll take the easy road out and say the perfect camera.  The perfect camera doesn’t exist.  It’s the next size up, for stability and low-light capability, or it’s the next size down, because you want to be able to take it anywhere.  It’s the one you left at home.  It’s the one whose battery just ran out.  It’s the one you’d use if you just knew how to make it work right, and it’s the one you’re so familiar with you forget about the right settings.  It’s the one with the feature you need, but didn’t get (video, macro, fast sequence shots, what-have-you) in the interests of time or money.

You can spend your time chasing what you haven’t got, of course.  And camera companies are always happy to part you with your money when you decide that what you have isn’t what you need:  it’s a business model that works for them.  It’s not planned obsolescence, it’s general philosophy:  Canon seem interested in rolling out the latest bells and whistles which makes Nikon fans defensive of that company’s conservative approach to change, but Nikonians gloat just as much when Canon’s initiatives fall flat and early adopters are revealed as late beta testers.  Meanwhile Pentax, Minolta, and Olympus guys are like Rodney Dangerfield:  no respect.

figgy keeps me sane, of course.  In the past month or so she’s somehow become a little girl who talks much more sense than nonsense, stringing together whole sentences and requests, not always politely, but clearly understandable.  I imagine her asking why — as she does ask why a lot (“Why aren’t you wearing any PANTS, daddy?”) — why I would need camera X, for instance.  It helps counteract the deafening voices on forums and review sites insisting that you need this feature or that capability; verbalize it and try to make it make sense (“Well, because when you peep through this little eyepiece, the picture is bigger”) to a three-year-old.  Whole companies could collapse overnight.


Sequential Color

17 June 2010

Dear J-

I was reading about a device called a Harris Shutter from the book More Joy of Photography (it was a Valentine’s Day present from theVet in 1998; the photography bug bites hard) — basically, it’s a thin box mounted to the front of your lens. There’s a hole on both sides to let the lens see all the way through it, and you drop a strip of cardboard past the lens — the box forms a guide track for the strip. That strip has three gelatin filters mounted on it. Set the camera in “B”ulb mode (meaning the shutter is open as long as the release is pressed), mount it on a tripod, and once the shutter is released, drop the strip through the box, and let go once the strip has finished its travel.

The point is to use different colored yet complimentary gels — like red, green, and blue — so that any objects standing still during the exposure time are rendered sharp and without color artifacts, while the moving objects get colored blurs instead. If you’re familiar with sequential color (like DLP projectors and sets), then the “rainbow” effect — color tearing — is what you’re after. If you want to make one, there it is — creative technique #71 from the good minds at Kodak (and by the way, anyone who has a passing interest in photography owes it to themselves to pick up any Kodak book: they’re inspirational and educational).

It is of course an unnatural way of seeing the world — but we rely on tricking our vision every day (movies are a series of still frames, with our mind filling in the gaps) and so we can use sequential color techniques, letting our eyes integrate them into a full-color scene; the Harris Shutter is a particularly clever way of deconstructing the mysteries of our perceptions. We aren’t aware of the assumptions we make — visual trickery or reactions to our world — until we are forced to challenge them, and that’s why the Harris Shutter is so fascinating to me: it’s deceptively simple and wonderfully effective.


Photo Lounge

10 January 2010

Dear J-

I’m starting to really like f/6.3 on the 11-22 wide angle lens I have, but it contradicts one of my most cherished beliefs, which can be summed up in short by saying that there are precisely one-point-four reasons to own a Summilux*. You buy fast lenses because they’re fast and when you end up using them wide open you get all the hallmarks: shallow depth of field, peripheral abberations, uncorrected coma. It’s as though the entire world has leapt off a Martha Stewart Living layout.

Certain subjects it’s suited for: sometimes portraits, sometimes product photography; it’s one trick to be used as needed to pull something off a background and make it pop, but it’s a shallow trick, pun intended. There’s a certain boring sameness to seeing the same razor focus: yes, if the rest of the picture dissolves into a lovely blur you’ve made your point but it’s a little like shooting with a telephoto lens all the time. Our eyes and minds don’t usually narrow in on a little slice of vision all the time; it’s almost a cheap trick to overcome poor composition.

It’s not just that at f/6.3 the lens really sings; it’s also about seeing the whole picture in focus, not just some artificially separated piece. It’s a truer match to what I see, and it makes for a more disciplined approach to composing, even if I may seem to spray the shutter indiscriminately. Paradoxically I find the lack of instant review feedback a plus (I keep the screen turned face-in so that I’m never quite sure how the picture turned out, often until I get home and offload the pictures) in that I take more shots from different angles, not quite trusting the vision in the viewfinder to match my intent.


* The joke being that instead of using the name to signify, say, the number of elements (Nikkor) or construction (Zeiss), Leitz names their lenses after the widest apertures. Noctilux is anything faster than f/1.4, Summilux is f/1.4, Summicron is f/2.0, Elmarit is f/2.8, and Elmar is f/4.0 and slower, with a few exceptions.

National Influence

30 October 2009

Dear J-

I believe in photographic influences; my eye is informed by those National Geographic photographers working in the 1970s, shooting Kodachrome on Nikon F2s.  Something about the colors — muted yet oddly vivid in different ways — which may be a result of the printing process, in fact, makes me think that the world was softer when I was growing up.  Going back now has, for me, nearly the same effect as going back through old albums:  instead of Uncle Fred, though, there’s that article on Papua New Guinea, for instance.

One thing that strikes you immediately is how gritty everything looks, part of pushing exposures and high-speed film; it’s not that the world was that much dustier thirty years ago, more that the norm today is hyper-clean high-ISO pictures.  We complain if the camera’s noise performance is anything less than perfect at ISO 800, never mind that it used to be an exotic film speed only fifteen years ago (I still remember when Fujifilm came out with an 800 print film that didn’t look like crap).

Another part the way that those old Nikkors drew.  It may be why my eye picks out lenses of a certain vintage when I’m going back through pictures I took on film.  I picked up a book the other day, written at the height of film, saying that the F/2.8 lenses of yesteryear were amazingly fast, allowing for handheld shots on ISO 400 film in any light.  Modern lenses are spectacular, for the most part, allowing flexibility with a wider range of useable stops and focal lengths, but perfect is rarely charming.  I know that everything can be added in post-processing (grain, lens defects), but it still doesn’t match what I remember.