Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Engineering cameras

There is a preview of the new medium format system, Hy6, over at Luminous Landscape today, and Colin Jago had a response, too. I'm sure you've all seen them already. Here's my take.

I agree with Michael Reichmann, development of competition like this was fair inevitable and is certainly welcome. However, it seems to me there is a fundamental problem with the way such products are being developed that doesn't fit with modern business reality.

With film cameras, the image record was done in the same way for all cameras. Once you'd established a product that did the basics of framing, focus and shutter release there was a platform for developing smarter ways to achieve these things. Over time various controls developed to assist with metering, multiple frames, auto this & that. All very evolutionary but still fixed to the basics of getting light to the film.

In the digital age, things are somewhat different both for the product and the customer. Getting to the final image capture takes rather more steps than just getting light to the sensor. Electronic controls coupled with electronic recording lead to a whole host of extra features and data required. Customers are also demanding more of their equipment, in the knowledge of what is possible. Developments throughout the camera world are moving fast, which helps fuel users' demands.

With all of that in mind, it is no longer sufficient to design a camera along the lines of "get the light to the sensor, then let's figure out what else to do". A new platform or system ,such as the Hy6, needs a whole lot more in its basic design just to get to the "barely acceptable", let alone excel. Top image quality isn't going to cut it if the rest of the package is difficult to use, software isn't in place to support it, productivity features aren't included.

To make all of this happen, far more effort needs to be spent on the specification, across a much wider range of features. It is now the lens, body, sensor, storage, power, software, controls as a whole that need thinking about. it seems to me far too many of these items have been missed in the Hy6 development - as highlighted by Michael Reichmann. While I believe the system deserves to succeed, and will help bring high-end costs down, I think there is a real danger that this horse will fall at the first for lack of basic jumping ability. It takes a very strong company to be able to carry marginal commercial performance through to a second iteration and beyond.

Taking advantage of digital

There have been quite a number of online discussions on the differences between film & digital cameras and, indeed, the similarities. Most commentators who use DSLRs bemoan the lack of original thinking in layout or function. They seem to be just film cameras with a sensor. I'd tend to agree.

Reading the recent review of the Olympus E-510 at dpreview, I realised that there is another mode that would be really useful: focus brackets, especially if used with exposure brackets. Here's how it would work:
1. preset the focus points manually with a "record" button (i.e. focus, record point, do next)
2. switch to shooting mode
3. Fire off the bracket. may 3 or 5 brackets.

This means you can stick to optimal aperture (around f/8) and still get large DoF. Even better would be in-camera blending.

Combine with exposure brackets for an automatic 9-shot sequence. Use a timer remote release, as I do, and you can leave the set-up to it's own devices. gives possibility of HDR/super-resolution combined with large DoF.

With a little imagination, there's a whole bunch of useful new ways to incorporate technology into cameras, and I'm not talking face recognition.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Photographing the photographers

The wedding photographer, Seville , November 2006

Doug Stockdale has posted on a couple of images (here and here) from his recent trip to Shanghai. This reminded me of a photographs I took in Seville last year (one shown here) of a wedding photography party. For me, however, the subject was really the photographer. I was interested in his work method which seemed rather amateur - limited thinking of lighting or camera angle, very static & stiff poses. The group also had a videographer and a couple of hangers-on. By the end, the bride was looking quite bored of the whole thing.

This is one image in what seems to be a growing series for me - photographers in the act of capturing their subject, especially photographing other people. I'm always interested to see how other work with a camera in their hands and how & why they are taking photographs.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Something missing

Moose, Yellowstone, August 1996

In all the discussion of where I am and what sort of photographs I take, I realised that there is a big chunk missing, certainly in relation to what I used to do. That thing is wildlife. I used to take a lot o wildlife shots and went places that were suited to photographing the natives, so to speak.

These days I do less and I'm not entirely sure why. I think part of it is (or has been) equipment. With the cheap SLR gear I started with, while I was getting shots they were less than stellar. There is then the issue of getting close enough - that either requires world-class stalking skills or really long lenses in most cases.

As I have more cash these days, I can afford decent equipment, so that's not an issue. I think I should get to doing more. I really enjoy wildlife photography, there is something of the caveman-hunter instinct about it. I also like to try and nail good shots first time out, just like a hunter would. Motor-drive might give a higher number of hits but misses the point, somehow.

I won't really be discussing wildlife photography much in the rest of this mini-series of posts but I shall definitely be giving thought as to how I can get to do more.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Large format and small output

The picture I posted yesterday was from a scan of a 4x5" transparency. In rendering it for the web several things have happened: it appears darker, it appears softer (less sharp) and it appears lacking in detail. I did put effort into trying to avoid these things when shrinking it.

Therein lies the danger of comparing formats - each is suited to a different form & size of output, making comparisons difficult. The original of that image has a lot of fine detail (the whole point of it) and looks great in large size (I originally scanned to 55cm wide for a 60cm print). It has a full range of tonality with nice separation across the frame. There is no way I can really get this across on the web.

In the other direction, digital output seems to work really well on the web, especially from smaller formats. Trouble is, try and print any bigger than 12" from a single frame and all the advantages disappear -detail is lost and pictures start to look over sharpened unless one takes a great amount of care. I'm preferring my DSLR output printed to 8-10" to really capture the detail. Not too dissimilar to how I'd print 35mm film.

Seeing these differences, I think the larger formats are far from dead.

Sunday, 18 November 2007


Badlands undergrowth, Alberta, August 2007

Not exactly your classic photography topic but bear with me.

I had to buy a bunch of lightbulbs. My apartment goes through them at a ridiculous rate (about 1 a week). Dodgy electrics, I reckon. Anyway, I decided to buy a bunch of those low energy, save the planet types. Not that I'm into their environmental effect - if that's the best you can do either you are super low energy or you're not trying hard enough. I digress.

No, I bought them in the hope that they will last many times longer than regular bulbs. while I was at it, I bought some of the "daylight" variety to try. I've now got one above my desk as I type. What a difference. More light and the colour from the monitor is subtly more neutral from very slightly warm. I'd never have figured the incident light could have so much effect on the screen colour. Into the bargain, this new bulb seems to give off more light, even with the same effective light rating.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Truth and accuracy

Autumn 1 (into the woods) - alternate, Salzburg, November 2007

The recent posts at the Lanscapist on the subject (from here forward) have prompted me to write a bit more of my thoughts on the subject.

Photography has a great strength in that it can record directly what is actually there. This may then be interpreted, altered etc into some other form. This leads, in my opinion, to two ways in which photography may be used in this context (there are others, but I'm sticking to the truth and accuracy theme here).

The first is a precise rendition of what is in front of the camera, such that one could hold a print next to the subject and see no difference. The second is the artistic truth, whilst not precise in the sense I define as accurate it is clearly a depiction of what was there, often reflecting the photographers feelings at the time.

As examples: product photography (the sort that shows up in catalogues) is designed to be accurate, but it doesn't really offer truth - we learn nothing of the product except its appearance. On the other hand, the work of the great landscape photographers (think Ansel Adams) is about truth: the place, the sense & feeling of being there. Not necessarily precisely accurate.

(A digression on accuracy, black and white can never be accurate as the world is in colour.)

There is, of course, a continuum from truth to accuracy. They are also not mutually exclusive ideas.

In my opinion, anyone who is working in the artistic field of photography, especially in landscape work (in all its forms) is seeking to portray truth. A search does not, however, gaurantee a find. One comment to the post linked above mentioned Jeff Wall, who seems to be a hot discussion topic at present. For me, his work tends much more toward the accurate that the truthful. Whilst his work shows meticulousness and precision, I don't get any sense of a deeper truth, especially knowing the methods employed. It just doesn't work for me. You may not agree with me: fine.

The really good photography shows something real and then projects a sense of something more. That "something" may be all sorts of emotions, content, relationships - it is the intangible part that creates some sense of connection between viewer and subject.

Handy hint for new Gitzo tripods

After I reviewed and field tested the Gitzo 3540LS tripod, I came across a minor issue with the new ALR & gravity lock system. Sometimes, when setting up the tripod, the joints don't quite lock in completely. Partly, I think, this is due to the fact that the legs can be locked effectively without screwing down the locks tightly. This is where the gravity lock comes in. The gravity lock system is an internal wedge design that stiffens the joint as weight is applied.

My routine now has me lean on the top plate after erecting just before I mount the camera. This locks the legs in securely (doesn't seem to affect unlocking force required) with much lower vibration. I'd recommend this to anyone using the new leg system.

Where I am: landscape

Grand Teton, Wyoming, August 1996

Part 3 of the self-evaluation of my current position. "Landscape" for is all about the natural world in its static state: not wildlife and not focused on man-made objects (architecture).

The landscape has always been a part of my photography. It forms an important part of my world-view and is high in list of things I love. Again, I've taken a very consistent approach to some subjects over the years, especially the "grand scenic" - wide vistas and the like. The shots are becoming technically better executed but I look back on some of the old stuff and impress myself with the quality of composition, even if i was shooting on ropey film.

I'm expanding my work to look at more intimate scenes: a move towards photograph-as-art and away from photograph-as-document. Increasingly I am fascinated with the shape and form of the natural world and particularly the desire to capture it and show it. This is leading to quite a lot of black and white work. I also feel that there are some consistent themes running through what I now do and a developing sense of personal style.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Developing appreciation

This is something of a sidebar in my Direction series that came about from some recent events.

I got a response to my post on Salzburg:

I really like "the line" (for lack of a better term) in Autumn 4. There is a movement of the eye that makes the photo very pleasing.
Then, reading & responding to Lloyd Chambers' recent post "dichotomy" I said:
I like to look at photos that give me things to discovery & little details.
Finally, I had a conversation with my parents about the photos I'd produced from their 40th wedding anniversary celebrations where they stated that they didn't really like the black and white versions, asking if I could give them a colour version of one in particular.

All of this cam together to get me thinking about what it is I like in photographs, what draws me to images and thus to making certain kinds of images.

They key point to me is, as I replied to Lloyd, all about discovery and depth. I like not just to see the obvious but be led on a "voyage of discovery" that has me coming back to an image to look at it, study it, get lost in discovering the small things. Photos that are obviously about "something" in particular are often too simple and I pass them by.

I am gaining a deeper appreciation of these types of photograph and hopefully it is helping me in my own work.

Increasing interest and preference for complex images - those with extra details, layers etc that encourage lingering study. Appreciation for photographs that go beyond the obvious, rather than simply present a single subject.

I'll get back to the sequential part opf this series in my next post.

Professional software

There is an ongoing debate at Lightzone forums on a post that originally stemmed from my recent review of Lightzone 3.1 about professional software. Unfortunately, the posters are fundamentally missing the point.

Professional software is all about development, quality of product, consistency of user experience. On the other hand, software for professionals is that aimed at professional and advanced users. 2 distinct categories, not necessarily the same thing.

For example, Photoshop CS is both, whereas Photoshop Elements may be professional software but it's not really software for professionals, being aimed at the digicam user.

When I was writing about Lightzone not being professional software (the fact that it feels like a hobby program), I was talking to the former, not the latter.

Colour management: an experiment

In response to my last post, Colin Jago kindly left a comment and useful link about colour management (CM) for the web. As I suspected - sRGB is where it's at for web/non-CM applications & browsers. Gets closer to native display, especially in the reds.

Here, then an experiment: 1 image, 4 colour-ways for the final export.

Adobe RGB - perceptual

Adobe RGB - absolute

sRGB - perceptual

sRGB - absolute

Seems that the sRGB does significantly better (trust me) - especially the perceptual. Oh well, time to stop being so lazy about my blog pics.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Colour strangeness

I said here that I'd toned down the colours for the autumnal shots I've just posted. Well it turns out that in uploading they've been toned down even further. The originals are much more saturated than they appear in the blog. This is odd behaviour as normally the colour rendition is very good when I upload. Must be some sort of gamut effect of the seasonal colours.
If anyone has clues as to what might be happening for these in particular, I'd be delighted to be enlightened.
Technical note: I normally work from an Abobe RGB TIFF, converted to JPEG for upload. Is there a corner of the Adobe RGB in the red/yellow that's significantly different than SRGB?

and finally for Autumn

Autumn 3 (green and gold), Salzburg, November 2007

Autumn 4 (golden branch), Salzburg, November 2007

and some more Autumn

Autumn 5 (forest steps), Salzburg, November 2007

Autumn 1 (into the woods), Salzburg, November 2007

Autumn 2 (russet spread), Salzburg, November 2007

Salzburg: Capturing Autumn

I'm not normally one for gratuitous seasonal shots but the colours when i was in Salzburg were almost unbelievable. I took a whole series of autumnal shots of which a few I'll post here. The colours really were this vivid, I've even toned the saturation down a bit...

Autumn and the mountain, Salzburg, November 2007

Autumn over Salzburg, November 2007

Monday, 12 November 2007

Where I am: places

Wembley Stadium (the old one), London, July 1986

Part 2 of the self-evaluation of my current position. "Places" is really all about buildings, towns, architecture. If it's the natural world, it's really landscape.

Going back through my old prints, I noticed a remarkable similarity in subject matter over the years. There is clearly a forward move in technical quality, largely due to an improvement in equipment. I've been placing more emphasis on selecting good perspectives & consistent approaches are developing in what & how I shoot these subjects. Still it's largely "documentary" - I was here, this is what I saw, which is fine.

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC, September 2001

Most of the photos I take of places, buildings etc are for my own consumption: aides memoire to remind me of where I went and the things I did. I'm not trying to create high-art here. It's interesting to read Paul Butzi's recent post on the subject of travel photography. I tend to share his view: there is no way to get deep into a location if you are just passing. I do think, however, that one can seek out the more unusual and try and capture the wider (hence deeper) impressions that one gathers.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Do not adjust your set

If you get the impression that suddenly the screen isn't as bright as before, I've just tweaked the background colour down a little from pure white. It's not you, it's me.

Alternative views

So I'm finally back from Salzburg. Was quite a tiring trip with a delay on the way home due to a missed connection. For now, I've been starting to work through the pictures.

These days, when I visit a new place, I try and look for new or unusual perspectives. I'm trying to get away from the postcard-style images (although sometimes these are nice) and try and capture my wider impression of a place. I'll be saying more on this later.

For now, here are a few slightly different perspectives on Salzburg.

Forest, castle, mountain; Salzburg, November 2007

Roof terraces, Salzburg, November 2007

Coming down the steps, Salzburg, November 2007

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

A bit more of Salzburg

Festung Hohensalzburg, Salzburg, November 2007

It seems fairly obvious now that I've had my chance to photograph Salzburg. Not a major problem: much of what I expected.

At this event, I'm very much the customer and so the hosts are at pains to make sure I am fully entertained for the week. Fine as it goes but that does mean I end up drinking far too much beer for far too long.

Today's shot is of the castle on the hill. The place we went to eat this evening (hundreds of us) sits just below it (behind the foreground buildings) - good night out and a real piece of history. The beer tastes really fresh for having originated in 1492! I have a close-up of the place but it is on film.

If the photos from these few days don't look so good on the web, please let me know. I'm working with nothing but in-camera jpegs and MS photo editor. I don't have anything more on my new laptop yet (but at least I now can connect to the Internet on the road).

Monday, 5 November 2007

Salzburg day 2

Hole in the Wall, Salzburg Festung, November 2007

If you're looking, there is no day one post.

Had a pretty enjoyable weekend seeing the sites, walking up and down the hills and taking quite a few photos. Despite it being November there are still tourists everywhere: I was hoping to have the place pretty much to myself.

Autumn colours have been quite incredible, I'd have expected to see more leaves off the trees this time of year.

Yesterday was spent photographing the sights (and sites) today much more the people. With a busy conference & social schedule this week, I'm not sure if I'll get in any more with the cameras but we'll have to see.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Where I am: people

Traipsing through snow, Trowbridge, April 1986

This was taken from my bedroom window right after I woke up - a surprise & freakish event. we rarely got snow when I was growing up and it was especially unusual to get it in April.

After sharing my photographic origins, it's time to turn to where I current think I am, photographically. The usual way to think about any sort of journey is to determine where you are, where you're going and thus a route from the former to the latter. Improvement is no different.

I'm going to break this down into posts for individual subject areas: people, places, landscape.

So first to people. Often called "street photography". For most of my early photography the people I photographed were family and friends: mainly events of significance, vacations and the like. Then the "middle period" when I had my first SLR there are virtually no people shots apart from photos of travelling companions while I was travelling. I'm pretty sure I went out of my way to avoid getting people in my photos - this stems from my desire to photography things rather than behaviours.

Now I'm beginning to take quite a number of photos purely aimed at people - I'm especially interested in the way people behave and relate to one another, particularly when it's out in the open.

I've moved into B&W & square format to help focus on the subject. If it's wide, I use a 2:1 aspect ration - 2 squares together. I am a lot less hung up on technical excellence (focus accuracy etc) and more on that "decisive moment".

As I spend a lot more time looking at photography than I ever did, there are 2 photographers who i think will influence me in this area. First Henri Cartier-Bresson for his notion of the "decisive Moment". It may seem trite but I'm finding that photographing people is about a single shutter release and no second chances. the second would be Elliot Erwitt for his amazing vision & visual humour. I was looking through the official Erwitt website this week. He had a knack of spotting amazing juxta-position and then capturing it perfectly.

I'll get more into where I want to go in later post.