Thursday, 20 December 2007

Celebrating tradition

Christmas tree, December 1987

Reading Ctein's post at T.O.P. put me in mind of Christmas at home. It's always a family time where we celebrate with our own set of rituals around decorations, gifts and food. It always starts with the Christmas tree. While decorations are fairly minimal around the house, the tree is a riot of colour. Every single piece of decoration gets used until it disintegrates or breaks. Tree dressing is a family event - one of the first things we do once everyone is home.

Christmas tree, December 2006
Not much changes, except the camera

For me it's a great time of year - the one guaranteed time we are all together in the same place at the same time.

I'm off shortly, so little, if any, posts from now until New Year. Until then, have a Merry Chrsitmas and I'll be back in a couple of weeks.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

A target for the vacation

Avebury church, Wiltshire, January 2007

I liked Paul Butzi's idea about having a photobook-in-a-week event, similar to the NaNoWriMo. I've also been enjoying seeing his recent work centred around his home region and on those lines, Doug Stockdale's Transitional Seam work.

These things, together with some thinking I've been doing about what constitutes "home" to me (I lead a rather peripatetic life) has led me to an idea. I've got the opportunity while I'm home over the festive period to get out on a few days for some photography. I'm also likely to be travelling home a few times over the next few months. This has put me in mind to produce a series that reflects the things that I typically regard as my native spaces: the countryside and towns of Wiltshire. The trick is to present what I find engaging in way that engages others. Expect to see more of this from January.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Photography and connoisseurship

Gruppetto, Burgundy, France, June 2007
The team passing Chateauneuf, of wine producing fame

There has been discussion at T.O.P. and The Landscapist of this article on photography criticism. At the same time, Doug Stockdale and Paul Butzi have been ruminating over pricing photography for sale.

As I went off to buy the Christmas wine today, suddenly I realised that these subjects come together. First a diversion on wine, that will prove a point that I'll make later.

On my cycling trip to France earlier in the year, wine was quite an important part of the journey. We were riding through Burgundy, past the famous vineyards. Wine was on the table every evening. One afternoon we spent at a tasting lunch run by Leflaive. 15 wines over lunch, Villages to Grand Cru.

Of the 5 of us, I would consider 2 serious wine drinkers, 2 as "anything but vinegar" drinkers and myself somewhere in the middle.

The 2 serious wine drinkers could happily tell the difference between different vineyards & distinguish characteristics of a Grand versus premier Cru. Preference was then a matter of taste. Personally, I couldn't really tell a Grand from a Premier but saw some differences in the different sources. There were definitely wines I preferred. We are talking subtle differences in very fine wines. The last 2 could tell this was all good stuff but were quite happy drinking anything.

Outside of our little group there are the masses who are happy to order a "white wine" in a bar, with no thought to grape, source, age etc.

What has this to do with photography - everything. I believe that the problem photographers and fine printers have with the selling part is the difference in connoisseurship between "us" and "them". The vast majority of art (and by extension photography) consumers, I believe, can't really tell the difference between the finest work and mini-lab snaps. Just like the majority can't tell the difference between wine from a box and the finest vintage.

The photography community is busy trying to sell top end product to an audience that can't tell the difference except for the price tag. Therein lies a problem. How one solves it, I do not know. I think maybe painters get further because more people understand the differences. Museums & galleries are full of it and there are plenty of educational programmes (including school) that generate appreciation by distinction.

Maybe less effort needs to be spent on teaching photography to photographers and more on teaching it to the non-photographers, thus raising the levels of appreciation.

Friday, 14 December 2007

What do I want to achieve?

"This way, that way", France, June 2007

Now I have a clearer picture of what I'm doing and why, it's time to turn my attention to the destination.

Any journey has a start and an intended destination, so I need to articulate my intention. I'm not going to get myself into goal setting. I have enough of that in my daily work; I don't like to get too much into such things in my spare time. Instead, I'm going to think of this more as a direction in which I'd like to go and decide later whether that takes me places I want to go. If so, I'll keep going, otherwise I'll try another tack.

There are may things one might wish to achieve with art and photography but I figure if I'm going to get the most out of what I do, the direction I take has to relate to the fundamental reasons I pick up my camera in the first place.

In my post on why, I had 5 main reasons for doing photography:

1. Enjoyment
2. Personal documentary
3. Artistic expression
4. Capturing people's behaviour
5. Showing my love of nature

The first is self-evident, and ultimately bounds any direction I take: if I'm not enjoying it, I stop and find something I do enjoy. I don't want to turn photography into a chore and for this reason I don't think I could ever become a professional - there are too many non-photography things one needs to do to keep that up.

The second is simple - it's about having a camera wherever I go. I'm still looking at the perfect device for that. I quite liked Paul Butzi's approach to his trip to China. I'm certainly looking into having a decent small camera as I don't always want to lug my 20D around. This sort of travel photography is very much in the "friends and family" category - I'm not trying to create great art.

As to the artistic expression, a lot of this is personal. This is me doing the "art as verb" bit for my own satisfaction. I like to try new things, explore various ways of taking & processing photographs. Many of the results aren't worth much but it is a part of the learning process. It is this effort that enables me to create better work for showing to others and develop a more consistent vision and style. By knowing what I don't like & what doesn't work I can better develop that which does. This is an area that I need to develop, to look at other ways of doing things, ways of looking at things and developing images. One of the first things I shall be doing is attending a photographic workshop early next year - my first. If this proves successful, I may do more of them to help in my photographic development. I am tending to think that there are lots of little things I'm missing to getting really good results but then I may be completely over-estimating my abilities.

This leads nicely to the last point (I'll come back to the people) about showing my love of nature. this really has two sides - getting my work "out there" and having people appreciate it. I'm not really sure at the moment the best way to show my work. I've got the gallery but I'm thinking there are better places to show stuff. I would like to think that in the longer term I can produce work good enough for a proper show or publication - long way to go before that happens.
The second part is about having people appreciate the work. This isn't about me getting praise (although that's nice) but viewers getting something positive from seeing my work. I've got past the point of pleasing family and friends, I would like a wider audience (especially other photographers) to be getting something from it all. If I can properly develop some themes & style then I think these things will come. this blog is a start - there is a small but growing number of regular visitors and that helps give me impetus.

Finally is the people piece. I think I'm developing a sense of what makes good results in this arena. I need to be a bit bolder, I think, in getting closer and carrying my camera to more social occasions if only to practice. Looking over the wider range of shots I've taken, I see some themes developing which might come together in series. This stuff is really about having some fun. it also teaches me to react a little quick and spot scene intuitively which I think is helpful even when working slowly and contemplatively.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

The verb/noun conundrum

Taking water, Canary Wharf, July 2007
Is he a nouner or verber?

While I regard art (particularly the visual arts) as a noun, there are instances when I definitely reflect on it as a verb. There is, in this sense, a difference between the work (as in work of art) and using art to reflect a skill.

Reading the etymology of the word is useful, I think:
c.1225, "skill as a result of learning or practice," from O.Fr. art, from L. artem.
In M.E. usually with sense of "skill in scholarship and learning" (c.1305), especially in the seven sciences, or liberal arts (divided into the trivium -- grammar, logic, rhetoric -- and the quadrivium --arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy). This sense remains in Bachelor of Arts, etc. Meaning "human workmanship" (as opposed to nature) is from 1386.
art. (n.d.). Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved December 09, 2007, from website:
I come across both these senses as an engineer. Despite being in an engineering subject, I have a Bachelor of Arts degree. The former sense presented here (skill) I come across, and use, to denote those things that cannot be done by knowledge alone. We often talk about certain practices being "an art" to reflect the fact that a measure of skill is required. I think the "art as verb" crowd are coming from this direction to art (although maybe not consciously).

It is interesting to read the more modern definitions that comes above the etymological reference, where art is strictly a noun in the sense we are talking here.

Thus the talk of Art as either verb or noun is conjuring up both the modern and ancient definitions in comparison with one another.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

The death of photography?

Seeking Mozart, Salzburg, November 2007
Definitely what was there but certainly not real

So the talk of the town is Newsweek's article asking if photography is dead. Once more into the breech. Lively discussion at T.O.P. and more to come at the Landscapist. As Mark Hobson points out, it is really a discussion about whether "photography as reality" is dead. Here are some of my thoughts on the subject (sometimes repeating things I've said before - at least I'm consistent):

Why is it that photography needs to purely documentary (in that it depicts something that actual happened or exists as it was at the moment)? If we're talking about the medium from an artistic perspective it is just another means to an ends. If you are doing accurate reportage (e..g. journalism) then accuracy is important, but framing and cropping still come into play.

I love it when photographers talk about photography as being "real" and then present black and white images. they are not, and can never be, truly real in my opinion. The world is in colour. Sure they can show the actual objects in form, just not truly as they are/were. Black and white is as much an artistic choice as digital manipulation. Don't pretend it is anything else.

Don't try and pass-off manipulated images as being "as is". That's just fraud. I've no problem with digital (or darkroom) work to deliver a final product as the result of artistic vision. Just don't tell me it's accurate. In this sense "truth" is a wider issue than true representation, from an artistic point of view. Even if I take landscape photos the way in which I present them is my view of what I saw - this may not be yours. Heck, if it was a sunny day and we were both wearing shades we wouldn't have seen the same thing anyway.

One strength that photography has over other artistic media is that it can depict things as they are. It is also able to do so in a very short time. That is just one technical result, though. Doesn't mean that artistic expression with photography need be limited to reality.

Photography can go in 2 non-realism directions. Real form, unreal content: i.e. the picture is truly representational of what was in front of the camera, which just happened to be made-up (think Jeff Wall or Aaron Hobson). The other end is real content, unreal form: it is a picture of something actually there but developed in such a way as to look different than the reality (my view on B&W comes here, as well as soft-focus, colour manipulation etc).

A large part the discussion in the Newsweek article stems from the premise that proliferation is bad for Art. It's not - more art is good, in my opinion, for Art. It might make it harder to make serious money doing it but that's not supposed to be the point. If you want to make money, go take portraits - the time-honoured way for visual artists to support themselves or get an original vision. It is also reminiscent of the arguments put forth in the '50s about painting by numbers. I don't think painting is dead as a result and it might well have brought more people in touch with art than would have done otherwise. If you want to worry about the death of Art consider that one of the World's largest sellers of art is actually Ikea.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Technological regression

Technology marches on, unless you are making cameras.

Today I read the review for Fuji's new pocket camera, the f50fd, at dpreview. I could have singled out any other compact camera from the last few months for this comparison, however.

It seems that every new pocket camera is going backwards due to the drive of marketing over engineering sense. Ever more pixels, ever less image quality. The reviews are all stating that the new, high-count sensors (10MP+) are OK for smaller prints but no good for larger sizes. trouble is, this is exactly the opposite of the marketing intent: more pixels equals bigger prints. Actual image quality is only supporting print sizes that a 4MP camera could do.

Hello out there in camera marketing land. Wake up and see that this mega-pixel race will bite you, for sure. Buyers will keep their cameras longer or buy older, cheaper technology. They will get smarter and demand better quality results.

My advice to friends & family when buying a pocket camera - don't get any more than 6-8MP as image quality is rubbish for larger counts. Even that may be pushing it.

Lightbulbs: the measurement

When I wrote a post about new lightbulbs I've installed, paul asked a question about colour temperature.

The spec on the bulbs I bought (these) is 6500K but the shades they're in are slightly warmer. I guessed in the 5500-6000K range, based on the match I'm seeing with the daylight through the windows.

How wrong I can be. I measured by shooting direct at the lights through an Expodisk. Here are the exposure shots:

Capture One, 4600K, +12 (magenta) tint

Capture One, 4600K, 0 tint (from same file).
Yes, I know the sensor needs cleaning.

As you can see, the new bulbs have a strong green cast. These were long exposure (0.25") so flicker is not an issue. This is surprising given the very cool, neutral white colour that they appear to give off.

These are compact fluorescent lamps, which may have some bearing. however, as it happens, I did a similar test with incandescent in the same lamp shades yielding quite a green cast too. Odd, and not obvious to the eye.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Jeff Wall reviewed

Reclining, Salzburg, November 2007

The Daily Telegraph has an interview with Jeff Wall & slide show linked to a current exhibition of his work in London.

The interesting thing that I find from what he has to say is that he is not about content/meaning in his work but much more focused on form & execution. And yet he is lauded all around the art world.

I'm interested in this apparent contradiction: convention has it that Art is all about content and meaning. The great photographs will be remembered by that standard, not the execution. Even the humble snapshot is more valuable in posterity for its content & evocation of memory than its technical execution. And yet here is a photographer disowning that in his own work.

Hubris or humility? You be the judge.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

A few link changes

I've just updated my links on the right. Main addition is that of Dave Beckerman's blog, picked up via Paul Butzi & Colin Jago. It's a really excellent site, focused on black and white photography but with lots of good writing.

I'm now getting to the point where I might have to start restricting the number of blogs I read regularly - it can be hard to keep up.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Lightzone 3.2: a brief look

After my review of Lightzone 3.1, I spent some time looking at the latest update, 3.2. Main reason for re-evaluating was the tidy discount for November. Plus a weak dollar means that upgrading was pretty cheap for me. Question was: was it worth upgrading, even at low cost?

I was really looking to test 2 related aspects memory management and speed. There are no documented new features and there wasn't any specific release mention of enhancements but I know that these things are constantly tweaked.

My major gripe with the memory management is that Lightzone loads a whole bunch of stuff into memory, eats its full allocation then slows to a grind. It doesn't use Windows virtual memory so is severely limited in available memory (I've cranked it to use the max memory which means about 890MB real and 870MB virtual in practice). If you've a lot of images (or just a few TIFFs) in the current directory, that gets eaten quickly. Memory is also not released well when changing modes (especially from Edit to Browse).

For Lightzone 3.2 things are better. Reading a folder with 40-50 images gets up to max memory use but edit mode seems to see some memory released. Running through a series of edits on images I was rarely getting full memory allocation and memory was getting released between modes. This certainly speeds things up. When all the allocated memory did get used, screen refreshes were noticeably quicker than before. This is all better - not outstanding but much more usable.

I've also found that large files (~200-300MB scanned MF & LF) get handled better than before. I'm being cautious, though, and editing them one-by-one from a dedicated folder (i.e. only one image in the folder at a time). As less memory seems to be used in general, things tick along nicely. Not super fast but workable.

Overall, then, some noticeable improvements in the right direction. I paid the money & upgraded (just need to get the license key working). I think 3.2 is a worthwhile upgrade, especially as it sits alongside v2.x. I'll still use 2.4 as my main version (.lzn files) and use 3.2 for the shadow recovery capability on under-exposed stuff.

Photographic rules

All the big workshop copy talks about getting away from the "rules" of photography and finding what really makes a good photograph.

For me, right now, I'm working with just 2 rules:

1. get the interesting stuff in the frame
2. crop the edges to remove distractions

Sometimes I do a slight clone to enhance 2.

Working by these rules has enhanced my output significantly. I'm also a bit quicker behind the lens, too.

Why do I photograph?

Mount Lorette, Alberta, September 2007

Having explored where I'm at, I got to thinking about the whole notion of "why?". I felt it was important to consider answers to this question to be able to properly formulate where I want to go in the future. There is no one answer to this question, instead it is a collection of factors that come together in different ways depending on mood, location, subject.

Firstly there is the whole process of photography - carrying camera, capturing scene, producing print. I enjoy this immensely, I find it a pleasurable activity to pick up a camera and turn what I see into photograph which ultimately becomes an image on paper. I think it is a very satisfying thing to be able to bring the world home in this way. Over the past few years I've also been driving towards printing and displaying more of my work at home.

My initial motivation all those years ago was about personal documentary - I like to have a visual record of places I've been and things I've seen as part of the memory process. This part is less about public consumption and more about personal satisfaction. This still continues, especially with respect to new places I visit.

A much bigger part of "why" today is bringing to others my view of the beauty of nature. Right now more focussed on the shape and form of natural objects than before but it is also about places that I love - which are not always well-known. This is all about images as representations of the feelings I have for certain sights (and sites). The reason I like them is they way they make me feel and I hope I can, in some small part, bring that to others through my photographs.

This, i suppose, leads to the artistic motivation. I have limited artistic talent. I can't play music. I have little feeling for paint & brush and my drawing skills are strictly engineering technical. Through photography I feel I can have some sort of artistic expression, however limited. I'm not constrained by coordination between hand and eye.

Finally, I am enjoying representing the behaviour of others. I have taken to showing things that interest and amuse me about other people. I'm not trying to judge them by this, just show how it is.

So, there it is. A series of reasons why I pick up a camera. If I wasn't enjoying the whole process, I wouldn't be doing it. And if I wasn't finding interesting subjects that I want to record then that, too, would stop me. Fortunately, I have an abundance of both.

In further posts in this series, I'll look at motivating/inspiring factors and where I want to go although (noting Colin Jago's post today in this arena) it won't really be about goal setting, more direction.

Fixed focal length and the all-day camera

Canon EOS500 with EF 28 f/2.8: my new "point and shoot" set-up

Michael Johston is running a poll over at Top Online Photographer about what fixed lens people might like on an all-day carry around camera. Clearly this is directed at the recent talk of the almost forthcoming Sigma DP-1.

This lines up nicely with this week's purchase - a Canon EF 28 f/2.8, bought as a fixed focal length for my old film camera. The intention is to continue using it as I've been doing the last few months - as a P&S black & white camera but a bit wider now than the 50mm I was previously using (although I may well carry that too). I would ideally have likes a small (no bigger than this 28mm) 35mm but they don't seem to be available.

My pocket camera, the Samsung A503 also has a 35mm-e lens. It's a focal length I get on well with.

It's not that I don't like 50mm. certainly for subjects at a distance it's excellent. But I'm more concerned about getting enough width close-up. Often I can't back up, or to do so would lose the spontaneity that I'm aiming for.

I think I understand why camera companies are going wider - you can always crop stuff out but never add it back in. Plus, all the pocket camera reviews bemoan lack of wide-angle if the widest they've got is 35mm. All the new kit zooms are 28mm-e.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Solitude in the internet age

Bare trees, Avebury, January 2007

Paul Butzi had a post about solitude recently where he says he was craving time alone after a long bout of travel and other people. I know how he feels. It's particularly bad when travelling to busy places: people everywhere and very little chance of being alone. It's just as well I'm by myself - at least I can escape to the quiet of my hotel room when I'm away.

Working in an environment where teamwork is a valued attribute can also be problematic - sometimes I just don't want to interact with other people.

There are 2 ways I do enjoy interacting with others: teaching people - the act of sharing knowledge, and engaging in considered conversation - actually talking about subjects of substance at length, intelligently.

This brings me onto the topic of the post - the internet and the interaction it promotes. For me, and I guess for those like Paul, the internet is a great invention. I can happily engage in good conversation, at a distance, with like-minded people but in my on time. Forums, blogs, email are all great ways for those who like to be alone to interact with others without them invading personal space. For my photography it's been really good - I've learnt loads, get to read a lot of thought-provoking writing and converse with people on my terms.

Suddenly the introverts are beginning to get the upper hand, long may it continue.