Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Slide Film Canard

Every now and then in some discussion or another online some idiot will trot out a line about how, in the goode olde dayes wee shote slide filme, and soe wee hadde to gette it righte inne thee camera.

This sounds great but is total bullshit. If, like most slide shooters, you didn't ever do anything with your slides except drool over them on a light table and -- rarely -- bore the crap out of some victims with a slide show, then certainly the transparencies were the end of the road. A pointless stupid end of the road that nobody cares about.

If you actually did anything with your slides, such as selling then to a print publication, or making prints, or having prints made, then there was, well, hmm. What was there? Oh! A printing step in which, my goodness, all the usual corrections can be made. Wow.

Most slides did languish as a worthless endpoint. Most slides never sold to anyone, and getting prints made was never cheap.

If you never did anything with your negatives except admire them, then you could make the same silly argument that you had to get it right in camera. In the goode olde dayes wee hadde to gette it righte inne the camera because wee nevere printede, wee just admirede the negatives in the sleeves doesn't have quite the same cadence, but it's pretty much the same thing.

Indeed, these days the requirement to get it right in camera is if anything greater. Most photos are unadjusted JPEGs, slammed helplessly onto the internet as-is. In the goode olde dayes of yore, most photos were machine printed color prints. Which had a bunch of adjustments made in the printing process.

Now, I'm not the right kind of nerd to answer this, but I am pretty sure that the in-camera adjustments to make a JPEG are less than the automated machine printer adjustments. I could be wrong there, mind you, but I think I'm right. If I am, you gotta be closer now than you ever had to be in the past, for most pictures.

Which really means that the camera's exposure and white balance software has to be better than it ever was. Which it is, so, hooray.

Anyways, next time some old bugger trots out the slide film canard, now you can snicker quietly, or start a big argument, or whatever. Enjoy!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Now That's a Photograph

I'm honestly not sure where I am going with this blog now. However, I've mulled it over in the last month, wondering if I have anything to say. Then, a friend asked me in another venue if I would ever be writing on this blog again. And now, a relatively recent commenter wished me well, having just stopped by the find the place closed!

It's possible I do still have some things to say, and it's certain that my life is now more settled than it has been in a while.

So, with no promises that this isn't just another "last post" I find I do have some things to say.

The hard part of taking a picture with a camera is recognizing that there's a picture there at all, and what that picture is. Sometimes the picture is impossible. Sometimes it's impossible with the gear you have. Sometimes you haven't the technical ability to make the picture (in that third case go practice some more - none of this stuff is hard, go learn it)

When I say something is a photograph, what I mean is that it's the right picture. I mean that standing two feet to the left, pressing the button a minute later, and so on, would have been inferior choices. I mean that the choice to drag the shutter or put the strobe there or to render it in highly saturated color was a good choice. Another choice would have given a lesser result. Some people would say snapshot, but I don't have a word I like. I just say not a photograph.

Recognizing that there's a picture is the the key, and recognizing what the picture is is the lock. Put them together, take the picture. This is the act of photography. Street photography, really, is about recognizing and shooting in a moment. Landscape can be about refining the recognition and searching for the photograph over many exposures, years of trying. Landscapes hold pretty still, so you have that luxury. A portrait might be something you search for over hours, or over several sessions over days. It might also happen in a moment.

So, really, pre-visualization is just one path of many. A pre-visualized photo is generally one where you've looked, you've seen, and you've imagined the final print in some detail. It's the opposite of street photography, but it perhaps most clearly lays out the important acts of recognizing that there is a photo, and then recognizing what that photo is.

You can argue, and I have, that sometimes the recognition of the photograph occurs in post, at the contact sheet or at the computer. That's OK too.

Far too many people spend too long mucking about with technical details. These are minor and easy. Stop it. Far too many people don't look for a photograph in anything. Or rather, they don't look for their own photograph, they look for someone else's. They try to duplicate Ansel Adams. They try to follow the strobist instructions for such and such a portrait type. They try to copy someone else's wedding photography style, but color everything pink instead of gold as 'my personal style'.

Copying someone else's pictures is a fine way to develop technique. But it's not a way to make photographs, it's only a way to make copies of photographs. By all means look at other people's pictures. Then go find your own. It might be a copy of someone else's, in fact it'll probably look a lot like something or some things you've seen. But it should not consciously be a copy. It should be what your heart tells you if the right picture in that place, of that thing, in that moment.

The standard 500px landscape (of Type II) with the saturated greens, the fuzzed out water (by use of a Lee Big Stopper, natch), and the incredible depth of field is up-voted, +1'd, favorited or whatever. But it's rarely the right picture of whatever the camera was pointed at. It's not a photograph, it's a copy of a photograph. It was made to get +1'd, not because it was the right picture of that scene. The portrait with the perfectly dialed in Rembrandt lighting and the hairlight just so is made because that's what the book says, or that's what Rembrandt did, or because my peers will like it. It's not the right picture of the sitter. It's not a photograph, it's a copy of a photograph.

The idea of the right picture is at least partly subjective, of course. But people can tell. They can tell, ultimately, if you're putting your heart into a portfolio. They can tell that you're struggling for an idea and finding it, that these are -- for you -- the right pictures of the things. They can tell you're not just copying someone else popular. They probably can't put it into words, but they can tell. They might not like your pictures, but they can feel the power, if you put it in there. At least, some of them can, some of the time, and that's about as good as it gets.

People +1 the landscapes, but they don't look at them, and they don't come back to look at them again. +1 just means "meets expectations".

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Closing up Shop

I hate when blogs just get abandoned silently. I don't much like when they're closed down officially either, but I dislike that less.

For a variety of personal reasons I won't be writing here any more, for the forseeable future. Life is long and the world is large, so never say never, but I have no plans to write any more. I will swing by from time to time to moderate comments, if any. I expect traffic to be light.

You're always welcome to buy my book. I've sold something like 60 copies! Which is about 10x what I expected.

Godspeed, gentle reader. I hope that in the archive you might find things that are interesting, amusing, or at least thought provoking. Make some good pictures. Avoid the fools and charlatans, who are legion. I might even be one.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Lytro Illium

I don't review gear on this blog. This isn't a gear review.

Lytro Illium is a new camera from Lytro, who are doing consumer-targeted light-field cameras. The point of these cameras is that focus and aperture is, to a large degree, computed in post. I've commented in the past that this is part of a natural progression. Digital photography has been, to a large extent, about moving activities from before the shutter button press to after, and light-field technology is just (potentially) another step along the way.

First a technical remark. People complain that the resulting picture size is small. Lytro is coy about these numbers (see below) but the new camera seems to produce something like a 4 or 5 megapixel picture, once the computational smoke clears.

I think this is, or any rate can be made, irrelevant. We're in the land of software. Stitching up enormous pictures out of small ones is old hat. It's not even hard any more.

Here's a tip for the Lytro guys: let me stitch up whatever size picture I like, based on the "as much as possible in focus" model, and let me apply the computed depth of field on the result. Ideally, give me options to compute a plane of focus that is not parallel to the sensor (simulate T/S or large format movements). Even better also give me options to compute a non-planar field of focus. Now I can put this and that in focus, and leave the rest soft. Now we're making some wedding photos, baby!

What's more interesting, though, is this. The Lytro guys seem to be dodging the issue of resolution by recasting the photograph as a new kind of object. They really want to push this idea of an interactive object, where the viewer -- the end-user, not the photographer -- manipulates the depth of field, and performs small rotations, to really explore what's going on in there.

This is to literally re-imagine the idea of photograph. That's pretty damned bold.

I find it incomprehensible. Fiddling with these interactive objects is something that makes no sense to me. But then, as a still photographer, of course it makes no sense to me. I am, by definition, the guy that wants a faster horse, not an automobile. Of course the automobile baffles me.

I have no idea if they're going to succeed. So far it's not looking so hot. But it's interesting as hell, and one wonders what else is around the corner. Is the still photograph itself about to be abruptly supplanted by something we literally cannot imagine, and will not understand when it arrives?

Maybe! Wouldn't that be fun?!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

On "Workflow"

Digital photographers seem to obsess, sometimes, over this idea of "workflow". This is the work that occurs after the shutter press and before the final result, whatever that is. There's a lot of "here is my workflow" or "what is your workflow?" floating around out there. People write up their workflow, "Step 3: Level the Horizon" and 17 other absurd tiny steps.

It's not that this is a terrible thing. The great leap forward digital has given us is the ability to do a bunch of stuff after the shutter press and before the final result. That's a good thing.

I see two things that are bad about it, however.

The first thing is the obsession over it. It's just some stuff you do, it's not the heart of your creative process. Your art isn't in your "workflow" unless you're a digital painter. If you're a photographer, the workflow should be secondary, it should enhance your photography. A common workflow will tend to create similarity between photographs, which is great for a portfolio or other body of work which is supposed to be coherent.

Which leads to the other problem. If you standardize your workflow, then you apply it to everything you do, whether the process is appropriate or not. All your landscapes look the same, whether they're supposed to or not. Your portraits looks kind of like your landscapes which look kind of like your still lifes.

Standardize workflow as appropriate. It's just a tool, use it as such. When a tool suits the job at hand, use it. When it does not, set it aside and take another tool, a tool that does suit the job.

Do you make bespoke wooden furniture, or are you a chisel-user?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

An Exercise

I don't know that this will teach anything, but it's cool, and it gets at some stuff I've been thinking and writing about.

Go get a physical photograph. A page from a magazine will do, or a print, or a page of a book, whatever. You needn't tear it out, just get it in front of you so you can touch it.

First examine it as a physical object. It's a sheet of paper, probably. Some thickness. It smells, feels, sounds, a certain way. It has some sort of pigments or metallic deposits on its surface.

Now consider the pattern of tone and color on the surface, created by those pigments or deposits. What are the colors? Are they complementary, or what? What's the range of tone? What patterns are present in shapes and lines and masses of tone and color, on the surface of this piece of paper?

Descend further. Step through the frame now, in a sort of Matrix-like transition: What's it a picture of? Note the visual details. Is the man wearing a tie? Is that a mountain in the distance? Inventory the contents of the frame and place them in space relative to one another. Consider those relationships a little, and how that translates into visual relationships on the page.

Further. What is she thinking, is it hot or cold there, how heavy is that thing he is holding? What do you imagine about the scene?

A picture is always many things, and a photograph has the additional feature of having once been something real (usually).

Monday, April 21, 2014

Karsh at the National Portrait Gallery

I seem to fall, always, into the general idea that Karsh wasn't very good. Then I happen upon an exhibition of his work and I remember that it's not so at all, he was very good. Very good indeed. Now that I am old and sophisticated, perhaps it will stick this time around.

The pictures in this show are mostly black and whites, mainly of famous people. I gather that the exhibition will rotate prints in and out, which seems very confusing. If I read the notes properly, Karsh's widow gave a rather large collection to the National Portrait Gallery (why the US one? Karsh was Ottawa based. Surely the Canadians are annoyed!) and this is a subset of those. A few dozen portraits, including some very well known ones.

The dramatic light and large format gives us a wealth of the wrinkles and tiny features that we call "character" in every face. These are nothing like the traditional airbrushed messes we see from lower end commercial guys (Karsh was, after all, commercial). These are all a riot of details, both flattering and unflattering.

Post any of these on an internet forum, and you'd get a huge raft of shit. Plugged up blacks, chopped off limbs, hot spots all over the place. You really need more fill light. You ought to have a hair light. The framing is either too tight or way too loose. Blah blah blah blah. In short, these look nothing like Senior Portraits from LifeTouch Studios.

What Karsh accomplishes with these pictures is wildly beyond the reach of most amateurs, and most low end commercial portraitists. These pictures create a powerful impression that you, the viewer, know the subject a little. Indeed, many of these pictures did a great deal to create our conception of these people. Hitchcock is a haughty auteur, Churchill a glowering lion. This is of course a construct, this is the image of the subject that Karsh chose to make and to keep. Walt Disney was not an affable fellow at all, but this portrait makes us believe that he is.

I think, based on these pictures and on a short film I saw decades ago, that Karsh worked much like a street photographer does. Rather than soaking up the rhythms of the street and learning to feel its flows and patterns, Karsh instead worked with the subject in the same way. He must have learned the patterns, the ebb and flow of emotion and body language in the subject, and was then able to wait.. wait.. and then click at precisely the moment, the decisive moment, the moment when there was a picture, the picture, the one Karsh wanted.

A profile of Snowden I read recently suggests much the same of him.

It is this that separates a good portraitist from a bad one. All the lights in the world, all the strobist studying in the world, won't help you be good if you can't get in synch with the subject, if you can't press the button, click, at the decisive moment.

Conversely, if you can, any god damned lighting at all is fine.

Unfortunately, while lots of people will teach you a bunch of useless shit about lighting, skills that will launch your career right into the bottom end of the portrait market, nobody seems to have any insight into how to work with the subject.