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Saturday, October 31, 2015

Cadence II

Just some fast notes. It's Halloween Night and we gotta give candy to kids!

Apparently I have to read Keith Smith. Got it. Ordering a copy of the relevant one as soon as I am done here, I'm excited!

I can't stop thinking about sequencing in terms of beats, now. Pa-PUM, Pa-PUM, BOOOOOOM.

Leading to inspiration of the day: There's no actual reason not to repeat a photograph, or even a sequence of them, in a book. I don't even remember explicitly thinking this was a no-no, but it literally never occurred to me as a possibility until last night. "Wait, if it's a line of rhythm, I could repeat a photo for that BOOOM effect and it would be effective. Wait, wait, wait, I could repeat entire phrases. And probably should."

Friday, October 30, 2015


I was reading some stuff on the webernets from a guy named Keith Smith, a bookbinder who also writes books about binding books.

He made a very interesting, to me, remark about books. He points out that the turning of pages creates a kind of cadence, a rhythm. He has written a whole book about this, which book I have not read and might well never read. But the basic idea is obvious, and it unfolds itself easily in to more ideas. How would we manage the cadence? We might put several pictures on one page, to slow the reader down (generally -- not 100% of the time, but often), or we might use a picture with more interest (more people?), and then the next page is the one you want to nail them between the eyes with.

Or whatever, really.

I've long thought about sequencing of portfolios, and creating ebb and flow, rising and falling themes, ideas of that sort. I've never thought of it in terms of time, though, just of ordering. Of course, if you're hanging stuff on walls, there's a lot less control of ordering than in a book, but neither is absolute. What a book does give you is a pretty distinct cadence. You can only turn pages so fast, and as long as you've got the reader/viewer's interest to any kind of degree, they're likely to turn pages more or less on the beat, as it were.

Food for thought.

How does the structure of the book alter the basic cadence? Big pages, little pages? Thick pages, thin pages? Slick pages, matte pages? Big gutters versus little gutters?

How could I build a book with a naturally non-linear flow, with loops or forks? Where we consider books to be pretty much anything made by gluing and/or sewing pieces of paper together.

What ideas from here can we drag ruthlessly back to non-book-formatted portfolios?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Help Me Out

I do not understand how Ming Thein can write this without actually catching fire from the sheer cognitive dissonance. Does he have to write this sort of stuff underwater?

Three Bits of Art

Here's three quite different Photographic Art Projects, which I think illustrate, well, something. Hat tip to Lewis Bush over at disphotic for a couple of them.

The first is a book and exhibition entitled Predator, Lewis has a review of it here but I am unable to get a working link to the actual project's web site at this time. In broad strokes, it's a collection of found photographs edited down to a single theme, and the organized to create a sort of pseudo-narrative. It looks quite strong to me, despite my contention that this sort of thing doesn't work.

The second is a project Daniel Milnor started a long time ago and eventually dropped. The plan was to visit 12 towns named Paradise, photograph and interview and produce, well, something.

The third is a project, well, really a series of projects using LIDAR instead of traditional photography, to do various stuff.

The first two are basically an idea, followed by labor. In one case, the labor was culling, editing, sorting, and ordering. In the other, it was traveling, photographing, talking, and then it would have been culling, editing, sorting, and ordering.

The last one is basically a piece of technology in search of ideas, and so they recycle other people's ideas. "Horizontal Humans" is Sally Mann's Body Farm work, redone with new technology and neither ability nor courage. I dare say you could play a game of "who did they rip off this time" if you went through their projects, but I have to go pluck my eyebrows now.

I have said repeatedly that computational photography is likely to be the future. These three bodies of work illustrate, I think, that the essentials of photography-as-art will remain precisely the same. If you haven't got an idea, no amount of new tech will save you. LIDAR is not magical and special, using it and yammering about 3D-pointclouds is not going to magically imbue your photographs with Artness, although they may buffalo the establishment for a bit (or might even roll up into Performance Art somehow, if you play your cards right).

Good work is still ultimately about the idea. It's not about the camera, nor is it about the details of lighting, nor about your mastery of Composition. It's about having an idea, and expressing it competently.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Provenance and Copyright

Ming Thein has a hilarious little sequence of posts which are mainly about hinting at conspiracy against him, and talking about his high level contacts at some watch maker. Long story short, someone made a mistake, flickr pulled some of his photos, mistake corrected, photos back in a timely fashion. No. Big. Deal.

But it does raise the question of provenance in this digital world. I think most of us are at least vaguely aware that proving ownership of a photograph (in the legalistic, copyright, sense) is pretty hard. There are some vague suggestions about "original RAW files" and Ming illustrates a hilarious faith in "uneditable file formats".

I can edit any file. Any. File.

I cannot forge cryptographic material. In general, I can probably find an end-run around any complex crypto solution for proving who took a picture, when, though. Consider this, which is both a real thing, and an analogy.

One offered solution is to register your photos with the Copyright Office, which I guess is a real thing. Then to prove that you hold the copyright, you simply check with the Copyright Office, right? That sounds foolproof to me, some trusted third party. Except, as far as I can tell, there's no barrier to me registering your photos with the Copyright Office. The penalties are, one assumes, horrific, for this illegal act. So what? I can still do it, and if either I live in Kazooikstan, or 1,000,000 people a day are doing it, the penalties are irrelevant. Similar approaches will usually work with complex cryptographic software solutions, because most people who design these things simply aren't smart enough to get it right. It's fiendishly hard to get it right.

So how do you prove you took a picture, and not that other guy?

Well, if you had a negative, that would be something. One can simply shoot a copy of a print, and get that, though. Perhaps if you had a proper original negative, that actually has more detail in it than is realized in the print? That has original grain in it, that one can see in prints but which is verifiably original grain? That would be extremely hard to fake, and would probably constitute sufficient proof for even the most finicky court.

If you had a RAW file that also had detail not visible in any JPEGs or prints, that would also work.

Of course, if I can get access to any digital format of your picture that has all the information in it, I can construct a RAW file, and your goose is cooked.

So you need to hold something private, hold close something with visual information nobody else has. Then, to prove it, you need an impartial third party to verify that the visual information in your private copy is consistent with the rest of the visual information, and therefore probably not forged. You need an expert to verify your claim.

This isn't scalable, at all.

If there was any money in it at all, there would be a brisk cottage industry in constructing forged RAW files, in registering other people's photos under someone else's copyright, and so on. The courts would almost certainly punt, and do something akin to this: we're only looking at cases with registered copyrights, and we're deciding for whomever registers first, period.

This isn't happening, thankfully. It tells us something, though, about the true value of copyright. If nobody wants to steal it, how much is it really worth? People steal photos all the time, but I've literally never heard of anyone stealing, or even making a credible attempt steal, a copyright.

Fail Big

It's ok to fail. The bad failures are the ones caused by caution, by not pressing hard enough.

If you're nervous about looking at Man Ray's pictures, and your landscapes all feel derivative and weak, that's bad. If you fell in love with Man Ray, and now your landscapes are all abstract, insane collages that make not a lick of sense, that's good.

If you couldn't take the right pictures because you were using a camera that was too exciting, too new, too crazy, that's OK. If you couldn't take the pictures because you couldn't bear to use anything but your old warhorse equipment, that's bad.

Push it. Fail. (If you're shooting for money, have a plan B)

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Further to Market Segmentation

It's worth noting that no amount of analysis and research is likely to change the cold hard facts: that there are more individual humans trying to sell Fine Art Photographic Prints than there are individual humans wiling to buy them, at any price. I think this may be literally true.

This is gonna push the prices downwards.

Which means that in order to sell prints for more than a few cents, you've got to skirt around the realities of the supply and demand curves somehow. The tourist-targeted hard sell gallery is a good example of this. Essentially, you lie about both supply and demand, and use various psychological tricks to produce an impulse buy.

Sally Mann is Awesome

That is all.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Market Segmentation for Prints

Per request. This isn't a real market segmentation. This is a set of guesses, albeit informed guesses. You might start here, and then go do some actual market research (questionnaires and polls, interviews with people who know things, focus groups, and so on) which takes real time and real money. You'd design your research to: test these guesses, fill in details (e.g. pricing, quantities, etc), refine the segments (some might prove to be several separate ones, others might prove to simply not quite exist), and finally to try to uncover new undiscovered segments.

Commericial Art Buyers

These people buy finished art for hotels, office buildings, that sort of thing. They're buying quantities, they're probably quite price sensitive, they want quite conservative prints in a broad but basically pretty bland variety, and they almost certainly want to select the treatments (framing and matting). They almost certainly attend specific trade shows, and probably have trade publications.


These people are closely related to the previous, but they're "doing rooms" for the well-heeled. They might also "do" an office suite. There's overlap, but these people are: less price sensitive, more interested in specific color palettes and subjects, and will definitely want to select or even provide the framing and matting treatments. They're buying much smaller quantities, for more money. They have their own trade shows, but the may attend some of the same shows as the previous lot. They may have their own trade publications, but definitely also contribute to and pay attention to more mainstream "high end lifestyle" publications.

Art Collectors

Almost no overlap with the previous lots. Often they will have specific advisers, and there may be consultation with Designers, but this is not the thrust. These people (who may not be "people" at all, but rather a collector and one or more advisory staff, as a sort of collective) are interested in the various traits that go in to collectibility. This, in turn, is defined by a rather well defined set of influencers, which is more or less by definition the only way to access this market. They're very price insensitive, and buy very very small quantities. They attend their own shows, read their own journals, and talk directly with one another. But there's no way to market directly, you must go through the gatekeepers (galleriests, curators, and so on) in all but a very very few cases.


These are the monied people who get sucked in by the Peter Liks of the world. There are several purveyors of brightly colored landscapes pursuing essentially the same market using roughly the same methods. These are people who buy very small quantities, and are variably price-sensitive. They want to think of themselves as collectors, but are unsophisticated and unprotected by advisers, and so can be persuaded that something is collectible when, ultimately, it is a cheaply made commodity. These people do talk to one another, to some extent. They go over to one another's houses, attend meetings together, drink cocktails or beer together, and talk about the various trappings of wealth they have acquired. This is a funny market, though, because ultimately each sale happens in isolation. It's the Hard Sell, and it's a pretty gruesome business.

There's other stuff going on out there. There are casual buyers who contact folks on flickr, or who buy a print off smugmug, because they think it's pretty. There's niche markets, selling people pictures of their own sailboats. There's retail stuff, selling wedding pictures, which can include prints. Some of this stuff is really selling services, and I don't really understand what's going on with smugmug "fine art" prints. It would be worth digging in to, and seeing if there's one of those market segments going under-served here, which could be usefully attacked.

If I Ran a Camera Company

If I ran a camera company, I would do these things.

I would perform market research to determine who is, or might in future, buy a camera, and what their buying criteria are. I can just buy a handful of reports to get most of this.

I would then segment the market, generating descriptions of groups of potential buyers with similar key buying criteria, who talk to one another. This may mean they attend the same parties, or that they read the same blogs, or that they literally talk to one another.

Then I would size the potential of those market segments and match them against my ability to deliver one or more Whole Products which meet or exceed the key buying criteria of the segment.

Then, if there appeared to be a viable path forward, I would start building those products.

Why would I do this? Because this is how business is actually done. Failure to recognize that there are multiple market segments with radically different buying criteria is universal along photography bloggers, which is why every single blog post purporting to perform industry analysis is stupid and why most of them are not even wrong.

This is why all these jerks are not running Nikon, they're writing blogs.

The reason I am not running Nikon is because I've actually done some of the above and I find it to be roughly the worst job in the world. Except for farming and mining, which are definitely even worse. Nikon keeps calling and I keep turning them down.

Saturday, October 24, 2015


I saw a remark attributed to Ansel Adams:

Landscape photography is the supreme test of the photographer - and often the supreme disappointment.

Which is an interesting statement, I'd say. Taken at face value, he seems to be saying that landscape photography is the hardest kind of picture taking. One might imagine that a little ego might be in play here.

But I think he might be right. We certainly have ample evidence that it's hard. We have billions of bad landscapes, and extraordinarily few good ones. And yet, even your run of the mill flickr/500px hack can knock out an interesting portrait, fashion photo, or what have you.

Hardcore landscape guys think you should have no people in your landscapes, nor indeed evidence of man. This makes it a bloody hard row to hoe, to be blunt. The things people care about are people, and thing related to people. Pictures of people start, therefore, with a leg up. We find them inherently interesting. There's all manner of body language and facial language we can grapple with, feel, interpolate and extrapolate.

The things of people are a nice secondary genre. A still life still shows, usually, the hand of man at work. We see the apples picked for eating, in the bowl turned by the craftsman, in the kitchen where perhaps a meal will be prepared in a moment. So again we have these people-centered stories we can chew on.

As photographers we can draw on a thousand cues and clues, conscious and unconscious, to express some idea. Some, almost invariably, people-centric idea. The absence of people from a human space is telling. The presence of a person, and that person's posture is likewise telling, but writes a different tale of meaning. And so on.

A landscape, it strikes me, especially the strict kind without the hand of man, can only express one idea, which is essentially "wow!"

"Wow, how beautiful"
"Wow, how vast"
"Wow, how pristine"
"Wow, how terrifying"

It's pretty much all "look at this, isn't it, well, doesn't it make you go wow?"

Which is all very well. Ansel Adams certainly felt a lot of "wow!" and he's made me feel a lot of "wow!" It's a fine thing. But ultimately, kind of a limited palette.

Content is almost submerged. It becomes a game of explaining what the "wow!" is all about. If it's vast, you have to make it feel vast. If it's tall, you have to make it feel tall.

Here's an experiment. Pull any random Ansel Adams off the web, suck it into your favorite editor, and raise the blacks to a mushy grey. Not all his landscapes, but many of them, disintegrate. The more graphically strong ones simply become weaker. The ones with a bunch of trees and crap, where the point is that this one tree sticks out or whatever, simply disintegrate into incomprehensible mush.

Pick some other talented landscape people. Grab a couple JMW Turner's and remove the color. The damage tends again to be substantial.

I'm wrestling with the words for this idea. There seems to be something which can survive this sort of abuse, something about content. An interesting portrait does not depend on deep blacks to be interesting, because it's the person's face that's interesting inherently. A still life of pears in a basket is interesting because of what it is, and it should not rely on subtle details of the color for that interest. A landscape is, in some sense, essentially not interesting, and it is somehow the role of the artist here to make it interesting with the tricks of their particular trade.

There are photographs and paintings which are about marrying an idea to some content to create an expression of the idea.

Landscapes don't seem to be capable of that. The palette of available ideas is limited, and the landscape must be coaxed into revealing the idea that's already built in to the artist's perception of it.

This is not to say that landscape photography sucks or is easy, quite the contrary. It's very hard. The easiest photograph to make is probably the mediocre landscape, but among the most difficult is the excellent landscape. The pictures you make, even when successful, are rarely a robust punch in the face. On the contrary they are fragile things, a delicate balance of graphical elements and tricks, carrying a fine thread of a small idea, with little hope of success.

You'd think that The Sublime would be a big idea, and in a sense it is. But if you feel it, if you feel that "wow" about the natural world, well, it's everywhere out there. Translating something that you feel literally everywhere you look into a single picture isn't easy. Why this frame instead of that one? Most frames merely break the spell and produce a crummy picture of a bunch of trees and/or rocks.

Even the good frames need a bit of help.

Without the Hand of Man, all you have is the Hand of God, the only idea you have to express is The Sublime, and it's a tough job to cram that into a picture without breaking it.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Ritual

In a more or less recent video on LuLa, Michael Reichmann mentions that he was "reviving the salon", gathering with a few friends to talk "about the images, not gear" and I have to admit that my visceral reaction was one of horror. Not that I am likely to be attending private photographic salons in Ontario, but I could not help but feel that it would be a terrible experience.

Here, I think, is why I felt that way.

There is a ritual observance among people who style themselves Serious Photographers, that the image must be built on ones emotional response, that it's really about Art, which is really about communication and emotion and ideas. That's all very well and good. Ansel Adams may not have originated this ritual but he certainly makes the statement on, roughly, every single page of every book he ever wrote (and provides, roughly, 0 words of actual guidance on how to do it). Adams actually succeeds. It takes but a glance at any of his landscape pictures to see that he was simply gobsmacked by landscapes that he saw, and that he was able to communicate that gobsmackery pretty thoroughly.

Beyond that we seem to have an almost perfect correlation between observance of the ritual, and actually imbuing photographs with emotion. When you see someone talking about the importance of emotion, of Art, of all that stuff in a photograph, you can be almost guaranteed that their pictures will be technically perfect and almost utterly devoid of emotion. I could name the names, but you know them. On the other side, we have people whose work I quite like.

Look at a Kirk Tuck portrait. He's engaged with the subject, he's got all the tech stuff squared away and isn't thinking about it one iota. He's looking, he's seeing, he's waiting. And then there's a "click".

Look at Daniel Milnor's work. The dude takes pictures of his freakin' feet and it works. He's engaged, he's in the moment. He's not thinking about tech stuff, he's seeing, and when he sees the right thing he presses the button.

Sally Mann, same thing. Although in her case, she also has a magician's touch in selecting the thing to see. Frequently it makes not one goddamned bit of sense until the picture is fully baked.

The other chaps, when you look at the pictures, you can tell they were thinking about apertures and points of focus and balance of the frame, and placing the dark subject against a light background and and and and. A million details of camera settings and points of formal composition. There's zero engagement with the subject, and so the result is sterile. All the blather in the world about capturing emotion and ideas doesn't change that.

Here's how I, perhaps unfairly, envision the Photographic Salon:

Well, really wanted to capture the emotion of the moment.
Yes, yes, I can see that.
<long pause>
So I lifted the shadows to bring out a hint of detail in the darkest parts of the print, and shifted the color a trifle warmer to create a sense of warmth. I felt that the girl's hand was important, so I applied a little selective sharpening there to really bring it out.
<etc. etc.>

If you want to bring emotion to your photographs, first you have to feel something. If you want to express an idea in your print, you need first to have an idea.

If there's anything worth talking about in a photograph, it's surely the feeling you had or the idea you had, not the bloody shadow details.

But talking about "images" is a bit like dancing about architecture, innit?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Computational Photography and Culture

One of my ongoing pet topics is photography's place in culture, popular and otherwise.

Let's start with a quick review of some of the basics. This isn't my stuff at all, this dates back at least to Susan Sontag in the 70s. There's this notion of a photograph's indexical relationship with the stuff being photographed, there is a physical relationship between the two. Light smashes into the world, bounces back through the lens, and crashes into a piece of film where it physically changes crystals of stuff. Some chemistry later, we have a physical chunk of film which bears the literal imprint of the world on it. A few more steps of the same sort and we have a print.

Note: the word indexical here is being used in a specific sense that has to do with photographs. It is a term of art, here, and the dictionary definitions you are likely to turn up in a quick search are actually unrelated. I apologize for the usage, but it's actually just the right word, and means exactly the thing I'm talking about. If you google it together with the word photography you'll get even more eggheaded wanking than I am writing here. Sorry.

In the 1970s and still today we treat this as important. It gives a photograph a very specific property of truth. Of course manipulation has always occurred and so on, but in the 1970s there was a presumption of a certain literalness to the print. What we see in the print is (usually) a literal rendering of what was in front of the camera at that moment, for whatever that's worth.

So, along comes digital. The physicality kind of drops out, because we enter an electronic/digital world almost immediately. Pictures are now mainly viewed on screens, and when they are printed they've taken a tour through a non-physical world.

Up through the previous century the idea of indexical was synonymous with no human actor. In practical terms, only way to make a picture that did not involve a human's translation of the scene was to take a physical photograph, with film, light, paper, and so on. When digital came along, we lost that physical connection, but the picture is still made without a human actor transforming it, as with a drawing or a painting. There is a very very strong analogy with the indexical, physically related, photograph. The analogy is strong enough that almost nobody noticed the change, or the loss. It may turn out to be irrelevant.

As it stands today, the analogy is pretty literal. Light still smashes about, bouncing off objects and through lenses, but now it lands on a sensor. Digital systems for handling this, in contemporary cameras, preserve the analogy with film quite closely. We record pixels, and retain the pixel-to-pixel relationships. The one at 1224,2788 is next to the one at 1225,2788 and they both originated with light bouncing off an object at two points next to one another on the object. The thread of literal connection remains, although it is no longer really physical.

Computational photography is going to separate this further. There will still be no human actor. There will still be no physical connection. But that digital zone in between will now bifurcate (at least) into "traditional" digital photography with literal pixels in specific X,Y relationships, and this other thing, where the resulting array of pixels is calculated from other arrays of pixels. The literal thread is lost, or at any rate extremely complicated.

The resulting pictures will look much the same, however. So we can consider, really, 4 different very very similar looking pictures:

  • A traditional silver photograph (indexical)
  • A traditional DSLR-made photograph (not indexical, but with a strong analog)
  • A computed photograph (not indexical, with a weak analogy to indexical)
  • A photorealistic drawing made by a person (not indexical, not analogous to indexical, introduces a human actor)

Of course if the viewer doesn't know what he's looking at, he's probably make whatever assumptions he makes by default about something that appears to be a photograph.

If the viewer does know, we know for certain that she'll view the first and the last as quite different objects. So far it looks like the first and second are viewed as more or less equivalent. What about #3, though? To my eye, it could go either way. Is it indexicality that matters here? Or the human actor? The human actor is surely much more important, but we're going to find out if indexicality matters. We believe, to some degree, in MRI and ultrasound imagery, which might give us a hint here. Computed photography is a lot like an MRI picture, but looks like a regular photo.

Do we treat it as more like a regular photo than an MRI, but otherwise essentially "true" (Probably)? Or is there some lurking uncanny valley territory here, where we trust the MRI specifically because it's unfamiliar material, and similar methods applied to "regular pictures" will generate some sort of backlash (Maybe?)?

Note that this is entirely separate from issues of manipulation. Digital photography has made photoshop and manipulation of pictures ubiquitous, which is definitely affecting the public perceptions of truth. Understanding changes in photography's place in society is going to be difficult, as the issue above and the issue of manipulation are inextricably tangled up together, despite being quite different.

At present, people assume that photographs are essentially all faked, or at any rate could be faked. We are distrustful of all pictures. I think to a large degree, though, we are still trusting in the indexical nature, even though that is lost. Photographs are no longer indexical with reality, but there's still that strong metaphor of indexicality remaining.

We have a vestigial sensation of that truth remaining, somewhere. Somehow, we feel that even these digital things on our screens ought to be as literally true, in the same ways, as the prints of the 1970s.

How do I know? Because we still get a hue and cry when a photo is revealed to be faked. Even though any properly cynical person assumes that they could all be faked, we're still upset and irritated to learn that a photo is faked, which reveals some sort of unconscious trust, or wish, for the photograph to have that underlying truth. We're much less upset to learn that a photo was cropped, or shot at just the right moment, to misrepresent the scene. But erase a mailbox from the background, and we are, as a culture, angry.

I have a vague theory that might address, to a degree, why.

Our vision is much like a computational photography system. It takes scrubby fuzzy terrible incomplete data from two badly made optical instruments, and computationally merges that data, interpolating and extrapolating out a sort of HD movie which is our conscious perception of vision. Educated people know that it's wildly unreliable, and we've all watched the videos where the bear runs through the frame and we don't even see it. Even unsophisticated people understand, I believe, at some level that their vision is not to be trusted.

The still picture, be it a painting, etching, photograph, whatever, can be handled well by our vision. We have time to scan it, to soak it up. Our visual system is given a gift, a scene that does not change, that has finite boundaries, that is graspable. Over time, we can literally see it all, we can extract every element, and we can build a complete and accurate picture of that still picture, something we cannot do with the real world.

If that picture has an indexical relationship to some part of the world, if it is a photograph, then we have at some remove entirely grasped a slice of the world. That's kind of cool, that's different, that's something we could not do 200 years ago, no way, no how. While we could grasp a picture entirely in 1800, that picture had been seen by someone's unreliable vision, and translated. We could not entirely trust it.

This is eroding. I don't think we've grasped it viscerally, although we generally get it consciously. Our hind brain still revels in the novelty and safety of these "real" pictures.

Computational photography will, I predict, erode this further. Not to suggest that people will grasp the details, but gradually the knowledge that there's been another step inserted, that we're another step further away from the real world, will soak into the culture.

Ok one more, then I'm done

Here's a picture from Ming Thein's review of the Otus 55/1.4:

And the relevant clip from the accompanying text:

this is a normal FOV lens that’s resolving craters on the moon.

I shot this last night. D3100, a 50/2.0 that's probably older than Ming, wide open. Banged the lens over to the infinity stop, and shot. I admit that I cheated and exposed the moon correctly, instead of overexposing it (I wasn't trying to get clouds in too), and I played some games with sharpness and contrast. Consider this a test of an old, cheap, lens + digital processing against one of the Zeiss Otus. The moon is off-center, but not as far from the center as Ming's moon is.

Turns out that "resolving craters on the moon" isn't actually that tough.

I'm not actually done. I'm never going to be done railing against breathless reviews of overpriced luxury items.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Leica SL Review

Leica has introduced the new SL camera, and the Internet is ablaze, or abuzz, or something. Everyone is reviewing this thing. I guess I better step up.

With this camera, Leica is attempting to merge two separate lines of artistic inquiry, the experiment with gigantism in the Leica S is merged with the boxy planarity of the original M models. To these basic elements, we add a strong dose of Bauhaus modernism blended with something like Soviet Brutalism, creating an architecture that is somehow simultaneously sleek and blunt, slender and massive.

The almost total lack of surface texture and the hard angles (the design has nary a single radius, it appears to be constructed entirely out of featureless black planes intersecting in mathematically sharp lines, it frankly makes me want to pick up some sort of large bone and brain a friend) seem a nod to 1970s hifi design, perhaps a hearkening back what is now the distant past, that ambiguous era of heavy distortion and bad shoes, somewhere between the bright color of the 1960s and the cheerfully false plastic of the 1980s.

Or are we seeing something different, something a touch more sinister? In the view of this author that 1970s hifi look could as easily be a nod to H&K's design language. Combined with the obvious Soviet design influences, one cannot help but feel something a little military, a little nasty, in here. Is this thing a metaphor for a tank, or for rock&roll? Or is it playing with some unmentionable dialectic between the two, somehow?

One thing is certain, the SL is a gigantic, and I mean that literally, "Fuck You" to Jony Ive.

Making Time

I've been on a little bit of a kick lately, sorting through ideas of mindfulness, making time, focusing on what's important. Themes of how to manage oneself and ones life to better do this picture taking thing.

I think I've come down to some sort of a nub here, a core idea. It's not about making time to shoot, it's not about specifically shooting in any specific frame of mind. It's about making time to think, to imagine, to process ideas. For me, most of photography seems to be happening up front. Taking a picture takes 100th of a second, imagining it takes... well it takes as long as it takes. The part afterwards, sifting, sorting, selecting, and finally building a presentation, that takes time too. It's not as open ended, it's lengthy but more or less predictable.

I spend very little time shooting these days. My goal, I think, is to spend less and less time shooting, but to use that time more and more purposefully, more and more effectively. Once I have an idea (I won't say a pre-visualization, because it's not that) shooting it may only take a few moments, mostly spent screwing on the right lens and moving a few objects around. My goal, I think, is to front-load the process as much as possible, so when it's go time, I just shoot however many frames are necessary, quickly.

This isn't to say I'm doing a one shot/one kill thing. Some projects I discard as much as anyone. But even the discards were shot with purpose, they were an attempt to realize a clear idea. They either failed, or are not as good and clear a realization as another shot, or maybe they simply don't fit the flow of the other pictures. Most recently I shot 8 pictures, 2-3 variations on each, for 20-30 frames, selected 7, and sent them off to print. Total shooting, editing, post-processing time was maybe 2 hours, tops. The idea was crystal clear and easily accomplished with what I had on hand. Bam.

That's where I want to be. Now, I don't particularly love the process. I'm not opposed to pressing the button, it doesn't cause me pain to shoot. But I'm not in love with it. It gives me no especial pleasure to use the instrument, as it does for many others. So, you may not want to reduce your shooting time, you may want to increase it.

Nonetheless, I think that front-loading the process with more thinking, more imagining, more seeing, will always improve the result.

The Great Leap Forward

Computational photography, in whatever form it takes, will be the greatest change for the good ever wrought by and for the human race.

Bigger than world peace. Bigger that the green revolution. Bigger than vaccines and the germ theory of disease.

Because you adjust depth of field in post we can finally stop taking about lens aperture, sensor size, and all the muddled ideas people have about how they relate to depth of field.

It can't happen too soon for me. Hurry up, nerds!

Monday, October 19, 2015

A Pattern Language

I woke up from a dream this morning, in which I was talking to an architect about A Pattern Language, a book about architecture and urban design. And so as one does I noodled on it a bit abed, in that semi-awake state. Let's see if the thoughts I thought make sense in the cold light of day and full consciousness.

To recap the book extremely briefly, it is written as a set of patterns which are, essentially, ideas or recommendations for how something ought to be done. It starts at a high level, urban design, talking about how to lay out roads, how to do zoning, and so on. It proceeds down through progressively more detailed patterns, working through how to lay out building floor plans for various uses, where to put windows, how to design an entryway, etcetera, and winding up at a quite low level of detail discussing things like how to trim out around windows and doorways.

Each pattern works together with patterns at the same level, it supports patterns at larger scopes, it is supported by and enables the full expression of patterns at more detailed scopes. It is a mesh of ideas, which provide a complete language for building cities, towns, buildings, homes, gardens, parks, in such a way as to enrich human life. It's quite academic, moderately rigorous, and very effective. My wife and I drove across the country looking for a city to live in, and a home to live in, informed substantially by the ideas in the book. I can attest that we're supremely happy with the choices we have made. Some of them are obvious, and others rather non-obvious.

The book works, I think, because it mirrors human life. Our tiny actions roll up into larger ones. Our larger actions express the smaller ones. It's all interconnected, it all flows together. No action, no detail of life, exists in isolation from the others. This is a common thread in organic systems. Biology at all levels from the micro to the macro, ecology, sociology, all these studies tell us that the systems of life are interconnected meshes of interdependence, cause and effect.

There was a bold attempt to re-task the ideas from the book for software development. I have not, I confess, looked into this in any detail, but it strikes me as completely wrong-headed. The whole point of software is that we divide the problems up into independent parts. Interdependence is a bad thing, here.

I neither know, nor want to know, the details of how the daily sales records are kept. I want to know, I need to know, only how to retrieve the one I want. Similarly, much of what is wrong and unhealthy in human existence is due to this same strategy being applied by our corporate masters, our political leaders. They want everything sliced up and separate, the better to understand it, to tax it, to profit from it, to control it. So we end up with vast suburbs full of homes, connected by perennially overtaxed highways to vast office parks and manufacturing parks where Work Is Done. People, workers, taxpayers, customers, are best viewed as interchangeable cogs. I say this as a former corporate master, I know this stuff, and from the company's point of view it makes perfect sense.

It is unhealthy, and it creates stress, precisely because it fails to acknowledge the essential interconnectedness of organic systems. The corporation doesn't care that everyone drives an hour each way to get to work. That's a cost, but the company has shoved it off on someone else. It would be healthier for the workers if they lived close to work, and could walk home for lunch, but they'd spend less time in the office then, and who wants that? Other than the worker, of course, who doesn't count.

Ok, enough politics. What has this to do with photography?

I do not think that a pattern language for doing photography would be particularly productive. My opinion here seems to have changed, interestingly. It strikes me that photography is, like software, an enterprise in which separating things is productive and useful. A photograph is made using a wide collection of techniques, equipment, ideas, and so on, but there does not seem to me to be any particular value in trying to interconnect those in some system.

One always gets more flexibility by keeping things separate separate, which is why corporate masters and bureaucrats like to do it. A photographer might reasonably like more flexibility and more control as well, and the pixels aren't going to be suffering through a rotten commute, or living too far from a park or a grocery as a result.

Where there is scope for some of these ideas is in arranging ones life, in doing ones work, to do photography.

The way we put the battery into the camera is interconnected to the way we hold the camera, which is interconnected with the way we point it, which flows, ultimately, into the pictures we take. This is not to suggest that putting the battery in differently will change your pictures, that's ridiculous. But they are connected, by a chain of motions, of thoughts, of causes and effects. The fact that the saola eats this leaf instead of that one does not cause the tiger to go extinct, but the actions are connected.

I don't propose to write a pattern language for photography, starting from how we insert batteries and ending with the Fine Print, but I do propose that we could (always) be more mindful of the interconnections.

I will now contradict things I have said in the past, as is my right.

The methods and technologies we use flow in to the pictures we make, they matter. While you can make good pictures with anything, the tools and techniques you choose will inevitably color the work you produce, and they will lend themselves better to this work than to that work. In turn, the technologies and techniques we choose flow from our preferences, our histories, these choices are built upon small things, but enable the expression of large things. We find the putting the battery into this camera fiddly, and so we turn to the other camera, which does certain things better and certain things less well. And so we find that we make one kind of thing more, and another less.

Be mindful of the interconnectedness of the processes. I think, perhaps, we sometimes get stuck in ruts. We must use this camera, that lens, when we should be bending with the flow. One day, take up the camera with the difficult battery compartment, and see where it leads you in its capriciousness. On another, set it down, and use the one that feels right in your hands but has the wonky color, and follow its nose. Maybe it wants you to shoot black and white today.

I don't want to write A Pattern Language of Photography but the actions of photography are an interconnected mesh, with actions flowing one from the other, tracing paths through the mesh. I think we get in to trouble when we fight the mesh, when we try to force tools and ourselves into places they don't fit very well.

Ugh, and THAT is enough of THAT

Hopefully that's enough lens fuckery for the next, I dunno, decade. I'm working on a longer piece that's a lot more interesting, or a lot less interesting, depending on who you are.

Ugly Reality, a Simple Test

Blrrrg. Sorry, there seems to be no way to conveniently zoom in on these pictures, so you're stuck looking at 77 pixel high JPEGs. I thought about going and scaling them all up 4x or something, but I'm exhausted with it all, so please just squint.

This happens to illustrate the uselessness of the 100% crop. You actually need to go to 400% or more to see what the hell is actually going on. All these little clippings look pretty similar, but they're not. If you're super interested in this crap a) God help you and b) download the pictures and look at them much bigger.

I used to be a bit of a lens testing hero, ages and ages back. So, here's a couple tests I ran today, just to give you some flavor. Nikon 300 f/4.5 AIS lens, wide open, happened to be what I had mounted. It's a decent lens, but not brilliant. You can pick them up today for less than $200 (AI) or $300 (AIS) from KEH. Grabbed a book with a nice fine bar chart over the ISBN, tossed it against a wall on the far side of the yard. Careful focusing, and here's a 100% crop for you to look at:

The picture above is updated. Zoomed in to 400%, the red mark indicating, roughly, 2 line-pairs, is 35 pixels long, which yields 17 pixels per line pair, or 4.25 pixels (21.25 microns) per line pair on the sensor, let's call it 22 microns per line pair, for 45 lp/mm. So there.

I have a Nikon D3100, 16 megapixel crop sensor. Calculate a little and you're gonna get a dot pitch of about 5 micrometers. This picture (and all of them in this post) is 77 pixels high, 100% crop. So we're looking at 77x5 = 385 micrometers vertically on the sensor here. Check my work here, but I'm getting 18 maybe 19 line pairs resolved in the vertical direction here, which works out to around 50 lp/mm of resolution, which honestly looks pretty darn usable here. We're starting to flirt with sensor limitations here, but things look pretty good.

Same deal, but the extreme corner of the sensor, about 13mm off the center (crop sensor, sorry). You can see the lens is degrading, but guess what, we still have usable resolution at about 50 lp/mm.

This sensor has the same dot pitch as the D810, and I can challenge it with a $300 lens, wide open.

Let's look at a lens that's actually good. This is likely the best lens I own, run you something like $400 or so at KEH, the 60mm Micro-Nikkor, with a very well deserved reputation. Wide open at f/2.8, 13mm off center. Same 385 micron sensor patch, but a slightly more open frame, and we can really see the wheels starting to fall off. I am seeing high contrast source data beginning to drop into a hole by around 65 lp/mm or so, and it feels to me like the lens losing it slightly before the sensor.

I don't happen to have an Otus lying around, and I dare say it would look a little better. Not, though, a whole lot better, because there simply isn't a lot of better available at the sensor. It doesn't matter how good of a lens you have, the physical limits of the system are staring you right in the face here. Have a look:

Stopping down to f/5.6 and pulling back a little to push the limits, we get this, where the second densest set of lines hitting the sensor around 70 lp/mm are almost gone, and the densest, hitting around 90 lp/mm, are just slightly modulated mush. These are hard sensor limits here. The lens is pretty much out of the picture. You could spend a million dollars on a lens and get no more resolution out of it.

This one is also expanded 400%. I also overlaid a strip of a much sharper picture of the same bar chart, for reference, so you too can see what the bars actually look like. The blue circle indicates a couple lines spaced about 13 pixels apart (3.25 pixels, 16.25 microns at the sensor) and the red lines indicate lines spaced about 9 pixels apart (2.25 pixels, 11.25 microns) at the sensor.

In summary, the D810 is useless as a test horse for lens resolution measurements, except for cheap lenses, wide open, and measured in the corners.

A Post-Lens-Design World

Are we approaching a post-lens-design world? We might be.

Lots of stuff is easily correctable in post these days, and quite small sensor sizes are becoming increasingly useful. Anyone can design a lens that covers a chip the size of a fingernail. If the chip goes to ISO 1,000,000 and I can add shallow DoF in post, who cares about full frame or medium format anything any more? You can make the lenses out of plastic, if you use 10 modules and computationally push the results together.

Are people designing really outré lenses out there based on what is and is not easily correctable? Can one build a 2000mm f/16 lens with a ton of correctable aberrations for $200? That would be wicked cool. Is anyone trying it out, or is it all about making the kit zoom (which isn't a very interesting lens, ultimately) very very very cheaply, still?

It's sort of a shame, because, really, who doesn't love dorking around measuring immensely heavy pieces of superbly engineered stuff? Even I kind of dig it. But those days are winding down.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Ugly Reality

I do try to avoid deep-ending on technical details, but the Zeiss Otus thing is sufficiently irritating that I'm going to do some math. Well, arithmetic.

We see, altogether too often, blather about lenses capable of delivering the necessary resolution to satisfy the demands of the newest digital cameras. Let's do some arithmetic, and see what these demands actually are. Take a 50 megapixel full frame camera. Bayer demosaicing throws away something like half of the resolution to give you color, so you're looking at 25 megapixels of resolving power. Doing some arithmetic, we come up with about 4100 pixels on the short side, which works out to 164 pixels per millimeter, or 82 line-pairs per millimeter. 82 lp/mm.

To put that in perspective, the reference film used for amateur lens testing, back in the day, was Technical Pan, which is capable of delivering 320 lp/mm of resolution. Yep. 4x the linear resolution. 16x the 2D resoluion. Now that's a challenging environment. Your 50 megapixel camera? It is to laugh. The much vaunted Reference Camera, the Nikon D810, clocks in a little under 70 lp/mm.

Having done some amateur lens testing in the 1990s, I can attest that actually getting 82 lp/mm to the sensor plane is hard. In reality, most people can't or won't accomplish it. The 50 megapixel wundercamera, while not in any meaningful way a challenging lens test case, has all the resolution normal people can actually use.

In the 1990s, any decent lens was capable of pushing 82 lp/mm onto the film plane. It is only in these modern times where, apparently, lenses have gotten so bad that they struggle.

So what the hell are all these people talking about? There are sensible people talking about how good the Otus lens line is.

Well, there IS something there. Consider some test charts. Suppose you have some black and white lines spaced very close together, so as to give you that 82 lp/mm resolution at the sensor. A very good lens will render them as crisp black lines alternating with white lines. A lesser lens will give you dark grey and light grey lines. The worse the lens, the lower the contrast at the sensor plane, until finally the contrast drops away to unusable levels. In the land of 82 lp/mm, both a very good and a quite moderate lens will deliver plenty of detail, but the better lenses will deliver higher contrast fine detail than the lesser one.

This mattered in the days of film, since recovering that contrast was technically demanding. Now, of course, it's the "Sharpen" slider. That's literally what that slider does. It doesn't make anything actually sharper, it puts the contrast back into the fine detail.

The better lens will also exhibit fewer aberrations, lateral blah and chromatic whatsit. Again, these mattered in the days of film, and are largely correctable in post in this digital age.

Bugger. Well, what on earth can this Otus thing actually do that is not doable with some minor digital corrections with a $200 nifty fifty?

Well. I guess there's fine detail that starts out low contrast? This can get lost, regardless of the sensor/film, when a cheap lens loses the thread of the very weak signal it starts with. This is and always has been the hardest thing to manage in the resolution part of the world, and even in the unrarified air of 82 lp/mm it can be a problem. Frankly, though, that's just a theory, and I suspect you'd be hard-pressed to actually find a situation in which the Otus preserved visible detail that a midrange equivalent lens lost.

Worth noting is that this kind of fine detail is by definition extremely hard to see in the first place, and hence arguably not very important visually, and it's quite difficult to preserve all the way to the print. So, you are (theoretically) saving something that nobody can see and which you will likely lose somewhere later in the process. Handy, that.

Secondly, correcting things in post will tend to add noise and artifacts. I dare say that fine detail from the Otus will look a trifle cleaner than fine detail from a midrange lens together with a touch of extra sharpening.

More importantly, it will look subtly different. So, when you're pixel peeping to see what your new $4000 lens is giving you, you'll be able to rationalize it.

There are other things like extreme field flatness, which is terribly helpful when you mainly take pictures of sheets of paper.

Friday, October 16, 2015


Prognostication III (Art)

A moment's thought will assure you that guessing what the artists are going to do with something new is a sketchy enterprise at best. In contrast, people who take pictures for money are constrained by what's come before. The business is either to produce more of the same, or to produce something similar but with incremental newness. Newness in small doses, please. Artists are under no such constraints, or at most minor versions of these constraints. Hence, prognostication is a sketchy business here.

I love sketchy.

I can't tell you what the final pieces will look like. That's up to the artists.

I can tell you that if you can automatically focus stack, you can unstack. If you can HDR, you can LDR. If you can light digitally, you can unlight digitally. What do any of those things even mean? No idea. People will figure out meanings, and they'll make things.

Computational photography creates raw material, latent images, which are malleable in entirely new ways. The artist's job is to bend, to break, to mold and shape their materials according to the full envelope of possibility.

And they will.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

WTF is up at Zeiss?

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last couple of years (and, let's be honest, most rocks have some sort of pundit under them, so you'd have to have been living under a very specific rock) you're aware that Zeiss has been rolling out lens lines and lenses in them like some sort of demented glass-grinding gerbil. I can't recall all the lines, something like Otus, Hocus, Pokus, Loxia, Sleepy, Dopey, and Doc, I think.

Since everyone else seems to mainly want to breathlessly quote press releases, and the few remainders are mainly taking pictures of test charts and tabulating the results, I thought I'd take a crack at WTF is up at Zeiss? since that's actually the interesting question.

I am by no means an industry expert, and arguably should be roughly the last person to write this piece, but since nobody is stepping up, here we go.

There are to my eye two important threads in these product lineups. The first is the ultra-luxury aspects of the Otus lenses. Yes, they are superb. Duh. MTF charts? Who cares. The lines are higher and straighter than anyone else's, we get it. Me, I masturbate to pictures of naked people, but I won't judge what you choose to look at in those intimate moments. It is equally clear that in order to see any observable benefit from the use of one of these lenses over a cheaper but still high end competitor, you have to engage in heroics. Heavy tripod, good quality body, very precise focus, and pretty specific shooting parameters (wide open, lots of important fine detail in the scene, etc, etc), and you have to print the results.

As an aside, I like to note that as you go up Nikon's price scale, the pixel pitch consistently drops, so arguably you'd be best off pairing your Otus with the lowest end Nikon body, rather than the highest end. File that under "things that make you go hmmm."

Reality is, almost no pictures taken with an Otus lens will meet all these criteria, and so the benefits will not be there. It is therefore clear that Zeiss is devoting substantial resources to delivering a Luxury Item, rather than a Picture Making Instrument. Coach handbags are good handbags, but the point is that they're Coach. Ditto, Otus. That these lenses are luxury items has been noted by other, wiser, heads than mine, I will add. This thought is by no means original with me.

Hold that thought.

The second thread is weatherized (in at least one line) lenses with clickless apertures. These are, basically, cheap cine lenses, as is frequently noted by reviewers, but rarely thought about much.

A quick poke around the internet suggests a bunch of these things for Sony E-mount, but they're also offering some clickless aperture stuff for other mounts. So, they're covering some bases here.

Let's see if we can reverse engineer any kind of strategy from these two things. (Spoiler warning: I can't, sorry.)

Why is Zeiss building super high end lenses into a market that everyone agrees is collapsing? Sure, there's always a play in milking the high end of a dying market, but you don't go big there, you stand pat, invest as little as possible, and suck up as much market share and cash as you can. Zeiss is going pretty big here. These are not moves you make to attack a shrinking market, there are moves you make to grab a piece of an expanding market.

The luxury market, as it stands now, is pretty straightfoward. Europe and the USA set the standards, they define what is and is not luxury. They do not, however, pay the bills. The Chinese, the Arabs, and the Russians pay the bills. Mainly the Chinese. So the name of the game is to get the west to agree that your thing is desirable and luxurious, and then take that to the money who should obediently buy a ton of it. Zeiss apparently thinks that they can make a nice business selling Otuses to these people, which implies that they think these people will be buying high end cameras and whatnot.

The cine lens thing is different. As DSLR lenses go, these things are pricy. As cine lenses go, they're cheap like borscht. Does Zeiss think there's going to be an explosion in indie filmmaking? That's a very interesting idea. I am explicitly not seeing this as a Chinese, Arab, or Russian phenomenon. There's a reason those guys are rolling in mountainous piles of cash, and it has to do with the fact that they shoot people who make indie films.

Is this simply a two-pronged approach to the product line? Zeiss doesn't strike me as a large enough player to be defocusing in this way, to serve two completely unrelated markets. It's not even obvious to me that there are halo effects in play here -- the indie film guys by definition don't give a crap about luxury, and the luxury guys don't give a crap about what lenses indie filmmakers use (although they probably DO want to watch the more chic of the films).

The Thom Hogan answer here would probably be that Zeiss is a bunch of idiots who should let him run the company. I am dubious.

Realistically there's a couple possibles here:
  • Zeiss is a bunch of idiots
  • Zeiss is bigger than I thought and can in fact go after two separate markets without losing their focus
  • Zeiss sees some connection here that I'm missing.

Given that I'm basically just some dumb guy on the internet, the smart money is on the last one.

Perhaps Zeiss thinks there's some synergy, that there's some exotic spin in running a cine lens on your still camera that's going to appeal to the monied classes outside of the Europe and the USA? Are they going to push some sort of weird cachet in clickless apertures, or are they really making a serious play for some potentially expanding low budget filmmaking market?

So there you go. WFT is up at Zeiss? I don't know.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Random Excellence

(stealing a title and theme from Mike over at ToP).

Here's a photo essay from Mr. Thein about which I have but one remark. The photograph entitled "An hour before, or an hour later II" with the cafe patrons and the girl in the doorway is excellent. Go look at it. Study it. It is unalloyed excellence, genuinely superb.

That is all.

A Device

A refinement of the previous remarks.

Envision a device, call it an L32. It's a medium-sized tablet, maybe a bit on the thick side. Tripod socket on the long side and another on the short side. Good quality display. Camera... stuff on the back. The details don't matter, it's computational photography stuff.

Here's how you use it:

Take a bunch of pictures. There's depth information natively in the pictures so selecting objects in the scene is as simple as tapping them. Composite together a picture out of parts in a few taps and swipes. Set focus point with a tap and select depth of field. Here's the subject, here's the background, focus on the eyes. Shallow DoF.. no, a little more. There.

Pick a lighting setup from your library or start fresh. Adjust positions, color, diffusion to taste to relight your composite. Five lights. Move the hair light back, main up, up, up, there. Dim the background light a touch, move the fill in a little. Dark card over there to control that. Now warm the color up a little.. Yep.

Save it as a 16 bit TIFF to the SD card. With, because why not, a complete set of mask layers for the various objects in frame. Off to Photoshop we go for retouching.

Is that worth something to you? If the Light guys are to be believed we can build this now. The first edition would be slow, battery life would be awful, and sometimes it just wouldn't do that great of a job. You might have to do some poking at surfaces in the picture and cueing the software "that's skin, dummy, not chrome!" here and there. But the second model would be better.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Progostication II (Commercial)

What's it all mean?

For the professional, computational photography is probably pretty irrelevant right now. These cameras are being positioned, so far, as pretty much the same old thing but cooler. Look, you can focus, set aperture, whatever, after you take the shot! which isn't that interesting to someone who's pretty good at doing those things properly before taking the shot. But this could change.

In camera focus stacking is will probably hit the product photography guys pretty hard, in a really good way. But that's just the same thing, done better, more conveniently. No more struggling with aperture, distance to subject, diffraction, and generally balancing all that stuff. Make this stuff here all be in focus. These guys can do it (sometimes with focus stacking!) this just makes it easier. Sometimes a lot easier.

What can you do with an even approximate 3D model of the crap in front of the camera, and a huge amount of dynamic range, and a great whack of image processing capacity?

Well, you can add and delete light sources pretty easily (for some generous value of easily). Does this mean that you don't even carry lights any more, just a couple different software-defined lighting setups in your.. whatever it is? Just shoot the CEO under any kind of generic diffuse light, against any background. The 3D means sliding the background out is trivial, throw the lights in in post. Give the PR flack a dozen different looks with a couple clicks and some fiddling with the "lights." How's that for interesting?

Now it's entirely about the moment, getting that split second in time when the CEO does that thing with his eyes and the corners of his mouth crinkle up just so and he's got the look. Nailed it. Now let's deal with the lights.

Print and 2D imaging as final output doesn't seem likely to go away any time soon, but as mobile continues its apparently inevitable march to total domination, new formats, new media, whatever that implies, are going to become A Thing.

3D information could enable, just going slightly nuts here, game-ifying photos. While we might not know what the back side of the mailbox looks like, we can move things behind it. What if ads built around these photos include elements that can interact with the objects in the photo? Or simply move through the scene naturally? Is it amusing when your logo bonks into the lamppost? Throws up mocking bunny-ears behind the CEO's head? What if I can take an ordinary (ordinary for 2019, that is) product shot, and tuck a witty easter egg into it that gives you a code for a free Starbucks drink, if you can find which object it's hiding behind?

Of course you can do this now, but you need someone to manually cut the photo up and build the semi-3D model. If I can just build the easter egg part, and slap any ordinary (2019-ordinary) photo into it, well, that's a win.

Remember when drawing lines on the football field on TV was a cool thing? That was crazy cool. Now it's completely ordinary. And expected. You can't broadcast football without 'em.


I am pretty sure that in the 1990s there was a pretty good general opinion, in the right circles, that this digital thing was a flash in the pan and that the real action was in new film emulsions and new film formats. We were pretty excited by the Ektar films and the TMax films, and we were pretty much assuming that the progression would go on. Pretty soon, we'd see new film cameras with ultra-flat film planes to take advantage of the newer super high res emulsions, and so on. There was a certain amount of derision about APS film, but there was broad consensus, I think, that there was future work to be done in improved film cassette formats (maybe APS style auto-loading, but in a decent size?). I was there, but there's been some kids and beer between then and now, so my memory is a little vague.

Of course, we know where that went.

Now we have the DSLR crowd, looking onwards to more megapixels, and maybe something that really takes advantage on the on-chip phase detection circuits, and why can't they do ETTR exposure modes? And surely the way forward is by supporting DNG RAW format in-camera, etc.

Sound familiar? The single lens, single sensor solution is perfect, and eternal, it will never ever go away, it will always dominate. The future is is fiddling with the details and making it ever better. There's some rumors of single lens single sensor cameras with super high dynamic range, or 1billion ISO performance, or whatever. It's all extremely familiar.

I don't know where the future is. I do know the general theme that is being dismissed, though:

Computational photography is the category, and it's here to stay. If I had to predict, which luckily I am not being forced to do, I would predict that it's the core of future photographic tech. I don't know what variant of it will win out. Quite likely, something we haven't seen yet. We have light-field work, with a single sensor and a bunch of microlens widgets (Lytro, Raytrix). We have multiple sensor multiple lens system (Light). There's all manner of research stuff ("this camera sees around corners!") that gets talked about at TED conferences.

People actually use it now, with focus stacking and HDR techniques, albeit clumsily. Interestingly, when someone dares to build it into a camera, the establishment dismisses it. Imagine, if you will, focus stacking in-camera. Draw a line on the live view touchscreen "make all these points in focus". Clickwhirclickwhirrclickwhirrrrrr DONE. The camera is so much better positioned to do focus stacking and HDR than the user is it's not even funny. But the establishment is pretty opposed to computational photography as a thing, so, no.

We're seeing a lot of experimentation with form factors and user interfaces, leading to more derision from the establishment. These things don't even look like a DSLR, therefore they are lame and stupid.

What's it going to mean? I'm not sure.

A commonality in the technologies seems to be some sort of 3D information available, which has some implications for editing. It's probably a lot easier to remove the inconvenient mailbox in the background, and you can set DoF in post. These are basic technical details, and I feel like somewhere in those kinds of details is the thing, or set of things, that unpacks into something much more important which is actually the thing that changes everything.

Nobody guessed that digital photography was going to result in a billion pictures and a million memes a day. Nobody guessed that we'd have web sites (what are those?) devoted entirely to letting people put funny captions on to pictures (upload your own, or select from our collection of stolen pix!). Digital slammed us with these massive social changes, and it's not even clear what -- exactly -- about digital did that. Something about ubiquity, something about malleability of the product, something about web-native formats.

Is there something about mobile, about phones, that's going to turn up, here? Probably. Just as digital photography equals JPEGs equals the native format of the web was a huge component. What about phones and small tablets? They're small, but are or will be super high resolution. Apple's trying something out with their Live Photos (um, hello Vine? Snapchat?) but I'm not sure that's quite it.

Anyone who's edited photos on a phone knows that malleability of the product kind of drops away. Yeah, you can do some stuff, but ain't nobody doing frequency separation retouching on a phone. The pictures may be malleable, but at a higher level. If not literally with voice commands, at the level where you could express it as such. "crop this, open the shadows" as opposed to pixel-level stuff, layers, masks, and brushes.

Something about computational photography, something about phones, that we haven't noticed yet. Possibly it hasn't been invented yet.

Monday, October 12, 2015


Kirk Tuck's blog mentioned mine, which explains the uptick in traffic and comments (about a 10x increase, actually, from incredibly tiny to merely very small). As I occasionally (twice a day, maybe three times, tops. usually) do, I checked up on the sales stats for my little book, and I made seven bucks recently. Which, while on the one hand hilarious, on the other hand is some sort of personal best here. I continue to be amused and pleased that the silly thing sells a little now and then, and I sincerely hope those of you who splurge for it get some value.

Ima take my proceeds and buy me a copy of The Lisbon Portfolio which has been on my radar for a while, but I never quite got around to buying. I went through the ToP affiliate links, because I figure Kirk's already getting paid once here!

You should do it too!

If we ain't take care of one another, who is, after all. Spend more money on Art.

Notes from Out There

This essay might be the best thing I've ever read on LuLa. I agree with Declan completely, or as I like to think of it, Declan agrees with me.

I suppose predictably the forum is grumbling a little with the "why can't I just take sharp landscapes?" crowd, to which I say "you can, but you cannot reasonably expect anyone else to think they're very interesting", and there's also some counter-voices. As usual, LuLa forums continue to be pretty good and thoughtful, as these things go.

I was genuinely pleased to see the piece on the front page. We need more of this out there. It's nice that Declan agrees with me, but it's nicer still that he's a thoughtful guy, writing thoughtfully, and getting his thoughtfulness published. I like to think I'd be almost as pleased, even if he disagreed with me.

Update: a commenter pointed out the error, there was a discussion, and to my surprise Ming accepted correction and updated his piece with some stuff about diffraction that's true. Well done, sir. We all make mistakes, it's really about whether we're gracious in our error.


And over here we have Ming in full voice, giving the 2000 word treatment to the 200 word idea, telling us how to use tilt-shift lenses. He's trying for hard-headed practicality, and gets fairly close to it. You'd think that with that many words he could actually explain the Scheimpflug principle, rather than his "practical simplification" of it. And then he pulls out this doozy, for no reason at all, in one of his patented "Look at how much stuff I know" sidebars:

Diffraction is why pinhole cameras work: they use the quantum properties of light bending around the edges of a very small aperture to focus it. However, the same principle also causes focused light rays to bend in the wrong direction, undoing the work of the optical elements

Which, for reference, is completely wrong. There's nothing correct in that statement, and there's no way to spin it to make it seem sort of correct. It's just wrong. And the topic is irrelevant to any discussion of T/S lenses and the like.

There's also some historical stuff that's wrong, but vague enough that one could weasel it around to semi-rightness. Suffice it to say that there was plenty of smallish format stuff going on with plenty of resolution, in the early days.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Colliding Concepts

Consider the L16 camera that everyone's dismissing these days. Among other things the founders of Light have done, they've done voice recognition things.

Consider the digital darkroom, that happy domain for the slider-loving nerd.

What if the L16 camera had voice recognition rolled in, Siri for the darkroom.

Crop to the girl.
The other girl.
Good. A little looser... taller, 8x10. Perfect.
Now open up the shadows a little. More. Less. Right there.
Burn the shadows lower left down to the original levels... A little more. Good.
Is it too yellow? Nope, too far, back it off.. a little more. Perfect.
Print it.

If you like you can imagine some poking at the screen, a little sliding and pinching. You could even have sliders if you wanted.

How about photo editing for people who see, rather than people who like to play with computers?

I'm just sayin'.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Tyranny of the Digital Darkroom

I swear I've seen this observation before, but it is not a common lament and it should be.

Do you recall a time when you could drop a couple rolls off, and get a couple contact sheets? Then you'd mark the contract sheet up with a red pen. Draw some lines. Talk to the guy a bit. Then a couple days later you'd have prints. Remember?

Even then some people would tell you that if you were serious of course you needed to do your own darkroom work, but tons of people ignored those people. Many superb photographers didn't process or print. They shot.

These days we're all slaves in the digital darkroom. You can either take what the camera gives you, or you can do the work yourself.

There just doesn't seem to be a business in doing the darkroom work any more. It's "so easy" we're reluctant to pay for it. We shoot too damn many frames for anything like a contact sheet to be useful anyways. The attraction of screwing around on the computer is pretty universal, so we barely notice that we've become dumb beasts of burden, schlepping Adobe's software.

It lets us disguise our Facebook habit, our twitter habit, our instagram habit.

Next time you're "processing images" make a note of how much time you spend not processing images. Are you processing images now? You are not. You are screwing around on the internet reading some dumb blog. Imagine if you could have a guy doing all that. Imagine that you're out in the street, at a cafe, asleep under a tree, while your pictures are being magically turned in to prints by a guy who's better at it than you, and astonishingly cheap.

There's no going back, of course.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Light L16 Camera

There's this new camera announced. For sale in a few months, they say. It's 16 different cell phone camera modules banged into a small tablet format, and then computationally combined. It gives you loads of pixels, DoF adjustable in post, digital zoom that is allegedly not terrible, in-camera HDRish, etc. It's a bit like the high end Lytro. In some ways it resembles this thing Ctein suggested in 2011 but in other interesting ways it does not.

Update: To my surprise, Light sent me an email requesting that I add some backlinks to their web site. I see no reason not to, and indeed it seems like a gap in my original remarks. So, here's their corporate web site, and here's a link to the camera's page. I'll be sure to let you all know if they start sending me truckloads of money, or fly me anywhere on a press junket.

Allow me a brief vignette into the marketing of high tech products. The bible here is Crossing the Chasm and the extremely brief executive summary is that there are these people called innovators and early adopters who try new stuff out. You can sell stuff to them for a while. Then there's a gap in the system, and the next thing you have to do is start selling to the early majority, and there's a bunch of work you need to do.

The early adopters "get it", they buy the new thing for its newness. They're technology enthusiasts, and they understand the unique problems that the new thing solves. They will accept a remarkably sketchy and expensive product, because they "get it". It's usually not even a whole product, it's just a widget. The "whole product envelope" typically has huge gaps in it the early adopter has to fill in by himself.

Lytro, and now Light, are in the throes of the early adopter phase. What's interesting here is that the go-to guys on the internet are not early adopters. Thom Hogan and his compadres think of themselves as early adopters, because they embraced digital a decade ago. Now, however, they are serving an audience of enthusiasts and are themselves enthusiasts who are locked in to the DSLR and its followons. What they think of as innovation is a better DSLR, and "a better version of the thing I already have" is almost literally the opposite of innovation.

The most obvious tell is that the operative question always boils down to Ok, how can I pull these files in to Lightroom and start whacking on them with Adobe's toolchain?

This is to completely miss the point. These things capture before the Adobe toolchain becomes relevant. One can think of them as capturing light "in flight" and computationally forming the image in post. Adobe's tools are helpless here.

Furthermore, the innovation isn't in getting better stuff into Photoshop and then applying better Photoshop effects. That's buggy whip stuff. That's the old way. We don't yet know what the new way looks like, but we do know it's not the old way.

This begs the question, who the hell are the early adopters?

You need the early adopters to fund development, to fund the drive to the whole product and to fund the drive to enough volume to bring costs down. You need these people to buy the product before it's ready so you can figure out how the software is really supposed to work, what the UI ought to look like, and so on. They're integral.

They have money. They're interested in photography, in pictures perhaps. I'd like to say that they're not DSLR users, except that the previous two items pretty much guarantee that they are DSLR owners. Therefore, they're unsatisfied DSLR owners, frustrated DSLR owners. At a guess they hate all the fiddly options, all the "shoot RAW and develop in ACR and then import to Lightroom and and and OH MY GOD WHAT THE FUCK" garbage.

Lest we think of these people as losers, let me point out that they are precisely analogous to film photographers who neither develop nor print. They might, perhaps, be interested in shooting pictures, but not in the technical details necessary to produce the final product. There have been some pretty fair photographers in the past who fit this mold. In this modern era of digital, you almost can't work this way. There isn't any good way to have other people do that stuff. Nobody shoots and hands the SD cards to someone else. Do they?

I don't know if these people exist in sufficient quantity to fund this stage. There are at least two companies that have gotten some money to try it out, though.

How does this affect you?

If you're interested in the new technology, and you think you might like to be an early adopter, stop asking the questions "Does it shoot RAW? How do I import to Lightroom?" The new thing is new and a good part of the time the $1500 you spent will simply vanish after a while as that company's strategy does not prove out. It's all gonna be different, though, from shutter-press to final print.

Being an early adopter is expensive and frustrating, but it has its rewards.

Also, anything Thom Hogan or Lloyd Chambers says about the L16 is almost certain to completely miss the point.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

So my dad died

Long illness, etc. He hadn't really been mentally present in more than a year, and to be honest nobody was particularly present in the most recent few months, although he did seem to think the 2 year old was mildly interesting. Dad and I said our goodbyes some years ago, and the family's been mourning for a long time now. We grieve over an extended period.

My dad taught me that the only things that matter are where you stand, where you point the lens, and when you "squarsh the masher."

He also taught me to assemble the whole thing first, and then tighten the bolts.

He tried to teach me, by example and to limited effect, to choose my words with great care.

He was a pretty smart dude. I miss him. Got a bunch of lenses and a couple nice cameras of his to remember him by.

Review: The Idea of Man from Ming Thein

Let me begin by acknowledging my prejudices here. I have them, they're real. I shall attempt to set them aside, and I probably shan't entirely succeed. Such is life.

Why review this online version of Ming's Chicago gallery show? I've been working on this thesis that you can't assemble a powerful body of work ex post facto and here we have an attempt to do just that. Ming's going big here, with a big idea, a big theme. I refuse, flatly, to deduct points for the bigness of the theme. If you're going to do this sort of thing, if you're going to take a swing at a serious body of work, props to you for going big. Sally Mann took a swing at "Death" and she's awesome, so there.

It's a big idea, it's a strong theme, I say bloody well go for it. I will root for you, regardless. And I do. Go Ming, Go.


The three facets of the show, interstitial text, photographs, and titles (captions?) all appear to me to be only vaguely supporting one another, often fighting, and in one notable instance working very very well indeed, about which more anon.

Ming mentions that the captions are important (I assume here that he means the titles, but possibly I am missing something on his flickr account). The titles, to my eye, often contradict the interstitial text describing the group the picture belongs to. In a couple of cases, the title is necessary to make sense of why a picture is in the group at all. In many cases the title appears to be irrelevant, and in at least one it's simply pointing out the not-very-obvious visual joke (which joke appears to be unconnected to any of the larger themes). If I could simply dismiss the titles, I would, but they're necessary to make sense of a couple of the pictures.

Reworking the titles to either consistently point the way to an interpretation of the picture that makes sense in context, or to more consistently contradict the context to provide a contrapuntal voice, or really any sort of organizing principle would be a big step up, if you must have titles. Also, making the titles be thought bubble instead of DSC_0127817.JPG thought bubble copy.jpg would be a bit of a step forward right there, but that's sort of a nit.

The interstitial text speaks of really quite universal themes of conformity, rebellion, self-discovery. It's a big idea, and a good one. On close inspection, though, this text describes a sequence so specific as to feel personal. Ming appears to be simply talking about himself. This work would feel more universal organized as un-ordered groups, rather than a sequence of growth.

Many of the photos are simply filler. Strong leading lines pointing to a lone silhouette. Ok, I get it. A Human, How does this particular lone silhouette relate to this idea, when the very similar lone silhouette apparently relates to a different idea?

In general, this whole thing comes across as an essay about a personal journey, presented as a sort of allegory, illustrated by stock photographs. In some cases, very well chosen stock photos. He does do some interesting things with color, and the relative size of the subject in the frame, things that really work quite well. The larger, out of focus figures in the fifth group, about Self, really works pretty well here.

The exceptional picture is the shadow of the violinist. By itself, this is a pretty standard shadow play picture. Loads of idiots have shot a million variations on this thing. In context, however, I am willing to declare it excellent bordering on genius. As an expression of We know our new identity, but we must persevere to fit in and find our niche, our community, the 7th group, it's simply outstanding. This is a picture which, in the context of the greater body of work, is elevated in precisely the way I like to see, in precisely the "greater than the sum of the parts" way that exemplifies a strong body of work.

Overall, if you deleted all the text, the show would work OK as an expression of isolation, of separateness. This is largely because the point of view is, in virtually every frame, one of someone who is separate. Note that most of the figures are back-to the camera, and many of them are very far away. These are pictures taken by a guy who is physically and psychologically separate.

Without the text to give the theme, though, the stellar violinist photo becomes boring.

I don't think this could be reworked into an important show, in any meaningful way. It could be enormously improved by culling several of the more redundant pictures, re-titling everything to make sense, and re-organizing the interstitial text. Still, it works better than I expected, and the violinist was almost shocking to me.

If this were mine, I'd throw out everything but the violinist's shadow, I'd rewrite the interstitial text to be about three universal themes in no particular order, and then I'd go shoot them hell out of those three themes specifically.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Photography: An Eightfold Path Toward Self-Discovery

I have titled this piece with the same title as a recent essay on The Luminous Landscape, an essay which had a great title, and basically the same dumb, lazy, "stages of the photographer" content as a million other clickbait pieces on the web. I was so disappointed in it, I decided to write the article it should have been. This is it.

I'm going to borrow some ideas, well, really, I'm going to borrow some words from Buddhism. The eightfold path is a Buddhist concept of which I do not pretend to have a particularly good understanding. Anything I say which particularly aligns with actual Buddhist teaching and thought should be considered an accident. I'm going to borrow some language, essentially the English titles of the 8 components or aspects of the path.

Then I'm going to stretch my philosophy of, my approach to, photography and Art-making, out on these words, this scaffolding of ideas if you will, to dry. It really doesn't matter how one chooses to dissect a philosophy of this sort. I could probably borrow some ideas from the Apache, or from Judaism, and get a quite different looking but equally useful view of the thing. Today, I am using these words from Buddhist teachings.

The eight aspects of the path are:

Right View
Right Intention
Right Speech
Right Action
Right Livelihood
Right Effort
Right Mindfulness
Right Concentration

In all cases "Right" means proper, correct, fit. The conceit is that the eight aspects support and enable one another. Each aspect represents something you can think about and do by itself, and in the context of all the others. Taken all together, you might be able to take better pictures. Or at any rate, something more like the pictures you want to take.

Without further ado:

Right View

There's a double meaning here in the English translation, which I will ruthlessly exploit. On the one hand, a right view is an attitude, the right attitude. On the other hand we can consider it the thing that occurs just before a successful shutter-press, the right (literal) seeing from the right vantage and so on. We'll consider, for now, the first one. The right mental state.

I want to take meaningful pictures near here which embody, in some sense, the pacific northwest, present and past.

Right Intention

The intent to do what you're striving for. Many of us wish to be firemen, few of us take steps or plan to.

I plan to step out once a week, at least, to try to take these pictures.

Right Speech

Since, for healthy people, photography is neither a lifestyle nor a religion, this one needs a bit of massage, it probably ought not to be about talking to other people. However, we can usefully consider our internal voices. The Inner Game books all talk about the voice in your head that's negative, how it's surprisingly problematic, and how to quell it. This comes out a bit like pep-talking yourself, but there it is. It's probably more useful than you think.

I think I can, I think I can, I think I can... take meaningful pictures.

Right Action

Do it. Go take pictures. But also behave in a way that makes that possible. Arrange your activities to support, or ay any rate not defeat, the photography. Perhaps it's no use scheduling a 2-4pm on Sunday time slot to go shoot when you're planning to work out from 1-2pm, and you'll be beat. As the voice in your mind should align with and support the photography, so must your actions in life.

Shoot after a nap. Nap before shooting. Make time to have a nap. Get chores done early, so as to have time for a nap.

Right Livelihood

Again, photography is neither a lifestyle nor a religion, so this one needs a bit of massage. It's unreasonable for everyone to select their work to align perfectly with the desire to make good photographs. Still, you can try to arrange your lifestyle to better suit. Budget as necessary. Schedule vacation time as necessary. Buy a car that's compatible with your desired photographic actions. Whatever is necessary.

Move to 4 day workweek to free up time, in general, so that children, chores, naps, and also photography all fit in better.

Right Effort

This is performing the work of photography is a productive way that is aligned with your goals. I've talked ad infinitum about my process, such as it is, and for me, that is right effort. Take the pictures, but not stupidly. Use whatever methods work for you to productively search for the right pictures, the ones you want.

Shoot with my idea of the pacific northwest clearly in mind. Sort the results and devise a modified shooting plan to attack the same subjects again and again, with new, more refined, more specific ideas about framing, camera position, and all the rest. Use inspiration-generating methods to inform the process.

Right Mindfulness

Being engaged with the subjects, not shooting just because you have time free. Be in the right frame of mind to work on the problems you've identified. Be plugged in.

I don't shoot unless I have a plan, unless I have devised a useful next step. Sometimes the next step is to simply go shoot and see what happens, but not always. If there's no productive shooting plan, seek inspiration instead with books, naps, and skull sweat. Explicitly create engagement with the idea and the pictures, by explicit methods.

Right Concentration

Focus on the plan. Keep in mind your goal, and whatever you are currently attempting as an approach to them. Concentrate on what matters.

When shooting, focus on the shooting. Don't dawdle around, move to the next spot. Remember what I'm doing differently this time, and do that.

The first two, view, and intention might be seen as aligning our outlook to our goals. The next three, speech, action, and livelihood might be considered to align our selves and our lives with our goals. Not, as in the case of Buddhism, to re-create our lives around the goal, but simply to make space for the goal. The last three, effort, mindfulness, and concentration, work within that space we've made, explicitly working to realize our goals.

Ultimately, we hope to arrive at that Right View in the sense we set aside, the sense of seeing the right frame at the right time, and then we press the button. And we do it again, and again.

All aspects support and enable one another. By quelling the negative interior voice, we help support and enable concentration, and so on, through all 28 pairs of aspects, and all other groupings.

The attentive reader may note that this is a basic self-help program of sorts, and would probably be just as effective at improving your tennis game, or your business, or your cardio-vascular health, as is is at improving your photography. There's a bunch of ways to do these things, and they all come down to being mindful of what you want, and of doing what is needful to make that happen. It's useful to break it down this way and that way until some particular way of looking at it helps. Maybe this one will help you! It's a funny old world, innit?

This is a somewhat broader program than what I actually do right now, but having laid it out in this fashion, I'm going to attempt to apply it. My Pacific-Northwest project is somewhat stalled out, and re-focusing is probably a good idea. I'll report back if anything interesting happens.