Friday, 29 November 2013

There's more to it than sharpness

My struggle with the 'look' of pictures continues. It must all boil down to wanting to get as close to the 'look' of film as possible.

In black and white I find my m4/3 camera does a reasonable job. Maybe with a touch more depth of focus and perhaps some extra sharpness/clarity, but the tones look right to me. Blown highlights don't matter so much in black and white as the transition is from grey to white rather than a pale colour to white - which looks unnatural.

If I wanted to do some serious monochrome work this camera would do the job. The trouble with that is that I was looking at some good black and white documentary stuff today and though that if it had been in colour it might have lost the graphic qualities but told more of a story. Take colour out of the equation and while a timeless universality comes through something else is lost. Colour can help place pictures in time as fashions change. They can also set a mood. It also prevents people 'colourising' the photos at some future date! As the photos I was looking at were digital in origin I guess the colour information still exists on a hard drive or two somewhere though.

Small sensors still have a tendency to clip highlights and give white hot-spots, although things are much improved from ten years ago, even less. Then there's the almost infinite depth of focus. I tried out a Nikon compact today and even with an aperture of f2.2 the shot below is almost all in focus. Even when looking at an A3 print everything looks sharp enough.

Compared to the output from my first digital compacts, however, it is vastly improved in tonality and detail. I like the look of the colours too. It's just that endless detail that puts me off. The camera handled and focused well. While I was tempted, my (probably futile) search for a small camera (at a price below that of an upmarket DSLR) continues.

Of course, when you press the shutter release accidentally there's every chance that nothing at all will be in focus!

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Light, space and shapes

On Sunday afternoon I almost went fishing, but I thought there might be a lot of other anglers about, so headed for the last resort with the cameras. I forced myself to use the short telephoto for as long as I could bear it. For some reason this resulted in me making the majority of my pictures in one way. Centring the subject which was usually something graphic - the telephoto helping this by compressing the perspective. The light was pretty flat, which helps with some subjects as too much shadow and contrast detracts from them. It makes for subtle images. Not the sort to garner loadsa likes on sharing websites.

I hadn't been along the pier for some time. There's not really much there to be honest, not even too many people. With the pier being a confined space, in terms of width, I put the telephoto away and went with my beloved 28mm. I read something on the web about how this focal length, when you centre something in the frame, creates leading lines which direct the eye to the subject. A while back I read a description of William Eggleston composing like the Confederate flag. He uses the same focal length a great deal.

What I like is the way it is wide without being distortedly so. As such it creates a feeling of space in pictures without the exaggeration of wider lenses. The perspective looks natural - to me.

As well as a few dog walkers, and the usual families out for a bracing (cold) wander along the pier there was a group of photographers. That's some of them in the distance in the shot above. I don't know if they were on a photowalk or what, but they didn't seem to be taking many photos. It seems a peculiar way to go about photography to me. I find I need to be in a sort of bubble of concentration and awareness. Difficult if you are in a group.

A fisheye seems like it should work on the pier, but it's a difficult lens to work with. It certainly helps if subjects are centred with this lens. Anything slap bang in the middle appears less distorted than whatever surrounds it. Certainly a bit of a gimmicky lens, but quite fun to use sparingly.

Walking back along the pier I kept stopping to peer (ouch!) over the rails and look down. The car park was unusually deserted, and I took some more almost symmetrical shots - this time with the wider lens. I must have got into that way of looking.

Forsaking zoom lenses really doesn't restrict me. What does hold me back is my obsession with making  pictures that are concerned with lines and blocks of colour. There's so little going on in them, to engage a viewer, that I don't see how they could be of any interest to anyone else but me.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Film is dead

I know I've said this before but... This is the last roll of black and white film I'll ever use!

A number of things struck me while scanning and processing these pics. The 'look' that grain gives film shots immediately makes the pictures look old. Wishing to retain this look is, to my mind, an affectation. It does nothing to get the message of the images across.

I'm also pretty sure that part of the film look that people find appealing is down to the 'sensor' size, and the depth of focus that gives in combination with the standard lens. Take away the grain and this shot could just as easily have been shot with a full frame DSLR.

Because I left the film in the camera for months before finishing it off I have no idea where I came across this tumble drier!

Being limited to blacks and whites means that when you find something that needs colour you're stuffed.

Next time I get tempted by Ilford's wares I shall resist. Honest...

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

It doesn't have to be art

Taking a walk by the canal today I was reminded how easy it is to ignore recording things that we take for granted. Things which have been there for as long as we can remember, which we assume will be there for evermore. When I took some photographs down there back in April things had changed since I was younger. Some of the mill buildings had been demolished.

Not long afterwards I read of plans to redevelop the site for housing. But that went out of my mind until today when everything looked much different.

Working from memory I couldn't make  picture from the same viewpoint. But that's not necessary when the purpose is to record change rather than make pictures which lean towards expression. Photography isn't just about making striking images, it also has functional value. It is a many faceted medium, which is its attraction for me. The same tool can be used to make art, to document, to make comment and to sell. Amongst other uses. Used well it can combine two or more of its attributes.

The way things, and light, change can (when ignored) lead to photographic opportunities being missed. Far too often I have driven past something and thought it would make a good picture, intending to return at a later date. Often this has been repeated. Sometimes in order to wait for the right light, but usually through laziness. The other day I drove past a tree I had in mind to shoot and saw a new road sign had been erected right in front of it. The lesson I doubt I have learned is that when you see something to photograph, that's the time to get the camera out. Although Sod's law will most likely come into play.

Yesterday I took a walk to the village an hour before dark. Not planning on making any serious pictures, so taking just the X10. On my way home, in a spot I have passed many times before, something made me notice a view that appealed to my banal preferences. Maybe it was the light that made me stop. I took a shot, which I knew would be technically flawed as the light was going. It would serve as a sketch though. I could go back any time and get the same viewpoint. In fact I planned to do that today.

Not only did I venture out earlier, but the weather had changed dramatically. The mood had changed with it. So I took one shot as another note and reminded myself that I must strike while the iron is hot in future. And to take a print with me of a view I wish to replicate so I can get the framing closer.

Some good has come from this failure. I have got an idea of the kinds of pictures I would like to make of my locality. It's been a long time coming, but I think I now have some inkling of how I could put together a set of local views. The trouble is I'll run into the old problem I have of not carrying out these well formed plans. The pictures I have already made in my head are much better than any I'm likely to make with a camera!

Monday, 18 November 2013

The danger of book buying

There's a strong temptation to start collecting photobooks. The internet makes it so easy to find titles which shops in provincial towns are unlikely to stock. So easy to become aware of books that you might never otherwise of heard of if you don't read the right publications. My temptation is to collect books of British photography.

While it might be the case that American photography and latterly European and Japanese photography has been influential on 'current practice' I find myself drawn to photographs of the land I was born in. The avant garde would call me parochial and insular, I prefer to think of myself as deeply rooted!

Niall McDiarmid's Crossing Paths project, which I have mentioned before, has become a book which dropped through my letter box last week. It has a lot going for it. Not only are the photographs worth looking at, it's of a size which doesn't make your arms ache. Not too big, and not too small.

There are many things I like about the pictures, and their Britishness is one of them. I can't really define it, but there's a warmth and affection in the photographs which strikes me as essentially British in it's quietly understated way.

After seeing the Tim Hetherington show at the Open Eye Gallery a few weeks back I ordered a copy of Infidel. As I had expected the book made a much better job of showing the pictures than the exhibition had. This is another small book. Which goes to show that photographs don't have to be printed huge to make an impression. Having them small enough to hold in your hand can make you study them closer. The number of images also build to form a bigger picture. The whole being stronger than the sum of its parts.

Although the photographs are of Americans fighting (or mostly resting) in Afghanistan, they again share the British reserve and are not as gung-ho as most conflict photography is. There's a quiet compassion in the pictures.

More British photography books are tempting me at the moment, but they are mostly retrospective publications. Martin Parr's The Nonconformists and Bert Hardy's Britain. However, I'm trying to avoid the lure of nostalgia so it might be The New English Landscape that I purchase for next. One thing's for sure. Whatever books I buy they will not be poncey, hand made limited editions with hefty price tags. Call me an idealist, but I still believe that the first infinitely reproducible medium of visual expression should be widely available and affordable. Although I can, and do, appreciate books as objects of desire, I still think they should be books first and foremost. It's the content, the information, that matters. Postcards before mahoosive prints, paperbacks before 'artist books'.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Turn everything up to eleven

Is it my imagination or has this internet thing and digital cameras created a new definition of how photographs should look? It seems to me that unless photographs are contrasty and sharp with saturated colours they don't meet the acceptable standards in this screen-viewing age.

Maybe it's the screen-viewing experience which has created this trend. Maybe it's the quick hit mentality that is prevalent in the current times. Maybe it's the ease with which the controls in processing software can be shoved over to max. It's easy to be seduced into making images look this way. Perhaps subtlety and naturalness have had their day. Or it could just be that this is the way digital looks.

Certainly contrast and saturation give images impact - think National Geographic and Kodachrome, so it's not really a new thing. It can, however, all too easily detract from the picture. Viewers being impressed by the effect rather than the content.

I got to thinking about this while struggling to make the files from the G2 look less harsh and garish (which was why I took the shot above to mess around with the greens and blues). And later when perusing a photographer's blog which was full of carefully composed, sharp and contrasty black and white pictures. I could see why the blog is popular. The pictures looked stunning...

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Weatherproof cameras

The mentality of people on photography (or should that be camera?) forums baffles me.I guess it shouldn't. Hobbyists of all sorts spend a disproportionate amount of time fretting over gear instead of using it. Mostly they don't use it for the simple reason of lack of time due to family/work commitments. A decent camera is also a fair financial investment for people too. So it's a little unfair to knock them when they worry about getting their gear wet.

If you are taking photos as a hobby then there's really no need to stay out in the rain all day getting wet. Never mind getting your camera wet. The fact of the matter, from my experience, is that you can get cameras wet in the rain. If you take sufficient precautions to keep water off the lens (which will bugger up your photos and is to be avoided) then you'll be doing enough to keep the camera's innards dry in light to middling rainfall in the UK. If you're in a real life monsoon, that might not be the case!

Tuck the camera under your waterproofs when not in use, wipe it down if the water looks like it's getting near anywhere it could get into the electrics. Stand under cover. Use some common sense. 

The fact is that rain makes for great street photography opportunities. Especially so if the light is either changeable or failing and artificial light beginning to take over. The problem I had yesterday was that the rain was just too heavy for me as I'd left my waterproof jacket behind. Otherwise I'd have stuck at it for longer. The colours were nice even if the pictures were run of the mill. The rain forced most of the people off the street anyway!

For a change, and to see if it still works, I dug out my currently underused 50mm lens. For taking photos from under cover it proved more useful than a wider lens as it now feels like using a moderate telephoto to me. I keep coming back to the notion that it doesn't worry me much what lens I have on my camera. I'll find some photos to fit it one way or another.

What using single focal length lenses most of the time lately has made me think about is how zooms tend to make you do just that. Zoom in to make a tighter framing. This might make for photographs with immediate impact through isolation, but it can lead to picture which lack context, fail to tell a story. Using a wider frame means you have to get in close to make a subject as large as you would with a longer lens from further away, but that width can include background which helps inform and explain the picture.

There are no set rules, of course. I find it interesting how my ways of thinking about making photographs is changing all the time. And how it makes me re-evaluate pictures by photographers whose work I haven't fully understood in the past.

Sometimes you see something which you have to take a photograph off simply to remember it. The skip on next door's drive will be gone soon and the Easter Island head I saw in it will be gone too. us humans are born to react to the features which we understand as faces even when they are made from bright red plastic.

Monday, 4 November 2013

A Preston connection

It seems to me that camera manufacturers are using the retro look trick to lure people in to making new purchases. I've been amongst the older camera users hankering for a simple camera like we had in our youth. But having used my film camera since going digital I realise that the controls are much better on modern cameras. Sure it's nice to have actual buttons and dials to change the things you need to change often instead of fiddling about with menus, but in most cases cameras can be set up to do just that - often with the right hand and without taking your eye from the viewfinder.

So when pictures of the much trailed, and I mean much trailed, new Nikon full frame 'retro' DSLR appeared it seemed to me to be a curious mix of old and new. Worst of all it's lacking the one feature everyone really wants - the size of a film camera. Tomorrow all will be officially revealed.

Smallness is where mirrorless cameras score. It's why I keep getting tempted by them. I've been thinking that the Panasonic GX7 might be the Holy Grail. It has pretty much all the features I need. So that's what I've been trawling the net for info about recently. The files I've seen from it show it to be capable in low light which is a plus, and if the lens is up to it the detail it can resolve is great. There's one thing that puts me off. The pictures have that same look I get from the G2. That thing I still can't put a name to. The colours are sort of bright in a crayon colour way, yet dull and chalky at the same time. Unrefined. If I was only going to shoot black and white it would be fine though!

Still, I did find a promotional video for the camera. A book of Kert├ęsz photographs and Ian Berry's The English were my main inspirations when I discovered photography beyond the mainstream photographic magazines.  Leaving aside the fact it's an advert I enjoyed watching and listening to him in a 'reading between the lines' way. Listening to what he had to say about photography rather than the camera and watching how he moves when photographing. In the way the web works that video lead me to another.

There's no point having a camera that's great to use if you aren't happy with the 'film' it's loaded with. No point having a camera you want to like, and being less than happy with it. Which is still where I am with my little Fuji. I had it with me on a sunny morning in Preston (Berry's birthplace!) today. A day of bright winter sun and long shadows that made me want to take photographs. The problem was that I had no time to spare and had to snatch what I could while walking from the car to the art shop and back.

The camera did an okay job most of the time. That focus lag is a killer though. It's no wonder that the web is awash of shots like the one at the this post. Pictures of things that don't move. Luckily the people waiting to cross the road didn't do much moving. There were other frames, but this was the only one where people were shading their eyes. Which helps make the picture what it is.Which is something, but not all that much.

Why in black and white? The colours distracted from the visual point - the shadows - and confused the picture. It's an image that relies on its graphic qualities, so strip it back to the bare bones of tones.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Playing chicken

Over the last couple of years I've driven past a poultry show just as everyone was leaving and wondered what it would be like to visit it with a camera. This year I was forewarned, and with the weather being lousy I stuck a a 'proper' camera and a spare lens in my bag and the X10 in a pocket and went for a look.

Being held in a big shed lit with fluorescent tubes but with some daylight (when the clouds parted) coming through small high windows the lighting was quite dull the colour temperatures mixed. It was doable without flash and most of the time ISOs weren't too bad. Not even for the X10.

Photographing chickens in small cages is a bugger for autofocus though! The best shots I got of the birds, almost without exception, have an eye visible between the bars and a catch-light on the eye - even if the eye was out of focus. I started out doing straightforward stuff. Catching a pose of unpredictable birds is hard enough, but trying to make sure essential bits aren't obscured by the bars at a critical moment makes life even harder. I like the symmetry and colours of this shot. Not to mention the pose of the bird.

As I went round the aisles I loosened up, forgetting many of the' rules' of composition, forcing odd compositions and not worrying at all about having everything level. Not even bothering to straighten things back home on the computer.

Limited depth of field became a feature of many shots, not purely for effect, but as much a result of the low light levels and a desire to keep the ISO down.

What soon became obvious is that the smaller sensor images just aren't as pleasingly smooth as those from the 'proper' camera. There's nothing 'wrong' with them as such, they just look kind of 'harsh' is the best way I can find to describe what bugs me about them. I'm thinking that my search for a small, discreet, camera is doomed to failure - at least at an affordable price.

There was a guy there with a chicken studio set up to take portrait photographs of the prize winners. Even without bars and with careful coaxing from their owners the chickens remained uncooperative subjects!

Despite the number of people milling about, doing interesting things, and mostly oblivious top the camera I still chickened out of taking as many candid shots as I would have liked to. Most of the ones I did grab were no more than snaps and mostly taken using the screen of X10 to frame them. Apart from one which I almost like quite a bit and which was the last in a series I shot using the viewfinder of the proper camera. I saw a situation that had potential and something took over. I jammed the camera to my eye and kept shooting until I got something. Maybe that's why I didin't take so many people pictures. I didn't see many situations developing?

Two good things did come out of this brief sortie. I loosened up my compositions, and I was looking for more complex people pictures rather than shots of 'interesting' individuals doing nothing much.

As ever there's a slideshow (which could be pared down further by weeding out some of the repetitive frames) to be found here.