Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Best of 2008

Being that time of year, it might be a worthwhile exercise to go through the images you made this year and pick out your best. I decided on 12 but it could be any number between 5 and 20. These should be the images you like best, not the ones you think will impress others or win contests or get published - simply the set of images you like most from the year's work. Although I am going to share mine, you certainly don't need to do so - simply making up a collection of your best of the year for yourself is just fine.

Having made the collection though, it would be a shame not to take advantage of the experience to learn and to move onwards.

1) what makes these images better than the others - is it better composition or a more interesting subject, technical matters or artistic?

2) is there a pattern to the images we have selected - in style, colour vs. monochrome, focal length, subject matter? If like a lot of hobbyist photographers you shoot a little of this, a tad of that - perhaps one or more of these images points to a possible project - something that interests you and that can be explored in depth?

3) how much do you really like these images - can you imagine still liking them 10 years down the road? If despite selecting your best they don't satisfy - can you figure out why - perhaps comparing them to some images of others that you particularly admire and spending some time analyzing the differences between yours and theirs.

Is it because they got up earlier and hiked harder, or waited for unique weather or were more observant, luckier or whatever - there's things to be learned here.

I'm not all that excited by my year in photography. I haven't been hiking as much, writing the second book has been distracting, it's been a stressful and distracting year all around, but I have put together the 12 best images of my year and you can see them here.

I note that 7 are black and white, 5 colour, though a couple of the black and white I also like in colour so there doesn't seem to be a pattern there.

There's only one landscape in the 12 reflecting my recent enthusiasm with industrial subjects. Sure my arthritis has limited my hiking but I could have worked within city parks so I don't think that's the answer.

There's only one person picture but shooting people is very new - who knows where that may lead.

There's certainly a hodge podge of images, from architectural to still life, portrait to grand landscape, quite abstract to very literal. When I look at the work of Michael Levin and admire his elegant clean simple and unified images I wonder what that says about me and me eclectic selection. Should I be settling down into either monochrome or colour and one style, and at most a few subjects, or does it really matter. I don't know the answer to this though have a nagging feeling I should be more consistent - but would that be to please someone else or myself? All very complicated.

Anyway, that's my year in images. See how you make out and what you can learn from the images you select.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Perfect, Boring Picture

Imagine if you will an image which is beautifully printed, rich tones, well balanced. The image is perfectly composed, the lighting ideal, yet the subject matter is boring. Sound familiar? The above is what happens when the experienced photographer tries too hard. He or she uses all the skills they have but no matter how hard they (we) try, the image falls flat.

In some ways, there is give and take in the matters of composition and printing and number of pixels or size of film or lighting, so long as the subject is interesting in the first place. The more interesting the subject and situation, the more we are inclined to give in on the other aspects of image quality - up to a point anyway. Who hasn't at some time been affected by a picture in a newspaper. Clearly printing quality is minimal, lighting is usually irrelevant and composition very much secondary to the subject.

The problem is that no matter how well all other aspects of the image are executed, an interesting subject is fundamental.

One can argue - "interesting to whom?", since if it is a subject that interests you, there is sure to be at least one other person in this world who is also interested. What you have to do though is ask yourself whether even you were all that interested in the subject, or did you shoot it because you thought it would make a good picture (or at least hoped so).

By this point you may be asking yourself what is the difference between something that is interesting and something that photographs well? You might further be excused for asking "who the hell cares?".

I don't think there is a single sentence answer to the question above, well at least the first part, but I suspect that exploring the question could be useful the next time we go out looking for images.

First here's an example. I find an interesting shadow. It might be interesting because of it's shape or tone or because of how it interacts with something else. It isn't, of course; real yet it can certainly be photographed. Paul Strand took a photograph of a woman walking down the street next to a flat wall in New York. It was the shadow projected on the wall that made the image - the woman was essentially irrelevant to the image - or at least easily replaced. From an ordinary picture of an ordinary woman, the image is transformed because of the shadow into something trudging, weary, ominous perhaps. I can't find the image on the web so you will have to use your imagination.

The image above is by George Todd - from his book Elements Of Black And White Photography. I think this an exceptional image and I would like to know more about this photographer. Anyway, the image above contains a number of elements that work for it - leading lines, interesting shapes and textures and a path leading to where? tends to add to interest. The little extra that makes the image is the light on the wall to the right nicely balancing the lighter parts of the subject on the left and also an interesting shape. Would this have been a decent picture without the light - certainly - would it have been a great image - I don't think so. It would be interesting to ask the photographer whether he in fact saw the arches and looked for a composition or did indeed see the interesting light projection then look for a composition within which to use it. Did he walk by her many times, possibly even taking pictures, until one day the light was perfect.

The above image, one of mine, is frankly pretty boring. It was almost the first image on a photo excursion in which the light was bad and the snow cornices, our ostensible reason for heading out, were nowhere to be seen. Often in this situation, the first scene you come across is one of "well, it isn't great, but let's get those cameras out and hope for the best, or at least get the first images out of the way so we can go find something really interesting"

I quite like the hills opposite the duck pond here. I have driven past many times and photographed here more than a few - never with any great success and frankly this day was no different.

The hills are vaguely interesting but it is the whole range of hills that is attractive, not just one segment, yet there are sufficient flaws in the scene to make a panoramic image less than ideal so one is left to photograph sections, which never have the appeal of the whole.

This particular image does have some things going for it but there isn't enough of a pattern to make a good image. I really dislike the two spruce trees at either side, one partially cut off. The lighting is totally flat. There's nothing wrong with soft lighting but this is taking things too far.

Bottom line is if you take something vaguely interesting and divide it into quarters, you should have little expectation that the quarters will offer up much for the viewer and so it is.

It is possible to make photographs for the edification of others - commercial photographers do that all the time - often with great creativity and talent and even in advertising photography it is possible to glimpse some of the photographer some of the time. Many setups though are the work of the advertising director and the skill and talent lie in translating their wants into a finished image, which pleases them.

In fine art or hobbyist photography it is most certainly possible to apply the same strategies. You decide that a particular subject or style sells well and that you ought to use it. Your pick your subject for it's reputation. Thus you decide to photograph in Yosemite and use large format in emulation of the greats of the past. To be fair, you like the outdoors but it is your first trip to Yosemite and as such you have no idea whether you have caught it on a "good" day or not, whether you have scouted the best possible images. The only thing you know of Yosemite is the images of others - from books and websites. You get frustrated when you can't find the same compositions - because the weather or season is wrong or bushes have grown or it was a dry summer. You can't find any compositions at all that don't remind you of the work of others. Emulation being one thing, outright plagiarism another. You do shoot, though not as many images as you had hoped, and on returning home you find them disappointing. You ended up with nothing that Ansel would have taken, yet nothing that you can really call your own and be excited about.

Bits and pieces of this story are repeated all over the world, all the time, by millions of serious minded photographers, many of them puzzled in the end as to what went wrong.

If you want to be excited by your own images (and who else should be as excited by them?) then you have to start with your own ideas. We can certainly borrow from the greats of history but in the end, if we aren't interested in the subject, or in doing something with the subject, then I fear we are doomed to disappointment.

This is all very well but so far it's a litany of what not to do and nothing of what could and should be done, other than the obvious "find something interesting".

I could give you a list of interesting things, but it would be my list, not yours, and were you to pick a subject from it, could you be sure you are tackling it for yourself and not because I thought you should. No, you are going to have to find your own definition of interesting. And it's not enough to say that you are interested in landscapes - do you like near, middle distance or distant vistas? Are you obcessed with near far compositions like Joe Cornish, or tightly cropped compositions like myself? Are you happier with drama in your images or do you prefer subtlety? Is it really the subject that matters or the way that light plays off a subject, regardless of what and where it is? Do you like straight lines or curves, dark tones or light, contrast or soft textures? Perhaps you are interested in S bends, whether they be highway or plant or human form? Are you mostly interested in shadows? Mayhap you most prize that which others cannot or will not see or are you most fascinated in puzzles - what is it, which angle is it viewed from and from how far?

Some are lucky and come to photography with ideas of what interests them, and like Michael Levin featured in this months Black and White Photography magazine, you are able within a relatively short time (in Michael's case, five years) to produce a body of work any of us would be proud to show. I don't know Michael but would bet that he was "seeing" long before he took up photography.

Those of us who come at serious photography from the angle of liking to mess with cameras and stuff before we learn to see have a much greater struggle. We assume our problem is equipment and we spend years and many dollars searching for the right answers. Far better we should have spent a year wandering around without camera, just to learn to see, to find out what we like, what makes us curious. When you get to the point that you absolutely can't stand not creating an image, then it's time to start shooting.

Perhaps a more reasonable suggestion would be to spend that year, with the camera you have and the lenses you own and without making a single extra purchase, to photograph the things you cannot stand not to record and at year end, make a portfolio of small prints, say 5X7 inches or so (or even to make a web folio without making any prints at all) of your year's work. Far better a folio of lovely small images than mediocre large ones. If you must spend money, then buy books, attend courses, go to workshops, immerse yourself in the work of really good photographers.

I'm going to risk telling you what interests me - though perhaps you already know from looking at my images. Remember though that this isn't your list, only an idea of how you figure out what interests you.

O.K, so I like clean simple design - whether it be a car, living room furniture or art. I like regularity - verticals that are vertical, else they are sufficiently diagonal not to pretend to be vertical. I like things with weight to them - A Henry Moore sculpture rather than something made of wire and air.

The above image by Lewis Baltz is one of my all time favourites. It's simple, geometric, monochrome, painterly, in a way abstract. How can a man who time after time has recommended and referred to Pepper # 30? I don't really know. They are certainly different in just about every way but who said I had to have only a single interest - wouldn't I be the dull boy if it were true, not to mention frustrated?

Here's an exercise for you to try - let me know how it works for you.

From the following list of values, select one or two possibilities from each list.

Your favourite:

1) tone, from black to white
2) shape
3) line
4) texture
5) lighting
6) compositional tool
7) shadow or light
8) painterly or realistic
9) flat or three dimensional (at least in appearance)
10)colours (remember saturation and luminosity)
11)warm or cold
12)sharp or rounded
13)soft or stiff
14)light or heavy
15)mobile or fixed

Feel free to add any other descriptors you can think of, without naming a subject matter.

Write out the list and read it through several times. Now, without picking up your camera and with the limitation of not leaving your property and with list in hand, spend an hour wandering around looking for things which have some of those characteristics. No cheating now - one full hour - sixty minutes of looking, searching, comparing with your list.

At the end of an hour ask yourself if you didn't see something you could imagine taking a photograph of. Even better, do take photographs of the things you found that had a connection with your list. Make yourself a little slideshow on the computer of these images, with only the most basic adjustments.

Now spend some time looking at the images you made and instead of evaluating each image for it's worth in the world of fine art photography - look at the body of work and ask yourself if it says anything about you - did the list mean anything, and does it perhaps suggest to you future avenues to explore.

I warn you that I have not done this exercise myself, nor recommended it previously and don't know how it's going to turn out. It's my feeling that it will be revealing and helpful but that's all.

I don't expect any of the images produced by this exercise to make it into your portfolios of best images of the year - that wasn't the point, but has it suggested what to look for in the future - that is the question of the day.

Do let me know if you try it - I'd be happy to see small samples of the images you produce and hear of the outcome of the experiment.

Next time I want to address the subject of "Interesting, but is it photographable?" which is, I think, our second biggest stumbling block.

Saturday, December 27, 2008


Lensbaby on the 1Ds2, wide open, hand held - the computer says 1/2500 but I know different. Did learn that the lensbaby doesn't work well with extension tubes - better to get the close up filters Lensbaby sells - not only did it not work electronically (the camera refused to take a picture), the tilt is now even further from the sensor rendering the tilt mechanism even more problematic. This was shot with the +4 close up filter.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Web Site Updated

It's -28 Celsius and I'm not happy about it, but did take the opportunity to finally update some of the images on my website.

There are another 100 or so images between colour and black and white industrial in

Gallery 5


Gallery 6

colour industrial and

bw industrial gallery 2.

Most of the images have been in the blog but are now all together.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Imitation Holga

Billie expressed concerns that she might not be able to get results equivalent to her previous very successful use of a Holga 120 film camera with her new Lensbaby Composer.

The above image was shot with the Composer, full frame camera, 5.6 cropped to square, masked along the edges and some blurring of a duplicate layer, then faded back with the layer slider. It looks a bit like a Holga image and perhaps with more work we could do better.

Lensbaby Adventures 2

The image above is with the lensbaby centred and f 5.6 on a full frame sensor camera.

The image above is f 2 (ie. wide open).

Now we have the lens baby tilted up so only the upper edge has any sharpness

and in the last image above we see the lensbaby tilted modestly to the right.

I had forgotten that in a lens with peripheral aberations, the size of the sensor would make a huge difference and it does - at 5.6 and centred and small sensor, looking through the lensbaby you have to look to see the blurring in the viewfinder (though it's more obvious in the images themselves) but with a full frame sensor, the edges are extremely blurred.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Lensbaby Composer

- image above from Lensbaby website

I've been considering a Lensbaby for some time and a recent cold snap was the final impetus to go out and purchase one. It seemed sensible to pick up the latest (and presumably best) Lensbaby, the Composer model.

The original Lensbaby came with a plastic corrugated tube which could be flexed and stretched and shortened as desired. Another model added Sputnik like appendages to the outside to control the positioning of the tube. The most recent Lensbaby Composer uses a ball and socket arrangement to rotate the lens, while beyond the ball and socket is a standard rotating focusing mechanism that moves the lens in and out, much more like a traditional lens.

I had understood that one could swing the lens to align plane of focus as needed but that's not quite accurate. In reality, there is no plane of focus, rather a central sweet spot with surrounding and ever increasing blur and stretch of the image. The degree to which this happens is a function of depth of field but of course if you stop down to increase the size of the sweet spot, you reduce the blurring at the edges of the image.

What really happens as you tilt the lens is that the sweet spot moves from the centre of the image to the outside and possibly beyond the image so that nothing is sharp. It's a little more complicated though. At least some of the blurring off centre is due to a change in the plane of focus (this with the lens all squared up - by eye, there are no marks or centre detent). This change in focus means that things nearer the camera are sharp and the closer to the edges of the image, the nearer is the plane of focus. It mght be more accurate to describe it as a cone of focus, or perhaps even better a bowl of focus.

In theory this sharpness of nearer things should allow you to tilt the lens to get two things sharp at the same time which are not equidistant, but in fact the way the lens is built (unlike a regular tilt and shift lens) is that as the lens is tilted, nothing is sharp at any distance as you move away from the now off centre sweet spot. All this has to do with the fact that the centre of rotation of the ball and socket is in fact well forward of the sensor and tilting the lens puts you well into the periphery of the lens' coverage. A normal tilt and shift lens doesn't pivot around anything, rather it slides over a curved surface designed so that the curve would be centred on the sensor - thus maintaining lens maximum resolution when tilting.

Now, none of the above is necessarily a disadvantage, just a bit of a surprise to me and not quite what I had expected. It would be better to think of lens tilt in this case controlling the amount of blurring and the placement of same rather than trying to control a plane of sharpness. After all, you buy the lens for it's blurring capabilities, not its off axis sharpness.

I haven't had much chance to explore the lens capabilities but look forward to doing so and you can be sure you are going to be subjected to anything I find interesting.

I welcome comments from those who have made more use of their Lensbabies. Before purchasing it I did spend some time searching the net for images which make good use of the Lensbaby. Unfortunately there are far more bad examples than good and even most of the images on the Lensbaby site leave something to be desired. It isn't a digital Holga, but I am still hopeful it can be used effectively.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Placing The Subject/Moving The Photographer

In any given photograph there are a number of elements which make up the subject which you are capturing. At times they are fixed relative to each other - for example you are photographing a rockface or graffiti on a wall - there is nothing to arrange. Your job in that case is to find the best angle to record the image and to frame it in the best way.

Often however, the various elements of the subject are not on a single plane and your camera position will affect how they relate to each other - overlapping, next to and just touching or near by. Through height of camera position you can affect the same issues vertically as you can horizontally by moving around.

In one camera position two objects can be equidistant, but as you move left or right, one is going to be closer than the other and their relative positions change, sometimes significantly. You have to decide what relationship works best for a given image. This can be relatively painless if there are only two separate objects in the image - say a tree and a rock, but becomes much more complex as the number of objects increase. In this case you find that while moving to the left will increase the spacing of one pair of objects, it narrows the gap between others.

How do you decide where to place all these objects relative to each other through camera position? What happens if this is a still life and you can physically pick up the objects and move them where you will? Are there rules that you can follow?

Before getting to what you should do, lets first contemplate what the significance is of relative position - perhaps that will give us clues as to what to do with them.

Remember too that while I write of "objects", they may in fact not be real, touchable, things. They might be a shadow or a highlight on the background.

At a most fundamental level, placement of the objects helps us understand the image. Since an image is two dimensional, placement helps us understand the relative positions of the objects. When one overlaps the other, it is clearly in front, while if they are next to each other, we don't know that. They might touch in the image but it doesn't mean they are next to each other. You may want to use this ambiguity to supply your viewer with a bit of a puzzle - something to wonder about, or you might prefer to make it clear where the objects are to enhance understanding.

Where the objects are located within the image has some bearing on how we interpret the image. We live on a planet surface and virtually all the time we can assume that what is at the bottom of what we look at is near, and the top far. As the photographer you have the possibility to confirm that or litereally turn it on it's head.

More subtly though, we tend to see bright objects as nearer, dark as further, large as near, small as far. To some degree you can filter or manipulate the image to lighten and darken objects in the editing to change that - for example two rocks of equal brightness could have one darkened and the other lightened and now there is a strong sensation of the light rock being nearer than the dark one.

Because of atmospherics however we also have the sensation that things that are light and soft and low in contrast appear very distant, while objects that are sharp contrasty and with a full range of tones including some good blacks are relatively near. This gives you the opportunity to use depth of field to give a sense of distance to objects - being out of focus and being light and with no good blacks would mean the object is assumed to be distant.

It is natural for the viewer to go from object to object as he or she looks at the image and the relative positions offers a chance for the photographer to tell a story or to introduce the main object or to explain it. The positions of the other objects will contribute significantly to how well that explanation, introduction or story comes across.

Fundamentally some arrangements are more attractive than others and create a visual path through the image, whether this is an S shaped path or the four corners of a rectangle or three of a triangle. "Placing" the objects in one of these patterns can give an image a sense of rightness, balance, peace or just the opposite.

Placing two objects next to each other in the image creates a connection between them, whether you wanted it or not, so you need to know if that is in fact what you want.

The more experienced the photographer, the more fine photographs that have been studied, the more images made, the better a photographer becomes at simply looking at the subject and knowing what seems right. Even after years however, it is often not obvious what is right and you actually do have to think about all of the above as you move around the scene trying to find the best viewpoint. For novice photographers it can be a nightmare trying to arrange things rightly. In fact novices often don't even know when they have done it wrong - or if they do, why, which can lead to a lot of frustration. The more levels you understand your images on, the better you can find your viewpoint.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Thoughts on Inclement Weather

After shooting yesterday in a snowstorm, a few points occurred to me.

1) wide angle lenses will show closer snow with less blurring
2) distance from subject will determine the amount of snow between you and the subject - use accordingly to control the atmospheric effect you want - keeping # 1 above in mind.
3) lens hoods are essential. Do remember, if you use a lens which covers a full size sensor on a small sensor camera that the lens hood is not restrictive or long enough. You may want to use one for a longer lens or extend it, especially on top to keep snow and rain out.
4) nothing is more frustrating than getting rain or snow on the viewfinder, and it's darn hard to reach in there and wipe off. Carrying a cloth dedicated to cleaning the viewfinder and LCD can be handy.
5) a hat with a goodly brim can avoid some of the precipitational issues.
6) wet fingers get cold really fast and even around freezing can get darn cold.
7) most cameras will handle a modest sprinkling of rain or snow especially for short periods of time but if you plan to spend two hours photographing in the rain, you want to think of protective coverings.
8) misery loves company - take someone else out shooting with you - it's harder to back out.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Another Find From The Archives

My appologies for my absence from the blog in this last two weeks. I have two excuses, for what it's worth. I have been busy on my second book, tentatively called "Camera To Computer". It consists of a series of images and how they were made - either dealing with in the field issues or image processing from raw to finished. There are manual blends, Auto blends, there are even people images!

My deadline for the manuscript is May 31, and while that sounds like a long time off, previous experience tells me I'd better get my butt in gear.

Anyway, I had to reprocess one of my images for the book which meant going back to the raw files of 2003. Stitching is a lot easier these days and it took minutes to put together a stitch I'd overlooked previously and the above is the result.

I'm not too sure that the image may be too complicated, with a whole series of nice things, which don't quite come together. So far I have persuaded myself they do, but this may not stand the test of time. Fact is it's near the limit of complexity - I'm just not sure which side of the limit it stands on - yet.

In fact it is a crop of a larger pan of even more great things which clearly didn't work for me - see below.

Oh, the second excuse - I have had a fourth year medical student with me the last two weeks which while challenging and interesting, also eats up any spare minutes at the office and then some.