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the evenings out here - Thoughts, rants and musings about absolutely everything except photography. Or cats.

MMXVIII

focus, dammit, focus

in General Rants , Thursday, January 04, 2018

It’s been quite a while since I last wrote anything here. It’s not for the lack of anything to say, or to write about, but as ever, the lack of time. Or perhaps focus. Or motivation. Or all of them.

Recently I realised that in 2017 I achieved several things: I spent far more time shooting film than digital; I shot fewer photos than in any other year since I have a reliable count (around 2004); I shot less memorable photos than any other year, ever.

I spent a huge amount of time futzing about with film. I tried different film types, different cameras, experimented with film scanners, and got a bit caught up in the whole film revival thing. After a while I realised that the one thing that the #FilmsNotDeadBlaBlaBla movement is NOT about is photography. You only need to sample various social media feeds to quickly realise that it is about shiny toys, generally with knobs on. I am totally unconvinced that shooting with film makes anybody a more interesting photographer, per se. And I see no interest or merit in swapping an obsession for up to the minute digital cameras for an addiction to obsolete film cameras.

Seeing posts where people go on about how many cameras they’ve shot with, and how many identical black & white films they’ve used, all whipped along by cynical vendors hoping for a quick buck, just makes me feel nauseous. The actual photography produced is with very few exceptions extremely dull. I’ve ranted about this previously.

Still, if people enjoy playing with old cameras and film, and coaxing decrepit technology into life, great - there’s nothing wrong with it. But for me it is precisely the opposite of what I should be doing.

What I should be doing is finally finishing the website overhaul I’ve been working on, intermittently, for over 18 months. It’s become a total millstone, and probably I will never do it again. It would make much more sense for me to use an off-the-shelf service like Squarespace, and learn to compromise. Instead I’ve landed myself in a situation where I’ve got to completely rewrite code, redesign the layout and navigation, completely revise content, migrate everything to new versions of the underlying software, and finally ... for what?  I no longer have any professional involvement with web or interface design, so there’s zero synergy. It’s all fuelled by an obstinate and misguided desire for full control over my self-expression (for example, I hate photography hosting sites that crop thumbnails - and they all do it).

But it’s about 90% there. So it’s too late to give up now.

What I think I will give up though is film. I haven’t fully decided yet, but I’m very much leaning towards selling off all my film cameras (I have a ridiculous quantity: Linhof 612, Voigtländer Bessa III, Hasselblad XPan, Olympus OM4Ti, Olympus XA, Minox 35ML and Ricoh GR1s).

It’s hard to come up with a rational reason for persevering with film.  First of all, I’m a slide film photographer, not negative. I don’t much like negative film, really. And slide film really met its nemesis with digital. Negative film still has some advantages over digital, at least from my perspective. The main ones are highlight rolloff and exposure latitude. Colour as well to a certain extent, so long as you don’t care too much about accuracy. Certainly Portra 400, or Cinestill 50, in bright light, can look quite wonderful - but I can get a very similar look from digital. Slide film as well has a wonderful midtone density that is not so easy to achieve with digital, but then again it has serious limitations at both ends of the luminosity scale.

And then you’ve got to buy the film, pay for it to be processed, wait for it to come back from the lab, and then scan it. The novelty wore off for me around 1995.

The basic problem is one of two many choices suffocating creativity. I could of course go 100% film, but, well, I’ve been there before, and it is rather limiting. Even more so these days - ten years ago I could buy a roll of Fuji Provia 1600 slide film and get it developed overnight.  Five years ago I could buy a pack of Provia 400X, or Velvia 100F, or Ektachrome 100G and have it beautifully processed by one of several pro labs. Now I’m limited to Provia 100F and one lab with a turnaround time of at least 1 week. I don’t believe Ferrania will ever deliver their slide film, and I’m not that convinced about “new Ektachrome”. The #FilmsNotDead thing is about black & white and weird stuff like double-layer reverse-rolled stocking-elastic base expired pineapple juice emulsions cross processed in holy water. Not slide film.

The Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras and lenses I have are fantastic, and are vastly more flexible than any film-based solution. They’re not perfect, but they get out of my way.  My only real justification for retaining film remains the one I’ve been repeating for quite some time: I use film because that’s what the XPan needs. I hoped to add the Linhof 612 to that, but so far I haven’t bonded with it.  On the other hand, the Sigma DP0 is a pretty good digital panoramic camera, with a devastatingly good lens, and it’s quite endearing too.

It’s going to be hard to cut the cord, and I haven’t sharpened the knife just yet, but 2017 could well have been the swansong for film, for me.

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Possibly my favourite photo of 2017 - Hasselblad XPan, 45mm, Cinestill 50

 

Day of the dead tired

talk, it’s all talk

in Photography , Friday, November 03, 2017

All Saint‘s Day, or The Day of the Dead, is a public holiday here, and during a period where various things have conspired to spiral me into a state of ever increasing exhaustion, it came as some relief. I managed to pad it a bit with some downtime the day before, so at least I wasn’t in a state of complete collapse.

In this state of mind I often question just what keeps me doing photography. It doesn’t really accomplish anything substantial, I don’t find much satisfaction in the nagging background gear window shopping addiction that I suffer from, and it doesn’t lead to any substantial social interaction, either real or virtual.

But going through the motions of wandering off somewhere nearby to take a few photos brings the realisation, or reminds me, that it can actually be pretty therapeutic to just spend a few hours contemplating a pile of rocks and trying to adapt their forms to a 4:3 rectangle. It’s rarely successful - something that fills me with satisfaction in situ generally looks awful back home on screen, but that doesn’t really matter.

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...this becomes a pretty spectacular 110m drop waterfall

Wandering around gear forums and blogs, because I‘m too tired to do anything else on the train, I often come across provocative proclamations that Micro Four-Thirds is total rubbish because it has a “tiny” sensor with no “D.o.F” (what “no D.o.F” means in idiot forum speak is that - allegedly - you can’t get 98% of the shot out of focus). I find this remarkable when I’m trying, usually unsuccessfully, to keep all objects in my shot roughly in focus. I don’t really understand people who preach that for “landscapes” (whatever the hell that means) you absolutely must have a zillion megapixels and a full frame sensor. I suppose that correlates with the idea that “landscape” means ultrawide angle views of luridly saturated vistas. Well, that’s not what attracts me, and what I need is a camera with as much depth of field as possible but still good enough optical quality. Which is why I stick with these Olympus thingies.

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...and this would probably have been slightly less dull if I could have inched forward a bit, but then I’d have ended up in the first photo above. Briefly.

Well, of course, that’s when I’m not taking ultrawide landscape shots with my (sort of) zillion megapixel Sigma camera. But consistency has never been my strong point.

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flare enough…

 

Digital’s Not Dead

It’s just been having a bit of a rest

in Photography , Thursday, September 28, 2017

I realised the other day that my last 12 posts have been almost exclusively about film photography. Since May, I’ve mentioned digital just once, and that was in the context of comparing with film.  This seems to have started in March, but it really wasn’t intended. I’ve also noticed that by and large, the quality of my photography has dropped significantly. Possibly I have fallen prey to the very same strain of gear obsession that in past posts I have charged the “film community” with. It may also be that I’m not finding much inspiration, and am just repeating myself.

I suppose really I’ve been dedicating quite a lot of time to getting my film photography back up to speed again, and ensuring that all the stuff I need to work works as well as it can. I think I’m almost there on that front. I’ve also been getting familiar with the Linhof 612, which is not that simple. Actually, the Linhof seems to have quite a serious fault which is causing uneven film winding, in some cases resulting frames overlapping. So it looks like its going off to the factory for servicing, which is going to be expensive. The previous owner told me he never had any issues, and I have no reason to disbelieve him. Caveat emptor, I suppose, especially when buying through eBay.

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The above photograph is absolutely digital. It was taken two weeks ago, way off the beaten track in the Aspromonte region of Calabria, right in the south of Italy. Aspromonte, most of which is a national park, is absolutely stunning. It is harsh, arid, with precipitous abandoned villages connected by crumbling, vanishing roads (Europcar would have a fit…), and astonishingly beautiful.  There are few people around, but those few are welcoming, friendly and embarrassingly generous. We had only 2 days there, but I’m certain I’ll be going back.

I suppose Aspromonte would look even more stunning on Portra or Provia. But hauling medium format film cameras down there would be a real struggle. And would it even be worth it? I’m not going to try to pretend: in terms of real resolution, even a 5300dpi scan from medium format film doesn’t beat a 16MPix Olympus file, never mind a Sigma Quattro file. Resolution isn’t everything though, and there remains a clinical precision in digital which I sense rather than see. It don’t like it, but I can live with it.  Just as the lens I took the above shot with, the Olympus 14-150 zoom, is probably optically my worst. The bottom right corner is really soft at wide to medium focal lengths. But it is extremely light, very flexible, and great to travel with. So, like digital, I tolerate it.

So yes, I am quite conflicted about film versus digital, and I suppose I always will be. I wish I could just choose one, but I don’t suppose I ever will. But it does seem that the less I bother about gear in general, the more enjoyable I find photography. Maybe I should turn off the internet.

 

A short story

un soir, un train

in General , Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Bear with me.  There’s a point to this.

A couple of weeks ago, I stupidly left my phone on the train.  A quite new phone to me, an iPhone 5s, I could not at the moment afford to replace it.  The train was headed towards Milan. Bad news, as it would be out of range of solid, honest Swiss citizens.

Anyway, we tried calling it, and somebody answered. A guy, speaking slightly broken Italian, told he us he was near Cantú, which is over an hour away by car, and an intimidating rats nest of confusing roads south of Como. Initially I decided to try to go there at the weekend, but a bit later, decided to call to see if I could go that night (Tuesday).

Oh no, he said, now I’m in Milan. I’m taking the train to Brescia. Cue sinking feeling - Brescia is half way to Verona, and a good 2 hour drive on a good day. We resolved to go on the coming Sunday. If, indeed, we could get hold of this chap, who told me his name was Michele. Again, the conversation was difficult.

So, on Sunday I tried to call, but could not get through. We set off anyway, feeling quite pessimistic. After all, this phone represents something close to a third of the monthly income for a large number of Italians. Quite some temptation. But around half way there, he called back, and apologised for sleeping late. He promised he’s be available all day to meet up, and we arranged to wait for him near the hospital.

Pretty much on time, he turned up, smartly dressed, with my phone.  He didn’t want to take any reward, but I insisted. The reason for his accent turned out to be that he was from Senegal. And the reason he was sleeping late turned out to be that he’d been travelling all week in his job, or more accurately, vocation, to arrange the financing and export of Italian light agricultural machinery to rural Senegal. After some encouragement he told us about his work, how he had persuaded companies, ambassadors, finance ministers and religious leaders to back his project.  He had targeted the kind of machinery that could be affordable and practical in Senegal, and became nominated as the agent for Casorzo s.r.l in Africa

He was a really fascinating, kind, enthusiastic and open-spirited guy, and a real tonic to talk to. An instant friend.

Oh yeah, he let slip he was a Muslim. He hardly needed to say so: it was obvious, and for all the right reasons.

 

More is Less

(more or less)

in General Rants , Friday, November 13, 2015

Five years ago, I was fortunate to be able to spend several weeks ago the Svalbard archipelago, mainly travelling around in a 12-berth yacht. This was a collective private charter, not a “workshop”, which made it just about affordable for me. A similar trip with the overhead of paying for several “educators” to come along for free would have been way more expensive and probably less fun. It was quite an experience, but photographically I haven’t really made much of it so far. The basic reason for this is that I took far, far too many photos. The total is over 5500, which is just ridiculous. The editing process just becomes impossible, mainly because of the bulk - when you have 20 near identical photos of the same collapsing iceberg, trying to choose the top pick is tedious, and when you have 300 such scenes, it gets completely overwhelming. But also, there’s a problem with focus. Not focus as in out of focus, which is a fairly common characteristic of my photography, but focus as in theme.

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Revisiting this collection after largely neglecting it for 5 years has helped me to realise this. The impetus to revisiting it comes at least in part from the drastic disruption imposed on my move from Aperture, to CaptureOne, and finally to Lightroom. This move is not something I’d honestly call a good thing, but in the end, perhaps the resultant disruption will turn out to be an unexpected but very valuable side benefit.

I’ve come to realise that the lack of a meaningful, coherent theme is actually quite common throughout my photography. For example, in this case I’ve always kept to the implicit assumption that “Svalbard” is a valid theme. But which Svalbard? That of misty, gloomy seascapes? Of ice cliffs? Of glaciers calving through mountains? Of arctic landscape? Of abandoned mining settlements, or active scientific settlements? Of wildlife - and then, of seals, or polar bears, or kittiwakes? The list could go on. In my first pass, I selected a sample of 16 photos drawn from all categories, which drew some nice comments, but they don’t really say much beyond “hey, look, I went to Svalbard. I’m so cool”. Vacation shots, basically. A second set drawn exclusively from the abandoned Russian settlement of Pyramiden was more meaningful to me, and hopefully more engaging. Having now revisited the whole set, I’ve been able to identify other themes and hopefully coherent sets, which obviously still document my experiences in Svalbard, but hopefully in a more mature way, which goes someway to communicating my reactions to the environments.

I think this teaches me two lessons: first, the old adage that less is more is never more applicable than when applied to quantities of photos. And the second, even older, is to work out what I want to communicate before pressing the shutter button. Applying these two points might help to distinguish between vacation photography and some form of self-expression. Not that there’s anything wrong with vacation photography, but sometimes that doesn’t satisfy me.

I’m not entirely sure yet how to present these new Svalbard sets. Some individual photos have leaked out on to Flickr, to see how they look “in the wild”. I expect some sets I will publish here, either in freeform blog post format, or as galleries. But the main thing I have in mind is a Blurb book. If I can do that to my satisfaction, then I think this new way of looking at my own photography will have drawn fruit.

 

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