a touch of navel gazing
in General Rants , Thursday, September 24, 2015
A week or so back, I came across “Photos and Stuff”, a blog written by Andrew Molitor about, well, photos. And stuff. His writing is probably not for everybody. It’s incisive, very opinionated, frequently sarcastic, just as frequently funny, and also very well written. He doesn’t beat about the bush, much, and has no hesitation in going for the jugular. A favourite target is the hapless Ming Thein, and I have to admit that he neatly sums up pretty much all of the comments I’ve mentally written myself while reading Mr Thein’s blog. It definitely has something of a cult about it. Another is the Luminous Landscape, Kevin Raber in particular, and again, I’m ashamed to pretty much agree. I’m sure Kevin is a wonderful chap, but, frankly, he’s no Michael Reichmann, first as a photographer (to which Andrew Molitor would doubtless retort is not saying much), but also lacking Reichmann’s dry wit.
The blog has a generous helping of totally wild-eyed, off the rails, unhinged rants. It is frequently highly entertaining, if a touch uncomfortable at times. Mr Molitor is clear no idiot himself, seems pretty widely read, and backs up his rants with some strong arguments. Possibly he’s just a little too awestruck by Sarah Moon.
But one post he wrote back in August really cuts to the bone. He argues that the vast majority of photography presented these days exists in a bubble. This bubble is inhabited by photographers, who take photographs to impress other photographers. So, for example, an arty shot of a rusted shed, which is of no interest at all beyond the amazing textures and detail captured in “the image”, showing fantastic “IQ” and resolution. To which anybody not into cameras would just shrug and say “nice shed - why did you photograph it ? And why is most of it out of focus?”. And indeed anybody into cameras would mutter about noise in the shadows, burnt highlights, and how his (always “his”) Sony Rocketblaster XZY9999X Mark 5 would do much better. True, and funny. But, er, isn’t that me we’re talking about here ?
Of course there are plenty of bubbles, mostly repelling one another. A recently formed one is inhabited entirely by photographers with stern, aesthetic web sites, who believe that any photo is good provided it is made using Kodak Portra 400 over-exposed by at least 2 stops, preferably with 70% hazy sky, and preferably taken at midday. And scanned by some lab in Los Angeles, which really, really gets their artistic intent, like. And their credit cards.
I should hasten to add that if I understand him correctly, he’s not denigrating people who take photos for the fun of it, or even because they enjoy playing with expensive cameras. I think it’s more he gets irritated when such people start trying to pass off what they are doing as having some deeper meaning, or being “art”.
Which makes me feel even more exposed…
So, I started to think about whether I could actually describe what it is I’m trying to do with my photography. Of course, I could also go down the road of saying it’s entirely my own business and I don’t need to justify it to anyone. But I do put stuff on this web site, and on Flickr, so to some extent that’s not an honest position. Actually, I’ve got a cute rejoinder to the question of “why do I have a web site”, or rather “why do I show photos”, which is, to paraphrase Garry Winogrand, I put photos on the web to see how they look when they’re shown on the web. And it’s true enough - the posts I publish which are basically mini-portfolios are those I take the most time over. The sequencing, the harmony (or not) and the juxtaposition of set of photos brings the component photos alive to me. And presenting them in a space and format I manage is important too. But that’s the presentation part. It still doesn’t address the question of why I’m photographing in the first place.
Probably much like everybody, I have different modes of photography. Sometimes I photograph to pass the time. Sometimes, just to record moments. Rarely, to test something or try out techniques - I can’t be bothered with that stuff anymore. But sometimes, quite often actually, a scene grabs me which I just need to distill down to something I can take away. I’ve dabbled with all sorts of genres, classic landscape, wildlife, street (sort of), urban landscape, and these have often been mixed in with travel. A large number of the resultant photos are trivial, although not necessarily bad. But there is a core set, which is actually quite large, where a very specific theme emerges. It wasn’t and still isn’t fully conscious, but it has become clear enough to me. It’s probably totally invisible to anybody else, but that’s not a problem. However, I have noticed that any photos I make which do provoke a stronger reaction tend to come from this set.
So, what is this theme ? Well, I’ve kind of touched on it before, but it’s essentially an exploration of absence and loss. Cheerful, huh? It’s nothing very direct: I approach things in a very oblique way, and I’m very wary of disclosing much information. It’s also not something I have any external ambition for. If anything, I suppose it’s a form of therapy. It’s not that I don’t care of nobody else gets it, it’s more that it really doesn’t matter, it’s irrelevant. Although probably I would get some feeling of validation if some stranger were to pick up on it.
Antarctica starts here
It certainly wasn’t intentional, but over time I’ve begun to understand that I am attracted to which are at the same time empty of life, but which hint at past glories, small or large. They then become spaces into which I can insert imaginary histories and narratives, all in my head, and not necessarily, indeed rarely explicit and fully formed. It’s about the ambience that a place radiates. This is probably why I am so attracted to Venice, or more specifically, Venice behind the facade. Added to the fact that it’s a set of complex, interlocking islands, and it just fits in with my psyche. Similarly, in landscape photography, while I’m as likely as the next photographer to just snap away at nice scenery, I’m much more engaged if there is some human element which grabs my attention. Generally these are elements which the “fine art” landscape photographer will ignore like the plague. However, I find myself much more drawn towards the style of a Frank Gohlke or Stuart Klipper these days, even if I’m light years away from them in terms of results. I’m more likely to seek out a power pylon than to edit it out in Photoshop these days.
So yes, I do think I know where I’m going with my photography, and I’m also perfectly comfortable, or better, ambivalent, about having an audience. I don’t need one. I’m engaged with the work I’m producing, and, dropping for once the self derogation, I actually think I’m pretty good at it. Which probably just all boils down to me being in a very small bubble with room for one.
Anyway, all this rambling was kicked off by discovering a blog that actually made me think. Give it a try, it’s certainly more rewarding than hanging around on gear sites.
on an island
in Photography , Monday, September 21, 2015
The second instalment. If you’ve been following this blog at all, you might realise that I’ve got bit of a thing about islands. I’m sure a psychotherapist would have plenty to say about that. I particular like the smaller Italian islands, these little droplets of slightly out of time Italian culture, where everything goes slowly, where life revolves around the port, the coming and going of the aliscafi and the traghetti, Tirrenia, Ustica Lines and the others. The sun, the buzz and whine of the precarious ape, the clutter and confusion that soon gives way to tranquility, the classic Italian vacations, the vivid green sea in rocky bays.
So the lure of another small, new to me archipelago, the Tremiti Islands, lying a hour or so out in the Adriatic, was too much to resist. And the jewel, to me, of our all to brief visit, was the island of San Nicola, dominated by its massive, semi-derelict castle and XIth century Benedictine monastery. Just time to grab a quick impression, but one that remains, to be added to the memories of Marettimo, Stromboli, San Pietro and all the others.
life’s a beach
in Travel , Wednesday, September 16, 2015
After a fairly stressful year so far, it was nice to get away for a week to a part of Italy I haven’t seen much of so far, Puglia, in the South East. We stayed close by the characterful town of Peschice, perched on a rocky outcrop in the extreme east of the Gargano peninsula national park. The whole of the Gargano is entrancing. It’s quite off the beaten path, although the coastline is clearly very popular in August. Getting there generally involves several hours of very twisty roads that even Italians can’t drive along at any great speed. Away from the seasonal tourist resorts, the towns have a very authentic southern Italy feel. The countryside is hilly, parched, and stone strewn, largely occupied by extensive olive groves, but there is also extensive forestation, “la forest umbra”, the shadowed forest, which demands a return visit.
It was not a photo-oriented trip. I don’t really do those much any more. But nevertheless plenty of opportunities presented themselves to be grabbed. Here’s the first set, all from Peschici.
Like a moth to a flame, I can’t keep away. Over the past few weeks I’ve spent several evenings in various locations in Valle Verzasca, searching for that perfect photo which encapsulates it all. Needless to say, I haven’t found it yet, but here are some of my latest attempts.
Some of these were processed in CaptureOne, the rest in Lightroom. Can you tell the difference? I can’t.
Off for a short break in Southern Italy now. Normal service will be resumed in due course.
coming to my senses?
I have spent a huge amount of time and effort over the years, not to mention a little money, trying to avoid using Adobe Lightroom. The various reasons for this include that I don’t much like the GUI (compared to Aperture, RIP), I don’t much like the library (compared to Aperture, RIP), and I’m uncomfortable with the Adobe subscription model. I also have a certain sense of antipathy towards the rather over the top, uncritical, fawning cheerleading which comes from so many on-line self-appointed gurus, all of whom have their book, or video, or workshop to sell, and all of whom have contributed, thanks to killer marketing skills from Adobe, to Lightroom’s supremacy. A successful symbiotic community, but not one which has done much service to the world of digital photography in general.
But is Lightroom itself actually all that bad? Well, no, it isn’t. It’s pretty good actually, but it is neither the Second Coming, nor is it without faults, nor is it as overwhelmingly superior as the shill wolf pack would have you believe. But looking at the combination of requirements that I have personally, I have to admit, finally, that avoiding it is like cutting off my nose to spite my face. So I’ve finally admitted that resistance is not only futile, but counterproductive as well.
I certainly wasn’t expecting to be looking at this, a few weeks ago.
The quality of the output from the Develop module tends to get widely derided these days on the interwebs, especially compared with CaptureOne. I’m not entirely sure why, but I suspect there is more than a grain of anti-Adobe sentiment behind this. The difference in quality, measured as resolution and definition, between all Raw converters on the market, is generally minimal. To my eyes Iridient Developer has a slight edge, but that may be down to its superlative sharpening tools. Yes, there are differences in colour rendition, but if you drill down a bit to understand why, then generally you can pretty much neutralise them. If utmost, 200% pixel peeping brick wall cat’s whiskers photography is your thing, then probably Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw is not what you need. But otherwise, the combination of features and sheer completeness of Adobe’s offering is difficult to ignore.
The Lightroom user interface still looks to me like it has overall design philosophy. Different modules, even tools within modules, look like they were designed and integrated by different people with little communication between themselves. Indeed, the different Modules behave more like separate applications linked together through a common launcher than parts of the same application. The essential weakness of the cumbersome modal design is betrayed by the Develop Module leaking into the Library Module by way of the Quick Develop tools. It’s a pity that either stubbornness, not-invented-here syndrome, or, most likely, be-suited MBAs clutching their ROI and P&L spreadsheets is preventing a major UI overhaul. And, think of all the income from the new editions of books, videos, etc!
But on balance the experience is positive. Compared with CaptureOne, the only real advantage that I find there is that the image adjustment tools are more intuitive and faster to use, and certain features such as perspective correction (especially), highlight recovery, and clarity control, are better. On the other hand Lightroom has far better support for camera calibration, and the sharpening tools are better. I prefer CaptureOne’s layer approach to Lightroom’s edit points, and I preferred Aperture’s local edits approach to both of these, but in the end the functionality is much the same.
The killer features in Lightroom are the Library, and, surprisingly, Lightroom Mobile. The Library is almost as good as Aperture’s. It is fast, smooth, and there are plenty of well designed metadata tools. The implementation of Stacks is a half-baked copy of Aperture’s (and really, it is, just look at when it was released in Lightroom), albeit more powerful than CaptureOne’s Versions, and the Smart Collections are weak compare to Aperture’s Smart Albums, but on balance, it is - now - the best on the market. Overall, compared with CaptureOne’s improving, but incomplete and laggy Catalog, Lightoom’s Library is much easier to use. And the other major plus for me, at least, is full support for large Photoshop and TIFF files, which means I can catalogue my film scans together with my Raw files. Aperture let me do this as well - indeed, the fact that Lightroom 1 had serious file size limitations was one major factor leading me to switch - but Lightroom actually is smoother. The only “orphan” files I have now are Sigma Merrill Raws, but nobody supports those. The workaround of cataloging a proxy JPEG and using that to launch the X3F in Iridient Developer works just as well in Lightroom as in Aperture, or indeed CaptureOne.
I think that the dependence on a physical file structure in the Library is pretty prehistoric, compared to Aperture’s fully virtual organisation, but the geek contingent could never live with the loss of explicit control that the virtual approach required, so we’re stuck in the past. On a side note, recently I completely restructured my physical file organisation, to try to make it more convenient to PhotoSupreme’s needs. Aperture didn’t skip a beat: together with MacOS, it noticed that the referenced files had moved, and just adjusted itself. CaptureOne, or Lightroom, would have just given up and died. But thanks to Apple shifting lock stock and barrel in to the luxury personal accessory market, we’ve lost all that innovation.
Ironically, my file structure is actually quite clumsy. This is due to an earlier period when I was using Lightroom 1, for about a year, until moving to Aperture 2. I had to live with the file organisation imposed by Lightroom. Since this basically has never changed, re-importing into Lightroom CC was not a big deal. I did try the Aperture Importer: it’s not as good as CaptureOne’s by a long way, but not as bad as people say it is - it does actually work, albeit very, very slowly. However, since all it really does is carry over some metadata, and that can just as easily be accomplished by writing metadata to original files or XMP sidecars, there’s little point in it. Takes forever and a day too, and the workflow is very badly designed.
I wasn’t expecting much from Lightroom Mobile, because it doesn’t do what I thought I wanted, i.e. remote editing and curation of the Library. It also gets a poor press, because it doesn’t do what a lot of people want, i.e. act as a front-end mobile file importer. What it actually does do is give you access to selected parts of your library which you have already created on the desktop, and, via “cloud” synchronisation, it then allows you to review and rate these, and to apply quite a high degree of image manipulation. On my new iPad Air 2, this works very well indeed, and actually, it turns out it is pretty close to what I wanted. Keywording would be nice to have, but what it does give me is enough to keep me constructively engaged during daily train commutes. Also, Lightroom Mobile supports importing and synchronisation of photos taken with iDevices. I haven’t tried that yet, but it is interesting. However, it does seem to conflict with a lot that Mylio provides. Mylio does do things that Lightroom Mobile does not, for example importing new files in the field and synchronising them with home and backup destinations, but several key things that it does do, and Lightroom does not, for example key wording, it does rather weakly. I’m not really sure yet if Mylio is really needed in a Lightroom-centric workflow.
Finally, a CC subscription to Lightroom also brings Photoshop CC 2015, which has some useful additions for working with film scans, not the least being the Camera Raw plugin. I’d heard vaguely about this, but I didn’t really realise how useful it could be to be able to use ACR adjustments on a layer for film scans. Sure, there are other ways of doing everything in Photoshop, but the ACR toolset is specifically designed for photography, and makes everything much faster. And the fact that it swallows a 350Mb 16 bit XPan scan without a murmur is pretty impressive.
So, over the last months, I have invested a lot of time successively in PhotoSupreme, CaptureOne, and Mylio, and at this point pretty much discarded all of them in favour of Lightroom (maybe not Mylio, I may still have a use for that, but development seems to have slowed). It’s completely against current trends to switch FROM CaptureOne TO Lightroom, which, given my track record and general disposition, is probably as good a reason for doing it than any. Switching to Lightroom and writing a nice review about Jeff Schewe in the same month ? I must be going soft in the head.