photoblogography - Just some stuff about photography

Sigma DP2 … should I ?

or shouldn’t I ?

in GAS , Thursday, November 29, 2012

For ages now I’ve been wondering about buying the brilliant-but-flawed Sigma DP2. Or maybe DP1.

Sigma DP2

All the internet gurus seem to be raving about it, from eminent elder statesman photographers such Michael Reichmann or David Taylor-Hughes to uber-tech-geeks such as LLoyd Chambers. Not to mention the hordes of forum dwellers, including some of the more intelligent of the species. It seems to be the camera that has everything: amazing image quality, close to ultimate resolution, film-like rendition, practically pocketable, discrete, well designed and not unrealistically expensive. Of course you have to accept that it has a fixed lens (a very, very good one apparently), that it can’t take photos in the dark, like the latest Canikons, that it munches through batteries like a pig in a field of clover, and that you can only process it’s RAW files in Sigma’s own software, which apparently is truly dreadful.

Well, on that last point, most of the reviewers obviously have led a very sheltered life when it comes to software. I’ve downloaded Sigma Photo Pro, and found a few DP2 Merrill RAW files, and tried it out. It isn’t that bad. I would put it about on a par with Olympus Studio/Viewer - a bit slow at times, a tendency to do things in an unconventional way, but it works. It seems it’s biggest sin is that it’s not Lightroom, which is not a problem as far as I’m concerned.

And the results are, indeed, breathtaking.

But… in what way are they breathtaking? The resolution and clarity is exceptional, and to a lesser extent so is the colour. But unless I’m going to be printing on the side of a house, does this matter? At screen / web size, there’s no practical difference between the Sigma images and those from my 12 megapixel Olympus E-5 or E-P3. And both of those come with exceptional, interchangeable lenses. Which I’ve already got. I doubt that there is any practical difference in printing up to A3, or even A2, which is as far as I go. And there’s no end of software applications which can happily handle Olympus RAW files.

So, it’s a thumbs down then? Well, I don’t know. I have a feeling that the Sigma could be very nice to have along with me on my forthcoming trip to Antarctica, but then I’d start getting (even more) stressed about which camera to use. On a nice, clear day it could really come into it’s own for certain landscape shots, but then again the E-5 does a good job too. And I’m still debating if I should take the XPan, adding even more variables to the mix.

Of course there’s a considerable deal of GAS (Gear Acquistion Syndrome) and Retail Therapy involved here. But this is counterbalanced by a general feeling of too-many-toys nausea. And they don’t call me Indecisive Dave for nothing.


How deep is your DOF

I really need to know

in General Rants , Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Bee Gees must have been prescient when they wrote “cause we’re living in a world of fools”, because they we didn’t have internet photo nerd forums back in the 70s (we had flares - much better). If there is one thing guaranteed to wind me up most in those wastelands of joined-up thinking it is when some dweeb starts whining, posturing or proclaiming that such and such camera and/or lens doesn’t have “enough DOF”. DOF, of course, meaning Depth Of Field, but all the evidence tends to indicate that 90% of the aforementioned dweebs don’t know that. Back in the 70s (well, ok, 90s as far as I’m concerned), “enough DOF” meant being able to get a significant amount of your scene in focus. And it wasn’t easy, with 100 ISO (film, that is) being considered fast!

Canon cap snow

DOF porn Exhibit 1. Almost certainly (a) the first intentional picture of DOF I ever took, and (b) the least interesting and most pointless photo ever made in Antarctica. Canon FTb, 50mm f/1.8

In dweeb-land, however, “DOF” means getting as much of your photo out of focus as possible, preferably rendering everything in a pretty swirly smoothy hazy way so as to make the subject - usually a brick wall, or their back garden - totally unrecognisable. And it gets much, much worse when you run up against a Full Frame Cultist, who will inform you, in no uncertain terms, and with no room for discussion, that His (they’re always male) Way is The One Truth. You absolutely cannot get enough “DOF” (or indeed resolution, sensitivity, you name it), with, horror of horrors, a (micro) four-thirds sensor. Well, I beg to differ.

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DOF porn Exhibit 2. Only a camera geek could love it. Panasonic Lumix 25mm f/1.4

And oh do I wish I find out where to get all that extraneous DOF four-thirds sensors apparently suffer from. Then I’d be able to get the jumbled bunches of rocks I like to photograph all in focus!

All systems, pretty much, allow you to be creative with shallow depth of field. It’s all down to focal length and positioning. Sure, there are certain configurations that are easier, or perhaps only possible, with a given lens on a full frame sensor. But exactly the same can be said for other combinations. Within reason, and excluding extreme edge cases, you can pretty much achieve whatever effect you want with any camera system. It just requires less talk, and more thought.

Of course, in 95% of cases normal people neither like nor see the point of these photos. They’re not photos of anything, just “tests” to show what “great DOF” Lens X can do. Fantastic. There are a few exceptions, but actually using this effect in a truly creative and rewarding way is very, very hard.

Extreme lenses, such as the Leica Noctilux f0.95, were designed for low-light shooting, not “DOF”. I can’t imagine trying to actually focus a Noctilux on a rangefinder! These days, with digital cameras giving good performance at ISO levels beyond film’s wildest dreams, these ultra-fast lenses are even more niche items. Typically, in the Film Age, lenses designed for soft-focus backgrounds were short teles with maximum apertures in the f/2 to f/2.8 range. Which, strangely enough, in terms of “equivalent separation”, is exactly where the Panasonic Summilux f/1.4, which I just bought in a fit of futile retail therapy, sits. And don’t let any forum troll tell you different.


The Pipe.

If you go down to the woods today…

in Photography in Ticino , Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Towards the end of the summer, and little more than a stone’s throw away from the rather mundane place I work, there lies a wooded hill covered in tangled undergrowth, criss-crossed by faded, hardly remembered pathways, concealing secrets and mysteries, buried memories of a disconnected past. At least that’s how I seemed to me, and a little romanticising never did any lasting damage. As the autumn set in and the leaves fell, some secrets revealed themselves, while others dug themselves in deeper. This is the first part in what might be a trilogy of photo essays I brought back from my forays into the woods above Camorino.

The Pipe

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Ok, so you want the facts ? Well, The Pipe is actually a conduit feeding water from several dams and culverts higher up the mountain to the small hydro-electric plant in Val Morobbia. The plant was originally built around 1905, providing some of the earliest electrical power in Ticino. This conduit was actually constructed in the 1970s, replacing the original one, now long since dismantled. Originally there was a collecting reservoir half way up the hill, which is now disused and overgrown, replaced by an underground facility. This reservoir, the “Vecchio Bacino” must have been quite a feat of engineering and, in particular, manual labour. Perched at about 400m above the river, it has no road access - as I discovered after following The Pipe to get to it. Life was not so easy just a mere 100 years ago.

So I might have felt like I was wandering around a set from “Lost”, but even without daydreaming, the truth of the tale is fascinating. Well it is to me, anyway. I’m a sucker for industrial archeology.


Iceland Within

Impressions of Bruce Percy’s new book

in Book Reviews , Monday, November 12, 2012

I didn’t think I really needed any more Iceland photography books. I’ve got quite a lot, in all shapes and sizes. Some are excellent, some so-so, a couple are outstanding and one or two are crap. But altogether they add up to a lot. Or indeed too many.

lots of iceland books

Rather too much of a good thing?

So, when I first heard that Bruce Percy’s second book was to be about Iceland, I was perhaps a little underwhelmed. But eventually, for various reasons, I decided to order it, and it arrived a few days ago. Now, this is absolutely not a review. Bruce has stated that he doesn’t like reading reviews, and I’m not much good at writing them. But this book, “Iceland - a Journal of Nocturnes” makes me want to write about it. It’s a bit like that feeling you got as a teenager when you discovered a new band, that you wanted to keep to yourself, but tell everybody about at the same time. This book is like that. First of all, it’s not just a book of photos. It’s a work of art in its own right. Beautifully presented, with every detail obviously obsessed over, it’s the sort of thing you’d expect to find wrapped around a David Sylvian CD. The typography alone is worth the price of entry. An astonishing number of photographers show absolutely zero design skills, or taste. Bruce Percy is not among that number.

The photography is masterful and close to unique. I’ll admit I’d got a bit jaded with Bruce’s long-exposure style, finding it all a little repetitive. But that was from looking at small JPGs on the web. Here, in print, all together and given space to breathe these photos come alive. Many people, starting with Michael Kenna of course, have done the low-light long-exposure thing. But Bruce adds his own character, and in particular an extremely delicate sensibility for colour to the mix, and avoids the heavy-handedness and sterility which so many Kenna copyists suffer from.

Iceland is a magnet for photographers, and these days is heavily over-exposed. As a source of dramatic, contrasty, saturated landscapes it’s pretty much endless. Point, shoot wind up the contrast to drama+11 in Photoshop, post it on Flickr and wait for the “great capture” comments to come flooding in. Well you won’t find any such great captures here. There is plenty of drama, and indeed contrast, but it is subtle, controlled, and feels part of the scene rather than plastered on top. Perhaps because Bruce works exclusively with colour slide film, a restricted and unforgiving medium which offers little scope for Photoshopping, the natural ambience doesn’t get suffocated, and a realistic luminosity pervades.

The cornerstone of this book, though, is a few hundred meters of black sand beach, where the outlet from the Jökulsarlon flows into the Atlantic. Although many thousands of photographers have visited this area, Bruce has captured - and seemingly been captured by - it’s soul. My reading is that this beach is in some way his muse. In a collection of photographs totally devoid of any sign of life or human intervention, these lonely scattered ice fragments are recomposed into living sculptures. I was very prepared to just shrug my shoulders and think “same old”, but I was very wrong. In fact I find the rest of the photos, to one degree or another, rather incidental in this context, and I keep coming back to the beach.

What I see here is not a book of landscape photographs, but a book which obliquely reveals something of the photographer. That’s pretty common in other areas, such as street or reportage, but not in landscape, where we tend to go for the pretty picture and the quick win. This book shows how a collection of work can be much stronger than a set of random images. Iceland is the stage, not the subject.

I didn’t need another book about Iceland. But I did need this.


Um, actually, let me rephrase that

mmmumbleokmumbleokI’m Sorrymumble

in Book Reviews , Thursday, November 08, 2012

Well, once again I’m feeling a touch guilty about a rant posted here. This time it’s my broadside against Photographer’s i which is the culprit. Today I received a remarkably polite and graceful email from the unfortunate target of my ire, Adam Juniper explaining what has been going on on their side.

I understand, really, I do. It require a serious suspension of belief to think that such an ambitious undertaking as Photographer’s i could survive for long, especially with the punishing schedule they set for themselves. I know all too well about funding falling short of ambition and business plans which maybe with hindsight were not such a good idea. But the collapse was dramatic, and in my opinion it could have been handled far, far better.

In this day and age there is far more mileage to be made by being open and forthcoming about business problems than trying to plaster over the cracks. It seems abundantly clear to me, at least, that Issue 4 is principally a disaster recovery exercise. Let’s hope it is a stopgap which provides a path to a sustainable future. But if, for example, there were some clear statements on what is going on on the Photographer’s i website, and on their Facebook page, it would make the whole thing easier to accept. If, as Adam told me, it was always the intention for Michael Freeman to step away, then perhaps Freeman might have at least written a “hand over” editorial. The perception still remains a little different.

I couldn’t really decide what to do about my previous post. I guess I went in a little a lot too heavy, especially with the “fraudulent” stuff, and the ad hominen attacks - although hopefully regular readers, if I have any, will realise that a lot of this stuff is down to my strange concept of humour. Eventually I decided not to rewrite history, but instead to add this half-baked semi-retraction to make me feel better, along with a few addenda.

The crux of the matter remains the conclusion to my initial review. Can I actually recommend Photographer’s i in its new incarnation ? Honestly, well, right now, I can’t. Leaving aside my disappointment, the fact is that personally I’m no longer interested in the vast majority of “how to” articles, even well-written ones, which these certainly are. Instinct has always prevailed over analysis for me, which contributed to my downfall as a scientist. But what may be boring to me might well be just what somebody else was looking for. So my recommendation - one way or the other - is totally subjective.

I’m interested in photography as an art form, in what drives photographers, what impels and compels them, and how they see the world. There’s a lot of that in the first three issues of Photographer’s i, but sadly it seems that few people are willing to pay even a tiny amount of money for this - while paying insane sums for this week’s new Canikon. For the sake of the people who’s livelihoods depend on it, I hope that the reincarnation of Photographer’s i can engage with more of this mainstream audience.

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