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photoblogography - Just some stuff about photography

Why I still miss Aperture

whine, fanboy, whine

in Apple Aperture , Friday, April 17, 2020

It seems weird to be writing about Apple Aperture in 2020, some 5 years since its nominal demise. It does still work on MacOS Mojave, although it seems to make the OS crash if it is left running for too long (several days). I still lament its passing, while acknowledging that the stable door has been open so long that this particular horse has not only bolted into the next hemisphere but has been rendered down for glue.

But there is one feature of Aperture which I still use, and which I’ve never seen before our since its murder by Time “Bean Counter” Cook, and that is the Light Table.

I realise that for the vast majority of camera owners, Light Table is at best puzzling, but more generally a target of scorn. It has little to do with demonstrating that cats photographed with THEIR Superpixelmuncher X100X ProX are better than those of the next DPReview forum rodent.  That’s because it is a feature for photographers, not camera owners. And it’s brilliant.

A Light Table can be added to a Project, and can be used to arrange, lay out and edit (in the true sense of the word) a set of photos contained in that project. And I’ll say it again, it’s brilliant. Under peer pressure to do something useful with my COVID-19 confinement, I’m embarking on a couple of long, long overdue publication projects. One of these is to create a book. The big challenges in book creation are the selection and ordering of photos in a way which is coherent and conducive to the aims of the project.  The other is layout. Aperture’s Light Table can pretty much solve the first, and can help to get started with the second.

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The view above shows Aperture displaying a Light Table, with the pool of photos shown below in a browser strip (when added to the Light Table they gain a red counter icon). On the right I have an iPad acting as a second screen - this shows the photo selected, either on the Light Table, or in the browser strip.  So, simultaneously I have a freeform selection and layout, a means to browse and select photos out of my initial edit, and a full screen view so I can check sharpness or whatever.  When I place or move photos on the Light Table, automatic alignment and placing guides appear, like in InDesign or something. I know of no other application which can do this. Whichever unsung hero came up with this concept, (s)he deserves a mega award.

And it doesn’t end there. You might say that the Light Table seems a little constrained. No problem, drag a photo or photos off of the area in any direction, and the light Table expands to accommodate them.  There may be a limit, but I’ve never encountered it. Of course, you can also have any number of Light Tables you want under a Project, so you could even dedicate one to each spread.  Then again, Aperture also had a superb Book tool, so really you’d just progress from a rough mockup using Light Table to Book.

And there’s more: using the sort-of gadgety (only it isn’t) Loupe, you can examine any part of any photo, at your chosen magnification, in-situ.  And, thanks to Aperture’s unparalleled integration, using the HUD panels, you can pretty much do anything to any photo, also in situ, be it add keywords, check metadata, or even fully edit (in the Photoshop sense) the photo (of course all this worked in Books too).

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The much-maligned but actually very slick Loupe

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The Light Table with adjustment tools HUD

Ok, it took a few versions for Aperture to fully deliver on its lofty ambitions, but once its got there (let’s say v2.5) it was humming.  Everything fit together like a well engineered Swiss watch. Unfortunately, the Apple dumbing-down disease struck a glancing blow to v3, but it was only superficial.

So given all this, why did it ultimately fail? Well, setting aside the fact that such an application just did not fit into Apple’s consumer disposables vision, and indeed probably only ever got approval because of Steve Job’s antipathy towards Adobe, it did suffer in detailed comparison in some areas to the far less ambitious Adobe Lightroom. For example, the pixel peepers and forum rodents could point at minute and adjustable differences in initial rendering - usually of noise at 1’986’543’200 ISO, or sharpness of Your Cat’s whisker at 500% magnification. Also Apple was pretty sluggish at keeping up to date with new camera releases, which Adobe correctly saw as an absolute priority.

What sunk Aperture was essentially Apple corporate culture.  It was overcome by a brilliantly conceived and ruthlessly executed social marketing campaign by Adobe, playing on all of Apple’s corporate weaknesses (obsession with secrecy, no interaction with customers, etc).  Aperture was different to Lightroom, and in many ways.  But Adobe managed to ensure that the competition was judged by one facet only, the pixel-peeping level characteristics of its image adjustment toolset. And actually even here Aperture had some unique and very powerful features (the implementation of the curve tool, for example), but nothing was going to save it against the massed ranks of photo-influencers like Jeff Schewe, Scott Kelby, Michael Reichmann and legions of others.  Apple just could not bring themselves to put the spotlight on others. Or, of course, horror of horrors, release a Windows version. No, people had to buy Macs to use Aperture.

Had Aperture been developed by an independent company, free of the clutches of Jobs, Cook, et al, I’m pretty confident it would have flourished. It was aimed at a market segment which is still not served today - it’s a pity the marketers never realised that.

I’m still happily using the Light Table, and it integrates pretty well with a Lightroom-centered workflow. But I’m on the last version of MacOS where this is possible.

 

Undertow, by Frances Scott

tracing the landscape

in Book Reviews , Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Undertow, by Frances Scott, is one of the most recent publications from Iain Sarjeant’s innovative and energetic Another Place Press. Like all of Another Place’s output, “Undertow” is small, beautifully designed and excellent value for money.

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It’s quite difficult to pin a genre on “Undertow”. The closest I can get to is landscape reportage, but that could make it sound superficial, which most certainly is not. On the surface, Undertow is a travelogue of sorts, recording Frances Scott’s tracing of the coastline of her home, Orkney Mainland, an island off the north coast of Scotland.

The sequence of black and white photographs is complemented by spidery traces of GPS tracks of the various coastal walks which join together to circumnavigate the whole island. Along with some of these come captions joining the factual (time spent) with the highly impressionistic, for example “Forty-eight minutes - Wintry waves, small black cat”.

The photography will not win over the classic Wild & Wonderful Landscape Photographer. It surely isn’t meant to. There are some pure landscape scenes, but they share space with whatever else populates the coastline, be it random junk, disused military installations or fragments of wrecks. Personally in a way I wish the photos were colour, not monochrome, but I can also understand why colour would detract from the overall effect.

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I don’t really have the erudition required to place Frances Scott’s work in artistic context, but two fairly random reference points for me which Undertow stands up well against would be Fay Godwin (especially, and obviously “Islands”), and Marco Paoluzzo (for example “Føroyar”).

In the introduction the author concludes with the thought “By walking these coastlines ... I’ve found a new sense of belonging”, which is a feeling I can identify very strongly with.  Personally, having no real roots, I’ve often found meaning in wandering around areas local to where I work and live, gathering together photos and thoughts, building up a narrative for myself. I’ve also at times started to attempt to put these collections into some form of publication, but I’ve never really achieved anything.

“Undertow” is quite charmingly successful at nailing down such a sense of place.

 

Not a wildlife photographer

but whatever, here’s some penguins

in Photography , Friday, March 27, 2020

Seems that for a lot of photographers the current lockdown has a silver lining, as it provides time to organise, curate, edit and generally sort out photography backlogs. It should be the same for me, but somehow I’m finding it even harder to focus on these activities right now. But I certainly have a backlog. In fact my backlog has backlogs. I’m sure if I just let things drift, I’ll regret it, if and when normality returns, so I’m trying to get stuff done by dividing tasks up into small slices.  In that way, I’m managing to work through the huge pile of photos acquired during the Antarctic leg of my last little jaunt.

First I managed to whittle down some 6000 photos to 1300. It’s a start, but 6000 is way too many for a 2 week period. Then again, I think that most people on the same trip have far, far more, as they pretty much all were shooting continuously, at rates of lots of frames per second, while I pretty much always stuck to single frames.

This is probably to my detriment. After all, I have a camera (Olympus E-M1 MkII if you want to know) which is capable of insane frame rates, so why don’t I use it? There are several reasons for this - one, I really don’t have the mindset of a wildlife photographer, where the downside of having to sift through mountains of near-identical photos has the upside of retrieving one or two real gems. Second, I’m too lazy (or old, or stupid, or all three) to learn how to do it properly. Whatever, I still ended up with 6000 photos.

Actually, I wasn’t really expecting the trip to be quite so heavily oriented towards wildlife photography, although with hindsight I really should have been, and should have prepared for it. So I was thrown into a situation where the priority was wildlife, and lots of it, and that is not within my comfort zone. I discovered that for most people an iceberg was not very interesting if it didn’t have a penguin or a seal on it. I’ve learned that dedicated wildlife photographers have the ability to pre-conceive a particular shot that they want, and are prepared to spend literally hours waiting for it. And for this they need to be fully prepared and to have complete mastery of their equipment. And they need patience.

I don’t have any of this.  If I’m given 3 hours to wander around a location, then my main object will be to see as much of that location as I can. I may pick up some photos along the way, in my usual opportunistic way, and I may even spend some time trying to get a particular shot that I’ve identified on the spot, but any notion of conceiving of what I want to photograph usually comes only with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.  So, I use inappropriate settings, my output is random and generally poor, and I get annoyed with myself. However, at the other extreme, I’ve seen people achieve the single shot they wanted less than 1 hour into a 3 hour shore trip, and at that point fold up and head back to the ship. In my way of thinking, they are missing opportunities, but I guess from a photographic point of view they’re showing discipline, and the net result is that they have pre-curated their shots, and actually have little follow up work to do other than discarding the 95% of frames which they don’t need.  It’s an approach which has some clear attractions.  And, if you look at the work of one of my trip companions, Richard Barrett, you can see it works very well.

And penguins… well, it’s easy to photograph penguins. Actually sometimes it’s hard NOT to photograph penguins. They get in everywhere. It is harder to isolate a single penguin, and even harder to make that into an interesting photograph. I’m not 100% sure why we even try - penguins are above all highly social animals, and seeing them in isolation somehow seems a bit sad. The holy grail, it seems, these days in penguin photography is to try to get that “fog” foreground look, where you get a band of out of focus snow in the lower part of the frame. Finding clean snow around penguins is also hard, as they can’t get toilet paper in Antarctica, and since they nest on exposed rock getting them to pose nicely in snow is hard too. I was actually more interested in getting shots featuring penguins in a wider environment, sometimes even to the point that you don’t first notice the bird. This is also not original. And in any case over time I sucombed to peer pressure and image reviews telling me this wasn’t what I should be doing. Perhaps, more accurately, I just wasn’t doing it very well.

Anyway, with my small batch at a time approach, I’ve made some headway into curation and processing. So here, from that work in progress, is a small sample of the penguin side of my latest attempts at wildlife photography.

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Torres del Paine, by Francisco Espíldora

an individual approach

in Book Reviews , Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Whenever I travel, I keep an eye open for books by local photographers, on the grounds that they will almost certainly be full of photos better than I could ever make. Of course there are always garish anthologies of sub-postcard level stuff which manage the near impossible feat of being full of shots even less adequate than mine, but these I skip over.  I’m more interested in the kind of book generally found tucked away in the corners, not those piled high for undiscerning tourists.  Francisco Espíldora’s book, “Torres del Paine” is very clearly in the former category.

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Francisco Espíldora is an award-winning Chilean wildlife photographer. I believe “Torres del Paine” is his first book, and it’s an impressive start. The classification “wildlife photographer” tends to make one think of highly detailed, close up animal portraiture, which is more about technique than expression. That’s not the case here, indeed it’s drastically not so. “Torres del Paine” is a narrative, taken the reader from pre-dawn to dusk in a wintery setting, through photos taken within the national park boundary.  The initial photos are taken in near darkness, with just recognisable animal silhouettes seen in some of them. Stopping to think about it, from a technical point of view these really are quite remarkable, but more to the point they strongly convey a sense of time and place.

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Moving on, light creeps in, and dawn-lit landscapes are mixed in, some with distant wildlife visible, some not. The colour palette is restrained, none of the exuberant saturation that a lot of wildlife, and indeed landscape photography goes in for. In fits in with a certain idea of “film-like”, provided you associate film more with the kind of subdued feel delivered by Fuji Astia, rather than the screaming psychedelia of Velvia. It’s a very appropriate look.

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Further in, the wildlife does take more of a centre stage role, but still very much within or even concealed by the landscape, as opposed to somehow cut out of it.  The narrative moves towards brighter midday and afternoon light, before finally returning to night.

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Overall the book really feels like something much more than just a collection of photos, which is quite unusual in the genre. Francisco Espíldora clearly has a deep feeling for the land, and a story to tell. From a photographical point of view, his approach has some parallels with that of Vincent Munier, but without the extreme minimalism Munier tends towards (sometimes too much, for my tastes), or the impressionistic approach of Stanley Leroux, while remaining very individual.

I’m hardly an authority on wildlife photography, or indeed any kind of photography (or anything else, to be honest), but my feeling is that Francisco Espíldora is on a path to becoming a leading contemporary wildlife photographer.  I strongly recommend this book, which you can buy directly here, and look forward to seeing more of his work.

 

The Atlas Athlete backpack

recommended by leading penguins

in Product reviews , Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Over the years I’ve written a fair few articles on camera bags. It’s a given that no self-respecting photographer can ever have too many bags. Well, for me the search for the as-close-to-perfect bag seems to be at an end. I’m not claiming that I have found a single bag that suits every occasion, but I have found 3 which pretty much cover everything. Two of these, I’ve had for a while: for casual, city and similar use, the Domke F803. For fully dedicated core photography, the Mindshift Backlight 23L. I’m not going to discuss those here, but rather the final piece of the puzzle, the hybrid trekking/photo Atlas Athlete backpack.

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Introducing my guest reviewer, a big fan of Atlas backpacks.

I’ve been using the Atlas backpack for almost exactly one year. It has come on several major trips (Madeira, Patagonia, Antarctica) and plenty of minor outings. There are a lot of great things about this backpack, but for me the outstanding points are the extreme comfort and the chameleon-like configurability. It is designed first and foremost as a trekking backpack. It has an aluminium frame (removable, just), and an extremely well designed harness and belt. In fact the Atlas Athlete can be ordered in several sizes and with different belt types to best suit your body measurements. And it fits like a glove.

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My guest reviewer checks out the harness

Well, so what, you might say, there are plenty of excellent trekking backpacks out there. And indeed there are, but the Atlas Athlete is also designed from a photographer’s point of view. It’s also true that there are plenty of vendors making similar claims, but where they emphasise all the gimmicks, from “packing modules” through to revolving sections, the photography aspect of the Atlas Athlete has been conceived with the same tight focus on practical usefulness as the bag itself.

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The Atlas Athlete with the camera compartment in expanded configuration. It holds two Olympus E-M1 bodies, one with grip, three Pro lenses, including the 40-150 f2.8 zoom, two teleconverters, and a filter pack.

The camera section is accessed through the back of the pack and is fixed in place. It has the usual velcro attached flexible dividers, which in this case are well, rather than excessively padded. The closest thing the bag has to a gimmick is the push-down/pull-up flap which reduces the size of the camera section, to about two thirds of the full size. Actually this turns out no to be a gimmick at all, but rather to be pretty useful in practice. The configuration you can see above uses the full space. For long walks I usually take a reduced amount of camera gear, so I pull the flap to make more space for other items. Even then, I can easily fit in an Olympus E-M1 body and two Pro lenses. The only slightly negative point I would make is that the compartment is a touch shallow.

Apart from the camera compartment, the Atlas Athlete has plenty of space. One of the main selling points is that it is very expandable. With the compression straps released, it expands out to 30 litres. With them tightened, it shrinks to 5 litres, and a 7 inch profile which easily fits into the overhead locker of a small commuter airliner. Uncompressed, the main space extends down the bottom of the bag, in front of the camera compartment. On the front of the camera compartment there is a concealed laptop holder, which easily accommodates my 13” MacBook Pro.  The top lid has a plethora of pockets which swallow surprising amounts of gadgetry.

You can read more about the features on the Atlas website, but the key factor, for me, is that it is supremely comfortable, even fully loaded.  Hiking long sections of narrow, humid Madeira levadas or the Torres del Paine W trail was absolutely no problem at all with this backpack. And it was equally at home fully loaded with camera gear on treks ashore in Antarctica, or rattling around on the bottom of a zodiac.  Oh, and did I mention hardwearing?

Of course, you can get trendier stuff from Peak Design and their Kickstarter imitators, if you value form over function. I’ve made that mistake so you don’t have to. Bottom line, for a hybrid trekking/photo backpack, you’d be hard pushed to find a better candidate than the Atlas Athlete.  And yes, it does come in a more stealthy colour, but the bright yellow works for me!

Guest Review Comments

Yeah, ok, it’s not the worst, but they could work on the taste a bit. Regurgitated krill would be nice!

 
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