Monday, 30 March 2009

Another year passes

The road ahead, Tanzania, January 2009

So the blog and I are a year older, time for the second annual Reflection on Things Done. Last year, I was glad to be part of a community of photographers and was progressing nicely along.

I feel a lot has happened the past 12 months that has really moved things forward for me, photographically (and in some senses the rest of my life, but none of that here).

3 big things happened: SoFoBoMo 2008, my trip to the Himalaya and my recent safari in Tanzania.

The first of these has really got me thinking more in groups, series and projects. I'm not looking to produce some good images, but a wider sense of how I see the world around me. I'm seeing a wider range of subjects as photographs and ordering them in my own mind as I go. There are links all around me.

The second, my trip to the Himalaya brought a level of integration of photography and my other pursuits. I've been making photography more a part of my life. It seemed to come together in the hills of India - I was a photographer, seeing pictures all around me and recording them. It was more than just recording my vacation. That is something of a first for me, I feel.

And the third has really shown me how much my ability to see beyond just the subject in front of me and look for an individual perspective, together with a greater ability to produce good images. The best of my rejects is now far better than many of my selections were 12 months ago. I'm now getting some good response from photographers as well as friends and family - whilst I don't consciously court compliments, it's nice to get them. Certainly a year ago I don't think I'd have got a good return on such a wildlife trip. Now I can look forward to specific ways I'd like to use such a trip in the future.

And all the while I'm actively trying to learn: from others and from my own work. Getting to understand my view of the world.

As for the blog, I was never sure how long I could keep it up but the more I carry on, the more I see there is more in front of me. At least for now, it has value for me to continue. I hope those reading continue to feel that way, too.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

A collection of techniques

Wimpy Restaurant, Tanzania, January 2009
Shot from a moving vehicle at about 50mph; (as I recall) f/8, 1/500s

I seem to collect photographic techniques like Lego bricks. Having a wide range of interests, I'm developing a wide range of means to capture those things as pictures.

One of the recent methods that I am honing is what I call the "Drive-by technique". Nothing fancy, really, just shooting from a moving vehicle. It's a great way to capture street life, and is something I did quite a lot of in India last year and Tanzania recently. Equipment plays a part. The rangefinder, and probably also film, helps a lot. Zone focus, wide angle, smallish aperture, fast shutter. Look ahead, see something interesting coming, snap as it passes. Not a very high hit rate, but the good stuff is pretty good. And sometimes I react to one subject but something unexpected happens.

Heart balloons, London, March 2009
Originally it was the balloons that attracted me but that's not what the final shot is all about.

Working in this way is helping me out and about on the streets. I react more quickly to situations and take less time to get the shot. Wildlife photography, especially long lenses, helps with holding a camera steady, meaning I can shoot more successfully at lower shutter speeds. Watch wildlife helps me anticipate events. All these methods can help even when in slow mode in the landscape on a tripod - less faffing and an ability to react to changing conditions. The slower methods give me time to get more fully acquainted with camera operation, metering, composition methods etc.

It's why I use the Lego analogy. A series of techniques can then be plugged together in any given situation as suits the equipment in hand (and instinctively having the right one there) and environment. As time goes on it is more and more about the picture, I think a lot less about how to get it.

From the weekend

Covent Garden Grill, London, March 2009

Friday, 27 March 2009

The market speaks?

TOP has a poll running on video in stills cameras - what is being described around the web as an inevitable convergence of technology.

I'd imagine that the poll represents quite well the target market for DSLRs: photographers from the enthusiastic amateur up to pros all with an interest in kit & technology. I'd also imagine there are enough votes to make it representative. As of this writing the results are pretty stable.

So what do I take away from the numbers? First, more than twice as many people actively don't want video as do want it. That means there are potentially twice as mny people who would NOT buy a camera because it has video as would do so. Further, half those polled don't want video, although most of that group would just ignore it.

So while the camera companies and pundits reckon this is all inevitable, a large part of the market is saying it doesn't want it. Seems to me (as I commented over there) that there is call for 2 distinct products.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Photography is not a performance

Dedication, London, March 2009

OK, not quite a photography post, but there is also a point.

Caroline le Barbier, violinist,
March 2009

On Saturday night I attended a concert put on by the ELLSO - East London Late Starters Orchestra. A friend of mine, Caroline (right) is a member, and she invited me along to listen.
The ELLSO is an organisation that teaches music to adults check out all the details on their website.
There was a fairly broad spectrum of abilities, divided into ability sections, each section putting on a performance. Overall it was an excellent evening. Great performances all around. Clearly some nerves around but it was thoroughly enjoyable. People enjoying what they do, making music and entertaining a large audience of friends and families.
Quite frankly I'm amazed that people can get up and do this. I have no aptitude for making music and hate performing in front of crowds (giving technical presentations doesn't count). And yet here are dozens who do just that and enjoy it.

There is a slight link to photography, hinted at in the title. Performance anxiety isn't something that should bother us. All the worry and fear exhibited by prospective SoFoBoMoers is nothing compared to having to give a live performance. As photographers we have time to get things right. Once we have the images in the bag, we have opportunity to work on them. If we're putting together prints or books there is time to work on the finished product. Even when we have a product, we can always edit after production.

The musicians effectively have one chance to get things right, and missed notes can't get taken back. My admiration to them all. More than I could do.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Richard Avedon at FOAM

Friedlander and Avedon

with a footnote on Gerhard Richter.

The first major exhibition of Avedon's work since his death, Photographs: 1946-2004 is a sweeping retrospective of his work currently on show at FOAM. It covers all of his work, from early fashion work for Harper's Bazaar, Vogue and others through to his later celebrity portraits. Virtually all of the work comes from the Avedon Estate, all original prints by the artist as none of his work has been reprinted since his death.

This is a large collection, more that 200 prints on display, taking the entireity of the exhibition space in the rather small FOAM building (thhe permanent collection has decamped across the road for the duration of this exhibition).

I had limited exposure to Avedon's work in the past, and certainly nothing in any kind of context. Starting with the early work, the fashion photography looks fresh and modern. The settings and poses seem very typical of fashion photography, until one looks at the dates of the work - they are all from the early fifties. It is clearly evident how Avedon was breaking the mould of static, posed fashion photography, turning it into a living, vital visual expression. One can see the origins of modern aspirational fashion marketing in Avedon's photographs.


One then moves through the galleries, away from the assignment-style magazine shoots into the portraiture for which he is probably better known. Here, again, there is a sense of innovation. These are much more that glamorous celebrity pictures or environmental portraits, with descriptive props all around. These are deeper, more intimate probing into the deeper character of the subjects. Avedon's use of white backdrops focuses attention on the sitter and the masterful prints have a sense of depth and solidity that makes these people real in way that I've not often seen in photographs. The quality of the prints really has to be experienced first hand.

Eisenhower and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

The exhibition itself is well constructed to show the work to maximum advantage. The framing, lighting, and annotation all help to enhance the work by not detracting from it. Pairs and groups of images are selecting to draw comparisons between the work and the subjects. Even the free brochure is well done.

Regarding America (In the American West series)

I'm rather glad that I was delayed in writing this review as I have had a chance to visit the National Portrait Gallery in London, in particular the current exhibition Gerhard Richter: Portraits. It is not directly related to photography as Richter work from photographs to produce his paintings but it draws interesting comparison in artistic philosophy. Richter said that

"A portrait should not express anything of the sitter's soul, essence or character"

Working from photographs, Richter produced work that looks rather like photographs greatly enlarged but often distorted enough to obscure context and introduce abiguity of subject or meaning.

In contrast, Avedon expressly uses the ability of personal contact and the literal nature of photography to get beyond the surface impression of his subjects.

It was also interesting to view some of the photography galleries at NPG. After seeing Avedon's work, suddenly the other portraits I saw seem rather staid and derivative. It only served to highlight what a master of the form Avedon really was.

There is also a book that accompanies the exhibition which I was able to peruse at length at FOAM. While the reporductions don't have quite the depth of tone and certainly none of the impact of size, they are, nonetheless, excellent prints for a book. There are also some rather good essays to accompany the work. I would certainly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in portrait photography - it is almost a single volume masterclass in the genre.

Gerhard Richter: Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery, London until 31st May 2009

Richard Avedon: Photographs 1946-2004 is on at FOAM until 13th May 2009 and then travelling on.

The accompanying book Richard Avedon: Photographs 1946-2004 is published by Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Today, everything was in colour

I'm in London for a couple of days, time off in the middle of a couple of weeks work in the UK. Normally for a city trip like this, I'd be looking at things in monochrome, HP5+ loaded in the rangefinder. But today was different. Everywhere I was seeing colours and I loaded up colour film for a change. Not sure what will come of it but it will feel a little different.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Having trouble with the language

Posting has been a little thin as I'm on the road again with dodgy internet (thank goodness for complementary internet in the big city).

I've been contemplating the idea of self-analysis in photography. Looking at others work, I can readily analyse what I like/dislike, what makes good images work for me - I can articulate my relationship with someone else's images.

For my own work it is entirely different. My reaction is much more instinctive. I like it or I don't. I feel it's good or not. But I have trouble articulating it. Once another person does that for me, however, I can come to understand my own reaction through the eyes of someone else.

Strange stuff.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Generating ideas

One of the sticking points for many signing up to SoFoBoMo is the generating of project ideas. Something i like to do is note down any ideas I have, as I have them, in a notebook. I carry a little black book a lot for notes & thoughts.

If you get really stuck, Matt Alofs has a post with some ideas. Even if these don't sound your thing, maybe they can get you going.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Reaching up

Reaching up 2, Tanzania, January 2009

Sometimes the best bits require a stretch.

The natural square

Old warrior, Tanzania, January 2009

It seems to me that a square photograph represents a natural constraint. It is all that it should be or could be. Square photographs never seem like they have be artificially constrained - if things fall out of the square or are partially cropped, that seems to be a natural result of the format.

On the other hand, other aspect ratios (almost especially the standard 3:2) seem to be artificial constraints imposed by the photographer. If things don't fall quite right in the frame, it is the result of poor composition by the photographer, rather than an inherent limitation.

Odd how the simple act of cropping can change ones response to the image.

The hunting instinct

Eye on the prize, Tanzania, January 2009

Observing big cat behaviour in the wild I noticed a particular trait. They can seem totally at ease, at leisure, until likely prey starts to come into range. Suddenly all attention is focused. If the quarry becomes aware, the disinterest is feigned. Once the target turns away, focus locks on once more.

Rather like a prowling photographer out on the streets.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Windows computing for photography: learning

If your not interested in gear related stuff, look away now. These are some general ramblings on my computer gear.

I'm going through a learning loop at present on configuring my computer for best performance for photography. I'm learning (or re-learning) some things hitherto unknown to me.

In the past, my computing was mainly based around number crunching or gaming. Each iteration meant faster processor, more RAM, Better graphics card, decent amount of storage. Most of the slow-downs were up at the processing end of the chain. A computer lasted about 5 years, with a mid-life hard drive addition.

Now I'm finding things a lot different. My computer is plenty fast enough, and never seems to run out of memory unless I run huge panoramas, lots of apps or there's a software memory leak. However, I can't get enough storage. I bought a NAS box, which is really good and a great archive solution for me. Even on fast wireless, the speed is acceptable as I'm not doing lots of read-write. I just filled my primary storage, and so went off looking for something else. I'm trying to reduce reliance on in-case storage for my mass-storage, I find that a lot less portable between system upgrades. In-case for working stuff only.

Here's a big learning I've made: don't use regular network storage on a Windows system. I'm trying but it's hopeless. even with every speed tweak I can do without breaking things, I barely get more than broadband speed out of the transfers. It's actually faster transferring from the NAS box back to the network storage than from PC to storage over Ethernet. It's all in Windows network overhead. A royal pain. I can see a gigabit NAS solution in my future. at least the box I bought can be used a USB drive, which does work properly.

Then there's the actual processing end of things. I'm finding I run apps that do a lot of disk read-write, caching, database and the like. That means fast storage solutions, robust to a lot of read-write. That robustness is important: kind of rules out SSD for now. So I'm looking at RAM-based solutions, there's a couple out there. Kind of gets back to the old days of RAM cache configuration.

I've been contemplating running a Windows-over-Linux solution, something like the old Windows 3.1 with separate OS and application layers. I like that model from a conceptual pov. I will not be going Mac. No way, no how - unless prices crash and user control increases dramatically. I know I could run Windows-over-Mac but then I might as well go the whole hog to Linux. Of course, there's plenty of Mac for photographers advice around, not so much for Windows users.

And I want value for money. That's the rub. I don't want to throw cash at this problem. I want bang for the buck. I don't mind shelling out for lots of storage, that's a consequence of lots of files. But I've always disliked the idea that I must get a faster machine because the software or OS no longer supports the old stuff. While hardware seem to get more efficient, programmers seem to get lazier.

So off I go to figure this out. If I learn anything useful, I'll post more. And if you, dear readers, know something, post some comments (no Mac stuff, please).

Thursday, 5 March 2009

An ideal travel camera?

The new Panasonic announcements on micro four-thirds look pretty good. The new 14-140mm lens and those small bodies (G1 & GH1) add up to a pretty versatile package. The G1 got a good write-up at Luminous Landscape.

For me, this could be good. At present, my hiking, travel and cycling set-up is pretty heavy.

Currently I carry an EOS 20D, the 17-55IS and either a 70-200 f/4 or 70-300 DO for cycling & travel. I could also use my 40D. Great pictures but a lot of camera. Weighs in at around 2250g.

The G1 & 14-140 weighs around 840g+battery. The equivalent Canon set-up (EOS 450D & 18-200) weighs 1075g+battery. That's a whole lens of difference.

If I could be getting comparable results from a G1 as I get from the 20D, this is an attractive option. If the 20mm f/1.7 materialises then there is a useful low-light, evening lens which might supplant the Zeiss Ikon on some of my travels, too.

I'll be watching this micro four-thirds closely over the coming months: I can see a potential trade-in of some of the Canon gear for something like a G1 outfit.

Work: a four letter word

I love my job, I hate going to work. Seemingly conflicting statements, and apparently little to do with photography. Let me elaborate.

It follows from the recent discussions on the whole idea of projects, productivity and such sparked by the announcement of SoFoBoMo 2009. It seems fairly well agreed that to achieve good results over a longer body of work, getting out there and putting in some effort is required. Completing a project requires a certain amount of drudgery. to finish off the photobook, there's all the final formatting, proofing, sequencing and assembly. Not exciting stuff. This is all going to work to me - the routine efforts of dragging yourself to the coalface.

The job of photography is the exciting, creative part. The ideas, seeing new things, out in the field pressing the shutter. Just as I love the creative, novel, ideas part of my daily job, so too do I enjoy those aspects of photography.

Unfortunately, I don't think one can have true satisfaction without getting things finished, passing the job and completing the work. Like Edison said:

Genius - 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Thinking clearly

The bicycler, India, August 2008

After a long winter absence (read: laziness) I've finally started to get back on the bike and get some much-needed exercise.

What's that to do with photography? Not a lot, directly. However...

if I don't get in plenty of regular exercise my thought processes seem to clog up, my brain gets fuzzy. Some solid, muscle-aching, fatigue-inducing exercise is like mental Draino to me, unblocking all those fugged up neurons.

And it occurred to me that a lot of the recent interweb discussion on projects, fear, creativity can be born of foggy thinking. If you're not thinking clearly, you'll not be productive. And creating photographs that you'll be pleased with yourself means getting into a good frame of mind.

So advice to all - find your own mental decongestant, something you can do regularly for a bit of mental maintenance. You don't have to go and exercise to exhaustion like I do, it may be as simple as a daily walk with the dog. If you don't have something already, go figure out what works. Clear thinking leads to productivity (i.e. making something worthwhile) which leads to happiness.

Numero deux

Streets of India photobook cover, February 2009

Just received a copy of my second Blurb book: Streets of India, a collection of street photography from my trip to India last year. This one has come out even better than the Kristiansund book, I'm really pleased with the result.

Online version here.

Defining art

Yawning leopard, Tanzania, January 2009

Following on from this post, Paul Butzi has got a good conversation going on the subject.

I need to clarify a particular issue that I was grappling with.

There is the Establishment (that is, the galleries, curators, critics) view of Art which implies that only Artists (the careerists) can produce it. Whatever the masses are doing, it's not art. Somewhat by inference is the idea that what is put forward as Art can be the only good art, and as a result of that logic only Artists ever produce good art (not that all they do is seen as good). Or at least, that seems to be the way things go these days. In the foregoing, one could replace Photography and Photographer for Art and Artist with much the same effect.

And I think that's bunkum. Specific to photography: if you're taking photographs with any seriousness - with purpose - then you're a photographer (some might say that you don't even need the purpose). As Paul says, if you're making art, you get to call yourself an artist, although I may not agree on your definition of art, nor agree whether it's any good.

It was somewhat my response to some of the work presented in the camera club exercise. Here was work that I was supposed to know or recognise as Art, good at that, and I just wasn't buying it in all cases.

Monday, 2 March 2009

The fully programmable camera

After my latest ruminations on camera controls, I think the future will be in programmable cameras. First one to the line gets the sales (if not the girls).

What am I thinking of? Well - a camera with a bunch of buttons and a bunch of functions and the user gets to chose what button does what. And further, open firmware so the capabilities can be programmed. Like my card-mode adjustments. Maybe we'd just get access to the sequence and card write commands and get left to do our own thing. Firmware "hacks" would become the norm. A whole new industry. Great for nerdy tinkerers like me. Probably means set-up from a computer (or maybe a handheld device) but most of this stuff doesn't get changed very often, anyway.

Of course, there'd be the standard out of box set up like today, for those who don't want to get into all that.

I can see this helping camera companies, too. They'd get to see more of the ways people use their cameras, which would lead to more innovation. Development unfettered by common/current notions of the camera. Focus groups don't cut it - IME, ask people about what they'd like to see and the current product is always the reference. You only get incremental improvement ideas. Innovation comes from seeing what creative people do with what they've got, leading to more fresh ideas. Win-win.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Do artists make art...

...or does art make artists?

I picked up the camera club adjudications on well-known photographers from Gordon McGregor. It's a few years old, but ever relevant. Something like Mike Johnson's famous post. Got me thinking - is it considered art because artists made it? I think some of the camera club comments are actually quite incisive - just because someone has told us it's art or by some well-known, do we really have to think it's good?

Of course, Mike J was getting at the other end of things. These are great photographs by photographers who became famous because they took great photographs.

Thus my question. And I think it is maybe generational. Surely someone creating great work gets to become known as an artist. Just calling yourslef an artist does not mean what you do is art. Unfortunately, I think the contemporary art wolrd rather has the cart before the horse.

Camera memory card modes

triggered by seeing the specs on the new Olympus E620 camera (which has 2 card slots, including the stupid xD format) I had some thoughts about how cameras use memory cards. This led me to the following ideas:

  • Have all cameras take 2 cards, either 2 CF or 2 SD (not mixed - hear me Canon)
  • Combined with the 2 card slots, have 2 buffers. Not sure how feasible this bit is, or where the buffer limits lie. essentially I want to get more shots in a burst.
Have some flexible card writing modes. At present we have both together, or sequentially or RAW to one and jpeg to the other. That's all fine. Here are a couple of others that I'd like:
  • A-card priority. That is, if there is a card in the A slot with space, write to that first. Even if I've written some files to the B card. This means the B card is a back-up when I'm shooting lots and need to wait a bit to change cards.
  • Alternate write. Specifically aimed at rapid fire mode: writing to the cards alternately. Combined with 2 buffers, and with current read/write speeds I bet even at high frame rates buffer would be almost unlimited. This would also serve a good back-up for card failure with less space taken than complete duplicates.
  • I'd like to be able to combine them - that is select card write mode based on shooting mode. Use A-priority for single shot and alternate writing for rapid fire. To be really clever, the mode switch would be based on buffer status: empty buffer use A-priority, buffer (part) full, use alternate shooting.
Funnily enough, all of this comes from my experiences on safari. Often I would nicely fill a card or the buffer just at peak action. Even the 5s or so it takes to switch a card can be too long. Waiting for the buffer to clear can seem an eternity. Sports & PJ shooters would also benefit, I reckon.

Rangefinder goodness, price lunacy

So Epson have (re)released the RD-1 digital rangefinder. About time there was some choice. I quite like the idea of the retro controls, even the "film advance" lever. Sticking to 6MP (as long as they're good) is also a pretty good thing - I reckon most RF images are aimed at reasonable size prints anyway. so far, so good.

Then comes the price. Which is outrageous. This is a $500 body (thereabouts) with the sensor from a sub-$500 camera, going for $3000. With these specs, pretty much anything over $1000 looks too much to me. So, guess what, I won't be buying one any time soon.