Learning to take pictures (again)

Filed under: photography — jaydublu @ 12:58 pm

I’ve always had an interest in photography, and ten or twelve years ago I got quite into the technicalities of black and white film – the zone system etc. I had a couple of Olympus OM-2 bodies, and a crude but workable darkroom. Much fun was had.

Moving house several times I never got around to setting up the darkroom again and it all still sits on shelves (about to go on eBay).

In the mean time, digital photography became more mainstream, and four or five years ago I got myself a Fujifilm F700 which is a compact but capable little number. We’ve had some good times together and I’ve taken some images that I’ve been very happy with, but it still doesn’t encourage the full exploration of photographic techniques.

This christmas, I took advantage of an offer to get a ‘proper’ camera – a Fujifilm S5 Pro – and I’m now starting to invest the time to learn how to use it and express myself. It’s a stunning camera, and I’m so glad I made the decision to get it against other options such as a Fujifilm S100FS bridge camera.

The amazing thing I’m finding is how ‘basic’ the camera feels – it certainly doesn’t make it easy to take pictures without thinking about what you’re doing – but I feel that’s the whole point , and I love it.

View from Happisburgh Coastwatch - processed from RAW file.I’m still feeling my way transferring philosophies and techniques learnt using mono negative film to digital technologies.

Certain things are the same and surprisingly familiar – focussing, metering, composition, depth of field etc. but, when it comes to moving away from ‘average’ pictures or when you can’t rely on automatic settings is when the fun starts.

I did once know my way around the zone system, and could customise the way I processed B&W film and printed the final image to get a variety of tones and tonal ranges to suit the subject. But how does that translate to digital?

Well the first thing I’m just now starting to get to grips with is that film processing and other darkroom techniques are roughly equivalent to using RAW format and manipulation in something like Photoshop. The image shown here is a bland shot from inside Happisburgh Coastwatch, but it took some fiddling to get it so you could see detail from both inside and outside.

So I’ve an expensive camera – necessary to get a good sensor and image processing software, and Photoshop doesn’t come cheap. In the digital world, to get to grips with the core technicalities of the zone system for instance is quite an expensive undertaking.

But, when I started experimenting ten or so years ago it was much more affordable – you didn’t need much of a camera if you used good film, and it was surprising what good results you could get in a darkroom with some pretty basic kit.

I wonder what the digital equivalent of the pinhole camera is?

Digital vs Analogue

Filed under: life,photography — jaydublu @ 10:32 am

Nature is analogue, our senses are analogue, once upon a time the way we interacted with the world was analogue, and life was great.

But then, with increasing power of microprocessing, a steady creep of digital representations of an analogue world has beenRega Planar 2 invading our lives, ready to take over control.

My first encounter with an almost moral objection I have to this process came in the 80’s with the introduction to the mass market of CD players – at the time I was deeply in love with my Rega Planar 2 turntable, Akroyd Coniston speakers and Nytech Obelisk amplifier – not extreme HiFi, but certainly enough for me, and I just couldn’t face the thought of losing the pure simplicity of an analogue system by introducing an alien technology in the heart of it.

To this day I’ve still never bought a CD player as a component – although my Rega isn’t hooked up to anything at the moment I still hold the view that the ‘proper’ way to listen to music doesn’t involve any sort of digitisation or digital signal processing along the way. Hissing and scratches are all part of the analogue world, but some of the weird noises you get when digital signals corrupt are just not ‘right’, let alone the ‘concert hall’ type effects that can be applied at a whim. But yet I have an iPod, because isn’t it so much more convenient carrying your entire music library in your pocket?

Olympus OM2 image by Martin TaylorNext came photography – I’ve still got a pair of Olympus OM2 bodies with a selection of lenses, and I have a crude but functional mono darkroom in boxes on a shelf that I keep meaning to set up again somewhere. I had a blast trying out the various methods described by Ansel Adams etc. where you can almost ‘touch’ light. Yet all the photographs I’ve taken in recent years have been digital, because it’s so much more convenient than lugging round a bulky large format camera.

I’m a hypocrite – I want to remain in an analogue age, yet when it comes to the crunch I listen to my iPod more than my Rega, pick up my Fujifilm F700 instead of an Olympus OM2, and put up with all the other insiduous digital invaders like Sky+ because it’s so much more convenient.

But there is more to it than just convenience – the ‘miracle’ of technology opens up new possibilities to the average punter undreamt of in the analogue age. I never got into movie-making, but I know you can do an awful lot now with a digital camcorder and a PC for not a lot of money, compared to what you used to have to spend in the Betamax days. And if I were a composer or a musician I might appreciate the capabilities of the recording studio I could set up without needing a big win on the Premium Bonds (before the days of the Lottery!) like you used to need to afford all the gear.

But here is my real dilemma – digital technology offers almost limitless possibilities and potential for creativity, but I’ve found personally that my limited creativity is at its best when constrained – too many shiny spangly distractions get in the way of achieving simplicity and purity.

Back to photography, the limited number of variables available don’t stop the ability to produce stunning images. On a manual film camera, ignoring for the sake of this argument issues of composition, lighting, choice of film etc. you really only get to play with shutter speed and aperture, the combination of which creates an exposure on the film. Take that exposure into a simple mono darkroom, and you have a few more variables available to you, but it’s still somehow on a ‘human’ scale – how you process the film, what paper you choose, how long you expose the print, any dodging and burning effects – it’s all done mostly by hand and feels very natural.

I’ve recently upgraded my copy of Macromedia Studio MX to Adobe CS3 Web as it’s now marketed (must blog some time about my love/hate relationship with this suite of software) and I spent some time yesterday playing with Photoshop CS3 which is included in the package. Feeding it a RAW file from a digital camera is very similar to cooking your own film in a darkroom, but my initial feeling was being totally overwhelmed not just by the things you needed to do to make a technically correct image – that’s just me having to ‘pay my dues’ by learning a new set of techniques – but also by the unbelievable scope of creative tools that are made available, not only familiar ones like dodging, burning, filters, masking etc, but also control of things like tonal curves beyond the wildest imaginations of a simple darkroom setup.

HDR ComparisonOut of interest, here’s a comparison of a straight shot from my F700 on the left; on the right is a Photoshop manipulated union of an overexposed and an underexposed image which is starting to approach the dynamic range of the human eye (and incidentally a good photographic film!). Technically interesting, but it’s certainly not ‘art’. Is digital manipulation any more ‘wrong’ than what I used to do in a darkroom, or did I get any less satisfaction from it? Let’s just say it’s ‘different’.

OK, my interface to this analogue world is now mostly digitised, but I still can’t remember a sense of ‘inner piece’ listening to music on my iPod like I used to with my Rega, and although I get a buzz taking pictures with my F700 I’ve never felt as satisfied with the end result as I have when taking the time to construct an image on an OM2.

Thinking about it as I have been whilst writing, although I seem to be blaming the technology, I think it’s how I’ve been relating to it – digital devices and techniques seem to be too cheap and easy, I don’t put in as much time, effort and thought that I used to in a purely analogue world – there you used to think harder every time you pressed the shutter release, or picked an album from the shelf, because you knew you were going to have to put up with the result for a long time – you invested in the outcome much more.

I still seem to yearn for the analogue life, but yet for convenience my life is mostly digital 🙁

Flickr Groups

Filed under: Happisburgh,photography,tinkering — jaydublu @ 11:09 am

I’ve been slowly building a Flickr group for Happisburgh, and it’s coming along very nicely.

It was originally as a bit of R&D for work as a client wanted to use a group for some promotional work, so I needed to check how groups work. Initially I put a load of my pictures up, but thought I’d give it a go to run it properly so I searched for likely members and sent them FlickrMail invites – and most responded positively. Currently the group has 25 members and 215 pictures.

So I do a bit of administration, improve the group description a bit, do a bit of promotion on other groups and invite some new people to join. Also I make a couple of discussion postings.

Do I dare start another? Why not – I’ll not push it too hard yet but if I set it up right it might take off by itself – it will certainly be an interesting experiment. So I start Happisburgh Lighthouse group, put some of my pictures up, and link to it from the Lighthouse website.

That starts another line of enquiry going though – it would be cool to have a Flickr badge on there with a random selection of images, but it’s powered by Joomla! and the way TinyMCE is set up it doesn’t like Flickr’s badge code. So I’m now playing with flickr4j Joomla! extension.

Of course I’ll report back how I get on.


photos in Happisburgh Lighthouse More photos in Happisburgh Lighthouse

Old skool with a new twist

Filed under: photography,tinkering — jaydublu @ 5:40 pm

Many (many) yeasr ago I was lucky enough to take a trip to New York with a friend of mine – it was just after a massive blizzard had paralised the city, and we were one of the first flights in – having spent a couple of days in Detroit but that’s another story.

So the city’s practically empty – we were first to go to most of the attraction when they reopened, and had a great time. I was heavily into b&w photography, and shot off so many rolls of film over the week that we were there that doing something with the images has been a job I’ve always meant to get roud to – at the time I had a darkroom – now I’ve got a scanner.

It’s a wet and windy bank holiday weekend and I’m doing many things that I’ve been meaning to get round to, so I thought I’d have a go at scanning some of the old negatives in and see what happens. Can I get as much enjoyment playing with images as I used to have in the darkroom?

First problem – figuring out how to scan negatives, how to tweak contrast, what resolution to scan at etc. First image has been moderately successful and I’m feeling encouraged to keep going.

I’ll post a link to the Flickr set when I’ve done them all – now there’s optimism for you!

World Trade Center and Manhatten from a very icy Liberty Island

Postscript: 1200 dpi is ample for 35mm negatives – ends up with 3400×2250 px images, and if you play with the scanners exposure settings you can have almost as much control over the final image as you could in a darkroom, if you know what you’re doing.

However – it’s not the same. In a darkroom it’s very tactile, takes time, and seems to be much more of a human, creative process. All this digital stuff somehow removes you from the final result. It seems too easy, yet it isn’t.

Given a choice, I think if I were really trying to exert my creativity I’d roll my sleeves up and do it the old fashioned way.

And I must learn to take better care of my negatives!