Sometimes our own stupidity astonishes us and today my own, legendary stupidity surprised me again. I was reading another photography site where the author perfectly explained the challenge I have with digital photography. It was a simple sentence but it perfectly captured my thoughts.
He stated that the limitless potential of digital photography has little to do with photography and a great deal to do with post production. The image that comes straight from the camera is rarely used beyond the idle snapshot. Today most digital is about the filters, Lightroom and Photoshop. It has very little to do with photography and a great deal to do with image manipulation.
Digital brings wonderful advantages to us however a poor photographer can make a stunning image in post processing. While post processing can be fun it really has nothing to do with photography.
Take the image shot above, using an old Nikon F on HP5+ film. There was little light so I pulled the tripod out, framed the shot and snapped it. But I snapped it knowing that what came out of the camera is what I was going to have. In the darkroom I could increase the contrast, darken or lighten certain parts and that is all. The image above is all about what happens in camera.
With my digital shooting I was putting less emphasis on what was being captured in camera and learning more and more about digital manipulation. Look at some of the wonderful digital art that is being made today and you can see why. We have the tools, some have the talent so why not?
As a photographer this takes us back to the pictorials days. When photography was first being discovered, the majority of people did not view photography as art. Many of the people who worked so hard to discover it, did not see the artistic side. They viewed it as a scientific and engineering based process with no room for art.
Photographers, fighting this overwhelming perspective, fought back by heavily manipulating the photograph to make it more like paintings. Whatever they could do to the glass plate to alter the picture was viewed as artistic. This created a very dreamlike world that mimicked that created by oil painters.
This became "straight" photography and it is what has dictated modern photography up until the 1990's. Since the 90's we have seen digital take over as the premium medium of photography, and digital manipulation become the standard. If you look at photographic competitions these days, you will see that it is hard to win without some level of filters or adjustment.
This is not to say that some competitions do not ensure that this is kept to a minimum, or that some digital photographers are very good at capturing it properly in camera. All I am suggesting is that the vast majority of photographs seen today have been heavily altered with a computer. It reaches a point where it is not longer a photograph and is now a digital paining that used a photograph as the base coat.
I love my vintage film cameras and nothing brings me greater pleasure than to shoot with a film camera and advance the film. This last weekend, I took the family to an island near Jakarta so my wife and daughter could get SCUBA certified and when it came to selecting a camera I picked the Leica ME.
Let me begin by saying that I am not a Leica fanatic. I have a Leica ME and M6, both great cameras, but I sport Zeiss glass on them. The reason for that is that Zeiss glass is absolutely intoxicating! What these lenses are capable of producing is a constant surprise so why spend more money on Leica glass?
I chose the ME as I wanted to capture the color of the island. Beaches are not very exciting to shoot, but the one thing they do provide is plenty of color. But when it comes to color, I love what the CCD sensor of this little camera can do. It is made by Kodak and it is reminiscent of the Kodachrome film that once ruled over advertising.
I believe the ME is the perfect balance of a simple camera, good sensor size (18Mp is plenty in my book) and gives me a feel that is rather unique when used with Zeiss glass. The portraits that I manage to capture with this beauty always makes me happy. It is not as expensive as an M9, but does everything I need it to. The battery lasts for days and while the back screen is complete crap, I like the manual feel of everything. Get sloppy and the image is out of focus, forget your basics and your depth of field will be way off and if you are trying "auto" anything be ready to be disappointed. But if you take control of the camera you will be astounded with what you can do with it.
Here is a shot of my son on the pier near the beach. The Zeiss 50mm f/2 did exactly what I needed it to do. It threw the background out of focus but I nailed the focus on my sons eyes. A simple conversion to B&W and I have a great image, wonderful tonality and a vibrance that is difficult to find on digital.
Ah yes, I was speaking about color. Have a look at this shot above. The sun was setting, a storm was rolling in and the boats were seeking shelter. The scene was set and all I needed was a dynamic range coupled with the ability to show both the cool clouds and warm sunset in a single image. This was set on Auto WB and it nailed the scene perfectly.
The simplicity of the camera makes me adopt a simple style of photography. I am not after winning any awards, I just want to capture an image that tells me the story of the scene. The Leica camera is known for getting out of the way of the photographer, and the Leica ME, while old in digital standards, does that better than any other digital Leica M camera I have seen.
A great deal has been written about the sensor corrosion issue. This has been all over the internet and has caused many to doubt Leica or at least the M9, ME and Monochrome cameras that they have made. I have a very different perspective on this. This camera was made in 2009, that is nine years ago and while it is indeed very expensive, it is unrealistic for us to believe that they will work forever.
If you want a camera that will last 50 years, I suggest a film camera. Digital technology just was not build with that kind of shelf life. Does the possibility of some marks on my sensor worry me? No. I have plenty of dust on there as well. I will keep shooting my camera until those marks make it unusable. If I manage to get 9 or even 10 years our of it I am thrilled.
I bought my camera used with 209 shutter actuations. It had been sold a year before and the owner had upgraded to the newer camera. This was made back in 2015 and I purchased it in 2016. I managed to save a bit of money as everyone was talking about the Leica M10.
Any camera/lens combination that allows me to take the images like the one above is an absolute gem in my mind. The colors are spot on, the contrast is well defined, the bohke is refined yet gives me the separation I need all of this in a camera much smaller than most DSLRs.
I know many people love to hate Leica, just as they do Apple. As long as these two companies make good products I will happily buy them. Does Leica need to get their act together after these sensor issues? Absolutely. But I will still look at their product and decided on a case by case basis whether I want one or not. The M240 and the M10 are not doing it for me yet but this little Leica ME is perfection in my book.
When we start in photography we believe that bigger is better. We want to print our work as massive pictures, something that really draws the attention of the viewer. The bigger the better. I printed some massive pictures, some good some very poor. As I progressed in my photography I discovered the power of small.
This power is hard to grasp at first. Much like negative space, it is something that is plainly obvious in its presence but hard to describe. My discovery of the power of a small print came from an exhibit of Joseph Sudek in Paris. I went to see my favorite photographer's work and was shocked to find that the prints that he made were tiny. I am talking the size of a medium format contact print.
As I sat there taking in the small print I realized something completely unexpected. I had taken a step forward, closer to the image. I was interacting with the image in a completely different way, and it moved me. I sat, looking at the work of this one-armed master, and felt as if he had printed it just for me.
I walked out of the exhibit mad. Mad that every book I have seen of his work made his prints so very large. They had detracted from the power of his work. They had made it somehow more industrial and less artistic. It was still magnificent photography, but the intimacy had been torn from the image.
For those who have not tried making a small print to send a bit message, you are missing out on true power. Last weekend I took this concept into the darkroom with me. I went in and made smaller prints than I have ever made before. The end result was smoother tonality, less grain and sharper overall prints. Placed in a large frame with a large mat the eye naturally pulls the image in, detail jumps out and you have an intimate moment with the viewer.
The power of the small print is very real. As an added bonus it takes less paper, chemical and indeed time to get it right. I do not suggest that all your prints should be small, just the ones that you want to emphasize.
It seems that everyone loves street photography yet it is the one genre that most people fear. I understand this fear all to well. Sure it is easy to snap a picture of someone you know but to walk around a street taking pictures of strangers seems odd...and that is the challenge, we equate running around snapping pictures as being somehow weird and a danger to society.
But that is our own perception. If you see someone taking pictures of street scenes, not hidden, but open, in plain view, do you consider this person a danger? This is the perception one must overcome to shoot the street. When you look at the photography masters do you believe that they just walked up and snapped the picture only to walk away unnoticed? Look through Magnum Contact sheets and you will see the number of images taken, the different angles tried and the compositions picked up and discarded frame after frame.
They took those pictures by creating an understanding with the subject. 'I am here to take pictures, you will be in them, but I do not expect anything from you and I will not harm you in any way.'
So how do you develop those skills? You drop your fear, fill yourself with false confidence and go shoot. Fake it till you make it...or Fake it until you become it...either way you must start by faking it.
In the shot above I am standing across the street, I have zoomed in and you can tell as the image is compressed. This gave me a wonderful vantage of the lady with the break salesman int he back. These shots are a bit easy as you are farther away from your subject. They may not know you are there. Easy to get a natural expression but a bit of a cheat as you are not involved in the scene.
These images are a great way to warm up to street photography. They are good images, but rarely great. But they serve to get us into a rhythm which is so very important in street photography. When you are on a roll, walking around, shooting, moving, shooting, moving, smiling, chatting and shooting, you are confident and this allows you to shoot great street photography.
Here is another tool to use. In this image I am completely separated from the subject, but I have used that separation to form part of the image. The door helps to frame her, the car in the background gives some depth to the image. Her expression is clear, but unguarded. It is a natural image with wonderful lines and motion. Again I am not involved in the scene but I have used the separation to help the image instead of distracting. With these, if you are lucky and frame it right, you can grab some wonderful images. This can also build your confidence as you fake it.
A wonderful picture of the street...sort of. Here I have captured a common scene in Buenos Aires, that of a taxi cab. The driver and passenger are both looking at me but are not afraid. I am part of the scene they have driven into. Plenty of energy and a good street shot but now way to capture a real expression. Building the confidence a bit more.
Here is another image in the similar vain. The carriage rider saw us as part of the scene and that curiosity led to the peace sign. Another confidence booster to show that most people view people with a camera as completely normal. A nice capture of an era that is coming to an end as the horse drawn carriages are virtually all replaced by trucks.
So here I got closer. Everyone knows I am taking pictures, but they are comfortable with me. I am part of the scene, a man with a camera, no harm. If I had seen any resistance or defensiveness I would have backed off and found a different spot. I walked in and began snapping pictures, when they turned to look at my I smiled. The smiled, waved and went back to what they were doing. Bang, image captured.
Same market, different stall and same approach and result. A smile, a friendly wave and business continues. Compose, wait and fire. Then I kept shooting and began speaking to the man behind the counter. The owner came out and we chatted for a little while. He invited be to the back.
There is Alberto, in the back of his store showing off his inventory. A man who understood our curiosity, and was happy with us taking pictures. From street to environmental portrait after a friendly word and smile. Confidence growing with every shot and with every shot my hit rate increases. My confidence sets people at ease.
A real test as I approach a man with a knife and start taking pictures. If he took offense it would have been a short conversation. But I have a great deal of confidence at this point. But to show that this image was not a quick snap, but the result of methodical composing, framing, shooting and repeating, here is the contact sheet of the image above.
I move on, leaving the market, with a confident walk. I have found my rhythm and I am happy with the images I am taking. I walk down he street, shooting some different scenes but there are few people on the street. I then find an old store front, selling shoes. It is a cobbler who will make shoes for you. An old profession which is quickly disappearing. The shop looks amazing so I step inside.
I ask her permission to take some pictures in the store explaining that there are few cobblers left, and I would love to have some images of such an amazing store. She is flattered and happy to share. She pulls out an old photograph, she is a young girl on the bottom left of the photo, and it is a picture of her family and employees at the store. Her father began the business and he brought over the entire family from Italy. They all worked at the store, they raised families because of the store and sent their kids to college. Their kids became doctors, lawyers and engineers. She stayed with the store, it can no longer support more than her family. But it made so many dreams become reality.
While she tells me her amazing tale, I snap pictures, I talk and snap. I smile, the story is sad but the happy faces in the photograph show that while the store is in its final chapter, it made a family come together and helped them thrive in the New World. Of all the images I took, this one was my keeper. Her gesture to her heart showing what the store and memories mean to her. She will continue to make shoes until her time is done. Her kids will likely sell the building which they own. The final gift from her father to three generations of family members.
We have all suffered the tourist spots with all these randomly dressed, annoyingly happy tourists jumping into our shot. I have written before on the attitude adjustment that I had to go through to just accept them and try to incorporate them. Looking over all of the images from previous vacations, I find that my best shots have people in the frame.
The shot above was a throw away image taken with my Leica ME. I love the frame and bright colors contrasted with the deep black of the tunnel. This shot has fascinating people standing, waiting, walking, running or talking.
We are drawn to buildings and smaller permanent cultural reminders and focus our attention on these. Going to the Parthenon can be a wonderful experience however it has not changed in 500 years! But the people, walking around, looking and marveling at the beauty, have changed.
If we look at the images we love, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sabine Weiss, Fan Ho and others, the magic in their images are the people they capture. It is the people, dressed in the fashion of the time, that help us put the scene in context.
The next time you are out with your camera on a family vacation, take a moment to look at the people around you, the locals, tourists and other photographers. These are the people that help define a place. Find an interesting background and wait a few minutes. Look for the interesting person walking by and take your picture.
This simple picture will be a keeper and one of your favorite images of the vacation. The human element is the most intriguing in any photograph we just need to be willing to capture it.
Today's post will be a quick one. I wanted to share a realization I had today that has helped me to get more enjoyment out of my darkroom. It is not a revolutionary concept but a hidden nuance that changes the approach to this wonderful hobby. Let me explain.
I have had a darkroom for a number of years. When I was in Australia, I used the guest bathroom which meant I had to rig up all the equipment then rig it all down when done. This meant that going to the darkroom represented 45 minutes of prep time and 45 minutes of putting everything away.
In London, I had a shack outside with a rather sizable dry darkroom. It was great as I could leave everything rigged up and ready to go. The challenge was that the darkroom suffered the elements. In winter it was freezing cold. I also felt isolated from the rest of the house. I also had to bring in the water to be able to use it.
Moving to Jakarta Indonesia, I have a separate room on the side of the house with water. Today, after work, I felt like going into the darkroom but just for a few minutes. I walked in, printed a single negative (two prints with four test strips) and walked out. Easy, simple and fast. Now going to the darkroom is not an event that has to take hours. I can go in for 45 minutes and walk out. Nice, easy and fast.
This is the hidden benefit of having a darkroom that is nearby, temperature controlled with access to water. It makes it easy for you to enjoy your hobby anytime. This is why I believe that a dedicated space brings so much more enjoyment to the hobby than something you have to set up and take down.
Patrick...confirmed film & digital photography addict.