Photography has been around since 1855, so for me to believe that I am beginning to understand this artistic medium would be pretentious or delusional. But I am still shocked at how quickly my perspective and understanding of photography can be altered with a simple phrase or idea. This happens so often I have actually named the process as a "Instant Conceptual Breakthrough" and they can be profound.
The first time I recall this happening was a couple of years ago, when I read an article where someone articulated something I had been feeling for awhile. This is in reference to digital photography versus film where the author, whose name escapes me, explained that so many digital pictures are made through the computer it stops being about photography and is more about computer animation. This simple sentence explains my embrace of film as a medium.
Another recent phrase that has got me thinking was written by David Company several years ago, when he was referring to the photography of Lewis Baltz in his essay "Fast World, Slow Photography: Lewis Baltz". First of all David has a very remarkable perspective of photography and its place in modern society that I have not seen since Susan Sontag.
Here, David explains that our "Fast World" changes things.
"industrialism leads to the standardizing of appearances. Architecture steadily morphed into the plain, geometric box. Production lines made identical commodities. Advertising created shared desires. Eventually, the things that were once mechanical began to be replaced by electronic equivalents that offered less to the eye and camera"
What I take away from David's writing in the the world is advancing quickly and that speed creates the need for industrialization which removes a great deal of beauty. I have mentioned my love for old typewriters and telephones, I consider them wonderful works of art, but I do not feel the same way about laptops and cell phones.
These two concepts, so eloquently distilled into simple English is why I turn to Film Photography. I have explained this using much less precise language by saying that I stare at computer screens all day for work, why do I want to bring that same approach to my hobby? But the truth is deeper than that. I want to push back agains the "Fast World".
The world is moving fast, and digital photography is struggling to keep up with it. Consider that the Smartphone as a camera is quickly overtaking dedicated cameras. Sure their quality has improved but it is still no where near that of dedicated DSLR or dedicated mirrorless cameras. But they offer speed, take the picture and upload it to Facebook, Instagram or whichever social media account you are using.
The need or desire to print pictures is quickly disappearing and people are focused on the immediate gratification of sharing an image. Even professional photographers are forced to use social media more and their turn around time has to reduce as well. Speaking to one recently I found out that he uses Lightroom CC on his iPad to start working on some images in the parking lot of the venue. He can then send it to the bride and groom immediately to buy him some time to work on the full set of pictures.
Speed is overtaking quality in photography and this is what I am trying to push back from. I take a roll of film and put it into the camera. I feel a world of possibilities right before me. These 36 images can take me anywhere. With them I can capture the big and the small of the world around me. I cannot manipulate or alter the images. I have to use my instrument correctly, I have to have the final image visualized before bringing the camera up to my face and I know that once taken it may be months before I see the final result.
I have a roll of film that was used to shoot in London, Buenos Aires Argentina and Jakarta Indonesia. All on the same roll and all developed months later.
This image, taken on a Leica M6 using HP5 film, is an example of Fast World and Slow Photography. Here I am taking a careful picture, framing two very different worlds. The high buildings of first world finance in the background, with a bubble maker having timeless fun with kids in the foreground. My careful composition, patient waiting and decisive selection of moment all captured through chemistry on a film that was developed weeks later and printed months after that are a rebellion against the fast world we live in.
It took David's clear thought and spectacular command of the English language to articulate the way I have been feeling all along.
While the main purpose of the trip was the GGB and Alcatraz this did not mean that I did not just walk the streets taking pictures. We had a blast just getting lost in this city, knowing Uber was just a few clicks away. Rain or shine we had an Uber in minutes which gave us the confidence to get lost a bit.
We had a few days of rain, which we did not mind in the least. As our English friends insist, there is no such thing as bad weather, just poor clothing choice! I love umbrellas in photos and the contrast that is added from rain. I took full advantage of this and have some wonderful shots thanks to it
One odd habit I have begun to do is to photograph the hotel rooms where we stay. The objective is not to capture the entire room, or even make it appear something that it is not. The objective is to capture the light that comes through the window and the feeling the shadows capture around the room. Some are converted to B&W while others are left in colors. Either way, very little editing is done.
Below you have our window on the 23rd floor of the Francis Hotel. I love the shadows and focused on keeping the highlights from being blown out and letting the shadows fall where they may. The end result is exactly what I had hoped for with all the detail of the sun behind the clouds and the light fall off being very natural.
I took the liberty of getting some general street shots. These are not real street photography but more of an architectural exploration of how the city is laid out. This helps remind me of the feel of walking through those streets and the fun we had.
While in San Francisco I stopped by the Leica shop in order to pick up a 28mm lens that I have had my eye on for some time. The shop itself was just next to the entrance of China Town and had some wonderful windows which looked out onto some old buildings. With the overcast day, the light pouring in was delicious so I had to take a few pictures of it. Again exposing for the highlights and allowing the shadows to fall where they may.
I took advantage of the rain and captured some images through bus windows or Uber windshields. Again, this is not about lazy photography but has to do with the emotion rain brings to a pictures. The sense of protection from the elements while others are out exposed.
Night did not bring and end to the images available, just the way I tried to capture them. I did not take out the tripod and focused on the city lights to illuminate the scene. High ISO shots are not usually my cup of tea, but sometimes they allow us to capture things we would otherwise miss.
Here there is a shot with medium ISO but a wonderful capture of the night life, a firetruck that was returning from a call and a fellow tourist capturing the image with a cell phone. I have several images of these scene including some taken before the fellow tourist showed up, but this is the one that I liked the most. I used to regret it when people walked into my scene and now I love it when they do.
Any city shots are screaming for a regular lens (50mm or so) as well as wide. While extreme wide angle shots can add some energy to a photo, I only use it sparingly as it becomes a tiresome crutch. Most of my shots were captured on the 28mm but this is because it was a new lens. A 35mm works wonderfully well.
I took my Leica M10 and M6 to ensure that my lenses could serve double function. I shot most of my keepers on 28mm, 50mm and 38mm with a handful at 90mm. In retrospect I would not have taken my tripod but I did enjoy taking the Hasselblad 500cm. This heavy camera stayed in the hotel the entire trip save for the day I went out to GGB. This is the best of both worlds, the detail that Medium Format files camera can give you without carrying the bulk all day.
“The air is chill, and the day grows late,
And the clouds come in through the Golden Gate:
Phantom fleets they seem to me,
From a shoreless and unsounded sea;
Their shadowy spars and misty sails,
Unshattered, have weathered a thousand gales:
Slow wheeling, lo! in squadrons gray,
They part, and hasten along the bay;”
This is "THE" iconic landmark I just had to capture. I did not go looking for a specific image in mind, I went with the clear desire to capture it in as many different ways as possible. To truly study the bridge, what it represents and the environment it is in. This was not a historic study, it was a study about what this landmark, so well known to the world, means to me as a first time visitor. I do not claim a special relationship with the bridge, but I was always taken by the amazing photographs that people have taken with it.
Since I am a digital and film photographer I wanted to take photos of it using both mediums. I am currently developing the rolls of film I took of it using my Hasselblad 500cm and the Leica M6. Both cameras are completely different and built for different styles of photography. I knew this when I selected them. I took the Hasselblad exclusively for photos of the bridge. Here I will show the digital pictures I took as my film work requires much more time to get the image I envision. I have made a print but it still needs a few hours work to be presentable!
My journey to the bridge began one morning when my wife wanted to do a bit of shopping and we agreed to split up for the day. I called an UBER and asked them to take me to the Golden Gate View Point in the upper left hand of the map below. This was a bit daunting as the UBER left and I had no way of getting to a spot where an UBER would be likely to pick me up. But I had to get the picture and these seemed like a great place to start.
I stayed there for a solid hour, soaking in the scene and taking pictures. People would stop their cars to take selfies and then zoom off to their next location. I just sat and watched slowly picking my angles and moments to steal a shot or two.
Some wonderful weather and a bit of patients and I captured the full image of the bride that I wanted. You can see San Francisco in the background, there is not blown out cloud or sun in the image. Wonderful colors gave me a nice B&W conversion and the detail is amazing.
If you come to this spot feel free to take a tripod as there is plenty of room to spread out however once you walk down to the bridge you will not have the place to set up a tripod. Too many people walking, running and on bikes.
Once I was done I began walking down that road towards Battery Spencer location which is where the old WWII anti-aircraft batteries were located. There are some nice vantage points but to be honest it is a bit more of the same vantage point from a lower angle. I captured some wide shots of the bridge but mostly used this spot to sit and rest a bit.
I then walked down to the bridge itself, which has a great pedestrian crossing underneath the bridge which takes you to the rest stop on the other side of the bridge. This is where the tour busses stop and it offers a great view of the bridge but it is the most common shot taken. All tour busses stop here and only here for shots of the bridge. They stay for 15 minutes and then drive off. If there are a bunch of people wait the 15 minutes and watch a bunch leave. There are bathrooms there and a water fountain to get a bit of water. Then you can cross the bridge on foot.
The shot below is the second place on my trip to San Francisco where I wanted a longer lens. Not for a tighter shot but for the compression that a long lens gives you. The shot below could be more compressed looking as if you are standing on the road to take the picture. You can do this from the bridge but then there are cars blocking your view. From this vantage point this picture could have been much better with the compression of a 200mm lens for example. My eye sees it but I did not have the gear to execute it.
And then I crossed. I enjoyed the crossing and I really tried to soak in as much as I could. The sound of the cars driving across, kids laughing, adults chatting and the clatter of foot steps all around me. The occasional bell from a passing bike and even the yell from an aggressive bike rider. All of it combined into an all encompassing experience. While crossing there are some detail shots worth taking but the main reason for crossing the GGB on foot.....to get to the other side!
As you reach to the other side of the bridge some new angles and perspective presents themselves.
As mentioned before, this is the place where a long focal length lens would be helpful. Generally my 50mm did most of the heavy lifting here and even when I wanted a larger vista, a simple panorama stitch did the trick very well.
A tripod can be used at the start of the trail but put it away before reaching the bridge. Shoot pictures of the people crossing the bridge as well as it is something that I wish I would have done more of. Look down off the side of the bridge as I got some good shots there too. And don't forget to look up!
The only event that my wife and I pre-planned for our visit to San Francisco was a night tour of Alcatraz! A friend recommended doing the night tour due to the smaller groups of people and the different places they allow you to see. Overall we were very happy with the tour itself and the Park Personnel were absolutely fantastic! Everyone of them knew the history in great detail and were happy to tell you all about it.
There are two reasons photographers would want to do the night tour versus the day tour and it involved two shots. The first is seen above. During the day tour the boats do not circle the island so this photo of Alcatraz with the city behind it is not really possible by day tour. As you can see the sun is just perfect as it is behind you and the time of day gives a wonderful golden glow the the prison system. The only retouching on this show was a bit of contrast and some post crop vignette. This is one of the shots I really wanted to take and the night tour is the only easy way to get it.
The second shot is this sunset shot of the Golden Gate Bridge (GGB). This is one of the most photographed bridges of the world so it is easy to go online and see some different shots of it and pick which you would like to take. There are few compositionally strong shots that have not been taken of it.
Here we have an amazing sunset. For those of you who know me I am not a big sunset photographer. The first 10 are wonderful and after that they all look the same. It seems to be a place all beginning photographers want to be at and. once there you quickly tire of it. Plus it is a lazy photograph. You see the photographer just has to wait for a nice weather system and then put down the beer long enough to shoot the picture. Nothing wrong with beer but lazy photography is not really challenging. But when an iconic item is included, and you have an interesting weather system then by all means take the shot!
This vantage point is only available from the Alcatraz prison. Specifically after the first part of the tour you are taken to where the Warden lived (a shell of a house) and from there you get this view. If you take the first night boat you will walk out about 30 minutes before this sunset. Plenty of time to get set up.
This picture came with danger and as it turned out a price the photographer had to pay. See those wonderful seagulls flying around? Well they are dive-bombers and drop their payload directly on photographers. I got hit.
These were the two images I wanted from Alcatraz and I considered anything else to be a welcome bonus. The images below are of the tour itself and I am thrilled I got them. A little bit of history is nice in any photograph.
There are some cells that are set up as if someone lived in them. I took a few of those but there is something about this shot I liked better. Those cell bars right up front help make the image.
I used a high ISO and did a little shutter trick. What I do is set an exposure compensation at -1.5 stops and shoot in raw. This tells the camera you want a darker shot allowing for a faster shutter speed. I then shoot on aperture priority and set to Auto ISO. This allows me to get less hand shake impact and gives me a similar overall grain. I then boost the exposure in post. This is a trick I tried and learned in the dark cathedrals of Europe.
For a more abstract shot, I went into the dinning rooms where the convicts were fed. The tables are all gone leaving this wonderful textured floor. There are benches to rest on one side giving the tired visitor a chance to sit and rest. This gives you a low shot of the floor with the fading light of day coming through the windows. A nice overall shot and one worth taking.
If you are going to Alcatraz I suggest a slightly longer lens for the GGB shot above. I shot it with a 50mm then changed to a VERY old 90mm lens I have. I ended up using the 50mm lens with a bit of cropping as the 90mm was not up to the task as it is an uncoated lens. Between the flares and lack of contrast it was not fit for use.
This is one of two places in San Francisco that a tele lens is of use. The rest of the shots within the prison you will need a wider angle lens. Prisons are not known for their space. I would suggest at least a 35mm but this is a great place to try out that fisheye that has been collecting dust on your shelf.
I shot with a 90mm (unsuccessfully) 50mm, 35mm, 28mm and 15mm.
So a family member was getting hitched in LA so my wife and I decided to make a trip of it and celebrate the nuptials and then run off to San Francisco for a few days. We went with only a single planned item on the agenda...Alcatraz. Other than this, we went with an open mind, and a deep desire to have some fun.
We stayed in the historic St Francis which was originally opened in 1906 and the lobby is filled with little historical notes. The hotel is a grand dame in all senses of the word. We felt we were living a little bit of history, a bit of the old world charm in a city rapidly changing. The cocktail bar thrilled us with amazing cocktails that took us away from the typical Old Fashioned and into some marvelous adventures through a theme tied to Alice in Wonderland.
The food, as you would expect, was expensive and delicious and we had more than our fair share of it. Try the breakfast in the St Francis Oak Room as a great way to start your day! Everything from Italian to French to the new age fusions were amazing.
In terms of photography, I went old school. I took my Leica M10, M6 and the Hasselblad. I left the Hasselblad in the hotel with the exception of a single day when I took it to photography the Golden Gate Bridge (GGB). This structure has long been a photographic goal of mine and it did not disappoint. The structure is awe inspiring but the surrounding area is what really took my breath away. I had rainy days, sunny and everything in between.
The surprising aspect of the trip with China Town. I loved this spot and we spent an entire morning and most of an afternoon just walking up and down its wonderful streets. People did not seem to mind us walking around but they did not want us taking their pictures. I kept my street photography to some hidden shots and to buildings without bothering people. Nice people just private and I can respect that.
Below is my favorite shot of China Town and is a solid street shot. Let me take you through what I like about it and how I shot it.
This was taken with my brand new (first day I was shooting with it) Leica 28mm Elmarit which is a wonderful lens for street or environmental portrait photography. I saw this man singing on the block lighting his cigarette. I stopped with my wife and looked to the left of the image I was taking. Shot a couple of shots of a building (came our very well) and shot two images of this man. Once his cigarette was lit, he got up and left. He had a bit of a limp so I believe he needed to sit to free up his hands to light his cigarette.
I kept the man on the bottom left of the shot with a wide f-stop to ensure that I had a great deal in focus. I wanted to highlight the location he was in, his neighborhood as well as the man. I loved the way he was sitting but had to wait for his hands to drop away from his face.
I converted this to B&W and gave it some contrast and a bit of vignette and called it a day. It is a simple street shot, with some nice gesture in the way the man is sitting, with a wonderful view of a very Chinese street.
Here are a few more I took on the streets of Chinatown.
Ok this last image was not really street photography and more architecture. I still had to take it and loved how it came out.
As you can see most of my shots on the streets of Chinatown were taken with a hunting mentality. I would find an interesting backdrop and wait for someone to walk by. This made it easier to shoot the shy people and did not bother them as much. While no one said anything to me some would hide their face a bit and as soon as they did I would drop my camera so they saw I was not going to press the issue.
On another blog post I will go into some other shots I took around San Francisco including the famous shopping district. The shots on GGB will require a whole other blogpost in order to properly cover. I did a bunch of research before setting out to photograph this icon and I am rather pleased with the shots in spite of the lack of fog.
I highly recommend spending at least a day in Chinatown, eating shopping a photographing. Just remember, tea first, then photography!
There are a few shots where you can use a tripod. Nothing beats that perfectly steady focus that can only be obtained with a tripod, cable release and a mirror lock up. So if you have one take it along! I did not but I had some wonderful light and shot with a fast shutter speed. Not the best but a solid second alternative.
There is no point in going long on these streets. This is a place for street photography so go wide and get close. Shoot from the hip, find a background a lay in wait, pretend to be shooting a building and as you "chimp" take the shot of the people or use whatever trick you have to get some shots of people!
I used a 28mm, 35mm and 50mm. Even the 50mm was a bit long at times.
Patrick...confirmed film & digital photography addict.