Musings on Photography

Necessary/Sufficient

Posted in aesthetics, technique by Paul Butzi on January 14, 2010

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Just to clarify…

What Ken Rockwell says is “in photographic art, it’s never about the subject.” [emphasis mine] and “The actual subject doesn’t matter.” [again, emphasis mine].

What I am trying to say is that subject does matter.

Here’s a useful distinction. If something must be present for the photograph to be successful, then that thing is necessary. If the presence of something guarantees that the photograph will be successful, then that thing is sufficient.

Rockwell appears to be arguing that subject is not necessary, and that strong, graphic composition is sufficient.

I am arguing that subject is necessary, and that strong graphic composition is not sufficient. It is, for all practical purposes, impossible to make a compelling photograph by making a strong, graphic composition of brightly colored idealized featureless geometric solids resting on a featureless geometric plane.

Here are some arguments I am not making:

  1. strong, graphic composition is never helpful.
  2. when deliberately striving for a strong, graphic composition, it is not helpful to ignore what things are, and instead think of them as three dimensional solids projected onto a two dimensional plane.
  3. subject matter is sufficient – that is, given very strong subject matter, composition no longer matters.

24mm TS-E

Posted in equipment, Solo Photo Book Month, technique by Paul Butzi on June 5, 2009

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A little while back, Ed Richards asked me via email:

How about musing on using a TS lens? Or, more to the point, the shift?
Seeing tilt is really going to require that monitor – I do not find I
use tilt much even on 4×5, so I see these as more shift lenses, unless
you are doing table top work. Canon has just raised the bar on TS with
their new 17 TS. Could be the ultimate lens for shooting interiors.
Anything wider than 65mm on 4×5 and you get no shift, and there is not a
lot with the 65mm.

I’ve been going to the photo sessions for the theatre project with a bag full of lenses, including my 24mm f/3.5 TS-E, the 24-105 f/4L, and the 100mm f/2.8 macro. The first time, not quite sure what to expect, I took along the 70-200mm f/2.8; however, I never used it, so I freed up space in the (small) bag by not taking it along since then. At the first session, I thought I wanted a lens that opened up wider than f/3.5, so the next time I brought along a 28-70 f/2.8 instead of the 24-105. Again, I never used it.

In fact, of the keepers from the photos I’ve made so far, ALL of them were made using one specific lens – the 24mm f/3.5 TS-E.

When I first got it, I had panoramas in mind. It is ok for that, but not in the way I expected. I thought I’d use the shift feature to make overlapping exposures for panoramics. So far, I’ve not made a single successful photograph that way. I have made some successful 2:1 aspect ratio photos using the lense and cropping. And for landscape work, I find that orienting the lens so that the sift becomes rise/fall is, well, massively useful. Remember that I’ve got years and years of doing landscape photography with a view camera, and by far the movement I used the most was front fall/rear rise. So I put the 24mm TS-E on the camera, put the camera on the tripod, and my fingers and brain immediately feel comfortable dialing in front rise/fall with the camera back vertical. It’s like breathing for me; it happens without conscious thought.

And that experience has carried over into the theatre photographs. I made a few exposures at the very start – wide lens without the camera leveled front to back. When I looked at the converging lines on the display, I knew that although this is a perfectly reasonable way to tackle the subject, it is nonetheless not MY way. My way, it turned out, was to put that friendly 24mm TS-E on the camera, level the camera using the bubble level in the QR clamp, and then let my fingers do the rise/fall magic.

So I’m really happy with the 24mm f/3.5 TS-E, especially for the theatre work, where it currently accounts for about 99% of the exposures made and 100% of the keepers.

Is it a solution free of collateral problems? No. In particular, I have half a dozen images where one end of the frame is out of focus although the other end is crisp; I’m attributing these to inadvertently budging the swing/tilt and getting the plane of focus wrong at the same time that I have left shift in there, so that I’m outside the real usable image circle of the lens. Because I don’t yet have an exposure routine nailed down tight, I sometimes leave the lens not zeroed after making an exposure. That’s a workflow problem, really, and not a lens problem.

Ed’s comment about needing a bigger monitor to really use tilt to move the plane of focus is on point. There’s no way to see the focus plan in the crappy little 35mm full frame viewfinder. A big monitor would help, but what really helps is the live view and zoom mode on the 5d mk II, which lets you sort of use the rear display as a window onto a display that’s ten times as large (linearly) as the read display is. Think of it as an electronic focus loupe, if you’re coming from the view camera world. I have used it this way to verify focus, in very low light, in the theatre, and I can tell you that this feature is the bee’s knees, the cat’s pajamas, and eel’s elbows all rolled into one.

So, bottom line: I like the 24mm TS-E a lot. I like it an awful lot. I like it so much that I lust after the NEW 24mm TS-E that Canon have announced, as well as the new 17mmm TS-E. And I continue to lust after the 45mm TS-E and the 90mm TS-E.

Film

Posted in equipment, large format, process, technique, traditional materials by Paul Butzi on May 20, 2009

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Every little while, someone suggests to me that the way for me to move my photography forward is to ‘go film’. This is often accompanied by a suggestion for a specific film or film/developer combo.

Since Tom was kind enough to make this suggestion in the comments, I’ll respond here, and perhaps set a few other minds at rest also.

But first, a bit on my past experience with film. I’ve used film. Actually, I’ve used film over several decades. I have dozens of binders filled with plastic negative sleeve pages, and those dozens of binders hold thousands of 35mm negatives. I used to buy 35mm TMY in 50 roll pro-packs.

And it doesn’t stop there. I’ve exposed thousands of sheets of 4×5 film.

I’ve printed those negatives, too, in a darkroom, on gelatin silver paper, both graded and variable contrast. I’ve spent many, many contented hours in a darkroom, both processing film and printing. I’ve even done color printing in a darkroom, both from color negatives and from transparencies. I’ve had articles on printing on variable contrast paper published in a major photo magazine. I’ve done a lot of work fine tuning a hybrid large format film/scanning/digital printing workflow.

I’m not saying this to brag. I’m saying it to drive home the idea that, to me, film is a known thing. I have been there, done that, and it does not hold much mystery for me. I know it all, well enough to know that it’s not some magic thing that will somehow transform my photography or accelerate my photographic advancement.

Tom writes:

Here is everyone worried and talking about the technology of how they may have arrived at better art. Guys and gals, may I simply suggest one lil’ thingie, please, sometimes, grab for your passion, the photograph.

That’s pretty much what I do – go for the photograph. I’m not particularly invested in technology for technology’s sake. I’m invested in technology to get results. More on this anon…

How could you have taken this better? With a laptop? Maybe a large format digital back, i.e., Phase One 65 gigatons?

Or……

Maybe a 35mm Film camera with some 1600 speed film, get in the dark room and THINK. Maybe a small investment in a Crown Graphic 4×5 Large format with some film holders? (ya, they still make the 4×5 film)

Actually, that was my point – having a laptop there would let me get more or less instant, constant feedback on what I was getting. And my view is that that feedback would have let me run up the learning curve faster, with less heartbreak, and better results. As for 1600 speed film – I’ve exposed hundreds of rolls, thousands of frames. I know what tricks it can do, what tricks it can’t, what it’s good for, and when I want to use it. This particular project is not well suited to ANY of the available 1600 speed films.

I’ve been there, done the large format thing (for quite a few years, the only camera I used was a Linhof Technikardan 45s), and if there’s something to which I would NOT look forward, it would be doing this project with a 4×5. To get the tonality I want, I’d be using a relatively slow film – probably Acros, assuming you can still get it in 4×5.

Yesterday, I made nearly 100 exposures, many of which were on the order of 30 seconds or so. Reciprocity departure would push those out into the minute range. I’d be struggling for depth of field in those photographs where I wanted it. Focusing in low light would be a serious trick, even using a laser pointer.

On top of that, doing it in 4×5 would mean either a BIG pile of film holders, or else a serious raftload of quickloads/readyloads. When working in 4×5, I generally make a backup exposure, so for yesterday’s session I would have needed about 200 sheets of film. That works out to 100 film holders (I actually own about 25 regular holders, and enough grafmatics that I could load up about 120 sheets). Or, if I decided to go with packetized film, it would work out to just 200 sheets, and the readyload holder. Badger Graphic Sales lists Acros 100 in quickloads for $2.80 per sheet. So yesterday’s photography would have burned 200 sheets at $2.80 a pop, or about $540 just for film. Either that, or a lot of time spent loading film holders, and about $400 in loose sheet film.

200 sheets of film works out to 20 runs on my Jobo. Each run takes about .5 hour (I have three drums, so I can let one drum dry while I process in one drum and load the third). So that’s ten hours just to process the film. And then I have to scan it, at least the the stuff I want to print. Oh, and don’t forget the cost of the developer, stop, fix, clearing agent. All told, call it another buck a sheet. Or I can have the film run at a lab – call that $5 per sheet. So now my costs are up to something between $600 and $1540, just for film and processing.

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Let go, forgot the technologies just for a moment, I’ll beg you this one time. Try and then learn by studying your negs, your prints… Trust me on this one little point, try it, return to digital, and watch your craft in art go up about, oh, 1000 pct…..

There is no ‘forgetting the technologies just for a moment’. There’s just picking a technology that’s available based on your needs. I understand both film and digital – at least to a degree where I can make informed decisions about what technology to employ in a given situation, and make informed judgements about the tradeoffs involved.

I think film is great. I think there’s a place in the photo world for film. But I also think, based on my experience with both film and digital, that there is no such thing as a silver bullet technology. If you’re a photographer, your art can advance using film. It can also advance using digital. Or, as many photographers are finding, by blending digital and film.

Choosing between a film based workflow or a digital workflow involves a lot of tradeoffs – cost, time, space, quality, equipment properties. The choice determines a lot of things, and switching from one to the other changes a lot of things. That change might well jog you loose if you’re stuck. But if you’ve got experience with both, I don’t think changing, and then changing back is going to do much except waste time and money.

Focus/Depth of field

Posted in Blogroll, process, technique by Paul Butzi on January 20, 2009

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For some time now, I’ve been fiddling around with very shallow depth of field, placing the focus in unexpected places, and all the related issues that go hand in hand with those experiments.

Some of those things I think I’ve started to get a handle on, and some of them I haven’t. Despite (or perhaps because of) this partial success, I found this post on Andreas Mannessinger’s blog to be particularly interesting.

Andreas writes (in part):

I’ve made a few images in the morning, some not even bad, I took my time, but none of them even comes close to these two snaps. I shot them through the dirty rear window of the tram, just after it had left the underground passage, shortly before the train station. I still had the camera ready (in fact I almost always have), but it was a very short moment, certainly not the moment to worry about composition.

I have made two exposures, the Image of the Day focused on the outside scene, the other (to see the difference, you really have to click at both and see them bigger) focused on the dirty window.

Compositionally the Image of the Day better suits my taste. The position of the sun is dead center horizontally and on a third vertically, the masts on both sides make for a nice frame, so if I had framed the image consciously and if I had chosen the time to release the shutter in relation to the position of the train, this would have been pretty much it.

Emotionally the other image grips me stronger. The vague nature of the scene behind the tack sharp dirt of the window, that leaves so much open for interpretation, I really would have liked this to be the capture made at the right moment with the right composition. Alas, in a moving train, in face of a scenery that changes by the second, there is no chance to repeat anything, no chance to shoot the same image twice, but differently focused.

You really need to go to Andreas’s blog, and look at the two photos. I agree with him about the composition, about the symmetry and all that. But that second image – focused on the dirt on the window – that image just makes me swoon. Go click on it, and look at it at the maximum size possible. That, my friends, is the photographic equivalent of the sound you get when you sob on your long cool winding saxophone.

The next time someone tries to tell you all about how great photographs have everything in focus, or the focus needs to be on the most important compositional element, or any of the rest of that jazz, just let them go on and prattle until they run out of steam and drift to a stop on their own. Then go and show them that photograph.

I mean, wow. That’s about all I can say about that, is “wow”.

Making Comparisons

Posted in equipment, process, technique by Paul Butzi on January 13, 2009

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Over on The Online Photographer, Ctein writes compellingly about the perils of judging cameras by numeric specifications

A distressing number of comments that I read run along the lines of “I would never buy camera X because…it’s made by A and B makes better cameras/it has a small sensor and they’re all crap/it has too many pixels to produce good quality/etc.” Comments like that are not the hallmark of savvy shoppers. Broad rules of thumb are good ones to tell your neighbor or relative who doesn’t know much about cameras, when you don’t want to take the time to look at individual models for them. Very sensible. But when it comes to your own shopping, it’s not.

Ctein’s point, I think, is both well put and important. Often, there are ongoing arguments about differences which show in the numbers but which don’t show in the images. Beyond his point about significance of the numbers, there’s another peril lurking behind those numbers – the methodology. Simply put, camera manufacturers might not lie outright, but they will certainly adjust their methodology to get the result most favorable to them. And because each manufacturer has a different methodology, you can’t compare the numbers from manufacturer A and the numbers from manufacturer B without being forced to compare apples to something much more different from an apple than an orange would be. Apples to aardvarks, say.

Beyond the perils of manufacturer’s statistics, though, you even run into problems if you’re performing the comparison directly, all by your little own self. You think that you’re comparing the dynamic range of your Sony Whoozywhatsit to the dynamic range of your Canon Whatchamacallit, and you don’t get very far before you run into problems with experimental design.

The big problem is this: it’s not particularly hard, especially with digital cameras, to measure something fairly accurately and with fair precision. (side note: if you’re not aware of the difference between accuracy and precision, you’re lost before you begin). The problem begins, as it does with all experiment, in measuring just one thing. That is, it’s pretty easy to measure the dynamic range of your camera, combined with the linearity of your monitor, the sensitivity of your eyes, the temperature of the room, how long your monitor has been turned on, and a host of other lesser variables. What’s hard is excluding everything except dynamic range from your measurement.

And it’s not just dynamic range. The same problem occurs when you try to measure anything about your process at all. This was particularly a problem with darkroom lore, where badly designed experiments had proven many, many things that just weren’t so. Way back when I wrote an article for Photo Techniques that pointed out that cyan filtration couldn’t have any effect on variable contrast papers, I got a raft of letters claiming no end of magical properties for introducing cyan filtration. Because I’m particularly hard headed, I wrote back to each and every one of those correspondents, suggesting that they should try the following: go into the darkroom, and make one straight print, process it, and then make another print using the identical exposure time, filtration, etc., and process the second print. The two prints should be identical at least to the ability of the human eye to detect. If they weren’t, then there are uncontrolled variables that need to be excluded before any experiment regarding cyan filtration can begin. Some number of people wrote back, saying that this was an eye-opening experience – they’d gone into their darkroom expecting it was child’s play to produce two identical prints back to back. It turns out that most darkroom workers don’t time print development, don’t have consistent print agitation, don’t properly test for safelight safety, don’t control the developer temperature, and often have unreliable enlarger timers and outright white light leaks. Or, to put it another way, most darkrooms are supped full with uncontrolled variables, and thus are horrid places to conduct experiments. So people would conduct experiments, and any valid experimental result was swamped by the effect of the uncontrolled variables, and the results were just so much superstition. Although it sounds easy to make two identical prints back to back, it’s actually anything but.

Lots of people seem to think that moving into the digital age has eliminated all this stuff – computers are nothing if not repeatable, right? But it turns out this just isn’t so – we’re still plagued by the same sorts of uncontrolled variables when we go to compare prints.

Here’s a little test you can make – a variation on the ‘identical print’ test. Make two prints of a single image. Same size, same paper, from the same batch of paper and off the same printer, back to back. These prints should be identical, right? Right.

Label the prints, then take the two prints, a pad of paper, and a pen, and go to your work table (or desk, or kitchen table). Sit down, place the two prints side by side, and start looking for differences. When you find a difference, write it down. Don’t worry, if you look carefully enough you will find differences, trust me. Put in some ten or fifteen minutes, and really examine everything. Look at tonal smoothness. Look at shadow detail. Look at highlight detail. Look at overall tonal distribution. Check for differences in overall color, and for color differences in the different corners of the print. Every time you find a difference, no matter how minor, write it down.

After fifteen minutes, swap the position of the prints – that is, take print A and put it where print B was, and put print B where print A was. Run through your list of differences. How many of them went with the print, and how many of them stayed with the position? It’s a safe bet that a fair number of the differences stayed with the position, because the probability of the lighting on both positions being the same is zero, unless you happened to have picked a place to view the prints where you’ve gone to some significant trouble to ensure that both spots get exactly the same lighting. The light from windows will unevenly illuminate them, if nothing else, so that the position that is closest to the window will be yellower or bluer, depending on the weather. If a nearby wall is strongly colored, then one position will tend toward that color more than the other position. One position will be slightly dimmer.

This is an interesting test to run, if only because it makes it clear just how much our process we’ve left uncontrolled. We can sit at the computer, endlessly making very small tweaks to an image, making evaluation print after evaluation print, and comparing them side by side on our work tables, only to have the small changes we make get swamped by the changes in light on our work table that occur on a partly cloudy day.

Local Adjustment with Curves

Posted in photoshop, technique by Paul Butzi on April 4, 2008

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From the comments on this post:

Suppose you want to lighten or darken an area of an image … with curves, you either make a precise selection using various methods and then make the curves adjustment, or you make a curves adjustment and then create a mask to apply the curves adjustment. Or … with Dodge and Burn, you make a curve/mask adjustment in one step, ie: the darkening or lightening applies only where you put it. What a simple way to add a vignette.

The key words here are ‘precise selection’. They’re key because I never (what, never? Harrrrrrdly ever!) use the lasso tool and the other ‘selection’ tools.

What I do is use quick mask mode to quickly ‘paint’ a rough selection. To do this, I hit ‘q’ or click on the button with the round circle on it (below the color swatches in the tool palette) to enter quick mask mode. Then I pick the right size brush, set the flow rate to whatever I want, and just paint on the image where I want to make the change. If I want to change a large area, I’ll select it and use the ‘fill’ paint bucket to paint it solid. Toggling the color between white and black lets me fix up mistakes easily. And when I have some area painted, I switch back to regular mode by hitting ‘q’ or that button again. The not painted area is now the selection. To make the painted area be the selection, I hit shift-cmd-i. That lets me make a rough selection in just seconds.

From here, I create the curves layer. The selection is now the mask for that layer, and I rough in the curve adjustment I want. It can be anything from a straight burn or dodge to a complicated curve or color adjustment.

Best of all, as I adjust the curve, I can watch the image change (I have ‘preview’ checked). This is important not because I can stop when it’s right, but because I can make sure I’ve gone too far. This is a trick I learned in the wet darkroom. It’s easy to make an adjustment, think it’s about right, and then discover later that you weren’t bold enough. The solution to this problem is to always go past the optimal change. Then use the opacity slider on the layer to ‘dial back’ the effect until it’s just right.

Now, I can look at the image with the edit in place. If there are places where I want the change applied but didn’t get in the rough selection at first, I just click on the mask, select black as the foreground color, and set the flow rate low (say, 5%) and then paint on the image. I’m actually painting on the mask, so I’m actually changing the area the mask controls. If I go too far, I switch to white and correct the mistake. It’s pretty easy to get it right.

Having the burn/dodge or whatever other adjustment be a layer is a big help, because I can toggle the layer on and off. That lets me make sure I’ve made a positive change, because I can easily test “Which do I like better – A or B?”

Hours (or days, or years) later, I might decide I want to adjust that burn or dodge. If it’s a layer, it’s childs play to see what I did before (I can SEE the layer mask) and to change it. If I’d just burned and dodged the bejeebers out of the image, I’d have no way of easily seeing what I’d done.

Sometimes I’m very confident I know what the curve shape I want will be. In those cases, I create the curve layer first. By default it applies to the entire image, so I set it with the preview turned off. Then I click on the mask icon on the layer palette, so that my subsequent actions paint on the mask. I then fill the mask with black so that it doesn’t apply anywhere. Then I select white as the foreground color, pick a brush, and start painting the effect onto the image. With a low flow rate, you can build up different levels of effect, so it’s easy to feather the effect.

A lot of the editing of images I do involves what I think of as a gradient mask. In the wet darkroom, you can do burns and dodges with a gradient by moving the burn/dodge card or tool. In Photoshop, I get the same effect by painting a gradient onto the mask for the curve that adjusts the image. You can get some of the same gradient effect by creating a soft light layer, filling it with neutral grey, and then painting a grey to white/black gradient onto it to do a burn/dodge. But again, the curves layer is usually just as convenient and a whole lot more powerful.

In Photoshop there are usually four or five ways to do the same thing. Dodge & Burn is just another tool and another way to apply a simple, quick adjustment. Like all tools, it works in some situations, but not others. This is a bit like debunking the Levels command, because you can do the same thing in Curves.

Sure. There are more ways to skin a cat than there are cats. My goal here isn’t to get the rest of the world to always tackle things the way I do. It’s to argue that if we’re only to have ONE tool, at least let it be the one which is vastly more powerful, instead of the one which can handle only a small number of simple cases.

And, for what it’s worth, when I’m teaching students to use Photoshop, I tell them to ignore the levels command. Better by far, I tell them, to pick the one tool which does it all, and master that tool. The curves interface is vastly better designed that the ‘levels’ interface, and does everything that levels does easily. By using the more powerful tool, students learn to think of the image contrast and tonal range in the context of the tool they’re going to use to adjust it both globally and locally. It just doesn’t make sense to learn a number of tools that each handle a special case (levels, brightness/contrast, burn/dodge) when they can learn one tool that gives them all those sub-tools with a uniform, easily mastered interface.

In my experience, the problem most people face with Photoshop is not that the task of editing images is hard. It’s that Photoshop offers such a complex and overwhelming set of tools that people can’t get a toe-hold on the thing. The trick is to explain that there’s a very simple subset of tools that offers them ALL of the editing power, and all they need to do is learn those tools and ignore all the rest. The primary editing technique I teach is curves layers with masks.

Worldwide Pinhole Day

Posted in equipment, process, technique, Uncategorized by Paul Butzi on March 28, 2008

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Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day will fall on April 27 this year.

Learn about it here.

Find out how to participate here.

See what people have done on Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day in previous years here.

Be there. Aloha.

Style

Posted in process, technique by Paul Butzi on January 1, 2008

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Colin’s post on Photostream got me thinking about style. Or maybe we’re discussing Style, not style. Who’s got it, how important it is, how you get it, how important it is to have one (or maybe two, or three…)

Style is a dangerous word. Paul’s rule: beware of holding discussions about words with too many meanings (22 in that definition at dictionary.com, four of which are verbs (three transitive, one intransitive)).

It’s worth going to that link, and reading the definitions. They’re all sort of aligned, but still all over the map. And, I suspect, we let all those other meanings overlap the meaning we’re really discussing. Maybe that’s good, maybe that’s bad, but if we’re to think things through clearly, we need to be alert to the possibility that different participants in the discussion are talking about different things. [note the discussion in the comments on Colin’s post, all of which seem to center around ‘exactly what do we mean when we’re talking about “style”?].’

So when I’m talking about style here, what I’m discussing is ‘style’ meaning:

a particular, distinctive, or characteristic mode or form of construction or execution in any art or work: Her painting is beginning to show a personal style.

One of the things that I think is interesting is that this sort of style is a byproduct and not a goal. In my email to Colin, I wrote that I thought the quest for style was like a game called “Doggie Zen” I play with my dog. I take a treat, and hold it in my closed fist. The dog, of course, tries to get the treat – poking at my fist with his muzzle, pawing at it, doing tricks. And the game is this: the way to get the treat is for the dog to back off and sit. As soon as he stops trying to get the treat, he gets the treat.

And style is like that. If you’re working toward having a style as I’ve defined it above, I think you won’t get there. I think style is the result of a sort of refinement in the way you photograph things. It’s not the visual appearance of your photos – that’s some interaction between your developed style and the subject matter. The visual appearance is going to change when you change subjects – and I think it’s sensible that it does.

So how do you get a style? The answer, I think, is to make a lot of photographs of things about which you care.