Archive for February, 2009

The virtue of a daily debrief

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

I’ve started trying to take some time on a daily basis to write briefly about what I photographed, and why, and what the results were. The rationale is this: when I’m trying to learn some technique or get fluent with some piece of gear, it’s easy for that to become the point of the work I’m doing, or to subsume the original purpose of it.

Charred Broccoli

I spent an hour or so working with this piece of charred broccoli, two flashes, umbrellas and diffusers, different backgrounds, etc., along with the bits and pieces of Light: Science and Magic that I’ve been absorbing intermittently (and incompletely). And when it was done, I had a couple of images that are a bit interesting, and I had largely forgotten why I had started shooting that subject in the first place.

Charred Broccoli

Almost immediately after I finished, I had filed the whole thing in the drawer of my mind reserved for technical exercises and shut it.

But when I sat down to write my debrief of the day’s photography, stuff started popping back up:

Today I shot some tabletop macro stuff with a charred piece of broccoli I noticed last night while trying to relight a pilot. It was unususal — for a bit of scorched food-stuff — in that it was fully recognizable and indeed had retained its structure down to a rather fine level of detail. The scorching created a fantastic effect — the surface was highly glossy, but color was still faintly visible below the surface. It was like some sort of beautiful, horrible demon broccoli from another dimension.

That moment of minor revelation — of pure seeing — in which I first noticed that burnt bit of vegetation was easily obscured by the clutter of all the thinking and adjusting and reacting that I had done in playing with the lighting. If I hadn’t stopped to write it down, then the thinking — and not the seeing — would have become the whole story of the thing. And within a few days, odds are, that story would fixed in my memory. Stopping that night to write it down gave me an opportunity to change that story.

I suspect that if I can keep this up, it will play an important role in staving off the disaffection that sometimes comes over me when I’m working instensively on black triangles (technical stuff), and keeping my eyes — as it were — on the real task of photography, which is seeing (and allowing others to see), not mastering techniques.

Rain, at last

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

Here in California, we’re finally enjoying (or enduring, depending on our temperament) a little rainfall. We can certainly use it — although it’s not going to be as much as we need, unfortunately.

Rainy Day Cormorant

Some folks are discouraged from taking out sensitive electronic devices when there’s water falling from the sky, but most SLRs, even DSLRs, are pretty robust. And rainy weather can be great for photography. Clouds provide diffusion to soften harsh contrasts. Rain tends to encourage activity among some species. (These two factors make rainy weather great for photographing egrets.)



Water on the ground produces interesting reflections. And clouds that are breaking up can add a great deal of drama to landscapes — especially if you’re experimenting with infrared. And running water has the ability to create landscapes all its own…


Small River

Tripod, shmipod

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

So, a couple of days ago, I left my tripod at home on a day which turned out to have some really rockin thick white clouds. Exactly the sort I’ve been wanting to try my R72 on. The R72 was in my bag, so I decided to throw it on the camera and crank the ISO to 1600 and see what I got.

Flags (IR)

This is pretty much the exact opposite of the workflow I used last with IR — careful long exposure tripod shots using exposure blending to maximize tonal range. This was scale or guesstimate focused, and composed with even less precision, and exposed at or over the limit of what I could handhold safely, and working with the very limited dynamic range at high ISO. The results — while still IR — have a very different feel. Softer (of course), grainer (of course), and overall with a bit of a toy camera feel.

Lake Merritt Channel (IR) (View Large)

One thing that sort of surprises me about these images is that I find myself cropping them far less than I do most of my images. Usually I crop at least a little to adjust framing or trim off extraneous bits — which only makes sense; none of my cameras has 100% viewfinder coverage, anyway. But some of these shots, framed without the benefit of any kind of finder whatsoever, seem to work compositionally to the point that I don’t feel any urge to crop them at all.

Lake Merritt Channel (IR)


Anyway, this definitely makes me want to get into film IR, and/or get a body conversion. This ability IR has to reveal bring something otherworldly to mundane views — or, more accurately, to reveal something otherworldly within mundane views — is getting addictive.

Clouds (IR)

push it!

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

I went to a photowalk on Monday night — a first for me. It was nice to have an excuse to go out and photograph at night, which is something I don’t do often enough. I took my D40, Nikkormat, and tripod, and got some interesting shots — a mixture of half-baked long exposure stuff and street/event photography, some of which I was tolerably pleased with.

Ferry Building Photowalk

Ferry Building Photowalk

I mostly shot with the 35mm f/1.4 AIS on the D40 and the 105mm f/2.5 K on the Nikkormat, although I popped the 35mm on the Nikkormat as well later in the evening and put the D40 away.

I had Tri-X in the Nikkormat, rated at 1600. This was my first time pushing film, and I was surprised at how well it came out. The grain, while certainly plentiful, is not unpleasant, and pretty much all the important detail was captured. The contrast worked out quite nicely.

SF Photowalk 2/2/9 (Tri-X)

SF Photowalk 2/2/9 (Tri-X)

SF Photowalk 2/2/9 (Tri-X)

By the way, in case you’re wondering what I look like when I’m setting up a shot on a tripod, the answer is here. In my defense, the camera adds ten pounds and turns you into a grimacing wallaby.


Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

In my post from a couple of days ago on black triangles, I mentioned infrared as one area where I’ve been struggling and making gradual technical progress.

I Heart Lake Merritt Channel (View Large)

I won’t go into detail on the underlying science, because there are far better explicators around than me. It was actually something that for quite a while held zero interest for me; it sounded like something goofy and technical. And certainly a lot of the IR stuff running around the internet (which is frequently of the false color variety) is less than inspiring — a lot of it suffers from the same syndrome as a lot of HDR — the technique become its own aesthetic, and people no longer want to make photographs that are good enough; they instead aspire to make photographs that are HDR enough or IR enough.

Trees and Columns

This is, of course, a pretty narrow view of this type of photography. (That’s what you get when you define a whole genre of art using just what you happen to stumble across online.) I didn’t clue into that until I noticed how Minor White used IR for some of his landscape work. (I have a note here in a prior draft of this post regarding plate 121 of The Eye That Shapes, in particular.)

Of course, I knew that slapping a Hoya R72 filter on my D40 would hardly turn me into Minor White. But it’s something that I had been wanting to try, and so a few weeks ago, I did. It’s certainly been an educational experience.

The nature of digital IR (with an unmodified camera) dictates the use of a tripod, thanks to typically long exposures and of course the need to correct focus using the IR index. (Thank goodness I use old lenses which have them.)

Lake Merritt Channel -- 28mm f/3.5 H Test Shot

Any time you’re shooting from a tripod, it forces you to slow down and think about how you’re composing and exposing a scene. This is doubly (maybe triply) so when you also have to focus, screw on a filter that blocks visible light, refocus using the IR index, and guess whether to boost exposure by eight or ten stops — then shoot, try to gauge the three-channel histogram with an eye toward the peculiarities of post-processing IR, and then repeat the whole process with the next subject.

False Color IR

This can all be very frustrating, but in some ways it’s also refreshing. The slow pace necessitated by the equipment can offer time for contemplation which isn’t present, or at least not in the same way, when shooting fast-paced subjects. And working with the camera procedurally, like a lot of darkroom processes, can become an almost meditative affair — provided you can maintain attention.