5.23.2016

After seven days of shooting video interviews and weather related action it's interesting to stroll with one camera and lens and re-set your vision. And your pace.


I'm in no man's land. I've shot all the principal video footage for my client's project. I've ingested it into Final Cut Pro X and I've just come to a complete standstill. I've been waiting for an actual script for a couple of weeks. They finally kicked the ball back to me. I wrote a script this weekend but, of course, now we wait for approval. I hesitate to start editing and cutting without a game plan. Seems like a waste of time. There are "housekeeping" things I can take care of, sure. I'm sitting for hours at a time scrubbing through the interviews looking for great, short utterances and moments of verbal clarity. But at some point you have to stand up and take a break; do something different and softer. 

I've been revisiting some of the old classic photography books I have around the house in my moments of free time. There's little that beats curling up on the couch with my dog, a perfect cup of coffee and a book like Robert Frank's, "The Americans." I've also been browsing around and around in the huge, "Autobiography: Richard Avedon" volume. Some of his early black and white photography, done in the street, is equally captivating. Those books inspired me to put together a discrete and small street shooting camera and, after hauling around a big, fluid head tripod and boxes of lights and stands and microphones I was quite ready for a minimally oppressive camera experience today. 

My choice, and I think a good one for me, was to put an older, manual focus Olympus PenFT 38mm f1.8 lens on the Sony a6300 camera. The lens is small, light and, by all indications, very good. The pair is much less weighty than a Leica M6+50mm f2.0 and much more capable. I set the ISO to 400 to emulate the speed of the Tri-X I'd shot for years and years. I set the camera to shoot black and white and, after a few tests done around the house, I added two steps of contrast and one of sharpness in the profile sub-menu. 

The beauty of using a 38mm lens on a cropped frame, APS-C camera is that you get the angle of view every serious photographer should crave ( a little bit tighter than a traditional 50mm, but not by much) coupled with the increased depth of field the shorter focal length provides, in conjunction with the smaller sensor. The 50mm range is the chameleon range of focal lengths. Used wide open, and with the right subjects, and the lens emulates the look and feel of a short telephoto. Used at f8.0 or f11 and used to depict wider scenes, or scenes with depth, and this angle of view lens emulates the look and feel of a wider lens; but without all the gratuitous information on the sides of the frame most people live with. Few people are really good at composing with wide angles but many people absolutely believe that they are the exception.....

So, I drove downtown and took a walk. Weird thing, downtown felt almost deserted. Even though it was around lunch time street traffic was light and most of the restaurants were half full, or less. There were sprinklings of hipster tourists who looked as though they live in Des Moines but bought some interesting hats, square sunglasses and extra iPhones and headed down here for vacation. You can always tell them apart from the quasi-natives (I think we've run out most of the genuine natives: no stomach for the homogenizing change) because they think having lunch on the patio of the JW Marriott Hotel is kinda cool. They also stare too long at any young woman with visible tattoos. 

But back to my  point; no foot traffic, low attendance and a general downtown malaise. I presumed that everyone had left town on some secret, unannounced, mass vacation until I later headed back to my neighborhood in west Austin and waited in line for a table at my favorite restaurant.....perhaps the relentless hipster invasion has pushed the locals out of downtown and into the surrounding neighborhoods. 

Every time I write something about shooting with the camera set to black and white the compulsive among us wring their hands and chasten me for not "being safe" and putting the camera into the mode of shooting RAW+Jpeg. They reason that I could then "visualize" in black and white since the camera would show me the results of the Jpeg settings but, BUT I could subsequently take advantage of the RAW files to painstakingly and laboriously create perfect monochrome files in post processing
captivity. I guess it makes sense but with each shot my own brain would know that the hidden potential of the RAW files would be lurking around like an unwanted lifeguard, hellbent on making sure I never get to experience failure. I'm not sure that our readers; those disposed to wear the water wings of redundant files, truly understand the thrill of letting go of the pool wall in the deep end to see if all those swimming lessons have finally paid off. 

Everyone's brain is a bit different but mine always seems to know if I've cribbed the notes of success on the palm of my hand in an attempt to grab for more than my fair share of technically good photographs.... And my brain resents my cowardice in those situations. Covering your ass for a client is different. It's part of the deal. But wearing that life jacket while doing leisurely laps sure makes it hard to practice anything but floating in place...

So, I set the camera to shoot black and white, but the real throwback to earlier photographic practice was using the idea of hyperfocal distances and depth of field to essentially make the camera and lens system a true point and shoot. To wit, when the lens is set to f8.0 and focused to 3 meters you have a wide range of stuff in front and behind the point at which you have the focus set which is still in acceptably sharp focus. Looking at files with huge magnification changes our aim point for circles of confusion but it doesn't really need to. We could just stop punching in to obsessively check for detail at 100% because it has very little relationship to how we consume most photography. We look at it in its entirety, not in its molecular state. 

There was a joyous freedom in setting the camera this way and then just reacting to the things I saw as I walked. Sometimes there's nothing to photograph for blocks at a time and it's during these spells that I think about walking and seeing; and how interrelated they are for me. If I see something fun I switch on the camera, bring it to my eye  --- just to frame --- and then press the shutter button. Since the camera doesn't have to think about, or actuate, focusing the response of the shutter is nearly instantaneous. And really, it hardly matters if the finder is good or bad, because it's just a composing device in this method and not a fine focusing instrument. Once you start working with hyperfocal distance shooting, and using a fixed focal length, you could actually just find a Leitz 50mm bright line finder, put it into the hot shoe and ignore the camera's finder altogether...

In some ways I felt as though I had pulled a Leica out of the drawer. The camera is small enough not to be taken seriously by either the objects of my observation or even myself. Since we had pervasive and consistent cloud cover I could set a manual exposure that worked for pretty much everything except indoor shots. With everything locked down in this old school fashion very few brain electrons or neural impulses had to do with camera operation; I could spend my mental energy enjoying the walk and looking for the odd disparities that make a life in visual arts interesting. 

I have done very little post processing to the images here because I wanted to carry through the film conceit and only do what I would have done in the darkroom; a little burning, a little dodging and maybe a trial run with a different contrast of graded photographic paper. To my mind these images fell neatly into my memory of Ilfobrom grade three paper. 

One of the things that surprised me in a very pleasant way was the amazing resolution of this particular lens when used with the Sony 24 megapixel sensor. I'll admit that I did "pixel peep" on the leaves falling over the side of the old railroad bridge to the right in the photograph just below. Every leaf was crispy outlined in an almost crystalline fashion. Yet, taken as a whole, the photograph is not over sharpened or harsh. If you are looking for one great MF lens with which to take advantage of the  a6300's small profile and low weight you could do a lot worse than one of these. Sadly, its family has not be made for well over 40 years so it may take a bit of searching to find one that has not been abused or degraded by neglectful storage. I am always a bit amazed when I put one of these ancient lenses on a most modern and high resolution camera. They never seem to be a limiting factor for overall quality. Not by a long shot. 

This may be due to the different way I tend to use these lenses nowadays. I'm generally stopped down to between f4.0 and f8.0 to take advantage of the depth of field. Most modern (and by modern I mean from the 1960's onward) should be able to deliver good quality in these middle settings. I'm less certain that the 38mm Pen would win in a contest with the Sony 55mm 1.8 FE lens wide open but then the Pen lens has surprised me before. It will be an interesting test when I get around to performing it. Maybe all the pundits are wrong and we are in the age of optical product decline; our modern optics put to shame by their ancestors... Did I mention the svelte feel of the solid, metal focusing ring? The silky slide and click of the aperture ring? I didn't think so, but it's all there. 

The bridge on the left side of the frame (above) connects the west side of downtown to the central area of downtown, just off third street. The lack of through car traffic makes walking in this area very pleasant even though on every side twenty, thirty and forty story condominium towers are springing up. This combination of two bridges (the right hand one was once a railroad bridge but it is no longer used) and the pipeline have been here since I first moved to Austin to go to UT's Electrical Engineering school in 1974. I've never understood why they are still standing but I'm glad for some aspect of Austin's landscape that is, for now, unchanging. And it provides some good cover for the homeless who seem to live underneath.


The image just above is one of my favorites today. I love a few things about it. I enjoy the diagonal of the curtain on the rod at an angle to the metal frame that runs across the lower third. I like the almost luxurious folds in the cloth and the way them seem to trap the shadows and hold them in stasis. I enjoy looking at the gathers all along the  curtain rod because they remind me of all the curtains in all the houses of my friends while we were growing up. I'm amused that the storefront in which the curtains grace the lower part of the window is otherwise empty. I even like the horizontal, parallel lines that make run across the window and make the image seem like a copy shot from something already existing as flat art in some book about the 1950's. 

Now, having had lunch and a walk with a faux rangefinder camera and lens assemblage I am back to the multiple tasks of both transcoding video and wading through the time/linear contents to find little gems I can extract and string together to make a media necklace for my client's special day...

4 comments:

George said...

Wonderful, and thanks for mentioning the Robert Frank and Richard Avedon books. As an Old Putz With Camera, age 74, I've had ample opportunity to wonder where good pics come from, given that I'm practically design- and visual-art blind. I think it's a bit like feeling-based sports training: there actually is a level of the heart that's aware of more than we ever imagined. And in quiet, detached moments it can go, "Oh, look!" in surprising ways. Kirk, I would have walked by the pipe and bridges a thousand times and not seen that photo - but you did. Happy for you that you had a lovely day.

HR said...

I like shooting B&W jpegs too. I agree that shooting them without raw changes the experience a lot. Although I mostly shoot raw when I travel, I often shoot jpegs when I am in more familiar territory and out and about on my extensive wanderings with a camera. For the last year or two I have been setting my Olympus OM-D cameras to B&W jpeg (no raw) mode quite a bit. I haven't done a lot of testing, but I have found +1 contrast with the yellow filter setting is pretty good. Usually I have the Panasonic 20mm f1.7 pancake lens mounted. The size, weight, fov, and fast aperture are all nice. Good lens to boot. Tokyo, in particular, is a good place for wandering and street photography. Certainly no shortage of people there! :-) For the last few months I generally use the E-M10II and use the electronic shutter. Nice, small, light, silent street kit.

Penfan2010 said...

Really enjoyed this one a lot, Kirk. What a really great exercise to emulate the classic way of shooting Black and White street, down to using hyper focus settings on the lens. Of course, I am also partial to old Olympus lenses, Pen or OM, and both do fantastic on either my E-M5 or Sony A7ii.

BTW, really appreciate your sharing your ongoing experience with the Sony cameras over the past year. I've had my RX-10 Mki for over a year now, and find myself using it primarily for video thanks in large part to reading your real world reviews. Pairing it with the A7 and my old lenses have become a winning combination for covering band events at my son's school. The teachers, students and parents love the output.

Jeff Montgomery said...

Reminds me of an article by David Vestal in Photo Techniques about how he shot B7w jpegs with an older d-slr and how he was good with it. Thanks for reminding me of these things.

Jeff Montgomery