1.12.2021

Exercises in growing out of previous knowledge and conceptions about process. Turning off the rules from the 1990's.


Much of the way we approach photography seems to be predicated on obsessively looking into a rearview mirror. From trying to be a "modern" Henri Cartier-Bresson or Edward Weston down to how we choose our ISOs. The knowledge of current technology and past technology is sometimes built on the presumption that all advances are additive and can be layered onto old practices when, in fact, the layering slows the process down and codifies our routines even when slavishly following old rules is no longer necessary. 

For years I railed on and on about the need for all cameras to have eye level viewfinders. Now it's almost (almost) second nature for me to consult the rear screen on my Sigma fp or one of the Fuji X100V cameras. There are times when the enclosed, eye-level view is critical but those times are generally just when shooting in bright sun. The rest of the time, if your eyewear prescription is current, the LCD works fine.

I'm also having second thoughts about focusing. Or the need to focus. Or, at least, the need to focus as obsessively as we have done for the last couple of decades. I think focusing speed and accuracy are currently the two most referenced specifications listed as "crucial" for new cameras. And I'm not sure the value of being able to focus in micro-seconds on a moving object in low light is as high as we imagine it to be. In fact, the obsession with critical focus might be one of the things that distracts us from having a really meaningful engagement with the joy of photography.

When I first learned film photography, and then re-learned photography when digital cameras became available, there were certain rules that we mostly hewed to because they had worked well for us in the past. Rule #1: Use the lowest possible ISO at all times for the best "quality." Back in the day "quality" meant one over-arching parameter and that was the ability to generate a photograph with the smallest and least obtrusive grain possible. 

For years I ignored the higher ISO settings available on each successive generation of digital cameras because my "fear of noise" was so ponderous. Lately, I've decided that noise and grain are integral to the process and that total removal of noise and grain was only important to people when it was very difficult to do well. It was a mark of professionalism, in a certain era, to be able to produce noise free files and grain free film. Now it's becoming passé in art circles to consider grain as any sort of impediment to making successful images. 

Yesterday evening I found myself toying with ISO 25,600 and being pleased with the results. 

In recent times we've become more and more acculturated to thinking that images with very narrow depth of field were a higher achievement/better end target than conventional photographs that might include more detail, front to back, in our photographs. I thought I liked this look better as well until I started actually going back to a 50mm lens and using f-stops such as 8 and 11. The results were revelatory for me. It seems that seeing lots of your image in focus can be equally compelling; it largely depends on the nature of the content. 

Freeing oneself from always shooting near the widest aperture of your lenses also conveys advantages in that by f5.6 (maybe) or f8.0 (almost surely) or f11 (positively) your lens is working at its highest level of imaging performance (for most lenses) and best combatting the visual effects of field curvature. So the photographs look more convincing as......photographs. The contrast in your frame is higher, the sharpness more convincing. It's a win, if you don't need to visually isolate a subject from everything else in the frame. 

But the use of these smaller apertures brings with it the benefit, especially for subjects ten feet away and further, of the user being able to relax a bit about the mania for critical focus at a critical point. If I'm using a 50mm or 35mm lens at f11 I can reasonably set the focus manually to about 15 feet and be almost certain that a wide swath, front to back in the frame, will be sharp and useable. 

Yesterday I walked with a camera in a way that was casually designed to reduce my reliance on old rules of photography. I took the Sigma fp and used it without an auxiliary loupe. It was back screen or nothing. Early on I was concerned about fine focusing but after a few snaps of the shutter and a couple reviews I put my bifocals in my pocket and mostly used the finder for composition. I cheated a little by enabling the focus peaking indicators but, hey! I was using a manual focusing lens.

I wanted to see how the camera made black and white images so I set it to do Jpegs at the best quality and eschewed raw files altogether (another recent rule that needs to be demoted to "suggested if shooting under duress"). The Sigma fp has a nice monochrome setting but no gingerbread. No emulated color filters to add or augment contrast or tonal mapping as in film. The best control comes from being able to set shadow and highlight curves in a different menu.

Once I decided on those parameters I set the camera to aperture priority operation, set my Carl Zeiss 50mm lens to f11, and distance to 10 meters (I felt so naughty going metric!) and set the ISO to auto ISO with a cap of 25,600. I did adjust focus for closer subjects but I did so by estimation since the lens designers had the good graces to include a highly readable distance scale right on the lens! 

I even tuned up my mindset and allowed myself to just walk with no quota of compulsion to bring home a bunch of images. I just wanted to be outside and in motion. Nothing wrong with that. But I found that having the camera in my hands and as ready as it was ever going to be freed me from "gadgetting" and allowed me to look more and act quicker. It was refreshing. 

The final thing I did in this exercise was to work in the boundaries of a new aspect ratio. I've been going on and on about squares and I do believe the 1:1 aspect ratio is marvelous for individual portraits but sometimes I feel that non-portrait images need a little "breathing room" on the sides. But I nearly always find that the 3:2 frame is hard to fill well. The Sigma fp offered me a 7:6 ratio and I took it. When I came home and started working with the files on the computer I didn't need or want to crop any of them. I may have found my new "street photography" aspect ratio. At any rate, I had a high number of keepers today and I wanted to share the black and white ones with you below. 

The Sigma fp must have some slight yellow filtration built into their monochrome profile; how else to explain such great skies (none of which were added or materially augmented in post production)?

Looking out the side window and trying to understand
how cold 30° really is. Cold enough for gloves; I know that!

Palm trees in front of Waterloo Tapes and Records.
Yes. An independent record shop (vinyl still stocked) right 
in the middle of Austin. Thanks John!

SOOC clouds without auxiliary filtration. Or post processing.



A late afternoon look at the Frost Bank Tower 
from an angle I rarely see.





Some plans have fallen by the wayside. 
I think I'll open a bar when the pandemic subsides....

I'm very happy with myself at ISO 25,600.
Plus, I like my new hat.
 
A nod to the W Hotel for their unwitting and continuing support of my art.
I thank them.

8 comments:

Tom Passin said...

I remember taking pictures at grandchildren soccer games with a Minolta D7 (6 MB). I learned to set manual focus on the grass where most of the action was, set a decent exposure, and then I could take pictures for ten or 15 minutes, or longer if the light didn't change too much, without making any adjustments or waiting to the camera to try to autofocus.

Most of these pictures came out just fine, from the point of view of focus and exposure. It made for a good experience, not having to fuss with the mechanics at all.

John Merlin Williams said...

Kirk:
Agreed! I remember when viewing a “large” image (medium or large format) on ground glass was considered a real advantage for composition. The “picture” was right there, already displayed in two dimensions for evaluation (albeit flipped in one or both orientations), versus an “image” floating in the eyepiece (akin to looking through a telescope). I recall Hasselblad emphasized this selling point of the 2-1/4 inch waist level viewfinder. The often-raised objection by “traditionalists” to using rear screens confuses me. I also appreciate the virtual ground glass of a phone camera for the same reason. Newer phones with screens bright enough to be visible in daylight (500+ nits) are a boon; it was among my top “wants” in the last phone purchase (iPhone 11 Pro). My ongoing photo project (with Fuji system) is often done in bright sun, so I do use the EVF a lot, but enjoy using a flip down rear screen as a WLVF whenever I can. For me it creates some connection with the people in the scene. Using the flip down rear screen as a virtual WLVF on the camera feels more like we are making an image together and less like I’m “shooting” (“assassinating”) them.

And how many have experienced the freedom(!) of setting an f-stop and hyperfocal distance manually for a sequence of grab shots - especially in cluttered settings that might confuse even sophisticated AF.

-- john merlin ...

ASW said...

I really like the aspect ratio in these pictures.

I have not given in to the desire to upgrade to a modern mirrorless camera, mostly because of my tiny wallet, and remain generally happy with my trusty Nikon D700. However, if I could pick a single feature from newer cameras to implement, it would be the in-camera use of different aspect ratios along with frame lines or masking in the viewfinder for those aspect ratios.

I know that I can crop to any aspect ratio I want after taking a picture, but I find it difficult to frame exactly as I want without some sort of guide provided by the edge of the viewfinder.

Anonymous said...

For a good experience set a really crazy high ISO, small aperture on your tripod mounted camera and do night sky photos during lightning storms.
Not necessarily to get lightning bolts, but the color and 'grain' in the clouds internally lit by bolts you can't see.
Good composition for foreground objects, buildings, etc lit by the lightning will give you something akin to the old AFGA 1000 film. A look that was its own. Really good for heavy fog conditions as well - depending on your taste.

Rene said...

Hi Kirk,

"For years I railed on and on about the need for all cameras to have eye level viewfinders. Now it's almost (almost) second nature for me to consult the rear screen on my Sigma fp or one of the Fuji X100V cameras. There are times when the enclosed, eye-level view is critical but those times are generally just when shooting in bright sun. The rest of the time, if your eyewear prescription is current, the LCD works fine."

Unless of course, like me, you can no longer hold a camera steady in the "Stinky Diaper" mode even with the best IBIS around (Olympus OMD). No problem using the rear screen on a tripod, of course, but anything else... those days are long past.

crsantin said...

Us metric folk, we're a naughty bunch. Everything is bigger in metric!

granitix said...

Wow, a lot of 20th-century wisdom bypassed in a single post. Go, you crazy new guy - whoever you are! And thanks for being an fp spokesperson, that alone is crazy talk for many.

Anonymous said...

Like knife fighting, there are no rules for photography. Silly rules yes, actual rules no. From what I've seen, silly rules tend to stymie creativity.

I don't live in the past anymore—I live in the here-and-now. And I look forward to the future. Better autofocus, AI, whatever gives me more time for creativity. I'm into results, not process.

With narrow DOF you are forcing the viewer to look at only a small portion of the photo. I like to put important things in the background—an intelligent viewer will find them, and smile.

I prefer a 4/3 frame, for most work.