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.