2.01.2021

Trying different stuff. Just experimenting for the fun of it. A feeling of freedom.

This is not a "gallery." These are not meant to be "portfolio pieces." You are not encouraged to be impressed or wowed or motivated to express a "like." These are casual experiments I made yesterday evening because I wanted to see what would happen when I used a certain camera and lens in a certain way. The results tell me things about a process that I knew intellectually but wanted to see for myself. 

I've been experimenting with photographic techniques for 35 years but it was almost always in order to be better prepared for an upcoming commercial job. A client might ask for images that can only be made by using a flash in a soft box against a big, bright sun. I could know the steps that I was supposed to take, from research and reading, to get the image we might have all had in mind but more often than not I'd be uncomfortable until I was able to go out before the day of the shoot and try the actual set-up myself. I wanted to see where the process could break down or become difficult and have enough time elapsing between the test and the shoot to make adjustments. To lock down the process. To make my mistakes in private instead of in front of a client. 

I've never been asked to shoot buildings and street scenes at night. But I've been photographing some late evening and twilight cityscapes recently and wondered how things would look after the last of the sunlight was gone and most of the scenes were lit with the street lights and building lights of downtown. I also wondered how a camera like the Sigma fp would handle these kinds of situations. 

I left the house around 5:15 pm and went to the river that runs through town. I hiked over the bridge and into a very familiar downtown carrying, for the first time on a fun walk, a small tripod and my camera with a relatively new lens on it. The tripod was a featherlight Benro carbon fiber model (TSL08C) which comes with a small bullhead on it. When I say it's "featherlight" I'm not using hyperbole; it weighs in at less than the camera and lens. The trade-off is that the tripod only extends to about my upper chest level.

I walked around with my Sigma fp + Lumix 20mm-60mm lens on top of the tripod and stopped to make photos of stuff just to see how it would look with 2 or 8 or 12 second exposures. I also wanted to see how well the "fill light" control, offered on the camera, actually worked. I wanted to know which color balance was best to match what my eyes see in the canyon of buildings after the sun goes away.

I shot a hundred or so images. Some were abject failures and I can now say that I have a better understanding of the extreme dynamic range between black shadows and a spotlit door. I can also see how important it is to do this work on a tripod. Most of you know these things. Or at least you have read "how to" do them. I read the same stuff. But actually working in the dark and trying to find settings by touch and trying to lock focus on a shadowy building exterior with no convenient edges was a part of the process I often overlooked or discounted in my reading. Having to to it in real life was a quick bit of education. 

Seeing the final images was a lesson in instant humility. I had to come to grips with the fact that I am not a practiced urban landscape photographer. I am not an experienced low light photographer; at least not on this level. But the real satori I had is that after the excitement of darkness and solitude in the streets wears off I had the realization that stuff doesn't get more interesting just because the light goes away. 

In the future I'll try to make better choices of subject matter before I repeat the exercise. I need to find willing human subjects with which to add a spark of life to the images. Better still if the humans have something interesting to do while we photograph. 

One thing about doing these experiments in the winter... I have an hour or two of low-to-no light before I have to be home to join the family for dinner. It's fun to play in the free time. It's interesting to see where an image or a technique breaks down in a given lighting situation. So much depends on light.




Again with the mirrors? Come on...
 

The "Widow's Cart."


I heard an expression last week that I'd never heard before. My salesperson at Precision Camera was chatting with me about the differences in the way people buy photo gear; especially cameras and lenses. I'm so self-focused when it comes to buying stuff I never thought there was much of a difference between camera buyers. I presumed that we all worked the same way; we saw a new shiny object, decided it was "better" than the one currently in our hands and immediately traded in the old one, along with some cash, for the new one. Done. Case closed.

When I decide to move on to a new camera system I look at the system I already own and try to figure out its approximate trade-in value. I text the trade-in manager at the camera store and send him a list. He usually sends me an estimate for the value of the used stuff. I bring it all in, he checks to make sure it's in the condition we described, and that it works, and then issues a credit which I use as partial payment for the new system. Easy as pie. No chance of being totally screwed by some nefarious person on Ebay. Even less chance of being ripped off by a stranger responding to an ad on a forum. It's a clean, straightforward transaction that can happen in the space of minutes. 

I walk out of the store with my new, shiny camera system and the store gets near mint gear to sell in their used equipment department from a trusted "vendor." We've been doing the business this way since the beginning of time. Well, at least since the opening of the store many years ago. I know I'm leaving money on the table with each transaction but I also know that I don't have a retail mindset and would hate having to deal online with strangers, and then have to pack and box up items and send them all over the place. My biggest fear (beyond never being paid) would be to have the gear be damaged in transit and arrive to the seller in a state of non-functionality and then having to deal with returns, refunds and hard feelings; usually in both directions. 

So, when my salesperson talked about how sad it was to see, almost weekly, the "Widow's Carts" I had to ask him to explain. 

Well, apparently there are some folks in the Photography trades or the Hobby that just can't, or won't, let go of gear once they've bought it. Could be a collection of half-functioning film cameras from the 70s,80, and 90s or a melange of budget priced digital cameras from the last few decades. There might be boxes and boxes of lenses that were made for cameras with obscure mounts, as well as lenses that were once really good but which have been stored in hot attics, unprotected from humidity, and now covered with haze. Camera bodies that work only at certain shutter speeds. Cameras that must have batteries long since outlawed by the EU and the EPA. Tripods on which only two legs are functional. And filters. Pounds and pounds of filters. So many filters.

Flashes that only work with an old variant of long since discontinued Minolta cameras. Light stands that were too small and rickety to begin with that have only become worse and worse. And then, enough camera bags and cases to roof a house with. Along with the "prehistoric" gear is a smattering of modern gear, like recent Canons and Nikons or Sonys. And, in every collection of anyone past, say 60, is at least one ancient and unusable Leica, or Leica-variant, screw mount camera along with one or two battered and milky-glassed lenses. 

Like plaque on teeth, all this stuff builds up in the closets of the photo-faithful until one day the owner of the far flung and mostly random collection....expires. 

Likely, the surviving spouse (statistically, in most cases, a wife) has been told countless times by the now gone partner how wonderful and valuable (to him) each piece of gear is and, after a time of grief and then a longer time of sorting and inventorying, she is ready to divest her inheritance of a giant collection of photographic "mixed grill." The spouse remembers a camera store that her loved one frequented and brings the whole trove down to them hoping they'll figure out the value of the gear and cherish it as much as her spouse once did. 

And so, my store clerk explained to me, they walk through the store with the gear piled high on a cart, provided by the used department of the store, to meet with the "expert" who must value the gear, decide what can even be resold, and then deal with the expectations of the still grieving spouse (or designated family member). It's a tough time for the trade-in clerk as he'll usually have to inform the spouse that such and such gear is broken and can't be traded in, or it is of such low value that they can't accept it. They'll gently steer the person to Goodwill Industries with the suggestion that most of it be donated. The let down is palpable. 

I've witnessed some version of this chain of evens over the years when I played the part (convincingly) of the innocent bystander who dropped by to shop for a new fill in the blank or something else. I've seen the fitted leather cases, seen them opened to reveal an ancient Hasselblad and battered lenses. Parts covered with the mildew of neglect. Shutters frozen. Lenses iced over with fungus. And it's rarely a pretty sight. 

Over the years, at least since the end of the film age, I've wanted to clear out old gear when I bring in new gear. With the exception of an old Nikon F or a Leica M3 there is nothing in the studio, camera-wise, that's over three years old. All my stuff right now are current models. Current product. No Sears slide projectors. No Walmart film scanners. Just current cameras. 

I would hate to think of Belinda encumbered by the detritus of a photographic addiction. We've spoken about this. We've agreed that the week after I drop over dead she'll have that stuff off to the tender mercies of which ever close photographic friend has outlived me and task him or her with the disposal of the gear. 
Her practiced mantra to the person tasked: Keep whatever you want and get rid of the rest. 

The sad truth is that the older the gear (unless, of course, you've been buying rare editions of Leica M film cameras in lizard skin and platinum) the less value it has. To just about anyone. 

There is a certain emotional logic in my approach to gear acquisition and disposal. I get to play with the latest, most fun stuff while minimizing the emotional impact its disposition will cause, after I'm gone.

I guess there is a current of emotion among some photographers that their sons or daughters might cherish having one of their parent's favorite cameras and lenses. Some families are like that. In my own family my older brother is always nostalgic and prone to sentiment when it comes to the physical artifacts of my parent's lives. He'll hold onto old letters, battered books, unused ash trays and refrigerator magnets. Clearing out my parent's last large and rambling house in concert will my brother was painful. The quote I remember best from him was: "You just have a different sense of urgency than I do..." We were working to clear out the house pursuant to putting it on the market = that was my task. He was likely to stop, grab a convenient chair and spend a few hours reading through an old magazine he'd found, or a letter from someone to one of my parents.

My little nuclear family is different. We have little attachment to objects and memorabilia. I am married to one of the most Zen-like people I can imagine. She hoards nothing, collects very little and can fit her memorabilia into a small shoebox. I have a son who, as long as he's been alive, has never wanted to buy or own anything more than a small assortment of clothes and shoes and his laptop. I offered to buy him a car once and he told me cars were a waste of money and that I should not buy him a new car because he would just sell it and invest the proceeds into an index fund. That's the mindset. 

To burden them with the disposal of an accrued lifetime of battered photographic gear seems like punishment for undone crimes. My method at least spares them the pain of trying to decide what to dispose of and what to keep. Even today's collection of gear represents very small monetary value, when taken in context. It wouldn't make a difference in the lives of my loved ones. Not in the least. 

Better for me to use stuff and move on than to become a museum curator to the bad purchasing decisions I've made in my hobby and career. 

Staying true to my message I better figure out what to do (now!) with those two Leica slide projectors I have in the closet. It's been 22 year since I projected any slides. Don't want to think about those stacked on the "Widow's Cart" rolling through Precision Camera along with my old filters...