Looking backwards. Looking forward. It's all good.


Ben. Circa 2008.

I've been cleaning out hard drives today. It's amazing how much stuff accumulates in those anonymous metal boxes over time. I've tossed away at least a terabyte of old, unneeded client files but also at least two terabytes of personal junk. Many, many repetitive "test shots" of downtown street scenes, multiple tries at graffiti documentation and many, many old videos that were a blend of personal art projects and also videos made for non-profit clients who were aiming squarely at social media. I tried not to trash photographs of people unless they were included in project files for clients who have fallen out of favor or whose companies disappeared at some point in the last five or six years. But I can't bring myself to cull out very many images of people I like or people from companies that I still work with. Just can't feed everything to the little trash can. Not yet.

The image above, viewed at the end of a year that was good for me (2022), reminds me that we don't need much at all to do images that we can really like and cherish. This photo of Ben was done a long time ago. It was done with a flawed digital camera and a cheap, consumer MF lens. The lighting was one 1K tungsten light aimed through big layers of soft diffusion and nothing else. A classic one light portrait. 

The camera was the ill-fated Kodak DSC-DSLRn. A 14 megapixel, full frame camera that had more firmware updates than I have cameras. The lens used was an ancient Nikon Ais 135mm f2.8 manual everything lens. It was small and had a wonderful focusing ring but it was sure a pain in the butt to focus on the SLRn camera. The focusing screen in that camera was definitely in NO WAY optimized to make manual focusing either easy or accurate. But in the end the combination of trial and error and persistence worked. The eccentric lighting worked. The weird sensor worked and was actually really good for portrait work. Sadly, that was one camera that fell apart in my hands. I don't mean that it physically disintegrated. 

No, it was more discreet than that. It would just...hesitate and die from time to time. Then, after a while, it started randomly introducing artifacts in the files. Then... well, you get the idea. After a while Kodak figured out that they couldn't fix it or wouldn't fix it and so after two years of my use they bought it back from me. I was glad to see it go; from a business point of view. I was sad to see it go from an artistic point of view because the files really were nice and it did have one superpower. It was the first digital camera that used focus stacking/image processing to create super resolution, super low noise, low ISO (down to 6) files. 

I did a series of 4x5 foot, point of purchase, color prints with the camera using that low ISO mode and they were super sharp, bereft of any visible noise and had perfect color. Now...they did take a long time to shoot and everything you shot had to be very still and the camera had to live on a stout tripod. But hey, most of the photographers in my age and proficiency cohort cut their teeth on 4x5 view cameras in the beginning so it was hardly unmanageable. 

But then again, the darn camera did stop working after a while. 

I think about things like this on days like today which inspire both wish lists for the future and assessments of the past. I've watched a few videos on YouTube where well know Tube-O-graphers talk breathlessly about Sony adapting the new AI AF module into the next generation of cameras. How Fuji must MUST update their product line to stacked sensors and then turn around and update all the lenses to match the resolution of the new sensors.... How Leica will shortly introduce either an M series body with an EVF or a Q body with interchangeable lenses. God, I hope they are still L mount lenses for that mythic interchangeable lens Q3..... but I'm sure not holding my breath.

But the conjecture is so tiny and weak. The merchants of lust are talking small potatoes updates and tweaks but nothing that will really reach out and punch you in the face as being new and super exciting. We're in the mature stage of digital now. Time to deal with that. 

And, the photo above reminds me that we supposedly got into this racket because we loved making the photographs. If that's true and we've already squeezed most of improvements we "needed" out of camera technology then who will lead the charge back into the thrill of making wonderful photographs?

Or will we all just become really diligent camera collectors?

My message to reviewers, blogger and internet "experts" :

Show more work. Not less work. Every blogger and YouTuber should have to prove their work to their customers/audience. Prove that they know what they speak about and what they write about. Show me the work. Not the camera but the work. And once I've seen that you know what you are talking about...then you have permission to show me the camera. No more empty influencers. No more last century experts. No more golden agers. Just show us what made that camera you are reviewing better.

But mostly show us how it helped you make better photographs. That's supposed to be what we're interested in. 

Getting up to speed with a really nice combination of camera and lens. Sometimes you just have to get out and shoot a lot of frames to get comfortable with gear.

Once again: A heartfelt "Thank You!" to the W Hotel for the unfettered use of 
their remarkably nice restrooms. An oasis of relief for downtown photographers
who drink too much coffee too often.

While one photography blogger I follow everyday is writing about his intention to use one camera and one lens for one year in 2023 I can't imagine not having the free choice to use a variety of cameras and lenses over the course of even a week! Perhaps I have camera attention deficit disorder or some other non-deadly disorder that pushes me to value a rotating and ever-changing inventory of cameras. I have been more judicious, I think, this past year. I've narrowed down my usual overflow of brands and models down to mostly the various Leicas, lightly seasoned with one Sigma fp and one Panasonic S5. Both are useful and have their places but when push comes to shove, and I then shove myself out the door for a camera enhanced walk, I generally default to a CL, the Q2 or one of the SL twins. These represent the sweet spots for me. 

This year I've played around with wider lenses (see: Q2) but hard experience or a short leash keeps bringing me back to the 40-60mm band of focal lengths. I had recently been trying to press the Q2 into everything. I guess that's normal. It's the latest purchase and the thrill of newness hasn't completely worn off yet. But yesterday, as I was contemplating a walk downtown through rolling clouds of virulent cedar pollen (to which I am, sadly, quite allergic...) I looked across the chaotic studio floor and my eyes came to rest on a Domke shoulder bag filled with APS-C stuff. I pulled out a Leica CL and held it in my hands. The size was perfect and the addition of a thumb grip and a handgrip made it even better. I remember why I was smitten by these little devils in the first place. 

I put the Q2 aside and assembled my "camera of the day" for my one camera, one lens, one afternoon routine. The 40mm Voigtlander lens was begging to be included. I left the house with the CL and the 40mm hanging off my shoulder. It was just what the photographer ordered for a day that was bright enough but covered by both overcast and the dreaded shadow of cedar pollen. Nemesis to the outdoor photographer. Driven to fill the pockets of my utility trousers with extra Kleenex...

There really was no reason to my walk other than to get out and walk. I'd done my swim practice in the morning. Got the ole heart rate up there. Got the triceps sore and screaming. So the three or so miles of the walk were more of a warm down than anything else. A chance to let my eyes focus on infinity instead of the usual 30 inches to the screen. The camera was just a companion, a foil, a co-conspirator to the fact that I just didn't want to have to do anything productive. I just wanted to get out, see people in real life, see the new building projects, and stop by Peet's Coffee for a latté.

But in fact, the CL and the 40mm were a very nice combination and pushed me from time to time to just take a shot and see what I got. I started out thinking black and white and set the camera for my favorite B&W formula. That would be B&W-HC with bumped up contrast and sharpening (medium high). Of course I shot only Jpegs because I knew I could get into the ballpark of good exposure, didn't need super accurate color balance and certainly didn't need more raw files of downtown filling up my hard drives...

But walking with a different camera and lens than those on my previous walk got me thinking...

I think the OCOLOY idea is based on the idea that a laser-like focus on the fewest possible parameters or  variations in your gear provides a much greater/deeper mastery over that gear. And, in a vacuum it would be hard to argue with the basic concept. If we have only one car and it's our daily driver then in a matter of weeks commuting we master the few knobs and switches remaining in a modern car until the process of driving that car really does become transparent. Automatic.  The application of this concept to photography reveals its flaws. Instead of removing technical hurdles to getting the images one wants this artificial limitation of resources kills the creative potential by limiting what one can bring to bear to make images. 

If you are a continually working professional photographer and the kind of work you do can result in hundreds or thousands of exposures taken on a given working day you will most likely master the functions of your camera in a short amount of time. It's hardly brain surgery. You will also sample a wide range of focal lengths necessitated by your work and learn, through constant shooting, the strengths and weaknesses of the lenses for the kind of work you want to do. And all of this quick and deep learning is reinforced by the commensurate amount of time you'll spend working with the same files in post production. You'll be problem solving, observing and judging many, many more data points than you would if you are a hobbyist who only picked up your camera in your spare time. After work. After family obligations. Only on weekends? Maybe mostly just during vacations. 

Were I to suddenly be restricted to one lens, one camera, during the course of one year I can't imagine all the cool (to me) stuff I would miss. The ability to see a potential portrait and know (as a result of tens of thousands of observations derived from active and ongoing experimentation) that a 90mm or 100mm lens would be the perfect choice for what your brain wants to see from that moment. Sure, if I followed the ONE philosophy I might only have a 35mm lens on my one camera. I could still see and understand how the potential shot might look when photographed with a 90mm lens but there would be the static momentum of self-imposed limitations that might conspire to make me just pass on the potential shot rather than deal with the crippling instant of awareness that my chosen limitations precluded me from doing right justice to the image my mind conjured. 

I might shoot the shot anyway with the lens and camera in hand but I would have to deal with the prissy logic stream that would nag me. That the cropping required would result in lost image quality. That the perspective might not be right. That I misjudged my composition based on too little magnification of the preview. That I might not be able to get the image I wanted no matter how much time I spent in post. Especially if the image was somewhat dependent, for my use, on higher resolution and low noise. I would regret not using the longer lens instead. 

But if I persisted with the ONE plan I would almost certainly start limiting myself only to subject matter and compositions that could be comfortably accomplished with the basic system. Inertia would conspire to rob me of my ability to go outside the formalist boundaries of the "plan." An arbitrary series of ever smaller choices would serve to rob me of my ability to choose, in the moment, the photograph I wanted to see. 

Yes, if you chose to spend a year with a single camera and lens you would probably either master the set or become so bored and frustrated that you resigned yourself to never picking up a camera again. You might have hit the spot where your hammer made the entire world of photography look like a nail only to be endlessly confronted by screws or bolts. Same applies with black and white versus color. 

I set out today to find photographs in my city that would accentuated the qualities of black and white imaging. That's how I set my camera. But in the course of walking reality started teasing me, messing with me, tossing me potential images that were about color. I guess I could choose to ignore those chromatic images but I'd have to ask: WHY? If I am able to see them and they have an effect on my brain why should I seek to rein myself in and pass by something that might be a lot of fun to shoot? If I were being paid only to shoot black and white images and the Museum of Modern Art was waiting breathlessly for my selections to include in my one person retrospective; like Robert Frank's "Americans" I guess I could force myself to walk on by all the fun color oriented scenes, the interesting objects I see in color, and by doing so morph what is currently both a job and a passion for me into strictly a job. But why?

For some the idea of minimal-izing their gear and distilling it down to the barest of essentials might be a cry for the need to feel completely in control of the process. To eliminate chance. To eliminate the potential guilt of having but not using other gear by dint of making the distillation into a philosophical system. The age-old capitalist imbalance between too much and not enough. 

On the other hand I am probably being far too judgmental. Far too conditioned to look at photography only from my perspective. I've never been able to winnow down my cornucopia of interests only to one thing. When it came to writing non-fiction books my publisher indicated that I could keep writing book after book for him for as long as I wanted. But after getting a good handle on how to write the books I exhausted my interest in writing in such a limiting format. One book really needs to concentrate on one part of photography while a blog allows me to bounce around from subject to subject, from interest to interest, on a daily basis. But if I didn't allow myself to write the blog and only limited myself to doing commercial photography as my sole creative outlet I'm sure I would quickly be in full scale rebellion. 

I don't have the same ADHD when it comes to things I consider appliances. I don't change cars often. I tend to buy reliable, affordable, basic cars that just work. Same with household appliances. My kid teases me about buying an AppleTV Pro device but not having a 4K TV to use it with. My refrigerator was largely chosen because it fit into the odd-sized, pre-existing space. But cameras.... that's different because they are tied into one of the branches of my creative output. They are to me a means to an end but each one delivers something different and each one delivers its own momentum in one direction or another. And by their very nature one is more intimately connected to one's cameras.

If all my images were done from the same perspective and were mostly of immobile objects I would quickly become so bored that I'd be moved to start painting instead. 

So, back to the Leica CL and the 40mm Voigtlander. I came to really like the lens when using it on a full frame camera during my time in Vancouver. But yesterday I was more interested in what this lens might look like on a cropped sensor camera. On the full framers it's a slightly wide normal lens. A look I've come to really like. But on the CL it delivers more like a very short telephoto lens and that's a look I like as well. The equivalent of a 60mm lens on the CL. A slight telephoto point of view but with a bit more depth of field. A nice mixture. 

In the end it was a combination of things that helped me enjoy my afternoon walking and shooting. A new pair of Keens hiking shoes made the walk so comfortable. The latté at Peet's was just the thing for a quick break on a cool afternoon. The need to manually focus the 40mm lens provided a subtle but consistent momentum to pay more attention, to be more mindfully involved in my picture taking. And the manual exposure setting pushed me just a bit to pay more attention to f-stops and shutter speeds. Not to just mindlessly plink away at stuff. By the end of the walk I was completely satisfied with the experience the camera and lens combination provided. It was a nice addition to the process of "the walk." 

But when I got up this morning I reached for a different camera and a different lens. A Sigma fp combined with the counterintuitive TTArtisan 50mm f0.95 lens. A lens made for APS-C but capable of covering all but the corners of a full frame sensor. My work around? Set the aspect ratio in the camera to 7:6 -- more square than rectangular but still not completely square. The rest of the day I'll let this camera and lens add amusement and creative potential to my day. Can't wait to try shooting wide open on a mismatched system just to see how it all looks when it comes together.

And, in writing this last paragraph (above) I figured out what bothers me about artificially limiting myself to a smaller subset of gear. That formalism or spirit of relentless distillation is, for me, a quick way to kill curiosity altogether. I am always in the market for a different solution and a different set of problem solvers when it comes to my own photography. Anything that dampens my ability to be curious and to experiment is wrong for me. 

Now, before you get upset and worked up, I want to say that this is meant in no way to be a personal attack on MJ and his 180° different way of looking at photography. He is as right for himself as I am for me. Each of us are different personality types to a large degree. We each come from different backgrounds and from different photographic experiences. What works for me might not work for him and vice versa. And that's okay. I write this more as a way of expressing the differences in our approaches and in some way letting photographers know it's okay to do things your own way. MJ was clear about that in one of his own posts about this dichotomy. It's all about choices but sometimes we pass on making choices and follow those who we see as thought leaders. Even if it's not in our best interests. That's why it's important to find your own path and your own comfort zone and not depend too much on external influences. What's right for one person might be the death of pleasure for another. One thing I do think we agree on is that it's important to just get out there and shoot. 

Gone formal for New Year's Eve.

My guy won. Again. 

tree branch-ography.