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From photography to art: the go away factor

In photography, my efforts consist of freeing myself from the limitations when film braked the creativity: there was little I could do to transform the image into what I saw in my mind. Doing what I call “ transmitted transform “ to digital images has therefore raised as an essential aspect of the journey. Things that were impossible to do with film either in the field or in the darkroom. I call them “ transmitted transform “ because they seem to appear in the mind, coming from nowhere and transmitted by an unspeakable source. 

With digital era, the cost of a single capture is the cost of storage, which is negligible. We can thus go away from trying to get a perfect capture in one shot: a perfect capture can happen mixing a multitude of images. We can shoot as much as we want and maximize our chances of success.

In my opinion, a today’s picture is rarely completed with a single capture. Instead, it must be done with multiple shots assembled in Photoshop or an other postproduction software, by using collaging / stitching techniques to extend the composition, or HDR to extend the dynamic range, or focus stacking to increase the DOF, or whatever. However, trying to density and  build a final image is only one of the things we need to go away of even if we learn how to create artistic photographs.


Therefore ask yourself a few questions:

  • Looking at your approach to create artistic photographs, what do you want to change ? Make a list: what to throw away and what to keep doing.
  • Where do you stand regarding the film vs digital paradigm ? How do you feel about deeply manipulating your photographs ? 
  • Which manipulations are you doing now? Which ones do you want to learn and use in the future?
  • What is the most challenging thing for you to go away of ? Why is that ? 

Turning photography into art means doing something different, something new, something that has maybe been dreamed, but not been done before. Innovation is at the root of art and to innovate we have to go away of preconceptions.

We have to learn to go away. Go away comes after learning. First, we learn, then we run away from what we feel stopping us from being fully creative, from becoming ourselves. Go away starts by changing this belief and clearing our head.

Going away means thus pushing aside the things that prevent us from being creative. It can be a single thing but most of the time they are a lot of. We cannot let them go all at once because we do not necessarily know what they are. We need to go away when discover what they are, one after one.

However, we do not want to run away from everything. We do not want to let go what is positive. Some of the things we are doing are good and deserve to be carefully kept. This selection, what to keep and what to go away from, is personal. It is different for each and every one of us. What you decide to keep and what you decide to let down are truly personal decisions.

The outcome of these steps is a nice path towards the creation of artistic pictures that are unique to you.

Landscape photography: gear or light ?

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Landscape photography is not about cameras, gadgets and gizmos. Photography is about photographers. A camera doesn’t make a great picture anymore than the best word processor writes a great novel. Before you go off and buy that € 3.500 camera body, or the latest € 2.000 super-sharp lens, Think twice: they will not make you a better landscape photographer.

Before I get too many death threats, let me try to explain what I mean: 99% of the world’s landscape images are based upon a large depth of field (DOF). That is to say, that we want to have as much of the subject in sharp focus as possible. Front to back sharpness will help to convey to the viewer the splendor of the view, and help to convey something of our own experience when taking the photo. To achieve this in an image, we will shoot with the aperture stopped down to about f/11, and focus one-third of the way into the frame. Remember the hyperfocal rule. This gives the greatest depth of field possible, culminating in an overall sharp and detailed image. With nearly any gear or lens.

I’m not trying to say that a lens like the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 ED isn’t worth owning. Please don’t get me wrong. I’m sure it has faster focusing, a better build, better contrast, better color rendition and better handling than any basic 18-105mm kit lens. No doubt about a fact. But it also costs five times as much, without returning five times better image quality.

And full frame sensors offer better low-light performance, better dynamic range, if we are comparing the latest technology. This is true, but so what? If you are primarily a landscape photographer, then the camera should be set up on a tripod and set to the lowest ISO possible anyway. And as for dynamic range, it’s nothing that post-processing can’t deal with. The argument could be made that full-frame cameras are ”pro” cameras, and therefore better built, weather-sealed etc. That also means, however, that they will probably be bigger and heavier to carry around, the files will be bigger to deal with, and the lenses will generally be more expensive (and heavier). As a result, you will capture better images with your iPhone: you GOT it at the right place, and in the right time.

Above all, the most important aspect of great landscape photography is light. You can stand in front of a beautiful coastal scene, with a wonderful composition of foreground, middle and background elements, full of sweeping curves and leading lines. But, if the light isn’t right, then you have no image. More than anything else, it’s the quality of the light in a landscape that will determine its success or failure.

The photographers you admire may very well use the latest full frame bodies, and the most expensive ultra-wide lenses that money can buy. But, that’s not what makes them great photographers either. When it comes to beautiful landscape images, it is most definitely not about the gear. They will chase the light. They will get up early, and go to bed late, in pursuit of that damned right light. They will stand on a cliff for hours, with their camera set up in the one spot, waiting for just the right light to make just the one image. And if they get that one shot, then they will consider it a successful day. It’s about planning to be in the right place at the right time. And then it’s about getting lucky when mother Nature decides to turn up with glorious light.

Use whatever you want to make the kind of image you want to make. Choose full frame cameras if they suit your needs. Get an ultra-wide if that’s what it takes to bring your vision to life. But don’t also fall into the trap of feeling somehow inferior if you’re not shooting on a full frame camera with a pretty expensive lens, because you certainly don’t need them to try creating stunning landscape images. Maybe that money would be better spent going on location to a place you’ve always wanted to shoot, somewhere in our beautiful world.

Camera Obscura

Pinhole photography, the “Camera Obscura” effect, forms an image through a small pin-sized hole rather than a lens and its origins can be traced back 2.500 years to when Mo Ti in China observed that light travels in a straight line through a small hole like an arrow. 

It is a radical alternative to conventional photography, exploring a world beyond the limitations of the human eye and human wallet. In an age of instant automated screen-based predictability it rediscovers accident, wonder and delight through experimentation, delicious qualities increasingly absent from contemporary photographic practice. 

Pinhole images have properties that aren’t encountered using even the most expensive CanoNikon camera. These properties include:

  • Unlimited depth of field: Everything is in focus – from objects next to the pinhole to distant mountains enabling a “bug’s-eye view” of the world.
  • Capturing time beyond vision: Exposure times can range from fractions of a second to the six months that a solargraph camera exposes for when capturing the movement of the sun.
  • Construction, indestructibility and cheapness: cameras can be homemade. The combination of the camera’s relative indestructibility with its low cost allows experimentation where digital cameras fear to tread.
  • Multiple exposures: You can take two or more images on top of each other, often accidentally.
  • The joyous lack of a viewfinder: The wonder of the unknown replaces the instantaneous fix of a digital viewfinder (and a children’s “let me see it” demands are replaced by a wait-and-see approach).

Nonetheless, there is a mid-term solution for the speed lover. Rather than build a film camera, you can also use your up-to-date digital camera and convert it into a pinhole camera, filling the gap between a very old process and the most modern electronic devices. By the way, in this case, a mirrorless camera has a tremendous advantage: it allows you to observe immediately what you’ll get through the tiny hole, and it measures also the exposure time needed on manual position, without using any external lightmeter. 

In our age of instant photographic feedback, it is amazing how a bit of time and thought can change your images from previewed experiments to what could be the greatest photographs ever taken, something to ponder while you wait for them to be processed.

The trick ? Modify your DSLR camera’s body cap to create a pinhole effect. As long as you can spare a body cap you can do this. The lens emulates the distinctive vignette and softness of a pinhole photograph in a fraction of the time and is great for adding an abstract or surreal quality to an image. While the digital technique isn’t the same as a classic biscuit-tin camera, your home-made lens makes for a dynamic approach to a nostalgic analog process. Plus, the unpredictability of the results adds an interesting twist to your digital practice.

Logarithmic scale is just biology

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One of the most disturbing matter for new photographers is the seemingly random series of numbers that we have come to know as the f-stop scale or aperture scale. Why would anyone invent such an arbitrary suite ?

Let’s go back to the second century BC, when a greek astronomer named Hipparchus developed the first system for organizing stars by their apparent brightness. He ranked stars on a scale from 1 to 6 based on the brightness he observed. Centuries later, when astronomers developed methods to quantify the actual brightness of each star, they noticed something strange. A category one star was not six times brighter than a category six star: it was 100 times brighter. Every step on the apparent brightness scale yielded an actual brightness increase of 2.5x. It turns out that the human eye is not very good at picking out small differences in brightness. In order to see any difference, we must change the brightness a lot, like two and a half times its original value.

What Hipparchus discovered by accident, was the logarithmic nature of human perception. Somewhere within us, we are hardwired to perceive level changes only when they are many times less than or greater than the next level. The visual advantage we gain from this is dynamic range. It has been estimated that the human eye can effectively process 10 f/stops of light levels. An extraordinary range which exceeds from far any film or sensor.

The logarithmic nature of human perception was known in the nineteenth century, and has been expressed by German psychologists as the Weber-Fechner law. The law has implications that apply to many different human processes: vision, hearing, and mental processing. Much more, the logarithm scale can be observed in a lot of domains, like sound (dB scale), chemistry (pH scale), relevance of changes in biological processes, etc.

Which brings us back to f/stops. At the same time psychologists were musing about the logarithmic human perceptions, early photographers were quantifying the optical principles of their cameras. Fairly early on, it was determined that the area of the aperture hole needed to vary by a factor of 2x in order to yield perceptibly brighter or darker photographs from one f/stop to the next.

 

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Here a figure which shows the progression of aperture areas going from largest to smallest. For each progression, the area is divided in half until we get to the smallest aperture which is 1/32nd the size of the original one. The diameter of each of these apertures is proportional to the square root of the aperture area. Thus, by taking the square root of the aperture areas, we see some familiar numbers:  1, 1.4, 2, etc.

√2 = 1,4142 is thus the multiplying factor between two adjacent apertures.

The f-stop numbering scheme may seem awkward, but it is a necessary consequence of our human biology.

Hipparchus would certainly agree.

Mastering light

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What makes a photo great is not the camera sensor, the DSLR or mirrorless design, or the so-many points of your magic autofocus system. Photos are made from light.

There always are, and will be, new articles outlining new tech devices with better attributes. They compare the iPhone Xs camera to a pro DSLR, and therefore pose the question: is the good photographer a dying breed ?

With high quality image capture devices steadily becoming more affordable and accessible, who needs a “real” photographer anymore ? Because isn’t the high quality, expensive gear the defining factor between a pro and an amateur ? And is that gap narrowing with the advent of better, cheaper, cameras ? To all of that, the answer is NO, because that’s not where the gap exists. Having the right gear may be a prerequisite in some cases, but it’s not the end of the road. But only the beginning of a narrow, dusty and climbing path.

A picture is made with light. To capture that light, you have to be able to see it, to observe how it moves, see how it reflects and refracts. With no light, there is no image, and, just like us, not all lights are created equal. Hunting the good light is a never-ending endeavor, and that’s where the gap between good and great images. Therefore, you have to study light. Study it in everyday life. Pay attention to its properties and how it behaves. See how it changes after the sun dips below the horizon but it’s still not dark. See what it does when it bounces off a white wall, or wraps around a black sphere, or shines through the hair of someone you love. Then capture it with whatever camera you have.Study and understand composition and balance. Understanding the inverse square law won’t hurt either. Read about specular vs. diffuse reflection and know how to work with both. And color temperature. And have the Itten book on your night table.

Now, one has to do care about the gear. The camera is what let’s us capture the light in the exact way we want to. The reason better gear is desirable is because of the way it can function a tool, but it ultimately doesn’t create a photo on its own. Better sensors and bigger apertures allow photos to be taken with less available light. Sharper lenses mean sharper images, which are generally preferable. Being able to shoot more frames per second means a greater chance of getting the shot at the exact right moment. Faster, more accurate autofocus systems mean more in-focus images.

But you’re not going to get better without deep study and daily practice. This is true in every art, from playing piano, sketching or dancing on ice. 

Like Johannes Vermeer, learn to work with the light. Then your gear will sit in the back seat, and you’ll get a small chance to become, one day, a master in your art.

The Holy Focus

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Back in the old film days, the quality of your image was determined by the glass on the front of your camera, which was essentially a lightproof box with a shutter and lens mount. Of course, shooting films such as Kodachrome 25 (as in ASA/ISO 25) made for even crisper images, but Canon, Nikon and Olympus made outstanding lenses.

With the arrival of autofocus lenses, Nikon stuck with its existing mount and Canon created the EF mount for its EOS cameras, relegating the excellent FD lenses to the drawers and attics of thousands of photographers, for them to later turn up on eBay.

With the advent of digital photography, the camera’s sensor has become almost as vital a part of the image quality as the lens. It makes sense that electronic giants such as Sony and Panasonic should be making cameras, given that they are now imaging computers, and partner with established lens makers, Zeiss and Leica respectively.

All the venerable camera brands, such as Canon, Nikon and Olympus as well as relative newcomers Sony and Panasonic are all major corporations with one primary directive: to make profits. With the today’s development cycle of cameras, the latest big, shiny new device is largely obsolete before it even left the factory, only to be replaced the following year by something even better and shinier.

Their old film cameras worked perfectly well for decades and, due to their mechanical construction, most of them still do and will continue to do so long after that new digital camera is taking up space in landfill. To my mind, all this automation and technology is taking away a lot of the skill usually associated with photography. With the Fresnel burst frame rates, it becomes like taking a frame grab from a movie, rather than using the skills of anticipation to capture the “decisive moment”.
And the primary question is: do we really need such pin-sharp images every time? Focus is overrated. Some of the most iconic and best-known photos throughout history are out of focus and no one rejects them because they are not pin sharp. Going further, what the hell is this new obsession with 4K video in still cameras ? Most people don’t have the computing power to edit 4K video, or are using it to shoot YouTube videos that will, in the majority, be watched on smartphones. So what ?

Camera manufacturers and sales people will happily sell you what you want, but not necessarily what you need. This give another spotted image of the so-called new war between well established DSLR and the newborn mirrorless cameras from Cano-Nikon or from Leica-Panasonic-Sigma pandemonium.

Do we really need them ?

Or maybe a path for wisdom is not to focus or our focus, but keep trying to improve our own skills ?