Well, that was a(nother) year

2021 was a year to remember, but not fondly. My second year of working from home during Covid, for one reason. It was also the year I retired from full-time work. This was a long-term plan that came to fruition and involved moving house during the same pandemic. Who knew it would be on-trend as part of the Great Retirement?

The Photography Show at the NEC was an unexpected bonus and seemed to create a sense that we could do it again next year, but better. As Granny Weatherwax said, “I Ate’nt Dead”, and that’s the main thing.

Scuba diving virtually stopped due to Covid and when we did get the chance to go out, bad weather kept the boat in harbour. It’s not that we can’t go diving in the rain, but strong waves can make it impossible to get back on the boat.

We had to move my mum into care, which has been a difficult decision and complex logistics, as she lives more than 200 miles away. Her physical health has improved as a result, which confirms it was the right decision.

Speaking of logistics, moving house has been … interesting. The new house is smaller and has fewer (almost no) cupboards. I thought I’d cleared out a load of photo gear but it seems to have been breeding in the cardboard boxes. The first issue is retention – I need another serious cull. The next is storage – where to put the things I want to keep so that I can find them and they don’t suffer from damp. Not that the house is damp, but the temporary storage of boxes can be. It does make you look at eBay differently. Rather than “ooh, that’s cheap and I’ve always wanted one”, I’m thinking “where would I keep that?”. Shame I didn’t do more of that in the past.

My hopes back in June that it would be all over once we were vaccinated didn’t pan out, as England heads back into another lockdown. We got lucky this time, as coronavirus has been fairly well studied. With the mess we made of handling Covid, be glad it wasn’t Ebola.

On the plus side our kids are fine and so are most family and friends. These things matter more than diving or photography.

As for 2022, I’m not really sure what to expect. I’ll be working fewer hours over fewer days, so I hope to spend much more time doing things I enjoy. I have a big shed with the new house that I plan to convert to a workshop/ brewery/ photography den. Not that I feel I need to build it before I can do those things, but it will make all of them easier.

So yes, let’s see what the new year brings.

Best wishes to you all.

Happy Christmas

It’s Christmas Eve eve, so stop reading this and go and be good to someone.

Thank you to everyone who has been reading my random thoughts. I hope this last year has not been too awful and that you get to spend some time with people who matter to you. Let’s hope we can all be sensible and kind, wear masks, get jabbed and help the rest of the world get vaccinated too. We’re none of us safe until we are all safe, which is supposed to be part of that Christmas spirit.

Cheers everyone.

Who cares what shot it?

Stop telling me it was shot on a phone – I don’t care and I shouldn’t care. Or mirrorless – I don’t care about that either.

I understand that camera phones used to be rubbish, but they are not any more. My own phone is state of the ark, but it’s much better than my first digital camera. But I can see no reason why I would tell anyone that I used a phone or even a shoebox with a hole in it, unless that was part of the story I was telling.

There was a great comment on the Shutters Inc podcast when one of the hosts was told that someone really liked a picture he had taken. But instead of the usual comment, what he was told was “your camera must have a good photographer”. Now that’s a good comment, and the kind of thing you’d want to hear.

Perhaps part of the reason is that phones have democratised photography so much that they are not considered serious. So someone who uses a phone as if it was a dedicated or ‘proper’ camera feels they have to explain. Or perhaps we are amazed by the capabilities of a phone camera, so want to tell people about it (but always remember – you bought it, you didn’t design it).

It feels like an artist saying that they made their picture using felt-tips or a paint roller. But the art world is bigger and has more history than the photography one, so I think that form of explanation would be left to the commentators and the artist would have no need to explain (unless again, it was part of the story). Would a picture be less of a picture if it wasn’t painted in oils? Will Gompertz wrote a fascinating book about modern art, explaining how each movement broke away from the previous and what the artists were trying to do. He didn’t spend any time apologising for their choice of materials but did explain why Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain was revolutionary, “even if” it used a common and commercially-available subject.

So yes, the first time some shot a cinema film on a phone it was a breakaway moment. But then it was a thing that was possible. You don’t need to tell me that you did, as it’s not new: it’s just a known method.

In the same sense, the new Dune film appears to have been shot using digital cameras, then transferred to film, then back to a digital file for distribution. I’m sure it wasn’t mentioned in the credits or advertising. It was a method that the director used to get the look they wanted. I’m sure they would have dipped it in tea or dubbed it in Spanish if that’s what was needed to get their result.

I have seen some websites that list the camera, lens, aperture, shutter speed and processing method used, for a picture that is displayed as a small jpeg and may be viewed on any random device. I’m not sure I could see from the results that they have an expanded tonal range for example, or even if that’s a good thing. Some gross differences may be visible between different methods, but it would be hard to tell. Most of the pictures used in this blog are resized, so you have no real way to gauge the quality of the original. I went to see the retrospective exhibition of Bailey’s work a few years back and there was a portrait of a young Michael Cain in the world’s sharpest suit, printed to be two stories high. It never occured to me that he must have a good camera (or a very big enlarger), just that it looked fantastic. If he had happened to shoot it on a Holga, it would not have changed anything.

And all of the above might sound quite hypocritical when you see that I have also blogged about different lenses and cameras. My defence, if needed, is that the lense or camera was the subject of that blog entry, not the pictures they make. I do like using certain equipment because of the results it makes possible. But that should be the end of it – nobody needs to know the details of what I used, because even if they did they would not be able to recreate the picture. And if they did, that starts edging into plagiarism. Steal the concept, that’s fine, but not the execution.

So go ahead, shoot with your phone or your GoPro or your drone; just don’t make the equipment part of the image.

Things are looking up

In terms of ease of use and quality of results, photography is so much better than it used to be. What brought this (less than genius) thought on was finding a copy of Lichfield on Photography in a charity shop. Whatever you may think of his work, he was successful for quite a few years. The book dates from 1981 and is printed on fairly good coated paper. So the pictures ought to be good. But they’re not.

It’s probably not his fault. Possibly a lot of the mono pictures were converted from colour slides. Perhaps the printing was poor, resulting in the lack of any shadow detail. Or perhaps this was the best we could do in 1981.

I shouldn’t be sarcastic – I have said before that grain and sharpness are not the most important aspects of a picture. But that’s not the point here – what I noticed is just how much better are the results we see now compared to then.

Then was shooting Polaroids to check the lighting. High ISO meant heavy and intrusive grain. Commissioned work meant shooting colour slide film, with no opportunities for post-processing or even cropping. Your shutter might top-out at 1/1000 and your lenses at f2, or smaller if you used a zoom. To get the best results you would be shooting at ISO 25 or 64. Chimping would mean sending a test film for processing or clip tests.

I can hardly criticise – this is grainy and it wasn’t even dark

Now is autofocus and face detection, low-noise ISO in the tens of thousands, large aperture lenses and magic zooms. Plus the ability to tell immediately if the picture worked.

You could say that it needs less skill to make a picture, but it also means that it is easier to get a good picture. See Lichfield – you have to agree that he had the skill, but you can see the limitations of his equipment and the process of printing. Even something as prestigious as National Geographic shows how the underlying technology has improved.

I have certainly taken advantage of this in my diving. I started with a 3mp camera and rapidly found I needed better. I moved to an 8mp camera that has better features and image stabilisation. This wasn’t a deliberate choice mind, it was what was available on eBay. Eight megapixels was pretty good but then I bumped into the jaggies again. So the next step is up to 10mp with a camera that can save raw files. And the technology also brings me image stabilisation, automatic flash control and a macro mode. Compare this with the analogue cameras I have wrestled with underwater and I can’t see myself ever going back. Yes, the technology has made it easier and you could say it has removed the need for technical skill (Lichfield was also saying this in 1981 about cameras with auto-exposure). But it has also allowed me to concentrate on taking pictures rather than juggling the camera settings.

This is at the limits of what my 8mp camera can do and won’t take much enlargement

So I think a few things have happened: better kit has lowered the trade-craft barrier to entry; better kit has raised picture quality generally; good photography is no longer the preserve of photographers. Where is it going? I don’t know. But post-processing software can correct mistakes, smooth skin, replace skies and add mood. Cameras can focus on faces or even eyes and take a blizzard of shots to capture the perfect timing. But there is still a difference between good and bad pictures, if a good picture was your intent.

But basically, bring it on! I will take all the cleverness the camera people can give me (or I can afford) because it generally gives me better results. Or fewer chances to be rubbish. And it gives me the space to go back in time in an area of my choosing to gain an effect – things like using old lenses or shooting in mono rather than colour. Same with cars – my current car is far more advanced than my first one. Do I miss the ability to start the engine with a handle? No. Do I like heating? Yes, and I can turn it off if I want to get nostalgic. So if the purpose of photography is to make pictures rather than drive cameras, then things are much better now than they were then.

Colour in your camera

I’ve got an old photography book called Colour in your Camera by Gösta Skoglund.  The subtitle is ‘a book of colour photographs to show how to make colour photographs’. No punning or obscure titles here – this book is clear in its intentions.

What brought it to mind is that I’ve been thinking about colour recently. This, despite the majority of my pictures being black and white. Film-makers have made increasing use of the facility with digital capture of changing the overall colour balance of a film, or of using specific coloured lighting to set the mood of scenes. People joke about the Mexico filter, where the scene is rendered with strong yellow/ orange cast to make it look dusty and desert-like.

The reason why I even have to think about colour is that I’m late to the party (as usual). I started out using mostly black and white film and still shoot a lot of mono. I’ve even set one of my digital cameras to save and show a mono jpeg but keep the full colour version as a raw file. I like thinking about tone and shape. And then colour came along. Originally I shot colour slide film, as it was “pure”. Even then, the quick-result colour processsors could give you strange colour casts in your prints. I had some idea in my head that slide film retained the artist’s true vision (cue laughter and me slapping myself on the head). I think I had just read too many photography magazines.

What I missed with my gradual movement to using digital was that I was no longer at the mercy of the developer and printer – I could change the colours myself. I also got a total slap upside the head (I get lots of these) from my wife when we were looking at paint for the house. The big display of colour cards at the local DIY store was not a finely-graded copy of a rainbow but had some method behind it. Going side to side at a fixed horizontal level showed you colours with the same tonal value. This meant that, under the same lighting, different rooms would not be brighter or darker unless you meant them to be. Going verticaly up the colour swatches kept the same colour but varied the tonal value, so I could keep the particular shocking pink or acid green I had set my heart on and vary the brightness to suit the room or lighting.

Who knew? Well not me, obviously. I’m not sure I am colour-blind but I do appear to be colour-stupid. Or is it tone-deaf? What I have found to play and learn with is a colour wheel that will show me complimentary or contrasting colours.

There have been a couple of articles on t’interweb recently that got me thinking more about what colour means. One was a run-through of how colours are used to express mood. I also dived down the rabbit hole following a detailed analysis of the colours used in the film Ad Astra. The analysis was right – there is a very strong use of colour and colour cues in the film (it’s a shame it wasn’t also a good film, but it does mean you can focus on the colours).

I wonder if still photography can be as subtle as cinema though? In a film the viewer is hopefully concentrating on the story and action, and the colours are perhaps subtle clues that inform the viewer but may not even be noticed? A still image rests before the viewer with no distraction, so perhaps it gets more scrutiny? It has got me thinking, anyway. I wonder if I could experiment with strong ‘unnatural’ colours. I’ve also done some split toning of mono images before, so I will be using the colour wheel to look at the effect of making the highlight and shadow colours truly complimentary or analogous.

Complimentary colours
Analogous colours

I am also playing with spot colour or overall tone for mood.

So while I might be the last person to discover this, I’m going to spend more time both noticing the colours that exist and choosing the colours I use. Amusingly, I will be doing this as we head into our British winter, where the predominant colour is grey. So are there any other good resources I could study while I wait for the sun to return?

PS – I have since discovered this and this.

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