Self critique through scanning

Like a lot of people, I’m at home rather than commuting to work at present. I’m lucky in that I can do a lot of my job from home, so I’ve been spending more time than I’m used to sat in my study. Yep, I call it that. We must maintain standards.

Just to the side of my desk is an old PC that runs my scanners. I didn’t take long for me to realise that I could poke a negative carrier along by one notch and hit scan, with no interruption to the day job.

I have rather a backlog of scanning. There were times past when I didn’t have the kit, the free time or the inclination to sit and feed a scanner. But now I have to sit next to one for eight hours a day.

It turns out there is some joy from discovering photos I knew I’d taken but lost track of. There is also some learning to be had in reviewing what I used to take pictures of. I have noticed that in the early days I used to take two shots of the same scene, from the same viewpoint, with the same exposure: basically two identical shots. I was so unsure of my technique that I was giving myself an extra frame in case of scratches, holes or other disasters. Totally unnecessary – I had quickly got past the stage of physically damaging the film by accident. I wish I had used the second frame to vary the exposure instead. How could I be so worried about damaging the film and yet so sure that I had nailed the exposure?

I can also see my photographic history through scanning. There is the black and white when I first started. It was cheaper to buy and I very quickly learned to develop it myself. Then I got a bit up myself and went all quality. There is a long period of slide film with just a few mono negs. I think these must have been the days when slide film was reasonably affordable. Of course, Real Photographers only shot colour slides, never colour negatives, and I so wanted to be good. It did leave me with an abiding love for Agfachrome 50s though. Then I probably realised just how far I had walked away from sociability and started shooting only colour print. I basically became a best friend of TruPrint. Does anyone remember them? You sent them a film in a plastic envelope, they developed and printed it and sent it back with a new film and envelope. It’s like the scene in Brazil with Sam Lowry and the message transport tubes.

Then we go through a digital period with hundreds, probably thousands, of pictures that only exist in my computer, with a few having made it onto the walls. Then the black and white reappears, but edgy and experimental. Or shite and forgotten how to work it. I never really left film photography, but it dropped back to a minor sideline for a while. One thing I do remember is asking for Agfachrome in a photo shop, to be told that it was no longer made (not since 1984 – eek!). I suppose I should be glad that they had even heard of it. A bit of a Fly Fishing moment. [And I have just realised that all the references here are to the 1980s. Not deliberate and certainly not nostalgic.]

But, unlike some, I don’t think I have ever thrown a set of negatives away. Well, not that had any sort of visible image on them. So I am working my way through boxes of badly-labelled slides and negatives. I can only think that, at the time, it was so obvious to me where and when the pictures were taken that I thought labels were superfluous. I admit to having completely forgotten some of the places I have been. Tunisia was one. I recognised the pictures, but the label on the slide box was a puzzle until it came drifting back. Yugoslavia? I definitely remember going, but I had no idea what it looked like or where I had been. And things keep turning up in the pictures that I thought were in completely different countries. A large stately home turns out to be in Ireland and not Northumbria. A decorated column is in Leningrad, not Rome. The camel was not in a zoo.

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But this is not about my focus being much more on the present than the past (a polite phrase for dodgy old memory), or on my former globetrotting (well, stumbling). The pleasure here is looking at the old photos and being mostly very glad I took them. The interesting thing though is how the importance of pictures changes with time. Scenery that was spectacular to be in results in (usually) meaningless pictures with nothing in them. Snapshots of people and places become fascinating. Friends grow old, children grow up, cars become classic. If only hair grew longer and waistlines slimmer.

Fun though. Plus I have discovered some excellent pictures of people that I will use again, especially one of my sister which awaits her next major birthday. The things I shoot have altered a little, probably for the better. There is less of the dull landscape in recent times and more interesting stuff. In the early years I seemed to hose the world with my camera. Since then I have learned (and occasionally practice) that a picture of everything contains nothing, so there is more of the detail or single item that stands for the whole.

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The other thing I noticed is that, despite what people say about the archival permanence of film, some of my old colour stuff is not holding up very well. It’s probably a good idea to get some of these old negatives and slides scanned as they are showing some odd colour shifts. The slides seem to be in better shape than some of the old colour negatives, although even some recent (2005) colour negative is showing some strong colour casts. All the better to get them scanned then. And what a good time to be doing it, when I’m locked in and getting distinctly Oscar with the wallpaper.

So here I am, like all of us, making a benefit out of a necessity.

Stay safe.

What did you do during the lockdown, daddy?

So, cheerfully, here we sit, hunkered down and hoping to reduce the rate of infection to something the health service can barely cope with. I work in IT, so I could say that I’m used to social distancing. I’ve also spent the early weeks working flat-out to equip the previously desk-bound part of a business with home working tools. It’s going to be interesting in the future when people realise that buildings, commuting, fixed hours and physical presence might be worth less than outputs. I wonder what sort of society we will become?

Anyway, enough of the nascent revolution. What can someone with basic film developing skills do when they are only allowed out for their one hour Boris break each day? Make beer.

A tea urn, a picnic cooler, some jugs and pots and a few ingredients and magic happens. This is not beer from a kit: this is home-built beer. I was lucky that I was given a day’s course in brewing as a gift a couple of years ago. The process itself is quite leisurely, with periods of waiting, so I must admit the entire course got totally canned while we were at it. So last year I bought a year’s worth of ingredients and knocked out a batch every three weeks. This year I bought another bulk load of grains and ingredients without realising that they would arrive shortly before the virus started spreading. So while I may not be stood at the sink inverting a tank, I’m still sloshing water about and measuring ingredients. It also scratches my creative itch – there’s much fun to be had inventing or adapting recipes. I’m not shooting enough film at the moment to be doing much with photography, but I have so far made:

  • Czech lager
  • Old Peculiar
  • An amber IPA
  • A dark IPA
  • A malty pale ale
  • A citrus pale ale

Yes, I do like my IPA, but I’ve also got two lots of porter and a Russian Imperial stout planned.

Beer
Two hobbies in one – a photo of beer

I think my main problem could be, come VC day, that I won’t want to leave the shed. I may not be able to find the shed door, either.

Stay safe everyone.

(Normal service will be resumed next week)

Making time for it

There was a time I used to take pictures every day. Now I seem to have more days than pictures. Life somehow gets in the way.

I commute to work. At this time of year it’s dark both ways, so I only get to see daylight at weekends. But there’s stuff to do and the days are short. We do get out, but often it’s walking the dog and there are only so many pictures I want of our local woods.

So it feels like a dry spell, photographically.

Time was, I’d go around with a huge bag of lenses. Primes of course, as any fule no that zooms are not as sharp. These days I might wander about with a compact camera but a blessedly lighter bag. So as well as taking fewer pictures, I’m carrying less stuff to take pictures with.

Looking at other people’s pictures can be inspiring, but they have to be good. I must confess to being bored by a lot of what I see. I’ve given my opinion on landscapes before but I find myself looking at all sorts of pictures and thinking ‘so what?’ A picture should interest me, not look like a drive-by snapping.

So how to keep my mojo rising despite these riders on the storm?

Part of it is experimentation. There is no pressure on me to deliver any specific result so I can do what I like. On a recent walk I tried moving the camera on a slow shutter speed.

Streaky
Interesting – I might do more with this.

I’ve got a tilting adapter for my Kiev medium format lenses to fit them to my 35mm camera. It’s good fun shifting the plane of focus around. Surprisingly it works with portraits – you can make the sharp zone vertical, shoot the person at an angle and really throw the background out.

Cathedral
Works with buildings too.

Bored with my dark commute, I stuck the camera on the dashboard and fired it with a remote.

Christmas decs for commuters
Don’t try this at home.

I know there are things like photography clubs, but I kind of fell out of love with them. There are photowalks too, but I have other things to do at weekends. … And that’s the root of the problem: I have too many other things to do. I guess photography has remained an important part of my life, but not the most important. It used to be all-consuming, but I calmed down. I used to take a camera for a walk, and now I realise that I go for a walk and take a camera along. The difference is that the point of the walk now is the walk, not going somewhere steep just for the sake of a picture.

Dan
Dan realises that what goes up has to find a way down.

I think it’s just the time of year. By the time you read this I will have spent a week in Staithes, so I fully expect to have taken a picture or two and enjoyed doing so. And I’m taking a selection of awkward and difficult cameras. And then Spring will be here and I’ll get over myself and all will be well with the world again. So there.

Happy Christmas?

May the joys of the season be upon you.

Wishing for anything photographic? Doing anything photographic?

I’ll be shooting kids again to help Santa. Nothing to do with his list, more a memento merry. We run a Christmas fare, cafe and Santa’s Grotto each year to raise money for a charity. One year I did the shooting and printing on my own, and I now understand the phrase of being as busy as a one-armed paper-hanger. The heating in the hall is also stuck on full, so I looked like I’d been jogging in a sauna wearing two jumpers.

The best fun to be had is stripping it all down afterwards. Most of the snow effect is done using Arctic camo net we borrow from a local Army unit. Once this has been strung over a gazebo frame, fixed with zip ties and then bound with tinsel and fairy lights it doesn’t shift easily. Oh, plus the gaffer tape we use to stop the gazebo from collapsing on Santa.

Grotto
What kind of message are we sending here? And are those really spiders?

Good fun though, for a good cause. And amazing how many 6×4 prints you can get out in four hours.

In other news I got my Emulsive Secret Santa packed and sent in good time. Hope you like it, Ms O. On Christmas day itself we will be repeating the now traditional trip to the beach with the dog. It’s a fun thing, with most of the other dogs in Christmas jumpers and hats. Far better than vegging in front of the queen, unless she has something public and medieval planned for Andrew.

Anything relevant to a photography blog? Possibly my first colour development kit if I’ve been good. Otherwise, no. We don’t get scenic snow any more, or at least not until we try to go back to work. So no pictures of robins and snowflakes.

Our elections are being held today, so depending on the outcome I may just keep walking when I get to the beach. Think of it as Duxit. I’ve been looking at my local MP’s voting record on theyworkforyou.com. Quite depressing. I would normally avoid speaking to a politician when they come canvassing, but our MP has a lot to answer for. (Don’t worry, I’m of the John Stuart Mill persuasion). Our MP is also ranked 630 out of 650 in terms of hard work and representation nationally, and 53 out of the 54 in my region.

Grinder
So how does it feel when politicians make laws about your body?

On the plus side, I brew my own beer (from grain; what else would you expect of someone who develops their own film?). Lurking in the garage are the bottles of Chimay I made at the beginning of the year and left to mature. So I may just hide in the garage rather than walk into the sea. In that case I’ll call it Fuxit.

Anyway, enough of the sorrows! Happy Christmas.

Update

Looks like it’s Fuxit.

You’re right, that does look like a majority. Not sure we wanted to see that though.

But the good news is that if enough people listen to this song for the times, it could be number 1 for Christmas. All together now…

Automatic for the people?

Imagine the shame – someone at the photo club noticed that my camera was set to Program mode. Even worse than being drummed out of the Brownies would be to be stripped of your spot-meter and have the covers torn off your copy of The Negative.

I know someone who has a very capable full-frame digital camera and always shoots in manual. Yes, I can see the point when the lighting is tricky or you are after a particular effect that would fool the meter (rather, the computer), but is there an acceptable level of assistance? Do real men twist their knobs?

What about aperture priority, where you take control of the depth of field but let the camera choose the shutter speed? Or shutter priority, where your choice of shutter speed is important? A lot of old manual cameras were probably used as virtual shutter priority: you would pick a shutter speed and leave it, as changing it meant taking the camera away from your eye and fiddling. So you would raise the camera, twist the aperture ring until the meter said go, and take the shot. That’s shutter priority using you as the actuator.

The reason that the camera-makers developed and sold automation was the delivery of the original Kodak promise: ‘you press the button, we do the rest’. Adding automation to a camera made it more likely that the results would be acceptable. And acceptable meant what what most people wanted – reasonably sharp and exposed. Most people wanted pictures, not cameras. Hence the rise of the point-and-shoot and the supremacy of the mobile phone.

So program mode was perfect for someone who wanted the potential for greater quality from a better camera without having to fiddle with the settings. Fiddling would mean less chance of getting an acceptable picture, negating the advantage of a better lens or bigger sensor. Automation also means speed and coping with changing conditions. I’ve been out in changeable weather with a manual camera, and it can be a pain to have to constantly check the light level. Really, this is what (many) digital cameras excel at: take a test shot, chimp it, apply a bit of exposure compensation if needed, then blaze away with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.

Prog mode
The work of the devil?

And then there is autofocus. We all use it, but pretend it’s not automation. Of course it replaces something that the whole of camera design was meant to make easy, but it’s just so durn useful. When you throw facial identification and follow-focus at sports or kids, it beats twisting your ring. And let’s be honest, if rapid manual focusing was so easy, the street-shooters wouldn’t all be using zone focusing.

What about image stabilisation? Yes, we know that Eisenstadt could hand-hold on the subway at 1/20th second. I’d love to see those contact sheets though – I don’t expect every frame was sharp. I LOVE having stabilisation on my digital camera, particularly as it works with any lens. I don’t even think of it as automation – it’s not replacing my finely-honed skills. Not really. Besides, nobody can see that I’m using it.

There is a more serious problem though, than the ridicule of my peers, and we have seen it already in artificial intelligence. Once an AI is trained and produces good results, we either forget or we don’t know how it works. And then it stops being accurate or it has an inbuilt bias, and we can’t tell or correct it: we just do what it says. The AI does magic and becomes a god, and we perform strange rituals to it (like peering at the back of the camera and chanting ‘ooh’). So perhaps there is some logic in knowing how to do it by hand? Even Lewis Dartnell’s book on rebooting civilisation from scratch had a section on recreating photography.

And anyway, what about light meters? Unless you guess the exposure, you are relying on at least some form of automation.

So where does this take us? There is no shame in automation. It is a tool that can increase your success rate. One should never be dependant on any particular tool existing, but there is no harm in using it well when it does exist. In a phrase used by an old friend “always use the most powerful tool for the job”. Automation can increase your options. But do learn how and why stuff works, it could save you from the cooking pot come the apocalypse.

Slow hand

“I love shooting on film, it slows me down”. Heard that before? It makes me wonder what the person was doing with digital. You don’t have to hold down the shutter button until the memory card is full, you know. And why can’t you take time and care with a digital camera?

I wonder if the influencing factor is cost? Per frame, film can be more expensive than digital. After all, the cost of one more shot in digital is zero. Maybe not though, as Instax is very popular even at a pound a pop.

Maybe it’s the fact that you can’t see immediately what you’ve taken. There is no chimping the camera to see if the exposure, framing, focus etc are right. They have to be what you intended with film, as it’s harder to make adjustments in post.

P.Jackson. Nab End. Finished 7th in Class A
Some things go fast(ish)

Perhaps it’s because digital allows you to take multiple shots of things that go fast, then choose the best one. The top end digital cameras can do burst rates way higher than film could. My Pentax MX could, with the proper motordrive, take 5fps. You can easily double that now with digital, or even more. Ilford used to make a special 72 exposure version of HP5 for motor-driven cameras, and some pro cameras could take a 250 exposure back. With digital you can wack in a big memory card and blaze away like a John Woo film.

Maybe that is the difference? Film has less capacity, so you have to take more care. Do you lay a million eggs in order that some survive, or do you nurture one and make sure?

Victor tanker
Some things could go fast but don’t

I must say though that I started out with film and I’ve never treated it like it was made of silver. If I wanted to shoot a lot, I did. I might actually take fewer shots on digital, as I can check immediately that I’ve got what I wanted. I was always inclined to bracket the exposure with film, or just to take two shots of the same thing in case my fumbling skills got scratches or dust on one of them (or I found a hole in the emulsion).

Some things do need careful exposure and time though, but I can see no need for a difference in approach between digital and analogue. Perhaps what people mean is that some film cameras lack auto-focus, auto-exposure etc so it takes longer to set them up. But that’s stretching it, because you can go as auto or manual as you want in either medium.

Aysgarth Bridge

Some things stay still

So I don’t really know. I do know that some film cameras take time to set up and adjust, so that may be the ‘slowing down’. On the other hand, how many options and settings does your digital camera have?

What is slow though, is turning exposed film into pictures. With digital you shoot, pop the card and start work on the computer. I’ve heard people brag about how many shots they take at a wedding or a sports event. If you have to edit all of these, make a selection and then do all the Photoshopping, digital must take nearly as long as developing a film and scanning it. But for the odd few shots, digital is far faster to get to a shareable result. But this makes the ‘slowing down’ of film an undesirable thing.

So, to quote the Hypersensitive Photographers podcast, I think it’s all bollocks. I think people are claiming for film some pseudo-artistic connection with their craft. It’s virtue-signalling. If you want to slow down, think more, take more care, then do just that. It doesn’t matter what type of image recording medium you use. Just stop claiming that you’re so fast you need analogue to slow you down. If you don’t engage your brain normally, what are you up to?

No turn left unstoned

What is the worst thing you can say on social media about photography? I think it’s “what do you think of my pictures?”. Let slip the trolls of yawn.

The best advice I heard on advice was from Abby Honold on Twitter, who said “don’t take criticism from people you wouldn’t ever go to for advice.”

This was covered in more depth, and a lot more characters, by Agnes Callard. She makes a distinction between advice, instructions and coaching. You give someone instructions on how to achieve a goal that leads to a further goal. Her example is telling someone how to get to the library. Ours could be “this is how you load film into your camera”.

She defines advice as combining the impersonal and the transformative. You could think of it as “instructions for self-transformation”. I believe that she is saying that instructions are how to do a thing. Advice is instructions on how to improve in your chosen direction. This makes coaching advice given by someone who has a relationship with you and some investment in your development.

So what does a self-professed expert in photography whom you have never met or spoken to give you instructions that develop you along your chosen path? Or do trolls seek prey? Does the Pope shave in the woods?

I think the answer, on any kind of open forum, is not to ask for general advice or criticism. If you do ask, make it specific: limit the scope. Asking “what do you think?” encourages people to do something they are not very good at and what you get is opinion, not advice. Ask a specific like “is the contrast too high in this shot?” or “does this need more depth of field?” and you are more likely to get a relevant reply. Be aware though, that unless the respondent really knows what they are talking about, you might be listening to an uninformed opinion.

How do you tell if an opinion is useful? The criticism should be of the work, not the photographer. It should describe what an improvement might look like. It might describe some of the difficulties you encountered, which shows the person has experienced them too.

If you want to here criticism done right, listen to some episodes of the Shutters Inc podcast. Try episode 437 as a starter. The pictures are on their website, so you can see directly what Glynn is telling Bruce. This is constructive commentary about the pictures, delivered in a form that can be directly used to make changes. There is also a comparison picture at the end where Glynn edits one of the pictures to show what he was describing. Stuff like this you can carry around in your head to use when it’s your turn to take pictures.

And perhaps a good response to anyone who does give you a piece of their mind is to ask how they did it differently and show you examples. We can all learn, but we should be learning how to improve rather than fight.

No path
So what do you think of my picture? Or does it lead us nowhere?

Or there is always the mature and considered response my old boss used to give to people he disagreed with – “go stick your head up a dead bear’s bum”. Which is completely contrary to the previous paragraph, but funnier.