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.

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.

Hoppy birdy

One year of blogging. Slightly more than one post a week. What do I think of it so far? More to the point, what does my reader think of it so far?

The ideas keep coming, which is good. I have tried to avoid repeating myself, even though I do (repeatedly). I have mostly avoided talking technogabble about lenses or cameras. Mainly because I can’t review anything I don’t already own, and what I own is generally cheap and well-worn. Besides, camera reviews, at least the earnest ones that try to do a proper job, are boring. I have talked a lot about film, but I do shoot a lot of film. Besides, I am a film-using photographer.

How am I doing with my resolutions? I’ve taken some pictures of people that made me smile. Oddly, I have even taken some landscapes that other people like. I have even taken some that I like. I don’t intend to make a career out of it though – that’s landscapes, not taking pleasing photographs.

Duck Race 2019

Still haven’t found a good hat. Or rather, I have, but the rest of the world disagrees. In this case the world is wrong.

I did say I was going to sell-off some old kit and get the Kiev fixed. A quote to repair it is less than the cost of a replacement camera body from fleabay. Still more than I was hoping to spend though. No worries, I thought, sell something to cover the cost. The obvious sacrifice is a Yashicamat TLR. Given that I don’t shoot that much medium format, why not repair the camera that has a range of lenses and drop the other one?Except the TLR is the original pre-124g model from around 1957. Same lens etc but no meter. I found one on fleabay and watched it to get an idea of prices. It went for £40. There does come a point where it feels there is no point in selling something. If only I’d bought a Leica back when they were piled in camera shop junk bins for 50p*. If only I didn’t keep breaking stuff.

Perhaps a bigger question is why I am still blogging and not podcasting? After all, the analogue/ grain/ film podcasts are popping up like mushrooms (and developing a growing tendency to interview each other in an audible caucus race). Because writing suits me better than talking. I like to start with an idea and develop it (even if it looks like I don’t). I like to be able to show pictures with the words. I like being able to work in the small gaps between other things. If I had a podcast I would have to devote the same period of time each week to recording it. As a writer I can have several ideas in development and maintain a list of scheduled posts for a few weeks ahead. If one article takes me three months to write that’s fine – I can release it when it’s ready. Plus the writing makes me happy. And after all, dear reader, I am doing this as much for me as for you. For me it’s therapy – it quells those inner voices that say I should give up or just use a camera phone (and the ones that say I should kill again….). After reading this stuff you may want therapy too. Meet you at the pub.

Burning down the house

The main thing though is that I am learning from this. I could say that I’m growing, but that’s the pies. I’ve shown more of my pictures to more people in the last year than in probably all of the preceding ones. I’ve written regularly. One day there is a faint hope that I will finish the thriller I started writing, but in the odd few times I have even looked at it I can see that my writing has improved. No, really. Imagine what it used to be like.

So, what’s next?

More mutterings about photography, obviously. I’m like a lot of people in that while it’s important to me, it’s not the biggest thing in my life. I don’t have to earn a living from it, which is just as well if you believe that it’s one of the 25 worst jobs. That has to be worst-paid; I can think of far worse jobs.

More part-formed opinions and shallow commentary. More innocent joy at simple things like being in focus. Probably breaking more stuff. We’re off diving again soon, so there will be plenty of opportunities for destroying cameras and taking fuzzy pictures of green things in green fog.

More to the point, I am free and able to enjoy photography. Yay!

* Turns out I did, but was too stupid to realise. I bought what I thought was a damaged lens and was happy to use it as it was. It was only when I came to write about it that I looked a bit more carefully at the damage and realised it was an intentional design feature. So the cheap experiment turns out to be worth perhaps one hundred times what I paid for it. I should have bought a lottery ticket at the same time.

Owed to joy

It happens sometimes. Not every time, but often enough that the pleasure compensates the pain.

I opened the developing tank and unspooled the film to hang it up to dry. It was shot under varying conditions with a simple meterless camera. All the frames look consistently exposed. A good start.

Then I scanned them, and a little song started in my heart. One frame was an experiment based on something I heard on the Studio C41 podcast. They were talking about large format photography and exposure, and it relates exactly to what I have been thinking about. The point of the discussion was to meter and expose for the shadows and let the film latitude and a compensating developer take care of the highlights. Basically – overexpose.

I had exposed for the shadow cast by a sunlit willow tree and the scan shows loads of detail in the shadows and luminous highlights. You can colour me happy. I’m not a great fan of landscapes, but I had been shooting some while we were in Anglesey. Those pictures made me happy too – black wiggly trees on white sand. This is what it’s all about. As the man said “I enjoy photography because it makes me sad and I hate the outcome, said no one ever”.

Willow, Monk Stray

At the end of the roll were a few frames I had shot with a new lens. New to me: it was made in the seventies. A couple of shots of stuff at infinity and a few taken as close as I could get and showing plenty of background. Very interesting, and another wee thrill for my jaded senses. The out of focus areas look rather interesting, and very different to the lens I used for the willow tree and landscapes. So interesting, that I want to see what it will do to colours. So onto the digital camera it goes, so that I can get immediate feedback.

Moor Monkton woods

Very interesting again. Very smooth backgrounds when close, tending towards a bit of swirly when further away. I need to try this on some portraits as the vignetting looks ideal. Plus it made me play with the digital SLR, which has been a bit neglected of late. I remembered that it has a feature of being able to take multiple exposures and merge them into a single shot, adjusting the total exposure. So I got the manual out and had a go. So that’s a new trick in the bag for when the right time comes along. The camera is an older generation digital, so suffers from noise when you use high ISO. So what I’m thinking is to shoot night skies by combining a series of longer exposures at lower ISO. This might also average-out the noise.

Happiness: enjoying what you have done and being excited to do more. Yay!

So, knowing that I used to be Beaker in a former life, this is how I interpret the title of this post. Enjoy.

Fixed it in post

From a cartoon I saw that had a group of surgeons gathered around a screen in an operating theatre. One of them is leaning over to tell the patient “we’ve fixed your leg in Photoshop”.

I hear a lot of people saying “I’ll fix it in post” and an equal number insisting that one should get it right in-camera. So what’s the right answer?

I’m not sure there is a single right answer. I can tell you my experience, and it’s tied to my gradual learning of how to use Photoshop. I started with something like Elements 5 and progressed to Elements 7, which does most of what I need.

Apart from the obvious learning curve (cliff) of using Photoshop itself, I realised that what I have been learning are the skills that a good darkroom printer would use. I have also been building a library of effects: how to obtain the look of certain types of processing or film, such as lith printing. And yes, I have also been rescuing mistakes such as poor exposure, poor background, poor framing and so on.

And while I appreciate that one should endeavour to get it right in camera, even Ansel Adams recognised that post-processing was required to finish the job. He called the negative the score and the print the performance. In his case though this wasn’t fixing it in post, this was developing its full potential. Another example – in the digital world we are supposed to expose to the right: to capture as much light as possible short of blowing the highlights. But to avoid the result being high key, we then darken the final image to get back to what we saw.

So perhaps we should separate ‘fix it’ from ‘develop it’? As I said, I’ve done my share of fixing. Sometimes you grab a shot with less than ideal exposure or you make a mistake or the lighting is too contrasty. The dynamic range of a raw file can be your friend. Recover those highlights, put some detail back in the shadows and remove that colour cast. Ideally though, you would get it right at the time. Otherwise you might a well swap your camera for your phone and reduce your input to pointing it in the right direction.

Developing the image though, that’s a completely different game. I’ve spent a lot of time reading articles on improving images in Photoshop, or methods of obtaining a particular look. Some things are really simple and make a big difference, like midtone contrast using an unsharp mask (amount 20% radius 60 threshold 0, since you ask). This isn’t a fix – it’s something I might have been able to do in the camera or darkroom if I knew how. Perhaps it’s fairer to say that I made the effort to capture all of the tones and range in the subject and then used my post-processing to interpret the captured data in a way that pleases me. Like Ansell Adams, except he was good at it. Having all of the information present in the original file or negative means I can re-interpret it any way I want. There is a picture of a motorbike in an earlier post that is mostly shadow and a few highlights. The original negative shows all the detail you could want, but who wants an accurate picture of a bike engine when you could have moody darkness?

It’s the same as when I learned that I could dodge or burn only the highlights or shadows. What a difference it can make to do some tiny local adjustments that would only have been possible in-camera under studio conditions. Or I would have had to do something clever in the darkroom with cotton buds and bleach. And the joy of having shot for maximum detail originally is that I can go back each time I learn a new trick and improve on my previous version. And the joy of something like Photoshop is that I can experiment, go too far, wind it back and learn.

So now I have my very own cookbook of editing methods so that I can recreate things that worked. Nothing fancy or wordy, just a brief description and a diagram of the various layers and settings. Most of the techniques don’t get used – who needs posterisation or cross-processing in every shot? But it makes things much easier that I have just one place to look when I do want to pull a trick out of the bag.

Coming back to this idea of doing it all in camera and not relying on post-processing, what do you think of the film photographers who make prints showing the entire image area of the negative plus surrounds? These are the prints that say “look, I framed it perfectly and I can prove it”. I wonder if their prints were made as straight enlargements onto grade 2 paper, or if there might have been a bit of dodging and burning? Surely if you can compose perfectly in camera, you can expose perfectly too? Unless it’s art, of course. Or perhaps what they are saying is “I spent some serious coin on this film, so I’m printing even the bits with sprocket holes in”?

This all makes me sound horribly smug. I have honestly bent, broken, burned and generally cocked-up everything at some time. Photoshop has both saved my arse and, more often, helped me drag at least a cotton purse out of the pig’s ear I started with. But I do believe I should be using it to develop the potential of a picture rather than saving it from the bin. And I do try hard to get it right in-camera. If you are doing the wrong thing, then getting better at it with practice just makes your results wronger. It’s better to make the effort to do something right, as then every improvement you make to your methods will make things righter. The problem comes when you are getting reasonable results even though you are doing it wrong. You have to cross the ditch of awful to get to the other side and this can hurt. But if the majority of your shots don’t need to be rescued, it leaves you a good margin of safety for the odd one that does.

Aysgarth Lower Falls

By the way, the Photoshop cookbook is a real thing. It’s quite terse, as it is mainly reminders on how to get particular effects. But if there is any interest I could post it online. Let me know in the comments.

Up the revolution!