Minimalism

I should have known. I would have known if I’d thought about it. Just as there is Rule 34 for the internet, so in photography: if you can think of it, there’s a movement and special interest group for it.

I was surprised to learn that there was a minimalist photography competition. Then I was surprised that I was surprised, as I said.

Not that it’s a bad thing – quite the opposite. I like the Zen balance of the fewest number of elements or the counterpoint of simple shapes. I’ve heard the idea that you should dress-up to go out and then at the door remove one item. Minimalism is, to me, the removal of all but the essential (don’t try to picture me going out in just my underpants).

Swinsty Reservoir

So I went and had a look at the minimalist photography awards. As you would expect, a mixed bag. Some is very good indeed while some is either too busy or just not very good. The way the competition is organised is interesting though and appears to be self funding. You pay to enter, the winners get cash prizes, probably covered by the entry fees, and get to download and print their own winning certificate. I may be totally wrong, but it has a sense of the vanity publishing industry for writers (give us money and we will print your book). I’m sure I must be wrong – the awards are backed by a magazine and the winners did get some press coverage.

Photography, like publishing, probably has a strong power law for the distribution of income: a few people make a lot and a lot make very little. There is a difference in the work involved though. Writing a book might take you a year, so it requires serious effort and commitment. Taking a picture is effectively free. This is why I hear of professional photographers being undercut by anyone with a camera and why people are asked to do work in return of ‘exposure’.

It used to be that book publishing was such an investment that there was strong filtering: a publisher would invest in a known quantity like a successful author but needed to be pretty certain before betting on a new one (hence the power law of income). The vanity publishing industry catered for the people who wanted to be published and were prepared to pay to obtain a box of books they could give to friends. And then along came print on demand. Now I can put my masterpiece online and give people a link to print their own copy. On the whole it costs less for the prospective author and probably sells as many copies. (I do know whereof I speak: I self-published a book that was later taken-up by a publisher, but that was due more to chutzpah than talent.)

What’s the photography equivalent? I suppose there are places like Instagram where you can effectively publish for free and places like Etsy where you can sell prints. Then there are ‘zines (who wants to even think maga in these times?). Most of these seem to be small-run, quirky, and are given away or sold for little more than cost (go read Charles Stross or Cory Doctorow about the margins and money streams in mainstream publishing). Small-scale guerilla publishing of pictures or words are marvellous and not to be dismissed. Just don’t expect to be Barbara Cartland. And I have no idea who the photographic equivalent of our Babs would be – Ansel Adams?

So why am I on my soapbox? I like minimalist pictures very much. I like a lot of the award winning pictures in this competition. Paying a fee to enter a competition may set a useful barrier to the less serious or committed (see above for the zero marginal cost of one photo) and it may build to a prize fund worth having. The winners probably got what they wanted and we’re all happy. So let me wind-in whatever neck I had extended and take the whole thing at face value. The correct judgement to use here is Occam’s razor, not Hanlon’s.

Go and look at the gallery of minimalist images and see what you think.

Update on shooting IR

Having converted a Panasonic camera to shoot infrared and built a little push-on hood to hold the special filter, I had second thoughts. Part of it was looking at the work of Pierre-Louis Ferrer on Petapixel and his own website. Obviously, I’m not that good, but I liked what he was doing.

I realised that I normally use mono film, so what was my reason for not putting the IR filter directly in front of the sensor? Besides, fitting the filter inside the camera did away with the fiddly lens hood.

I also had a close look at Ferrer’s work and I think he is using a luminosity mask to do split toning. He is applying a pale khaki tone to the highlights and possibly a touch of blue to the shadows.

So for my next trick I found a useful YouTube video on creating luminosity masks in Photoshop Elements (as I’m too cheap to spring for the full version, and it does all I could want). The basic idea is to create a mask that controls where an effect works, based on the brightness of the image. So you can do something like tone the highlights a delicate shade without changing the mid-tones or shadows.

On my first attempts I realised that the highlights in my IR images were totally blown out. Back to the camera and play with the settings. IR mono scenes are very high contrast and the camera was not holding the highlights. Since I actually want the shadows to go black, I set the camera to underexpose by one stop.

Lower lake, Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Lower lake, Yorkshire Sculpture Park

I had a chance to go out for a walk in sunshine (I felt like a battery-hen on day release), so I took the remodified camera. With a dog lead round one wrist I was very glad to not be fiddling with the filter.

YSP sculpture
First go with luminosity masking

So the update is that I’ve fiddled with and adjusted the camera and learned a new technique.

Not bad for a day out.

Sony Cybershot T77 – the new Pen?

I’ve written about the joys of using an Olympus Pen for film photography, in particular its small size and light weight.

Now here is my digital equivalent, and it’s smaller, lighter and smarter.

Sony

The DSC-T77, as it likes to be known, is a tiny little digital camera that folds a zoom lens inside the body. There is nothing to pop out so it doesn’t change shape when zooming. The camera uses a drop-down sliding cover, so one flick of a finger fires it up. Or it would, if it wasn’t so shiny. Until I put some Sugru on this baby it was like handling a thin bar of soap.

Sony made a whole range of these, including waterproof versions.

The camera is genuinely tiny – just 94mm wide, 57 tall and 15 thick. I can hide it in my hand. In the package you get a 10 MP sensor and a zoom equivalent to 35-140. The down side to this is that the on-screen menus need a fine finger to fettle them. Sony provide a little plastic pointer on the wrist strap, so this serves in place of my stump of a fat digit.

It comfortably fits into a pocket and doesn’t even spoil the line of a suit. I’ve got an old wallet for a Blackberry that’s a perfect fit as a case.

The very small size and a useful macro capability make this camera good for pictures too small to get a different camera, or any camera plus your head, into. I’ve taken shots from inside a bunch of flowers, for example. The closest macro distance is 8cm.

The downside of the small size is a small battery. The camera seems to use the battery even when it is shut down – probably to maintain its settings and allow the quick start-up. I bought a second battery for it, so I’m in the habit of swapping-in the fresh battery before I take the camera out. The first start-up after a battery swap always takes longer, but thereafter it’s quick. Much quicker than my waterproof Fuji one, for example. Even so, if I was taking the Sony away for a weekend I would take both batteries.

It uses Sony’s memory stick duo storage card, but that’s no great problem as my card reader takes them. Plus it’s a snapshot camera. You put a card in, clear the old photos off as you go and never bother with a second card.

The lens and pictures are capable. I’d like to tell you how I’ve shot pictures of brick walls to measure the resolution and aberations, but that’s not what the camera is for and I can’t be arsed. This is a tiny little, easy to carry, quick to use, snapshot camera. The zoom lens is handy, particularly as it doesn’t trombone out of the front of the camera. The widest aperture runs from f3.5 to 4.6, which isn’t too bad since you can push the ISO to 3200 if you really need to. There is a tiny flash which is really only useful close up but does offer slow sync.

Hut

It also does face detection and various focus and exposure modes. What’s not to like? Granted, it’s small and fiddly. Since the camera body is so smooth, there are no dials and everything is driven by menus. This can be a pain trying to find things, so I tend to set the camera up the way I like it and then leave it alone. I would only tweak it if I was going into a known different situation – people running about or dark backgrounds, for example.

Balance
People sit under it to each their packed lunch.

So this really does fit with the idea behind the original Pen, in being an image note-taker. The zoom lens makes it more useful than a mobile phone camera and the quick start-up means that it is not less handy. It’s also smaller than my mobile phone.

Troll
A troll, caught by sunrise and turned to stone.

Let’s hear it for the snappy Sony!