Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Collected Thoughts on Photography

Some collected thoughts on photography, since December last year.

Nikon P7000 vs Canon EOS 60D

In the December 2010 issue of National Geographic, Nikon ran an advertisement for its flagship compact camera, the semi-pro P7000:

Some four pages away, Canon's featured its semi-pro DSLR:

The comparison could not be more disproportionate. But then perhaps Nikon has the better understanding of the National Geographic spirit in this one. After all, which camera is likely to enable the photographer to travel further and wider?

Back in the heyday of Cartier-Bresson and company, the 35mm rangefinder was the definitive tool-of-the-trade. It's not hard to understand why: the lightweight rangefinders were a lot less intrusive than large-format press cameras.

Today, there are no compact cameras with equivalent performance to DSLRs in terms of speed and overall handling, and there are no affordable digital rangefinders (the Leica M9 costs a bomb). I have toyed around with the P7000, and it seems that a D3100 (Nikon's smallest DSLR to date) is a much better bet. I have yet to try out the Olympus PEN system, but that might be the best compromise for performance of DSLR-standards in a compact.

Still, that ad from Nikon was a good reminder of what photography is all about: getting out there and being in the right place, at the right time. Galen Rowell would've loved the P7000 I think.

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Further Thoughts on Film

I have time and again shared the reasons behind my preference for film. Here I would just like to dwell on three ideas: legibility, simplicity and character.

Ken Rockwell said it, and I cannot help but agree: with film you don't need any software to read the photograph. Don't get me wrong: I love working with my RAW files when utmost quality is needed, but even RAW files get illegible sometimes. I couldn't read Doulos's D60 RAW files on my first-edition Capture NX software. Programmes like Photoshop need to be updated from time to time in order to be compatible with the latest RAW firmware, etc.

In contrast, there is no risk of film shot today being illegible decades from now, as long as there is light and humans have eyes.

What, then, of chemicals? Unlike proprietary algorithms employed in RAW, chemical development methods like E-6, C-41 and silver halide processing, are available to anyone and everyone. While some of these chemicals are no longer manufactured en masse, the workings behind them will be readily apparent to anyone trained in the chemical sciences.

On simplicity, I read this article on Photojojo's 'Ultra Wide and Slim' camera page (link here):

Remember when all it took was a roll of film and a trip to 1 hour photo?

Now that we've gone digital, we spend hours in Photoshop, pore over 300 page camera manuals, and spend our life's savings on photo gadgets we don't even know how to use. We kind of love it, most of time.

But sometimes we wonder, what happened to simplicity?

I looked the camera up because Nasha's brother had given her one for Christmas, which means she now has two 'old school' film cameras, the Recesky 'twin lens' and now this. Can't wait to go out shooting with her, really.

And finally, character.

I think the reason people shoot film, is because of the particular character of different types of films. You are not just a 'film' photographer. You are a Velvia, or a Kodachrome, or a Tri-X photographer. You use film because of the character and look imparted by these stocks.

The masses have moved to digital because, in many ways, digital does a better job of reproducing colours accurately and more effortlessly than consumer films (the sort you get in supermarkets and in the everyday photo shops).

But the art and landscape photographers, who care less for accuracy than for mood, like how film exaggerates and gives its own spin on colours and tones. You can probably design an algorithm to replicate these stocks in Photoshop; or you could do the easy thing and go out there and shoot. You could convert to black-and-white, add grain and play around with contrast levels, but it just wouldn't be the same as working on a roll of Tri-X in the darkroom.

* * *

On Attitudes in Photography

Meet Timothy Wooi, photographer and social worker from Kedah. We encountered him at the restaurant in Kuala Perlis during the LAB Tour (more on that to come), and he gave us a lecture on photography against the setting sun.

One of the things I struggle with is talking to strangers. Being naturally an introvert, I don't mingle very easily. On this occasion, as with Alex Powers, it was the other person who made the first move.

I have come to learn that it pays to make friends, to talk to the people you meet; they are more likely to pose for you and share what they know about the place you're visiting, especially if you're foreign to it. Of course there is a risk when making contact with strangers, but given a healthy dose of discretion and wisdom, an open attitude towards the locals in a strange land can prove more beneficial than not.

* * *

On Lighting and Composition

In this Outdoor Photographer article, Adam Barker writes;

If we could bottle up the light that blesses most of our five-star imagery, we could sell it for billions of dollars a bottle—that’s how good the light is that we crave most.

Where do we find this light? We find it in the early and late hours. We find it when most other sane individuals are warm in their beds or swishing their glass of evening wine. You must be committed to getting up early and staying out late.


I believe that composition is the rawest demonstration of a photographer’s ability to create. Subject matter is most often already existent. Light can be happened upon. Composition, however, is entirely dependent upon the artist’s intrinsic ideal. It’s the outward arrangement of an inward vision.

I recall that many of my best photographs were made early in the morning and late into the evening. But more so, they were made when it was considered inconvenient to do so; when lunch or dinner was more tempting, or when the rain was too intimidating.

I recall also, something Eric Peris said when we visited him about a year ago, about composition. He would look at something, and if the composition wasn't working for him he would say it was because he didn't understand the elements in that prospective photograph, and he would walk away and maybe come back to it later. Perhaps he would then understand the elements and be better able to produce a satisfactory composition.

There is something in this more contemplative approach to photography that is missing in today's 'shoot first, think later' (or don't think at all) attitude. I suppose that is why landscape photographers still haul their large-format gear and bulky tripods into impossible terrain: it makes them take only the really great pictures, as it would not be worth the effort to set up for a mere snapshot.

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Where To, From Here?

And now this is the part that matters most. Seven years of photography, four-and-a-half of those with the DSLR, and three of them with the addition of film; the big question is, where to from here?

I find it hard to let go of my lenses.

I have some eight lenses or so, and it might seem an intimidating amount (by today's standards), but most of these lenses were purchased cheap off the second-hand market. The total worth of all my lenses would barely buy you a pro lens today.

But there is a story attached to each (which I may explore in coming posts), and also because most of them don't have much of a resale value, I don't intend to let them go just yet.

Over the last several years, three things have remained consistent: my love for teaching and writing, and my visual perspective of the world via painting and photography.

I like how Eric (Chan) put it in one of his last messages to me, before closing shop; "Photography is poison but also mystery."

The IGEM win last year was one of the sweetest experiences of my photographic career so far, and failing to land the Magnum scholarship one of the bitterest. Well, who am I to complain? I'm really not quite up to Magnum's standards, I suppose. But all this just goes to show how much I need to work to improve my craft and skills.

And the big question is, how?

I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.

-- 1 Corinthians 2:3-4 (NKJV)

How will the Spirit use my passion, and whatever miniscule talent I have, to achieve the great inexorable ends that are beyond the power of mere mortals to frustrate?

One of these days I will share the results of a certain photo hunt Yen put me on last year. Doing the exercise made me realise certain things about the way I shoot and see the world.

* * *

Ending Quote

I've always loved this John Sexton quote;

"It’s so bizarre to me that I can show you a picture that’s black-and-white and you somehow think it represents reality. When’s the last time you opened a window and it was black and white outdoors?"

Photography was never about reality; it was about communicating something about the way we see the world around us.

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