Archive for June, 2011

Old Cameras, New Techniques – New Cameras, No Techniques

I recently exhibited my photographs at the La Jolla Festival of the Arts in beautiful La Jolla California.  It was a pleasant show and the quality of the work of other artists was top notch.  At such venues where the show is not held on the street, the environment is more relaxed and I like to set up my 4×5 wooden field camera as part of my show display.  It really is a conversation starter and the visitors to my booth are mesmerized by the camera and then even perplexed that I actually use such an old camera.  I don’t know what shocks them more, the fact that I use it or the fact that the camera is only about 6 years old while it looks 150 years old.

The funny thing is that they think because it is an old styled camera that I photograph using wet glass plates!  I have never touched a glass plates in my life.  When I tell them I use film I get this perplexed look.  I then explain to them how the camera works.  I take off the lens attached to its lens board and show them that there is nothing inside the bellows and that a camera is nothing more than a black box with a light focusing element on one end, the lens, and a light capturing medium on the other end, the film or digital sensor.  I explain how the camera is focused by moving the lens closer or farther from the film, how the tilts and swings help in choosing the plane to focus on and how the shifts help in correcting distortions.

I then explain how I scan the films and prepare them to be printed digitally and suddenly this somehow seems incredulous to them.  I then point out that with scanning film at even moderate scan resolution I end up with raw image files that hover around 500MB and that even the highest resolution digital cameras available still only produce files that are about 240MB.  We then walk over to a large 20×25 inch photo hanging in the booth and I point out all the fine detail that is retained and then they start to see the light.

They start to understand that making a photograph is serious business and not as easy as it is made to seem with todays automatic cameras.  They comment to me that I must really be invested in a scene to haul out and use such a big camera.  They are correct of course.  They comment on how I must know a lot about light and camera operation, not to mention processing and printing techniques and again they are correct.  Even though I use an old camera, I employ many new techniques to maximize the amount of information in my photographs so that the finished image on paper is as close to how I experienced it and hopefully so that they can experience that moment as well.

When making a photograph I use a top-down / bottom-up workflow.  It starts with seeing something that moves my heart.  That is the peak of it all, the scene has to move the heart somehow for some reason sometimes beyond our understanding at the time it is seen.  From there artistic decisions about perspective, composition and lighting come into play followed by technical decisions about focusing and focal planes, apertures, light levels and shutter speed.  Only then can the shutter be tripped to capture that light.  The process does not end there however.  The latent image on the film, or RAW sensor data, then has to be developed and then printed on to paper using a myriad of techniques in either a wet darkroom or a digital darkroom on the computer.

Over the years cameras have steadily become more sophisticated while becoming easier to use and taking over many of the decisions that a photographer has to make in the photographic process.  Starting out with built-in light meters and moving to auto exposure and auto focusing.   The sophistication continued into the digital era as well and now photography is instantaneousness.  Modern technology has taken a difficult time-intensive process and has rendered it to as simple as pushing one button.  Gone are the technical decisions about how much light is available, what aperture-shutter combination to use, and to some extent where or what to focus on.  Focus, even though taken care of automatically, still only focuses exactly at only one distance from the camera, and without a proper aperture setting, important elements in the composition are rendered out of focus and hence the photo is considered “bad”.  Focusing and aperture selection were the last technical decisions that photographers still had to make as the camera had no idea what the photographer was aiming at.  So even though the modern camera was loaded with auto-everything, good technique was still important.

Enter the latest contender to simplify photography.  The Lytro camera was recently announced with the ability to capture an image and choose what to focus on afterwards entirely in software.  In other words that camera  has eliminated the need to focus or choose an aperture entirely.  Photographic technique has now been laid to rest and operating a camera has now been completely rendered to pushing a single button.  Don’t get me wrong, the technical sophistication that goes on in the background is truly amazing and the science behind it is even more fascinating, but where does that leave us as photographers?  The ability to make images is now so ubiquitous with “cameras” on almost every device imagined that the demarcation lines have been blurred between the photographer and everyone else.  Today’s cameras require no technique at all.  Just point and press a button – you can focus later, set exposure later, and mimic whatever aperture desired later.

Photography, writing with light, requires technical proficiency in understanding and working with light.  Yet the majority of  today’s “photographers” have no clue about light the very medium they work with.  They don’t need to as they have a machine that does everything for them.  I wonder what authors would think if there was a device, perhaps called a Scribbler, that produced novels at the press of a button.  Would they be as accepting as photographers are about the technique-less camera?



Hone your photographic technique and be that writer of light that moves the hearts of those who take the time to see what you saw and feel what you felt.  The camera cannot do that for you.


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Greetings From La Jolla

I am here in La Jolla this weekend at the La Jolla Festival of the Arts.  It was a last minute show added to cover for a fellow photographer, Michael Gordon, who could not make it to the show this year.  It was a lovely day.  Perfect show weather, mild temperatures, clear blue sunny skies.  After the show closed today, I decided to go out and explore a bit around La Jolla.  I consulted with fellow photographer Jimmy Gekas on some good locations and I ended up at the La Jolla Cove.

I pulled out the 4×5 camera and made some exposures that I thought would make some nice photos.  I did not get any rich color in the skies at Jimmy always seems to get, but this was only my first time here.  I mimicked the 4×5 compositions with my DSLR to add to this post.

I hope you enjoy my first take on what is undoubtedly an interesting place to photograph.

Sandstone Patterns

Sandstone Pattern

Potholes in Tafoni Sandstone

Potholes in Tafoni sandstone


Rush the Gap

Into The Abyss

Into The Abyss

I’ll be here in La Jolla for one more day at the festival. Come on out if you have the chance.


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Book Review – Creative Processing Techniques

Creative Processing Techniques

About a month ago fellow photographer Guy Tal released his new eBook on digital photo processing titled “Creative Processing Techniques”.  I have been processing my photos in the digital darkroom using various software applications but eventually settling on Adobe Photoshop for almost 11 years.  I started using Photoshop when it was on its 6th release version.  The power and possibilities that Photoshop brings to the photo processing world are truly amazing.

There is one problem with Photoshop, it is a bear of a program to learn.  It has so many “bells and whistles” that it literally can take years to master the full extent of that software.  Photoshop is on its 12th release as Photoshop CS5, and to this day I still have only tapped into a fraction of what it is capable of as a graphics editing software package.  However for photography, the majority of what Photoshop can do is not really needed.  Photography has a pretty well defined workflow and mastering that workflow is tenable.  However understanding all the tools needed from within Photoshop and knowing how to apply them to digital photos is still a daunting task technically let alone creatively.

In addition to all these obstacles, the photographer of today trying to sell his or her fine art photographs faces an ignorant public that looks upon Photoshop and its use as some how adulterous when it comes to photography.   As if using that software somehow automatically makes a photograph “fake” but the software built into the run-of-the-mill digital camera that produces the small jpeg digital photos did not “fake” anything.  It is quite baffling trying to understand that position and because fine art photographers have a hard enough time as it is  selling their art.  They find themselves caught between being honest business men and women and producing moving artistic pieces and coming up with a variety of explanations of how they use Photoshop to produce photos that are “real”.  It’s a tricky game.

This is where Guy Tal’s new eBook comes to the rescue.  Guy makes no excuses about using Photoshop and likens digital photo processing using Photoshop to that of gourmet cooking.  I understand exactly where his analogy comes from and it makes perfect sense.  Ask people if they would rather eat a gourmet meal cooked fresh as it was ordered or a frozen microwaveable dinner and I’ll bet they would choose the gourmet meal, I would.  Guy puts forward the argument that no camera, no matter how sophisticated, can produce a final artistic rendition of the scene before it better than the artistic photographer him or her self.  The camera does not know what is in front of it, it can’t hear the wind in the trees, or smell the aromas floating on the breeze or even truly see the nuances in light that caught the photographers attention in the first place so how could canned algorithms in the camera render anything of what the artistic photographer wishes to convey?

Guy continues on and develops for the reader a framework in which the artistic photographer can asses the image captured in the camera for shortcomings that need to be addressed and a methodology of identifying how to bridge the gap between the shortcoming to what the photographer envisioned through what Guy terms Dynamic Visualization.  Every step of the process keeps the photographer and the workflow oriented and engaged toward the final vision of what the photo is supposed to be, all while allowing for that vision to change according to the photo itself.  As Guy points out, sometimes we start out with one idea in mind only to find that the photo falls short of conveying that vision with the path we initially embarked on but that if we are willing to allow ourselves to experiment we can discover the underlying power the photo had for us when first seen in the field.

Interwoven throughout the book, the creative and the technical go hand in hand.  Guy steps us through the technical tools that Photoshop provides photographers to creatively bring a photo to life.  Each tool and technique, simple or complex, is succinctly and clearly explained in easy to understand language.  With clear examples showing how each tool and technique works, the book takes a sometimes mysterious and confusing software program and makes it easy and understandable.

I have but one caveat.  Even though I have been using Photoshop for the past 11 years and am very comfortable with it and understand the tools and techniques, I did feel quite overwhelmed when I finished reading the book.  Not due to the book itself mind you, it was well done, but because I had read it in such a short time and did not try out each tool and technique directly with my own photos as I went through the book.  My recommendation:  Get the book, read through it, Slowly, and practice with your own images each step of the way.

Photoshop is not a software package that can be learned overnight.   It takes time and practice, and Guy Tal’s eBook, “Creative Processing Techniques” is a wonderful companion text introducing the process of producing photographs that will convey your personal vision.

You can purchase a copy for yourself at Guy’s online bookstore.  Click here to visit Guy Tal Photography and get your copy of this great book.

P.S. If you need a copy of Photoshop or need to upgrade to the latest version you can visit B&H Photo and Click Here for PC version or Click Here for Mac version of Photoshop.

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