Photographic detox, part two

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Part two: get creative (continued from part one)

The camera companies and retailers are going to hate me for writing this, because it’s not going to sell any more equipment. If you were hoping for a quick solution that involves a credit card, I’m sorry too – there is no substitute to better photographs other than hard work. But this doesn’t mean it can’t be fun or creatively liberating – after all, isn’t that one of the key reasons we shoot at all?

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Photographic detox, part one

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And now, for something a little different. We all fall into creative ruts occasionally, and we can all benefit from a little reboot from time to time. Think of it as the closest we’re going to get to a creative diet plan of sorts. It doesn’t involve more fibre, or workouts, or stairs, or eating things that might look healthy but taste terrible. I promise not to make you develop your own film, though you certainly can if you want. Read on if you want to tighten your photo-chops.

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Output objectives and creative development

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I was discussing printmaking with one of the regulars readers of this site recently when a thought struck me: one of the biggest turning points for me personally was when I started shooting with an eventual printability objective for all of my images. This happened around early 2012, before which I’d felt I was stagnating creatively somewhat – perhaps partially due to day job commitments (this was before I turned to photography full time) and partially because well, I didn’t have an output objective.

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I have to be a professional so I can be an amateur.

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At first glance, the headline makes no sense whatsoever. But contemplate a bit further, and you’ll find that it’s a perfect summary of what happens when you turn your passion/ hobby into your job. It’s taken me a while to figure out where the balance lies – and I admit I nearly gave up a couple of times – but I think we’re just about there. Let me explain…

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Originality is dead: or is it?

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Today’s post is going to be something of a counterpoint to yesterday. Every time we frame up an image, we ostensibly try to capture something different, unique – in essence, to take a photograph that has never been taken before. But more importantly, the resultant outcome must actually look like it has never been taken before, by appearing quite distinctly different from anything else. That’s the part which is not so easy.

Each of the images in this set represents the outcome of a new experiment for me: subject, idea, execution, processing, equipment or something else. They are almost certainly unique, but I cannot say that they have not been attempted before, by somebody else. Take, for example, the fact that they were all shot on film: film is not new, even to me. But developing my own film and looking at the tonality achievable undoubtedly influences the way I process my digital files. Just as composing in squares does affects the way I see the world, too; and so on.

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Managing the creative commercial populist disconnect

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What a mouthful of a title. It should really also have the subtitle “what pays isn’t always what’s popular or what I want to shoot” – but that would have exceeded the string length for post titles, run off onto three lines on the title, and completely ruined the front page design aesthetic of the site.

But I think there’s really no simple or concise way to express it. What sells/ what clients pay for is not always what is popular with the viewing public; in fact, it’s usually completely uncorrelated since the commercial side of things seldom elicits an emotional response in the way personal photographs do. And on top of that, what photographers actually enjoy photographing is seldom what pays – sometimes also because the nature of the subject matter means that it has no commercial value in the first place. So, as a commercial photographer, what do we do?

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Shooting for yourself, part two

Continued from part one.

I’m wondering where the happy medium between the pro and amateur camp lies; the pro has to be both, and the amateur wants to be a pro (usually) – until reality intervenes. It’s too easy for pros to slip into the ‘shoot only for pay’ mindset, and lose their sense of personal style and creative edge – which is probably what made them successful in the first place. And by the same token, it’s easy enough for amateurs to get a little paid work here and there, and either be disillusioned about how easy it is to make a living out of it, or not realize that doing too much of something can take the joy out of things very quickly. (If you haven’t already, I’d recommend reading my advice for photographers thinking of turning pro.)

The period of non-shooting got me thinking: I need to spend some time being an amateur, doing work for myself, and then find some way of linking that into my commercial work so that the two don’t diverge too far. I suppose there has to be commercial potential in the personal work that elements of style could translate over into something people would pay for. Or perhaps this is a load of bull: personal work should reflect the personality and thoughts of the individual, and those are never the same as those of the corporate, therefore making it impossible. The short conclusion is, I just don’t know. But I’d like to figure it out, because it doesn’t feel natural for me to be two different photographers most of the time.

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Shooting for yourself, part one

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Personal work – you could never sell this commercially. But it doesn’t make it any less compelling as an image.

There’s a limit to how long you can make a title and still keep things punchy; what I really wanted it to say was ‘the difference between pros and amateurs: shooting for yourself vs shooting for pay’ or something along those lines. There was a period in late February/ early March of this year where I did pretty much no photography at all for a couple of weeks. I wrote it off as time spent recharging, but the reality is that I think I experienced yet another large shift in mindset – I’m noticing a couple of personal trends, neither of which make me particularly happy:

  1. I don’t shoot much outside commercial jobs…
  2. …and when I do, there’s an ever-increasing stylistic gulf between the commercial output and my personal work.
  3. This is making work, well, feel very much like work rather than creative expression

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Feast, famine and creativity

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On reflection. Hasselblad 501C, 50/4 CF FLE

I’ve noticed that my periods of creative productivity tend to come and go in cycles. I’m going to use as a gauge the number of folders of portfolio grade images I produced in a year. It’s a reasonably proxy given that my ‘hit rate’ has remained relatively consistent – about 1/5 to 1/10th of the images that survive the multiple editing cuts and make it through post processing, and that I keep folders to approximately 40 images so as to be able to find things easily (the number must be some psychological holdover from the earlier film days to do with the length of a roll).

2002 – I didn’t know what a portfolio was and was just pleased to have images vaguely resembling the things I saw at the time of capture
2003 – I knew what a portfolio was, but didn’t think any of my images qualified
2004 – 13
2005 – 21
2006 – 21
2007 – 31 – a peak year for camera testing during my editorship of CLICK! – I had to get out and shoot
2008 – 20
2009 – 26
2010 – 22 – a very, very busy year at work
2011 – 29
2012 – 30
2013 – 6, (and it’s only early Feb; if I keep going at this rate, I’m looking at a whopping 52 this year)

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Film diaries: thoughts, truths and realizations

During the course of the last few months – shooting a grand total of a roll and a half, and processing one – I’ve had a few thoughts. Admittedly, these may be premature given that I haven’t even seen what came out of roll 2 yet, but I’ve already had a number of observations along the way which I thought I’d share with you all here.

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Muse at work. F2T, Delta 100, 45/2.8 P

The look is very different. I think it’s very polarizing: what you gain is highlight headroom, at the expanse of shadows (to some extent). And there’s grain everywhere, even in the highlights; but it’s non-uniform, non-digital, and varies in size enough that it adds texture rather than distraction. I find that I definitely like it when the light is directional; I don’t like it at all under harsh sun/ midday especially in the tropics, because it seems you lose most of the midtone definition. Here, digital’s linearity seems to help considerably with exposure latitude.

Digital passed film resolution a long, long time ago. Even shooting fine grain film and processing it in a reasonably clean developer – Delta 100 in DDX – the grain is still very noticeable. Oddly, it doesn’t seem to affect the ultimate resolving power of the medium, but what fine details are there are somewhat indistinct compared to what can be achieved with digital (duh, due to the digital nature of the constituent medium – i.e. uniform block pixels.) I will try PANF in colder developer next time to see if that helps. The last time I shot/ scanned seriously, I came to the conclusion that there was at most somewhere between 8 and 10 MP of equivalent resolution in a good negative or slide – I don’t think that’s changed; I’m just not seeing any more of that regardless of the lens used. In fact, if I had to compare the output, I’d say Delta 100 feels much like a D700 shot at ISO 3200+, with similar tolerance for lenses. I must have messed something up in the developing, because I don’t remember Provia 100 being this grainy. Bottom line: we’re utterly spoiled by modern digital; even the RX100 handily outresolves 35mm film – if it had better dynamic range, I’d probably use this as my copying solution instead. Whoever is still complaining about resolution out to have their head seriously examined, probably with a baseball bat.

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The Vase. Hasselblad 501C, 80/2.8 CF T* on Ilford Delta 400

That said, I’m seeing a very healthy amount of detail from my Hasselblad negatives: single pixel detail is being resolved at the 20MP level (the magnification limit of my ‘scans’), and I suspect that there may be about ~40MP worth of real detail in a low-ISO 6×6 negative. This makes sense, since the area is approximately four times the area of a 35mm negative.

The Noct-Nikkor has some noticeable focus shift issues wide open. Even on film, you can see the focus plane move as you stop down (or shoot wide open). I think this lens is going to have to be partnered with the D700 for future use, or a D600 with live view and an LCD magnifier.

35mm film is very forgiving of lenses. By f5.6 and sometimes even before, all of my ~50mm lenses (45P, 2/50MP, 58 Noct) all look equally sharp and pleasing. I actually prefer the 45P’s rendition wide open because its slight field curvature I feel adds to the image in the same way the 2/28 Distagon’s does. The good lenses, remain good, of course; some of that magic still comes through – the 2.8/21 Distagon comes immediately to mind – but it’s not as obvious as on a D600 body, let alone a D800E.

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Graphic inverse. F2T, Delta 100, Zeiss 21/2.8

I like the negatives more than the positives sometimes. This appears to be a consequence of the scanning process (or, specifically, the D800E imposing its own tonal response curve onto the reproduction) more than anything; still, some of the really abstract, graphic images seem to work better if tone-adjusted and kept as a negative. Perhaps there’s a creative avenue to explore here…

I work faster with film than digital – even if my camera has no meter. The inability to chimp or make iterative improvements to subsequent shots means that subconsciously, you put all of your effort into getting it right the first time and being absolutely sure before you shoot: this is both efficient, and makes you better. One, or at most two, frames, and I’m on to the next shot. This definitely wasn’t the case with my previous experiences – perhaps my skill level has improved a bit since then.

Each roll is a bit like receiving an old-fashioned letter. Both in the fact that you have to open the container to see what’s inside, but more so because you aren’t 100% sure how it’s going to turn out – you remember most of the images (I suppose that’s like anticipation when you see the sender’s address) but there’s enough variables in the developing that the tone – no pun intended – of the message might not quite turn out how you’d expect – either good or bad. I suppose there’s also the aspect of ‘will-it-or-won’t-it-arrive?’ anxiety when you’re doing your own developing, too.

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Zigzag. F2T, Delta 100, 58/1.2 Noct

Individual style is much more difficult to impose without lighting or postprocessing. I suppose this seems obvious in hindsight, but I’d say that 50% (or more, if you rely on filters and HDR) of an individual’s style is imprinted during the postprocessing phase. I know that personally, it affects my tonal map and color signature; the latter is gone with B&W film, and the former is highly dependent on the film type, developing and scanning process (and subsequent conversion). I’m trying to write a conversion action that takes my raw file and turns it into something approximating the image I expected at the time of shooting; it’s not easy because there are multitudinous variables. I suppose I could process each one individually, but that would defeat the point of shooting film: I actually don’t want that much control, otherwise I might as well shoot digital – there are fewer steps to achieving an output image, and far more repeatability.

I’m not really seeing any differently with 35mm, but the shots that work are not the ones I expected. I think compositionally, nothing much has changed. But I’m even more acutely aware of the quality of ambient light now; situations in which I’d make up any deficits in the scene for with postprocessing (uneven light, overly harsh light, colour casts etc.) are pretty much no-go with film. The positive upshot is that the scenes that work are simply gorgeous in tonality. I suppose this does actually affect the way you compose, since shadows always define the shape of an object.

It’s different for medium format, though: 6×6 really has a neat zen balance about it that I’m rather enjoying.

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For film, bigger is definitely better. Or harder/ faster/ stronger/ whatever adjective you prefer. And if you’re going to be shooting it in old, manual, quirky cameras without meters anyway, it’s never, ever, going to be convenient – so you might as well go large. Different story with digital, of course.

I keep forgetting to remove the damn dark slide. Enough said. One of these days, I’m sure I’m going to bend or lose it when I’m in a hurry.

Developing is both simple and hard. There aren’t that many steps to it – mix chemicals, open cannister, load reel, put inside tank, seal tank; add developer and time; rinse; add fixer and time; rinse. Hang to dry. Scan, or print to taste. The trouble is, many of the critical steps are both impossible to repeat exactly one time to the next, and there are several of them. And batches of film aren’t always consistent. I’m sure there’s an art to all of these things, but that’s something much like digital processing: you can only get a feel for it through experience. Perhaps once I’ve developed enough rolls I might get some of the touch too; and maybe then I’ll write about it (i.e. when I have something worthwhile to say). Also, 120 film is considerably more difficult to load on the reels than 135; I suspect it’s because the film is both wider and seemingly slightly thinner, too.

To say a particular film has a ‘signature’ seems to be as much a fallacy as saying a particular sensor has one. The development process affects the outcome to such a large extent that I don’t think it’s possible to separate it from the outcome – i.e. it’s really not all down to the film. I certainly don’t have the experience yet, but I’m pretty sure I could make most B&W films turn out the way I expect once I have some handle on their native tonal characteristics and that of the chemistry – much like the various raw files from different cameras.

I need to figure out this drying business. By sheer dumb luck, my first roll turned out okay; the problem was drying it. I rather unwisely decided to hasten the process by wiping the film with a microfiber cloth – it worked fine for the first few frames, then really buggered up the ones at the end with streaks and scratches (presumably from something that got stuck in the cloth). Moral of the story: go buy some hydroflow agent, hang and have patience. Or maybe a rubber squeegee thingy.

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Dust spotting isn’t as bad as I remember it to be. It seems that my early slides picked up a considerable amount more dust than these B&W negs – no idea why. But what used to be easily 10+ minutes of spot removal is perhaps 30s on a bad image – a very fragile-emulsion negative such as PAN-F, for instance; and one or two strokes on a clean one. Incidentally, it’s the same technique that I use for retouching dust on watches.

Highlight roll-offs are gorgeous. I suspect this is because most of the dynamic range is in the highlights – something to do with reciprocity error or perhaps the underlying photochemistry of the medium. There’s always a bit of gradation left in even the brightest zones, and nothing ever seems to truly overexpose (unless you do so by more than three or four stops).

That said, there’s not as much dynamic range as I expected. Perhaps this is not entirely accurate. The dynamic range is there, it’s just not distributed as I expected; I’m used to the extreme linearity of the D800E and its brethren, which let you basically expose to the right and be almost sure that all of the shadow information will be there. With film it appears the cost of the wonderful highlight tonality are very compressed shadows. Personally, this means to get the tonal style I’mm after, I’ll have to expose my primary subject highlights in zone 7-8 and let the rest fall where it may, but specifically look for scenes which work with heavy shadows.

How much of the tonal qualities of them D800E are being imposed on my ‘scans’? Unfortunately, without printing, there’s no real way to know – any digital conversion is going to result in some…reinterpretation, I suppose, of the original tonal values.

I doubt I can get anywhere near the same color accuracy with film. Although color films have some latitude to their working ambient light Kelvin temperatures, there’s simply no way you can have film that works at 5500K for one shot, and 4375K for the next – but you can with digital. For this reason, I’m just not going to bother with color film – for now.

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Inverse (this is the negative). Hasselblad 501C, 80/2.8 CF T* on Ilford Delta 400

Ah, grain. I’ve always been of the opinion that there’s nothing wrong with it, so long as your image is in focus and your idea is clear; film has just made me recalibrate my expectations. Hell, ISO 1600 from the OM-D looks better at equivalent magnifications than ISO 100 35mm film…

So far, it’s been an interesting experiment – both creatively and in an attempt to better understand some of the technical and artistic history behind photography and why some particular images look the way they look. For instance, I now understand why most film street photography is both grainy and very high contrast; similarly, I’ve developed a new appreciation for Salgado’s developer and printer – I would still love to see his negatives though, to figure out how much of his look is down to light at the scene, how much is down to developing voodoo, and how much of it is down to skillful printing. In the meantime though, I think so long as I’m shooting with a serious focus on creative development, film is probably here to stay for me. Time to pick up more 120 for the ‘Blad; I have a feeling I won’t be doing much 35mm film shooting because it isn’t quite the creative break I wanted. 6×6, on the other hand, is absolutely magnificent. MT


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