Today’s post is going to be the first time I’ve presented a partially completed project – for the simple reasons that I feel it’s probably useful to discuss the creative process, because it’ll make a good follow on to this post on projects in general and because I have honestly no idea if or when I’ll ever be able to complete this set. The idea behind Crust is fairly self-explanatory: the dried, hard, textured earth from the air in monochrome – all the better to enhance the suggestion we may well be looking at a highly magnified burnt breakfast offering*.
*And I think I might well shoot that as the title image, too.
Clearly, the problems are mostly of logistics and resources: the nature of the subject I want to shoot requires remoteness and expansive space, making it difficult to get to on your own; the perspective and scale puts drones out of the question, helicopters marginal, and hot air balloons romantic but unpredictable. That leaves serendipity (with perhaps a little forward planning of one’s route) and commercial airlines. Challenges here are significant: you are at the mercy of weather and light direction and cannot sit behind the wing because hot air from the engines will create noticeable changes in refractive index and poor optics. Even if you luck out or pay for business (or god forbid, first) you still need to have a window that’s both clean and large enough that you don’t have problems from internal reflection if the camera isn’t aimed perfectly perpendicular to the window.
The best aircraft I’ve found for this are newer 777s (they have largish windows for a commercial airliner, and a relatively short distance between inner and outer panes). The 787 should be good if the electrochromic layer doesn’t affect clarity; the A380 has large windows but too much separation between inner and outer layers, meaning 75mm is about the shortest you can go. A new aircraft from the A320 family is good, too – smaller windows but very short pane separation. On the hardware front, you’re also limited in both directions by focal length and resolution: since the intention is obviously to print large and exhibit, there is obviously a minimum resolution, but due to aircraft motion, there’s a maximum focal length and resolution beyond which you just see blur. Even at 85mm, 1/500s is required for critical sharpness on the 36MP and higher bodies. IS helps but only if it can detect panning.
I’ve found the best combinations for air-to-ground so far to be the Leica Q (but it tends to be too wide for this kind of thing, and you can really only aim it in one direction before you start to see window edge or engine), the D810/ Zeiss Otus 85, the Canon 5DSR and 40/2.8 STM, the Pentax 645Z and 90 SR Macro, and the A7RII** and Zeiss FE 55/1.8 or 85/1.8 Batis lenses. Zooms are generally out because they rob too much microcontrast and compound the color challenges you’re already going to be facing from the perspex. You need every last bit of transparency you can get, and I was surprised just how much of a difference there was between say the Otus 85 and Nikon 85/1.8G – even shooting at f5.6-8, by which point both lenses are excellent. It’s also important to maximise information captured in the file because your histogram is going to look like a thin peak that occupies a quarter or less of the entire range – that has to then be stretched out to fill the entire input-output range, and manipulated to be aesthetically pleasing. If there’s any visible compression in the source information, then it’s even more visible in the output.
**Note caveat on compression: you can start to see it in even some of the web size images here, and more so on the full size. You’ll note that all of these images were shot with the A7RII anyway, and prior to the 14-bit firmware update – simply because I did not have any of the other cameras with me when the opportunity presented itself. I would prefer to restrict this camera to very high contrast scenes, though.
This project is something that’s been kicking around in my mind since I first flew over the Australian Outback during the day and as a conscious photographer many years ago. The challenge has been finding opportunity to make it work; I suspect I might just have to do a cross-country legs during the daytime between Perth and Sydney or something to create a whole set, and again across Mongolia and perhaps the United States. Ideally, the project should show a large variation in textures, locations and perhaps even weather conditions or signs of urbanisation – I haven’t decided if the latter two weaken the concept or not – but certainly one flight isn’t sufficient. What you see in this set was shot over the Middle East from Doha to Chicago; there were more potential locations en-route, but cloud cover ended play prematurely. Oh well, until the next flight…MT
I’m facing a bit of a struggle with this final image and the concept in general: it is so strong in color that it makes no sense to present it in monochrome, yet it is the only one where this is the case. The rest suffer from all sorts of tonal issues because of atmospherics, windows, haze etc. necessitating the use of every single photoshop trick in the book, and even then only marginal results. I suppose as always it will come down to the final intent and curation once I feel I have enough material to call the project complete…MT
Images in this series were processed with the Monochrome Masterclass workflow (with the exception of the final image, of course). You can also look over my shoulder at the underlying postprocessing in the Weekly Photoshop Workflow series.
Ultraprints from this series are available on request here
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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved