20 Stories, part II

Continued from Part I

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Glitches in the Matrix

Limitations can sometimes turn into catalysts if they force you to find creative workarounds, or give you another tool in the arsenal to work with. This tale is one of regret – that I recognized the limitation, but came to be so annoyed by it I sold the tool instead of being mature enough to recognize the opportunity.

Almost all large sensors – including most of those today, and certainly all of the high resolution ones – have a gated electronic shutter that requires a certain readout time. Light collection is limited and governed by the mechanical shutter, ensuring synchronization of exposure of all parts of the image – but the actual capture time may go on beyond the closing of the shutter. It’s fast enough now that high frame rates may be sustained, but you can still see these artefacts in electronic shutter modes as a distortion from top to bottom of the frame of any moving elements (or moving camera).

The CFV-39 was a bit different: not only did the CCD have an extremely long readout time – I believe at least a second – but the camera portion and the digital portion were only synchronized by a button; the same pin that advanced the frame counter on a film back also started and stopped the digital back capture (and actual sensor on time was much longer than the shutter-governed exposure).

The upshot of this is if your fingers were fast enough to cock the crank and hit the shutter, you could fire off two frames in less time than the CCD required to read out completely. In effect, this disrupted the readout process with a fresh signal onto the sensor – it appeared something like a double exposure but with some other strange and unpredictable artefacts. I learned to count to three before firing the back again to avoid this, but there were times of peak action where one or two very strange frames such as this one were produced. Between the color, the subject matter, and the alien feel – I couldn’t help but think of the déjà vu scene in that 1999 cult classic movie…

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Camera reviews are downright tedious at best, and extremely painful at worst – and this is before you have to deal with the inevitable zealot trolls who see a brand as a religion. It is a tricky balance of being comprehensive enough to find any issues, reproducing them and accurately judging their importance, being objective about the strengths, and still making credibly good images with unfamiliar hardware that do your own personal reputation justice. And if you live in Asia, not annoying the brand principals. It doesn’t make sense to publish a negative review because the fallout is painful and you won’t get any referral commissions. But it also doesn’t make sense to publish only positive reviews as that tends to make one’s credibility questionable.

I eventually settled on only reviewing hardware I actually bought and used; that way, the brands could go fly a kite, I could remain honest, and most of the time it’d be positive anyway since I wouldn’t waste money on something useless. It also meant that I had more time and familiarity to make some interesting images with it; after all, an opinion is only as valid as the skill level of the person producing it.

This particular camera was the source of some trepidation for me as the official samples looked terrible (undoubtedly a consequence of being SOOC JPEGs shot at f22 and ISO 1600 in bright daylight – why?!), there was no way to try one, and it was going to be significant financial commitment at the time – I would have to build a completely new system. That camera was of course the 645Z; fortunately, it turned out to be pretty good. I knew it would ‘work’ for me after making this image in the first few days I had it – not for any particular technical qualities, but because it was transparent enough in use that I could fully focus on seeing the unusual and not have to worry about operational quirks and foibles.

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One night in Venice

It is said that the few native Venetians left start out the season in the spring optimistic and happy; they weather the inbound hoardes of the summer, and come late July, they’re fed up and want everybody to leave them in peace, having made enough income to see them through another year. I have been to Venice once in the summer, very early on in my photographic interest – in fact the first photography-focused trip I ever took – and found that to be pretty much true. The place was crowded, smelly, expensive, and borderline hostile; I thought I was in a really unpleasant theme park. Visually, I felt overloaded and spent a lot of time in my sparsely padded cell of a hotel room thinking about whether I’d made a big mistake with this whole photography thing.

I didn’t revisit Venice until more than a dozen years later; a bit more mature, a bit more objective-focused, and with a full masterclass in tow. We went in the depths of winter, complete with acqua alta, Adriatic storms, moody skies and daily squalls. There were few people about; St. Mark’s Square was empty. The locals were friendly, and it turns out several of the staff at the hotel we stayed at were photographers themselves and regular readers of my site, so the service was fantastic. Our rooms were palazzo-luxurious and a quarter of the peak season rates. The food was wonderful as my wife took it on herself to do the scouting.

Fully fuelled with fresh squid ink risotto, I went out one night during one of those evenings, inspired by an image I’d shot earlier in the day of rainstorm-soaked pavements, very minimal lighting and the kind of mood that felt straight off a movie set with dramatic music in the moment before somebody gets killed. I turned corner after corner to find scene after scene, setting up my camera in wait for the moment. The resulting images shot over a couple of hours makes up my Venetian Nights series.

Moral of the story: don’t let the weather put you off; there is no such thing as ‘bad light’, just poorly suited ideas and subjects…

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In trance

Thaipusam is a significant festival on the Hindu calendar and celebrated in a big way in Malaysia, with half a million or more people attending ceremonies and making offerings at the Batu Caves temple complex over the two days it takes place. It is an amazing event to attend as a photographer and extremely intense; I am highly aware of the generosity of the participants in allowing you to be a part of something so personally significant and intimate to them and do my best to be respectful when photographing. I’ve attended six times since 2008, always in the dead of night at the peak of action, and every time at some point while shooting I’ll be summoned by one of the devotees in trance and given blessings of my own; I’ve always found that somehow after this moment, I start shooting intuitively in a stream of consciousness and making some very powerful images.

The same thing happened with this set – the first time I’d used a medium format camera with me. My CFV-50c was in for repair and I had a H5D-50c on loan; both cameras had phenomenal high ISO capabilities and there would be no better place to push their limits. Yes, operating a relatively slow to focus, slow-lensed and heavy camera under these conditions was very challenging, but not as bad as I’d feared, and the images produced had a tonal quality I’d not been able to produce before – a sort of richness that really captured the emotional intensity of being present.

I sent some of the pictures to the regional distributor who’d sold me the CFV and loaned me the replacement camera; they sent them on to Hasselblad HQ, and as they say – the rest is history. It was after this set that they realised the potential of CMOS digital medium format for available light and reportage work, that they had a missing hole in representation for such images, and that I would be both ideal in skill level and public profile. In short: that service trip for the CFV lead to the H5D loan which lead to my Hasselblad ambassadorship, and subsequent position as chief of strategy. Sometimes life really isn’t predictable.

I revisit Thaipusam in 2017 with a film crew to make Fortitude: Resolved, an official Hasselblad video. I carried two H6D-100c cameras and shot for ten hours non-stop; at 60×106”, the prints we made from this were literally larger than life.

To be continued in Part III.


First published in Medium Format Magazine, June 2019. Reproduced with permission.


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  1. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Love the shot in Venice – and I can relate to how you felt on your first trip – the best meal I ate there on my first trip to Venice was in a family-style restaurant down near the Arsenal, where the workers went for their lunch – NOT inhabited by tourists (like me!) No menu – you ate what you were given! Three courses. Take it or leave. And while it was plain simple food, it was one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten. Fortunately in those days Venice was not yet drowning in tourists – but it was certainly heading that way.
    The shot in winter reminds me of the time I spent Christmas and the New Year in Paris – it seemed to me that the tourists were practically non-existent and the Parisians were all staying indoors with their families – and to get to the top of the Eiffel Tower, all you needed was a ticket – no queueing! Available light shots at night, like that, are something I love shooting. I hope a lot of your readers emulate your example and give it a try!

  2. Scott Devitte says:

    I was standing next to you in Venice when the man with the umbrella, came, this shot, and went, the next shot in the series with the blue glow in the street lamp. no other place on the planet has that water meets stone vibe,

    • Scott Devitte says:

      Cont. If you had been shooting this with the Z7, how would it compare? Can’t bring myself to buy a medium format but have often thought that the Z would get me close. Do you still have the Fedora that you bought the next day after we past it in a window on our walk that night?

    • Yes – it was a surreal evening…

  3. Ming, I do enjoy these immensely – I’d appreciate it if you could keep them coming.


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