What defines small/medium/large formats, anyway?

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Originally published by yours truly in the April issue of Medium Format Magazine.

The use of any nomenclature of size already implies some degree of relativity. If a cellphone sensor is ‘small’, then arguably even APSC might be considered ‘large’. Yet there is a legacy expectation that medium format necessitates a recording area of at least ‘645’ (in itself misleading, usually being a bit smaller than 60x45mm at around 54x40mm or so) or larger. At some point – usually 4×5” – this becomes ‘large’ format. The digital sensor size of 44x33mm has challenged this somewhat, being much cheaper to produce than 54×40 (as low as a quarter of the price, due to finite wafer sizes, yield rates, etc.) whilst still offering about 68% more area than 36x24mm ‘full frame’.

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Deja vu

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Spot the difference.

I had a rather strange experience at a local specialist photographic bookstore the other day – not just because the books were surprisingly affordable and heavily discounted*, but because I felt like I was looking at my own work – but shot by somebody else. It was almost as though there there was a lost assignment whose contact sheets I’d just discovered. Some color themes and specific subject matter may have been transposed, but for the most part, even those were the same: earthy tones playing off against greys-blues in skies or manmade elements, and a lot of heavy engineering. But those are the most minor of the similarities: it’s as though the underlying structure of subject elements and camera angles/ perspectives were very, very similar, too. There’s the same use of parallel orientation of cameras relative to subject ‘planes’; the use of contextual elements to concentrate framing; leading lines and repeated elements, and above all: a very strong emphasis on emphasis of texture both spatially and through lighting choices. Even the interpretation of color was pretty similar: a mostly faithful but ever so slightly cinematic bias (read: just enough hint of a WB shift to give the image some life).

*Books are heavily taxed in Malaysia; a phonebook with an European MSRP of say EUR39.95 will land up being easily RM400-500 – or 2-2.5x. This is a huge amount compared to relative average monthly income; 20-25% to be precise. Such taxes only discourage erudition; form whatever cynical conclusions you will – they’re probably correct.

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Off topic: Why I started making watches, part II

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The unexpected: 19.01, November 2017

Continued from part I.

Our group wondered if there were alternatives. We started looking into independents, and for me personally, those who would be willing to entertain serious customisation without breaking the bank; this meant compromising on the movement side, but as it turns out there were still interesting alternatives to be had. Ochs und Junior took the challenge and gave me very simple (read: reliable) annual calendar and high accuracy moon phase watches, but more than that, forced me to adapt the design to be coherent with the immutable parts (cases, complication locations and indications, production limitations). Until this point, I was still designing; evolving both my movement conceptualisation skills and aesthetics. By now, I’d developed a coherent design language and over 50 watches (including movements) on paper; these watches would represent the first baby steps towards seeing them come to life. But first, the ornamental complexity had to go; design would be reductive instead of additive. It was an interesting process that forced me to really identify and simplify critical elements required for time telling and identifiable stylistic cues down to their bare minimum. The Simpleton and Celestial were the product of those experiments, and it’s probably clear that design elements from both made it into our subsequent watches.

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Off topic: Why I started making watches, part I

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The MING family, as of March 2019

It’s a fair question, and one I’ve been asked frequently enough to properly explain myself somewhere, for the record. I suppose it isn’t just something you pick up on a whim one day, nor is it something that even if you had a burning desire to do – can easily begin by submitting a CV to a headhunter. Watchmaking, in its purest definition, is a vocation – not a profession. You physically have to make something, and in the process of doing so (from scratch, of course) understand everything from engineering to metallurgy to physics to aesthetics. It is the kind of masochistic intellectual pursuit undertaken successfully by only the most dedicated, the most skilled, or the most masochistically insane. I am not a watchmaker in the pure definition, nor am I dextrously skilled, but I am fairly dedicated and probably also insane. After all, eight years ago (has it been that long?) I did quit the top of the corporate game to start all over again as a photographer. And now, not having learned my lesson, history repeats.

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Social media algorithms are limiting creativity and subliminally controlling your world view

First things first: there’s no image of any sort in this post, which is rare for me. It’s a silent protest against the fact that whether this link and thus its contents get disseminated to people who subscribe to my social media feeds (FB, IG, Twitter) and read or not is almost entirely down to some self-curating algorithms. The alarmist and provocative title are deliberate attempts to play the game (explained further on). It has nothing to do with whether you subscribed to my feeds or not. Only a small portion of the total population of posts or images published by people you follow actually shows up on your feed. This has been verified by several people and a simulation account I set up and subscribed to several sources; sure enough, at the start, you see a lot of posts from your ‘new friend’, but not long after – they virtually disappear. It isn’t because they haven’t been making content, it’s much more sinister than that.

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Two cents off the soapbox

Alternative title: what’s actually new?

Following the recent hyped launches of the Panasonic S1R, Canon RF, Fuji GFX100, genuine pet eye smile AF tracking etc. – I’m finding myself looking at things from a fairly objective standpoint and asking how the industry is going to survive, let alone grow, in the long term. The simple reason is there has been fundamentally almost nothing in the ‘conventional’ camera market that allows us to do anything different from a creative standpoint. Before people take up their pitchforks, let me clarify several things…

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Repost: format strengths and why different sized media render differently

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MF tonality and separation: in the full size image, the airplane is in a clearly different focal plane to the tree and hangar – even though it was shot at f8.

I’ve written previously about what exactly contributes to the ‘medium format look’. However, I think to some degree we also need to both define what constitutes the hallmarks of smaller formats, but more importantly figure out where each format’s strengths lie. Having now shot what I’d consider ‘enough’ with a complete MF system wth lenses ranging from ultra wide (24mm, or 18mm-e) to moderate tele (250mm, or 180mm-e) I think I’ve built up a much more complete picture. No doubt this will change if the recording medium size increase further – with the 54x40mm sensors, for instance – but I think it’s fairly safe to extrapolate based on the differences between subsequent smaller formats.

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In praise of crappy hardware

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I’ve had the privilege and frustration of working with both the best and worst hardware of a wide variety of types. I say this independent of cost, as often it isn’t a good indicator for suitability to a given task – in fact, this is increasingly true as cost increases and your tools get more specialised. It’s also not always true given reliability issues, customer support and other general electronic weirdness and histrionics. Perhaps crappy is an unfair term that probably does the hardware in this discussion a disservice. If you haven’t noticed, the industry has been changing silently but surely: the midrange has gone high end, the high end has gone stratospheric, the bottom end is gone, and the midrange has gone downmarket. We now have multiple $3000-4000 FF ‘pro’ lenses released as par for the course and nobody blinks an eyelid (compare that to just a few years ago when only the Otuses were in that territory, and the same lenses were in the $1000-2000 range). We have the ‘low’ end of medium format now below the high end of full frame – $4000 Fuji GFX50R vs $7000 Leica M10 – and we have some true bargains at the beginner level. We have entry points into full frame at sub-$1000 (albeit in older hardware, though still available to buy new). That’s a psychologically significant number; it’s the price point of the Nikon D70 and Canon 300D back in the days of the first actually affordable DSLRs in the early 2000s. What if we go lower still?

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On visual economics and scarcity

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No longer special if you see it every day, but stands out precisely because you don’t.

Alternative title: why exceptional photographs will always be rare

Economics 101: value, regardless of how it’s measured (price, time, social media kudos, etc) is proportional to demand. Demand is regulated by intrinsic attractiveness to a given market, the size of that market, and the supply available. Regardless of how few of something there are, if nobody likes or wants it, then it has no value. Similarly, something that may be intrinsically cheap but in short supply with a huge demand might see its price rise out of proportion with the the actual cost, utility or materials of the goods in question. But it’s not just physical goods that obey this rule; intellectual property and even more nebulous intangibles that do not have a limited supply (e.g. there is no theoretical limit to the number of people who can view a photograph) do, too. Even the compositional elements of a photograph. If you’re ready for another one of my strange philosophies, read on.

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Repost: Derivative works and photography

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Influenced by the architect? Surely. Created by him? About as much as it was created by Apple, because it was shot on an iPhone.

I originally wanted to call this article ‘is anything truly original?’ – however, I think that’s the concluding question I’d like to leave the reader with rather than the opening one. There has been a lot of debate recently – both in the comments here, offline amongst my usual correspondents and in various places on the internet about why a) photography is perhaps not perceived as ‘highly valued’ as other art forms; b) obviously derivative works and the creative value – or lack of – contained therein; and the greater question of whether c) the medium as a legitimate creative art form rather than merely a recording/ documentary one. Perhaps the biggest question is in the title: ‘but is it art?’

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