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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Bigger isn’t always better, or why you can’t see the difference most of the time

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Quasi-gratuitous header image: large format golfball, anybody?

I start this article with a deliberately provocative title, at the risk of being taken for one of those forum sensationalists that proclaims OMG NEW BEST CAMERAR EVARRRR SINCE THE SECOND COMING OF SLICED JESUS!! . But as always, there are caveats: I’m examining the situation under practical implementation, practical shooting constraints, and real world limitations: i.e. non-ideal circumstances, which I believe to be fair since this is how most photography takes place. And since we’re interested in hardware towards the practical application and implementation of photography, this is a fair approach to take. The crux of the argument is this: we have now reached a point in technology where the tradeoffs associated with upscaling your format do not translate into significant gains in shooting envelope or even practical output most of the time. Actually, I’d go even further and say that your hardware choices really hinge on a few factors, which we’ll discuss shortly.

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Off-camera lighting 101: the ‘five things’

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I frequently get asked about lighting: specifically, how does one best approach the daunting challenge of knowing where to put what lights, how to set them up, use modifiers etc. I’ve written about some of this in the past but realise that I never tackled conceptually where to start. Fear not: in true Ming style, it’s now a list of Five Things 😉 Though the whole process of conceptualisation and setup becomes increasingly intuitive over time and practice, I still find that this list helps quite a lot when you’re either a) working with very complex setups where multiple lights can start creating interference with each other, or b) trying to simplify. Remember, a shadow does several things: it provides spatial context for three dimensional placement of subjects in a two dimensional presentation; it creates texture; and it provides separation and definition from the background. The more complex the lighting setup, the less well defined the shadows are going to be. Ultimately, the purpose of any controlled lighting setup is to place the shadows where you want them to go, and control the relative brightness of the subject elements, allowing you to precisely manipulate the structure of your image so that it is ‘read’ by your audience in a certain way.

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New year’s resolutions, 2019 edition

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Perhaps a more accurate title for today’s post isn’t so much ‘resolutions’ as ‘expectations’. I like to think that after a while in the same industry*, one acquires the maturity to know what you want to do, what you can do, and what you realistically might be able to expect. Here’s my plan for 2019, both photographic and otherwise. Some stuff I’ll have already said to various individuals or gotten lost in various comments, but as yet things have not been unified. So, to hopefully stem the tide of ‘are you going to x’ emails, here goes…

*Shooting since 2001, for clients part time since 2005, and full time since 2012 – that’s a good 18, 14 or 7 years, depending on how you want to measure it. Even 7 years in the digital era is an age given how fast things change.

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The most important things in photography

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In the better part of 17 years’ worth of shooting – there are just a few critical things I find are inescapable when taking the shot. I perhaps have the benefit of having gone full circle a couple of times around the effort and equipment wheel, and shifting priorities force me to work both faster and smarter. Please note that the descriptions following have some subtlety and may at first seem contradictory, but bear with me…

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Working with overcast light

When the weather is overcast and light is not great, street photographers (myself included) usually lose motivation to continue shooting. After all, light plays a vital role in producing results. With less than ideal lighting, there is no opportunity for the widely practiced deep shadow and highlight play, silhouette shots or even dramatic high contrast shots, both in color or black and white. I do envy photographers in regions further away from the tropics (Japan, Australia, Northern European countries), where directional beautiful light is more common and present for an extended period of the day. In Malaysia where I reside, if there isn’t tropical afternoon showers, then we have to contend with haze or harsh light for most of the day. Directional and interesting light is confined to mornings and just before sunset.

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Understanding color, from a workflow perspective: part 2

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Continued from part 1

It is possible to make a calibration profile for every camera that takes you back to neutral color and tonal response; I do precisely this in PS Workflow III because I need to use a variety of tools for the range of work I do. It allows me to have a consistent color palette/ tonal signature across all of my images, regardless of hardware: this is important because some projects last for years and I may change hardware several times across the duration; but I cannot change the way the images look too much, else you sacrifice visual consistency. I also do this to get control over the output palette: subtle biases can influence viewer emotional response; this is one of the many tools in a storytelling photographer’s arsenal. Note: whilst some cameras allow for a wide range of adjustability of the in-camera processing, none of them allow full HSL adjustments (which would be required to get a totally neutral profile). Currently, the Olympus Pen F comes closest – but you still can’t fully escape the slightly warm default tuning, nor can you compensate on the fly for scenes of wildly different contrast levels (which our eyes do automatically).

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Understanding color, from a workflow perspective: part 1

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We first need to understand a bit of history to appreciate the origins of ‘house color’ or ‘company color’ or a particular tonal palette: in the early days of color photography, it simply wasn’t possible to make a film emulsion that responded equally to every color, much less mirrored the response of the human eye to the visible spectrum. It’s also important to note that a recording medium’s color response and luminosity (tonal) response aren’t the same thing but they are linked; further complicating things. And we haven’t even started talking about how different individuals’ eyes respond differently to color*. The best manufacturers could do was offer a range of emulsions (corresponding to a range of different chemicals that had different responsiveness to light) that gave photographers choice. It’s one of the main reasons images from certain eras have a particular look to them: the world didn’t offer different colors or fade; what we’re seeing is a mixture of time-sensitive oxidation of pigment in the output image, and the limitations of the recording medium at the time. As emulsions improved, so did the spread of color that could be recorded. The world didn’t become more realistic: our means of recording and displaying the recording did.

*As you get older or if you have cataracts, certain frequencies become blocked/absorbed by the lens or liquid portion of your eyeball, limiting what reaches the retina. And the retina itself may well not be operating at peak tonal response, too.

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