A massive (but silent) change

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I’ve long been one of the strongest proponents of tripod use for the simple reason that doing so forces you to slow down. This slowing down has the combined benefits of making you spend more time observing your subject and its surroundings to increase awareness and in turn create a stronger or more interesting implied story; it forces you to spend more than a breath looking at the composition in the viewfinder and being aware of elements that might be imbalanced or distracting or intrusive, or that should be included. In fact, I almost always land up working off the rear LCD rather than the finder as it has the convenience of touch functions, the precision of live view focus, and tends to be larger*. So why is it that I actually haven’t used a tripod outside of macro and product work in the studio for over a year now?

*My preference still remains for an eye level finder when working quickly, though – both for immediacy and stability of having the camera braced against your face; arms’ length with an LCD is not stable and such situations usually don’t yield time for another try if you happened to shake. We have recently seen the jump from ‘good enough’ EVFs to very good EVFs that have improved resolution, color accuracy, black point and dynamic range enough to be quite transparent; once again with the benefit of focusing on the sensor as well as magnification for manual focus. I’d say we’re about on par at this point, at least in FF-land. But I digress.

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A compact death

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In the last few years, our ‘serious’ compact (larger than tiny sensor) options have dwindled to just a small handful: the Ricoh GR, Canon GX, Panasonic TZ and LX, and the Sony RX100. I don’t know if the RX0 qualifies, but I suppose since it has a 1″ sensor – and anything else is thin on the ground. But that’s really about it – what used to be an abundance has now turned into a paucity. Even at the low end, other than all-weather mild-submersible things – it’s been quiet. I don’t think it’s entirely the fault of smartphones, either – because there are some capabilities unique to larger sensor compacts that mean there’s probably an opportunity here to a camera brand willing to take a small risk*. Here’s my thinking…

*That unfortunately probably means nobody, in the current market.

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Photoessay: Slanted

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A series of rises and falls today; topology and mountaineering in urban shadow. An energetic, driving baseline as opposed to something more melodic; think EDM over Mozart (not that I listen to either, to be honest). The beat links the frames together across subject and scale, with occasional visual riffs and explorations of a motif but sticking with this same theme. I’ve probably said this somewhere before, but photography (and any visual art) have always been like music to me; a landscape of texture focused one of our senses. Crucially, both have limitations – music is temporal and one-way only; photography has only two dimensions. But both also have the ability to effect a presentation that transcends the limitations of reality by encouraging us to suspend disbelief and just appreciate what’s put in front of us; we can only see what we are shown. MT

This set was mostly shot with a Nikon D3500, 18-55 kit and SOOC JPEG, with a guest appearance from the Z7 and Pen-F.

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Where will all the photos go?

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Every day, billions upon billions of new images are made; one recent statistic put forth that there were more images made in the last year or two than the entirety of human history before that. It shows, too – in the early days of photography the bar for both content and technical quality was pretty low, given that it was amazing that there was an image at all; these days, there are so many repeats of ‘iconic’ images that they have become cliched and passé. Even though the rise of social media and broadband has enabled content to be consumed at a faster than ever rate, the math only goes one way: the rate of content being generated is increasing faster than the population, and the number of hours per day remains fixed – it is therefore easy to see that either less time is spent viewing a single image, or eventually people will get nothing done except scrolling instagram*. We already know the effect this has had on both the hardware market (positive, then saturated, then people get bored faster) and the professional market (terrible) – so the question I’d like to discuss today is a more fundamental one: what will happen to all of these images in the long term?

*Arguably, this is already happening.

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Photoessay: Nostalgia

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I recently met up with some classmates from nearly 20 years ago (boy, does that make me feel prematurely superannuated), which got me digging around in the archive on my return home. Whilst the earliest roots of my interest in photography started at university, I didn’t really do much serious shooting until the year after – there simply wasn’t the funds or time. I am reminded that the underlying purpose of most images is memory; be it of people, events, ideas, or something else; and that memory is often dynamic with time. Emotions tend to skew things towards extremes, and photos can either be a normalising factor or an emotionally enhancing one. In the browsing I did come across images that were both; all were universally of zero photographic merit and a lot of it was honestly dingier than I remember. But looking a little later – a couple of years – yielded a very thin set (this set) that was a bit more in line with what I want to remember. No doubt I’d make something quite different if I was back there again shooting today. When it comes to remembering photographs, the digital archive doesn’t change or fade, so it can only be our memory that’s playing us for a fool. MT

Shot with a mixed bag of stuff from a long time ago.

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The quest for tactility

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No, the header image isn’t meant to be some abstract representation of touch; it can’t be, since physiological visual and tactile pathways aren’t the same. However, it is a demonstration of why we prefer object or image A over B when they are both conceptually similar (for example: one person over another; one car over another; one meal over another), and I suspect also why some things trigger certain responses in certain people – and moreover, why we are driven to seek out certain qualities of things over others. Today’s post is the distillation of some self-examination over the last year or so – I think I understand my own personal motivations better; hopefully you might take away something, too.

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20 Stories, part V

Continued from Part IV

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Above and Beyond

I am used to having two kinds of clients: the first type tends to want things that have already been done before; they don’t want to take risks because previous photographers might have over promised and under delivered, or they lack the imagination to see something that hasn’t been done before. Or they simply are unwilling to pay for creativity over duplication. These are the kind of shoots that never go into your portfolio because it’s not the kind of work you want to be known for, but we pros have to do because they put food on the table and keep us in business; hopefully for long enough to get the chance to work on a project where we have full creative control and feel the pressure of our own limitations. It’s the kind of project where the client is willing to seriously consider your crazy ideas and trust your ability to deliver them.

My introduction to Koenigsegg came through Hasselblad and DJI. I suggested to Christian (von Koenigsegg) that we combine a bit of everybody’s technology: long exposures on a moving car to show dynamism and suggest a journey; high speed flash to freeze the car to make it distinct; very large prints and expansive compositions to fully use the camera’s resolution – and then top it off with an aerial perspective by putting the H6D on DJI’s largest aircraft. Execution would be tricky as there were a lot of moving pieces to coordinate and a very small window in which ambient daylight would be sufficient to see the surroundings, but not so much as to overpower the car’s lights. It would require a long exposure and a stable aerial platform. Honestly, I wasn’t 100% sure we could pull it off – and there was a backup documentary shoot within the factory to detail the construction process for the times of day where ambient light wasn’t suitable for the outdoor car sequences.

In the end, the shoot only produced five images – each one requiring a couple of hours of setup, test positioning for car, lighting and aircraft. We had to have a coordinator in touch with air traffic control and override codes from DJI HQ to allow us to fly as the Koenigsegg test track was on the edges of a live airfield. In the end I landed up triggering the lights manually with the trigger in one hand, a radio in my ear to direct the driver, and an ipad with the camera gimbal controls in the other – with the pilot next to me. The only time I’d had to do multitask more heavily was during another automotive shoot – a TV commercial where we added a crane car and crane operator to the mix.

I always feel mentally fried at the end of these shoots – but in the good kind of way where you know you’ve pushed your limits, the team’s limits, the hardware’s limits, and come out with something really unique. I’m just grateful there are still clients like this giving us photographers the chance to keep pushing.

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20 Stories, part IV

Continued from Part III

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The 14th Century Jedi

I have a close friend who previously used to shoot for National Geographic in South Africa, but has since retired and just makes images for himself. Those tend to be the opposite to the very serious material he made professionally; as he says, he needs to have a means of decompressing at the end of what often turned out to be very dark or heavy assignments.

His personal work deliberately seeks out an element of irony or humour or whimsy; somehow, these compositions come naturally to him. I’ve tried to do the same myself, but somehow the elements don’t come together for me. Maybe it’s what one is conditioned or trained to see; maybe the laws of attraction manifest different things for different people.

I had just finished a session with my final student of the day and was walking back over the bridge to my hotel in the Old Town. I turned around to see if anything interesting was left behind – turns out I nearly missed a medieval Jedi statue doing a little gardening with his lightsaber. I like how this composition manages to blend my usual formalist structure (reducing scale elements towards the bottom of the frame, also increasing in brightness, darker, more open areas framing the outsides) but add that little surprise.

This frame always makes me think of that friend and the subconscious creative influences a photographer exerts over any and every person who has seen their work; we cannot un-see things. All creative work is derivative; it may just not be from near proximity or even the same field. But it would be extremely arrogant of us not to acknowledge the work of others who had gone before to allow us to shortcut the creative process and take things even further.

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20 Stories, part III

Continued from Part II

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Land’s end, part I

It’s amazing how different two nearby cities in the same country can feel – take Lisbon and Porto, for instance. Both are in Portugal and on the Atlantic seaboard; both have old world charm, the beginnings of a renaissance and the visible effects of entropy. They are blessed with interesting architecture and the kind of topology that makes for both burning thigh muscles and interesting perspectives. The weather was great in both places when I was there. Yet whilst I instantly fell in love with Lisbon, I felt this underlying sense of unease and being haunted whilst in Porto. At the risk of simplification, Lisbon was happy, and Porto was sad – I don’t think I ever managed to figure out why, either.

On the last day I was there, a friend and I took a short ride out to a part of Porto on the coast called Foz do Douro. In summer, it’s known for its beaches; in winter, its spectacular waves. We were there sometime in between, and the sea was frothily moody, if not quite fully enraged.

There are times when vision just clicks and the frames compose themselves; in the two hours we spent at the start and end of the seawall, lighthouse and the places in between, I probably shot more frames than in the previous two days in Porto city proper. The light was dynamic and changing as fast as the sea conditions; the waves hinted at the power of the ocean and the other gathered to watch only put that even more clearly into context. Every frame held a different mood – dark and moody to ethereally backlit; this particular photograph freezes the sea in a position reminding the onlookers it is not to be trifled with, yet with the same onlookers in defiant poses suggesting the spirit of exploration. The water itself is frozen with texture and delicacy, in contrast to the scale of elements; I probably wouldn’t have blinked if a caravel came into view over the horizon, but lamented not bringing my 250mm.

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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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