Technically: out of focus foregrounds. Whilst much emphasis is placed on the way a lens renders out of focus areas – the oft-overused ‘bokeh‘ – it’s almost always used to describe the areas that fall behind the focal plane. I think we can generally agree on a few things – ‘good’ bokeh doesn’t distract from the subject with uneven or sharp luminance transitions, double images, harsh rendering, rings or irregular textures in the ‘highlight balls’, patterns, bright edges, coloured fringing etc.; too much bokeh might be pretty but completely negates any sort of context other than what mood can be inferred by the feel of the light and some bokeh is always preferable to none because it helps with subject isolation. However, few outside cinematographic circles talks much about the way the foregrounds render. For that matter, few outside cinematography actively seek to use out of focus foregrounds as part of the underlying structure of their compositions. I think that’s a shame, and here’s why.
Opening questions: What is beauty? What is elegance? What is ugliness? What is refinement? What’s the difference between functionality and art? What do we prefer one object over another, given choice, and identical function/ consumption of resources? These are not easy questions to answer: they require us to address fundamental challenges of not just personal preference, but also identity. We like something because we choose it over something else; we find that beautiful but that preference is a consequence of personal biases, needs, requirements and ultimately – experiences which make our personality and preferences the way they are. Yet our instinctive responses to things are often both immediate and quite strong: the like or dislike is established within moments of contact, and whilst prolonged exposure might breed some latitude born of understanding and tolerance, it’s unlikely to change love into hate. I want to address a very difficult set of questions today: what is the aesthetic sense? How can it be developed? Does it matter for photography, and if so, how does it make us better (or worse)?
Today’s photoessay is a study in color and texture. I’ve always been fascinated by the deep richness of oil painting on canvas, and tried to replicate at least some of that feeling and tonal palette in photography. Admittedly, this is tough given that the medium itself is adding considerably to the impression of texture due to the semi-reflective and three dimensional nature of the surface; we can however at least partially simulate this with our choice of subject and light. It’s already tricky enough to do consistently with static/abstract subjects, let alone scenes and people since we are really not in control of the macro light over the whole area and the subjects themselves (some may not have suitable surface texture) – so we must start small…MT
The lights of Tokyo always form an irresistible backdrop to some interesting characters; for what must be the fourth or fifth year running, I’m back (I’ve honestly lost count) at what I consider to be the best season – autumn, before the weather gets unpleasant, the skies are still blue, and there’s an orange leaf or twenty. An unusually warm summer this year resulted in not much of an autumn – the leaves weren’t anywhere near as extensive as in 2013, and in 2014 I was a week too late – ah well, the vagaries of nature. Nevertheless, Tokyo is so extensive that I feel as though you could live there your entire life and barely scratch the surface photographically. On this trip, I tried out some different hardware for cinematic work compared to my normal 55/85 Otus – I wanted to see if smaller, lighter could also apply to cinematic work albeit with slightly reduced maximum apertures. I used the Zeiss 1.8/85 Batis (Sonnar) and the Zeiss 2.8/85 Sonnar, an older Contax design. What I found was the Sonnar actually produced a more pleasing rendering for this purpose – the Batis is razor sharp but I somehow prefer the softer, more rounded properties of the older lens – especially for out of focus foregrounds and skin. It is stronger at middle and close distances because of this; the Batis excels at longer distances because it differentiates between planes more easily. Neither is as good as differentiating as the 85 Otus, but that’s also a faster and better corrected (apochromatic) lens – the price we pay there is occasionally nervous bokeh and some onion rings under certain conditions. I digress: it is of course about applying the right tool to the right situation to get the desired images…enjoy! MT
This series was shot with a Sony A7RII, Zeiss 1.8/85 Batis, Contax Zeiss 2.8/85 Sonnar MMG and Zeiss 2.8/21 Loxia and post processed using the Cinematic workflow in Making Outstanding Images Ep.5. You can also look over my shoulder at the underlying postprocessing in the Weekly Photoshop Workflow series.
This is a slightly unusual topic for me: concert photography is something I’ve done quite a bit of, but never generally publicise because it falls out of my preferred commercial work. I started with being interested in the music first, in the mid 2000s; I shot a number of small venues locally, and these actually formed some of my earliest work – licensed to musicians and the like. Sadly, musicians are much like photographers: 99.99% of us are broke, but there are a small number of rockstars who make it into the big leagues. There are a few more who do okay and get by; we’re thankful we can sing for our supper and not drive a desk. That said, I have never (and will never) be on the other side of the microphone.
As a very much non-American, Chicago tends to evoke a few things in my imagination every time I visit: gangster hits in back alleys with fire escape stairs and Art Deco building rear entrances; Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead; Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks painting (which coincidentally is in the Art Institute of Chicago, though I’ve not seen it in person), and to a lesser extent, Saul Leiter’s splashes of color sandwiched between glass. I suppose it must be curious to a local which of the many cultural references make it across the international divide, and how few of them are sporting…
In a conversation, sometimes what is left explicitly unsaid reveals just as much as what is – and the same is true in photography. Whilst much fuss is made over extended dynamic range, highlight and shadow recoverability and similar technical aspects, the question of what we’re going to do with all of this latitude is seldom addressed. In a practical sense, there is of course the desire to replicate the tonal range of the human eye especially for very literal images like most landscapes, but to move beyond that requires a bit more conscious consideration of the end intention.
Today’s article was inspired by a comment made by one of my readers a couple of months back: “It is interesting to look at your posts around 2 years back. I originally found the blog through reviews (surprise) but kept reading due to the good available light photography. Now a lot of the photos from back then look quite dated in comparison to your recent work, especially the processing.” I don’t know if it’s just the processing, or the fact that the processing is now entirely subservient to the idea, not locked into what is required for a certain look or style. I’ve always had an internal conflict between making images that are recognisably ‘Ming Thein’, not getting stuck in the same mould, and to a somewhat lesser extent, making images that are different from everything else. To anybody serious enough about photography that they seek to make a name for themselves – be it through commercial or gallery work* – I suspect this is not a unique conundrum. So what can we do?
*Arguably the same at times
A couple of days ago, we looked at the inexact science of color and emotion: I don’t think anybody is going to argue that the mood and feeling of an image is influenced heavily by the dominant color palette, both in terms of the color of incident/reflected light and the color of the subject elements themselves. But how does this translate to black and white images? Obviously, it’s very possible to do since not every monochrome image feels the same. Even within the same sort of general lighting – say low key – it’s possible to produce variations in mood. How?
The idea of a photograph looking like a painting isn’t a ridiculous one. In fact, I personally find it quite appealing, and a very good solution for the times when you don’t have strong enough light to make something more dynamic. It’s certainly a style I’ve been exploring increasingly – beginning consciously with Havana – but what exactly makes a photograph ‘painterly’?