Thursday, December 27, 2012


Well, Christmas is finally over and I can get back to thinking about my ongoing study of the art of photography.  I have very deliberately taken a break from creating photographs, reading about photographs and writing about photographs, the 3 tasks that seem to fill any free time recently.  I am running the risk of becoming too engaged with the subject and becoming frustrated or worse, bored with the whole thing.  On the other hand it is time to get back in the grove,  I have much to do in the new year. I must rework my 2nd assignment, begin to think about the essay and catch up on much of the project work I have left undone.

Before all of that, I want to revisit a personal project, exploring the use of medium format film as opposed to my arsenal of digital cameras.  Just before the festivities I was able to collect my first B&W negatives from the processor, the first roll of film that I put through the camera.  The first key learning has been that B&W takes much longer and is far more expensive to process than colour, quite the reverse of the situation were I to do it myself.

The second big learning point was astonishment that on a cloudy day I was able to shoot at ISO 100 and still get blur free images, not a single frame had issues with camera shake.  I did not write down the shutter speed I used but it was around 1/30s, well below hand held range with a DSLR and 80mm lens, even with IS.  My admiration for the camera and its integral leaf shutter grows and grows.

The final bit of learning from scanning the negatives was that dust is not a small problem.  Oh boy, and there was me thinking that I had left behind the issue of sensor contamination.  However, I am pretty sure I know the problem, I cleaned the scanner with an old duster just prior to scanning.  I now have  a brand new microfibre cloth and some spectacle lens cleaners that I hope will fix the problem for the future.

Again I find that the medium format camera and in particular the square framing supports very precise alignment of objects in the frame and enables the minimization of vertical convergence of parallel lines without use of expensive perspective control lenses.  It is not all goodness, though, the final shot well illustrates the limitations of the medium, the ISO 100 film has forced me to use a wide aperture and I have insufficient depth of field to properly render the scene.  The second shot in the sequence takes advantage of that limitation, but clearly shooting film implies constraints that I do not suffer with Digital.  On the other hand a 4th lesson learned is to use ISO 400 film in the future unless the light is very strong.

This is still pure play, enjoying getting to grips with a new medium (to me at least).  I have another 2 colour films in for processing and a further 3 B&W waiting for me to develop.  I must still question why I am doing this and where it might take me for this course in particular.  I am enjoying the look of film and with my need to shoot in the style of Robert Frank, perhaps film might help, although 120 film and slow careful shooting was not really his modus operandi.  I do need to spend more time with the camera and see how it works into my current projects.

One thing for sure, it is teaching me the value of patience and forcing a slower more contemplative approach to my work.  This might not, however, be a good thing.

Monday, December 17, 2012

My First Colour Film

OK, I could have written one post on this, but there was quite some time between getting the camera and then getting the negatives, so I am splitting this into two.

This is actually not my first film, that was a roll of ISO 100 B&W.  Lesson #1 in the new world of film photography, B&W film takes ages to get processed, colour is no problem.  I think it used to be the other way around.  I'll post some B&W images if they ever come back.

However, I shot both films in the same area at the same time to have a basis for comparison.  The goal here was to learn the camera and see what I could achieve.  The colour film is ISO 400 Kodak Portra.  Lesson #2, ISO 100 is too slow on a cloudy day, boy did I miss the ability to up the ISO as and when I wished.  If there is a single most important benefit of Digital, auto ISO is it!  Even with ISO 400 film I had to work at getting a shutter speed that would work for me.

But, wow, the camera was a joy to use.  The huge bright viewfinder made framing so much more precise, the manual focus worked well and was quick enough for the imagery I was creating.  This is not a fast action street machine, but you are very sure on what you focus.  The leaf shutter is almost silent, it is hard to tell that the shot has been taken. The lens mounted aperture ring is pretty similar to my X100.  On the whole it was quite similar to using the X100, but just so much more precise.

A key change is the 6x6 format and the resulting square frame, very different to the 3x2 of a DSLR.  This genuinely changed how I framed.  The foreground and background become very much more important and have to be thought about much more than with a 3x2 camera.  I find that I read the photos from front to back, rather from side to side.

The other big change is the manual nature of shooting, every shot needed to be thought about.  The camera has an excellent exposure meter, however, a snowy day meant constant adjustment.  I was also conscious of 12 shots per roll of film and the fact that each photo consumes 1 euro, but this is not a big issue.  I don't buy into the need to use film to slow down, this is a lame excuse, simply slow down, digital cameras only work when the shutter button is pressed.

So how did I do?  Not great, but not bad either.  I have scanned the negatives on my Epson V700 scanner.  This was a rather magical process, to tell the truth, placing these oddly coloured sheets of plastic into holders and then seeing coloured images appear - OK it is not like wet printing, but still rather nice.

My subject was the Isar river and my continuing personal project to document the river as it flows through the city center.  The photos are underexposed a little, the flat white sky and snow on the ground made judging the exposure quite tricky.  However, the overall colour quality is super, very different to digital, and the detail is good.   What I do notice is the exposure latitude. Although they are all a little too dark (I can change that, I know,but chose not to for this exercise) nothing is blown out, I have extreme variations between light and dark in some images and yet there is no loss of detail.  The S curve of film sensitivity truly preserves detail in ways that a Digital sensor cannot.

So far, so good.  I am very happy with this experiment with analog photography.  One final thought, a philosophical point to finish with.  A camera is simply a box with a hole at one end, a device at the other that records light and something in between that determines how much light arrives at the recording device.  Mechanical, Chemical or Digital, the basic processes are the same, a film is a device for recording the number and energy level of photons striking a fixed point in space, a digital sensor does the same.  What happens afterwards differentiates them, not what happens when the shutter opens and closes.

Trying something different

For the past year or so I have been using smaller less versatile cameras, trading the function of a DSLR for a lighter more discrete package.  It started with a Samsung NX100,  then followed with a Fuji X100, and most recently a Samsung NX20.  The Samsungs are system cameras, pretty much miniature SLR's with interchangeable lenses of remarkably good quality for their size.  Conversely, the Fuji has a dedicated 23mm lens or 35mm in real money, an almost ideal focal length for street and urban landscape work.  Although the Samsungs are versatile and produce great images, the Fuji is my go-to camera.

I am increasingly finding that I gain from using a fixed focal length lens, an image must be framed using position and movement, not a simple twist of the wrist.  This forces engagement with the subject and a better understanding of the environment I work in.  The fixed focal length also means that the lens can be optimized for the camera, the sensor and lens are a single fixed entity; the Fuji consistently produces better results than any other camera I own.  As I gain more experience in photography I am progressively simplifying how I take photographs.  I am still a gear head with more cameras than sense, but one with changing priorities and expectations from my equipment.

What has surprised me is the extent to which the camera used influences the results created.  It is not the image quality that really matters, the high ISO,  the pixel density, or the fine Bokeh of a fast lens.  It is the feel of the camera in hand, the brightness of the viewfinder, and the comfort of use, that makes the difference to being able to create a good "interesting" image. If I am comfortable with my camera I work better, I feel more relaxed and am more creative - to use a cliche, I am in the zone, where my camera becomes an extension of mind.  When I first used a DSLR I was intimidated by the controls and options, retaining a nagging doubt that my photos were crap because the "settings" were wrong.  Too much technology.  Nowadays, I put the ISO on auto, set the camera to Aperture priority, and just try to make sure that the shutter speed is fast enough. A couple of days ago it took me half an hour to figure out how to use the flash on my X100, I simply never pressed that option before...

I guess the point I am making is that technology had started to get in the way of making photographs.  I have started to use digital cameras as if they were analog cameras, so it was only a matter of time before this happened:

Meet my new friend a Fujifilm GF670, a 6x6/6x7 medium format rangefinder with a fixed 80mm lens and that novel feature, a chemical sensor...  Back to film, and also to a form of film I have never used, 120 medium format.

For some time I have been trying to lose weight largely through cutting my beer consumption, thus every time I consumed less than 10 beers in a week I added 50 Euros to my camera fund.  A few weeks ago this stood at over 2,000 Euros and I felt very much healthier.  My intent was to use the money to buy a new mirrorless format camera, a Fujifilm X-E1 and a few lenses, however, when it came to it I stopped.  It was not the cost, but the question of whether this would change anything, it is a very sexy camera, but in truth not that different to my Samsung kit and I already had the excellent X100.

So, I decided to spend the money on something that I believe will add something to my photographic journey.  The GF670 is almost a film incarnation of the X100, similar effective focal length, similar lack of ability to zoom.  OK, no Auto ISO, but a good light meter and Aperture priority shooting.  In other words it is a camera and does what a camera does, just with fewer buttons to get in the way of creativity.

So why am I doing this and what do I expect to learn.   Good question, and one that I am not sure I can easily answer.  To paraphrase Garry Winogrand, part of the reason is that I want to see what the world looks like on film.  But, I am not sure yet, I am open minded about this.  I missed the whole film thing, photography for me has been a digital world from the get go - excluding the holiday snapshottery I used to do with old 35mm automatic cameras.  I am curious about film, but have no nostalgia and mostly bad experiences.

The one motivation I can definitely point to is a need to create a tangible object with the camera, that goes beyond GB of digital data.  This stems from my recent project to scan and archive boxes of family photos.  I was struck by the physical nature of the prints and also by discovering the remarkable quality of what were tiny contact prints from 120 roll film (negatives were lost long ago).  These little images contained details of relatives lost many years ago, many whom I never met, their existence now contained only within these prints.  This made photography real to me in a way Digital never has.

Continuing the need to create a tangible object, my birthday was a few days ago.  My present from Heidi, a B&W roll film developing kit.  I really believe that this will provide a greater sense of controlling the photographic process, to gain a sense of being an artist who actually makes something that can be touched and held.

I appreciate that in all of this there is still the contradiction that for the photographs to have any presence in my world they will need to be scanned, uploaded and shared digitally.  Whilst developing makes sense, a wet darkroom does not.  This will be a marriage of the analog and digital worlds.

The beginning of a new photographic journey

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Isar

The feedback from my last assignment, the Oktoberfest, was not good.  I somehow missed the point and delivered an incoherent set of images.  The problem did not lie in the images or technique, but in the intent.  I had tried to rise above having a distinct opinion or stance versus the Oktoberfest, resulting in a set of images that described but did not explain.  My wish was to avoid being judgmental, to present the event as it is rather than as how I saw it.  This was a serious error of judgment, every photographer, no matter how objective, must put a part of themselves into their work.  I should have taken a position and then developed a visual narrative that spoke to that.  Instead I rambled.

Rather than see this as failure, I am taking it on the chin, it is possibly the most important learning experience I have yet to have with the OCA.  In failure I can learn and adapt to a new view on what I create and how I present it.  I will return to the Fest work and create a new narrative based upon my own experience of the Fest.  This post is not that discussion, this post is about what to do next and how to develop further as a photographer.

I have learnt much during the first two assignments in this course.  I can photograph people, both aware and unaware, I can work the street, I am not afraid of getting in people's faces, but I don't really enjoy it as much as I should.  This is not in itself a problem, education should be fun, but some things are more fun than others.  I am starting to see this course as part of the process of developing as a rounded complete photographer, building skills and an understanding of photographing the person, but it is not where I see myself going in the future.

I just got my marks back from the Landscape course, 75%, a good first, but with plenty of room for improvement.  Looking back, there are at least 2 assignments in that course that would equally have worked in this one.  The emphasis was on place, but people were almost always occupying that space.  Although the current Social Documentary course places a heavy focus on people and people in close, the practice of social documentary is about documenting society.  Society can be described and imaged in many ways, it need not be close ups of individuals, indeed I would argue that documenting society should be as much about the traces of people as the people themselves.  In a sense that is what my Landscape course was about, the evidence of people in the landscape.  One constant comment about my Fest work was that I did not crop close enough, in fact I had deliberately widened the angle to ensure that the infrastructure of the Oktoberfest was in the photos as I felt this had a key descriptive purpose.  Clearly my instinct was still to place people into their environment, not to exclusively focus on the people.

Having now completed two assignments that closely focused on people as the subject, I now want to step back a little and perhaps do work that could best be described as a social landscape, to follow my instinctive impulse to contextualize human activity within the environment it occupies.  To that end I am embarking on a short (or maybe long) personal project that examines the Isar river as it flows through the city of Munich.  The city center is just to the West of the river and the original city fortifications extended almost to the river.  The Isar is the origin of the city, the water that enabled people to settle here and the defensive line that protected the city.  The Isar is an Alpine stream grown large, the water still pure enough to drink and even in summer ice cold with the melt from the Alps.  In most places it is broad and shallow, but in parts has been channeled and deepened.  Sometimes the banks are roads and tall buildings, elsewhere wooded parkland, but always changing, always interesting.

My study will cover the length of the river through the city, flowing for roughly 5 miles from South West to North East:

In this satellite composite the bridge at the North carries the outer ring road and is probably the furthest point I will explore.  Walking South the green area on the left bank is the Englischer Garten, Munich's huge central park and the site for many of my landscape photographs.  About half way down and to the left once more is the medieval center of the city, just opposite where a large series of islands split the river.  The large oval area with white tents is the Wiesn, site of the Oktoberfest.  Finally as we go to the south the river meanders and the shallow bed can frequently be seen.  Normally this is a quiet and gentle stream, but in spring if a major rainstorm coincides with the Alpine melt, it becomes a dangerous torrent capable of flooding the lower reaches of the city.

My goal is to study the river and its surroundings, looking at how the river influences the city and it's people, and vice versa.  I am not too sure where this will go and once complete what I will do with it, but I think it makes sense right now to do something that I want to do, not driven by any need to create an assignment or produce a photobook.  However, this is a still a project from which I hope to develop and is a vehicle for exploring where I want to go photographically, especially as I approach my final year studies.  There is an element of wanting to stay in touch with Landscape photography and not be consumed by the current course, hopefully I will be able to merge the two at some stage.

A few days ago I started this project, exploring the river from the bridge that crosses to the Chinese tower beer garden down to the bridge next to the Deutches Museum, a stretch of roughly 2km.  Within this area the river has been straightened, but still retains a very natural aspect when seen from the bank.  It is only when pulling back and widening the view that it is clear that the river is within and urban space.  This is a part of what interests me about the river, the ability to appear perfectly natural and yet be very much a part of the city

Structurally the bridges are fascinating, mostly single span arches, they create a strange other worldly space beneath them.  The following photo also illustrates the changing nature of the river.  I am standing on the river bed, very empty now that it is winter.  The upstream water that would feed the river is now falling as snow and starving the river of its flow.

Trees line the river, but in winter the buildings that fringe the bank can be clearly seen enabling the construction of layered images such as these.

As the river splits around islands, giant damns and weirs are used to manage the flow.  In these cases there is an interesting juxtaposition of the massive concrete structures and the more delicate stone of the older buildings lining the bank.


So gar I have been working very much with a landscape aesthetic in mind, now I switch to something more aligned to social documentary.  Sadly, or perhaps marvelously, structure along the river are heavily decorated by the local street artists.  In places I like their work, here it creates a colourful strip along a walkway under a bridge.

Elsewhere the effect is less pleasing to the eye:

However, the city gets it, they stopped fighting the graffiti and in places embraced it.  This passage drops beneath a major road leading to one of the bridges, enabling cyclists and pedestrians to continue to follow the river bank path uninterrupted.  This used to be rather intimidating, now it has been transformed into an urban art gallery.

Conversely, there are areas on the river where the city has less control.  Just adjacent to the Deutches Museum, Germany's pre-eminent technology museum, a parallel to the Science museum in London, things are less clean and well managed.  In the gloomy underneath of the bridge, can be seen the detritus of ruined lives, syringes are scattered along the wall...

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I am not sure where I am going with this, I have no plan, simply a need to do some photography that I enjoy and that speaks to my own tastes and outlook.   These images are that aesthetic, a description of a place and the evidence of people within that place.  It will be interesting to see where this goes.  Right now I am just along for the ride.