Friday, January 24, 2014

P35: a city at night

I might start to become a little self contradictory here.  I stated a while ago that I was giving up on the projects in Social Documentary as they were rather banal in their structure, focusing on technique rather than content or reflection.  However, as part of my gradual rehabilitation as an OCA student I am going to reconsider some of the more interesting projects and complete them, a bit of photographic therapy to restart some thought processes.

Night time photography does fascinate me, I enjoy the challenge of working in marginal situations, especially as I am very averse to using a tripod.  Modern cameras, though, are very forgiving, ISO 3200 and effective image stabilization make possible today what was unthinkable a few years ago. The trick is to balance the artificial light with any remaining natural light and to avoid over exposure. Cameras want the world to look grey and so will do their damnedest to take a dark sky and light it up, blowing out the buildings that were the original subject.  A handheld light meter would fix this, but in practice underexposing by 2-3 stops does the trick most times - and with digital a little chimping can fix most problems.  This works for buildings, with more fast moving subjects, shooting on manual after taking a test exposure of the ambient light is the way to go.  Final comment, flash? Sometimes, a little fill flash can help, but generally only works in dusk light, in night it blows out the foreground and creates a fake looking photo.

With this exercise I am digging into my archives a little as I have a night time subject that I have been working on without really thinking about it for years, Singapore.  Singapore is like a second home for me, I first visited on business 18 years ago and have been back most years, often twice, and last year 3 times.  That was an aberation, especially as none of it was business. I guess I love the combination of west and east, the mixing of so many cultures and the combination of safety with hedonistic pleasure. Many times I have thought about moving there, it is my companies Asian HQ and I have been asked before to go.  Family prevented that move and I think it is now a little late in my career to start again in Asia.  So we try to get there at least once a year, usually on the way to a dive trip somewhere in Indonesia, the Philippines, or Malaysia.

I always take a camera and due to the heat and tropical sun tend to take most of my photographs in the evening.  I try to book a hotel that offers an outlook over the city.  My first photo was taken from my room in the Stamford Swiss Hotel, a giant tower, with balconies overlooking the financial district.  This is an almost iconic view of the city at night, but I have included in the foreground the playing field of the Padang on which people are doing some football practice.  This type of landscape photo helps to frame the location, a statement of where we are.

Another hotel, this time overlooking the east coast express way, the road linking downtown to the airport.  Perching my camera on a desk this is another standard view of a city at night, trying to capture the never ending flow of cars.  I think a key element in city photography is to image the energy and pace of life.

Another hotel, this time the Mandarin Oriental on Orchard Road, nice hotel bad location, miles from anywhere interesting.  However, in my case the construction site opposite was a boon.  They worked all night.  This was another photo with quite challenging exposure, which needed a lot of post processing.  The question is how much detail to show in the surroundings. In the end I opted to light just the construction, yielding this image of the continual construction cycle that is an Asian city.

I have long been an admirer of the work of Michael Wolf and his images of Hong Kong apartment blocks, I am drawn to the uniformity of the patterns broken by the occasional piece of individuality.  This is really marginal as a handheld image, requiring a telephoto and with very dim lighting on the building.  Quality is poor, but I think as part of a sequence it works fine. It is also an important image for me as I tend to be fixated on the hustle and bustle of the bars and cafes at night, forgetting to think about where all these people go.  A small island with a very large population means that most live in towering apartment blocks.

My favorite hotel in Singapore is the Swiss Hotel at Clarke Quay, just on the Singapore river and adjacent to a huge area of bars and restaurants.  Not the cheapest place in the world to eat and suffering from a tourist premium, it is worth it my opinion.

It is a popular hang out for students, although the prices make it not so affordable.  In the middle is a small 7 Eleven that sells ice cold drinks and snacks at "normal" prices.  A lot of people simply buy a 6 pack and hang out on the bridge enjoying the atmosphere.  It makes for a wonderful atmosphere, a big change from home where a large group of young people hanging around drinking on a street would not generate quite the same feeling.

In the tropics dusk is very short lived, and although it is the best light to shoot by, you have to plan ahead and be where you want to be to take a few shots.  Not really my modus operandi, but this is an example of a shot that really worked with the light.  Simply luck, being in the right place at the right time.  It is also a rare example of clouds that weren't dumping a tropical down pour.

All cities like to show off and Singapore is no exception.  The Marina Bay Sands Hotel and Casino is a Las Vegas style complex that wants to be noticed.  Singapore has now overtaken Las Vegas in terms of gambling revenue, although notice that Sands is a Vegas company.  Tricky photograph shot from a moving boat, but taking advantage of my OM-Ds image stabilization and the fact that although it is dark those lasers are very bright.

Same location from the other side

One gem in Singapore and free entry is the gardens by the bay with their impressive artifical rain forest.  These are giant structures covered in tropical plants with a bar at the top of the one in the middle.  Surrounded by water there are plenty of opportunities for intriguing night time photography.

So far it has all been landscape, in a sense the easy stuff, nothing is moving unless of course you are on a boat, but that was my decision.  Much more challenging is to photograph people in this light.  Rather than imaging the lights I now must use those lights to illuminate my subjects.  The first example is relatively easy as everyone is seated and so limited movement.  This is an image that would have been destroyed by flash, the strange coloured lighting provides the sense of the photograph.

Moving people are much harder to frame and shoot.  The cameras focus is slow, the framing harder to judge.  Sometimes you just get lucky.  This is one of my personal favorites from Singapore.  I was trying to shoot the fountain, when the lady in red crossed my path.  The blur adds to the sense of movement and perhaps mystery.

If moving to fast this is what happens, although again I do not think it is wrong, it adds movement to the frame.

I have discussed before my tendency to try and place people in boxes.  Night time is a great opportunity for this type of photo, using the light inside the building and the windows as a frame.  The addition of the lanterns was a nice touch here.

Another example, and very Singapore.  Typical expat bar open to the street.

Finally I also experimented with taking my camera inside at dusk and using the ambient light as part of the background.  This is the inside of the Sands resort, a massively ambitious building.  Because the space is so large it feels like being outdoors.  I must say that I think lighting here is good, the large spheres creating a gentle yellow glow balancing against the evening blue.

Our last trip was end of November last year, Christmas was in full flow, odd to see the decorations in 30 degree tropical heat.  I really should have spent more time creating images of this weirdness, but mojo meter was low, so I just took a few.  This is my fave, again, the light from the tree balances with the dusk light outside.

I finish with the photographers reward, the most expensive beer I have ever had, but I guess that was the rental for a seat to enjoy the colonial ambiance of the Raffles Hotel courtyard.  Now where is my Pith helmet?

One day I should make a serious photo study of Singapore, but somehow I doubt that will ever happen, there is simply too much else to do. But over time, my catalog grows.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Social Landscape

Whilst this course is very much orientated towards the human image as a document of society, I am more interested in the affect of society on the landscape we inhabit and conversely how the landscape reflects the society we live in.  Living in a city I am in a landscape that is very much a product of society, the buildings and streets reflect how we order the world and how we want others to see our impact on that world.  Munich is an old city, with a long and rich, sometimes violent, history.  This is reflected in the fabric of the buildings that constitute the city.  Turning a corner you can go from the ultra modern to the medieval, then find yourself in woodland.  The majority of the work I have done as a student with the OCA has used Munich as a backdrop, I am lucky to live in such a richly varied place.

I am becoming increasingly conscious of change, noticing how the pace is accelerating.  I embrace the change, I am a technophile working for a large computer company.  I just spent the last two days integrating a new 4TB drive into my computer, updating my Lightroom setup, and then adjusting my backup schedule to accommodate it.   Over Christmas I installed a network aware weather station that sends updates on the CO2 level, temperature, and humidity in my home to the internet.  I can then monitor my homes micro-climate from my phone anywhere in the world.  I really enjoy the technical challenge of making it all work together, but at the same time have nagging doubts about whether we move too fast.   Is it a good thing that my 3 year god daughter learned how to play games on her iPad before learning to speak?

I find that I want to say something about this, to explore how the world around me is changing, not to protest, but at least to comment.  This brings me back to the city and the area I live in.  I moved to my current home 7 years ago, in the cheap end of the high rent Bogenhausen district.  Just North of my home is an area of streets filled with large expensive homes, costing many millions and inhabited by Footballers, Lawyers, and Bankers.  It is where Eva Braun lived before meeting her doom.  Most evenings we take a walk and jokingly discuss which house we would like to buy if we won the Lotto, actually most are beyond even that wealth.  Over the years many of the original houses have been replaced by new ones.  Germans view old houses as used houses and frequently will buy an old house to knock it down and build something tailored to themselves.

It struck me that there was a way to image this change and present a view of what was happening in the area.  Google maps imaged the streets in 2008 creating a time stamped visual record of the buildings as they then looked.  This would enable a 5 Years later on view of how the urban landscape was changing, using this modern technology to look back in time.  I created a set of 11 images of buildings that I knew had changed by screen grabbing from Google and printed them 4 to a page.  The rest was simply a walk around with my camera using the Google prints as a guide for location and camera position.  I have attempted to get the view similar but not the same, the vantage point and the panoramic stitch used by Google defeat an exact comparison.

Importing the lot into Lightroom and creating pairs of photos using the print function to print to JPG, I ended up with the following pairs of images, each separated by roughly 5 years, well 5 and a half, summer plays winter.

Some rather nice 1930s houses are vanishing, ironically replaced by modernist buildings that are actually based on the 1920s architectural style of the Bauhaus.  Pink and Yellow are giving way to a variety of shades of grey and a lot of green space has gone.  I don't dislike the new houses, I would love to live in one, they are probably superb living machines, but the character of the area is changing.  The softness of age is being replaced by hard edges.  It is also noticeable in some cases that low hedges and iron gates are being replaced by high walls and impenetrable hedges.  The redistribution of wealth in society from the poor to the rich has struck me as something similar to the change that happened in England as Anglo-Saxon gave way to Norman and the medieval world concentrated wealth in the hands of a tiny aristocracy.  These new houses echo the high-walled castles built by the Normans to subdue the English.

This is simply an exploration of a few ideas coupled with a little pseudo political commentary.  Might become something, might not.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


Anyone who knows me or has read my blog will now that I do the occasional wedding, and that whilst I grumble about it I secretly enjoy creating photographs that I know will have deep meaning to someone for many years to come.  It is easy to be dismissive of Wedding Photography as a genre, but it is where many of us can make a living with a camera and lets be honest these are photographs that will be seen more and shown more that any art work that we will ever do.  Conversely there is a repetition to the process, the day follows a pattern as do the photos, and convention demands that I take certain shots.  There is a little space for self expression but not very much.

Once in a while, though, something special comes along that brings a new challenge and sense of achievement.  In October last year this was presented by the wedding of my sister in law, Irene to Donal.  They had first met many years ago when Irene was a student and Donal a history professor at the American University in Munich.  My wife even took classes with him.  A few years ago they bumped into one another again, a conversation became a romance that resulted in a wedding.  Heidi and I were astonished, we had Irene down as the resolutely independent single gal. However, there is someone out there for all of us, it is simply that sometimes the wait is longer than expected.

As the family photographer I was immediately on point with instructions to enjoy the day as well as take photos.  Hmmm, I have heard that before a few times, doesn't normally work, but this time it did.  We had a great day.

The wedding came with a few challenges.  First of all, although both live in Munich they are US citizens and that makes getting married in Germany very complex.  After a few months of creative bureaucratic blocking by the German authorities we all headed to Copenhagen, the Las Vegas of Europe, a city that only asks for a birth certificate and passport.  Irene and Donal were going to be married in the city registry office which does not sound like a lot, but we were in for a surprise.  This presented a couple of challenges for me.  Firstly registry office weddings are very short and there is a very limited time to take photos.  The other was created by the incredibly low light in the wedding room.  This meant working quickly in very tough lighting conditions.  Finally they wanted a relaxing day and not to be bugged all the time by a flash gun going off.

The key here was to go with the flow, grab shots as and when I could, almost like street photography.  Balancing flash and ambient light was harder than usual, too much flash and I would blow everything out, too little and I risked hand shake in the images.  Movement from dark to light also challenged my maximum shutter speed on the flash.  I lost a few images to over exposure when the camera stuck at 1/200 to sync with the flash - oh for a decent auto ISO on a Canon DSLR!

But it worked in the end and I ended up with a record of a very special day.

The wedding chapel was a marvelous space, brightly painted with Viking sagas, a celebration of Danish culture and history.  This is the waiting room

and a shot taken from the balcony of the chapel.

The wedding party, a very small group, Irene is second from the left, Donal on the far right.  On the left os my wife Heidi, the other couple are Donal's son and his fiance (they are marrying this week, fortunately not wanting any photos).

We only had 20 minutes or so, so I got busy and captured a few "moments".

Soon the official arrived, looking very solemn in her robes, but a really cheerful happy person who added to the experience.

As mentioned above the wedding room was dark, very dark, but so richly decorated.  Over doing the flash would have been a crime, this was not easy photography.

The only negative about the experience was the narrow spiral staircase that acted as the only access to the wedding room.  It was an old building, but there was no accommodation for any form of disability - we joked it was some kind of Viking test of resolve to climb the stairs, but it was genuinely difficult to go up and down.

These two capture their joy, it was simply a great day

Donal and son

I had to!  I saw the truck coming and quickly yelled at the couple to pose.  They were confused but obeyed, then looked over their shoulders and laughed.  It was a day that definitely called for a Carlsberg - well in truth anything but that watery crap, but anyway the motif was apt.

I had a chance for a few formals, not too many - they insisted on not being too formal!

I always create a book from my weddings and if possible like to have a shot of the rings covering the bouquet.  To soften the image I dropped the clarity slider in Lightroom way down, one of the few occasions when reducing sharpness works

A great day and a record that I know for sure will be cherished for many years to come.

Honestly, I have had enough of weddings now.  I am reasonably proficient as a wedding photographer, not particularly special, but able to do the job required.  I could be a lot better, but that would require doing more than my current 1 or 2 events a year and really upping my game.  My issue is not that I don't enjoy doing the work, I am just not learning very much any more.  If anyone asks I will say yes as I like to help my friends out, but I will not actively seek this type of work.  It is no bad thing to have a decent wedding portfolio, there is money to be made (I still have yet to charge), but it is a huge time sync, especially when already working a tough job.

Kodak Tri-X 400

An odd title for an odd post.  A year ago I began shooting film with my new medium format folding camera.  I shot 7 rolls of film, took 4 to the camera store, keeping back 3 for me to learn the process of developing, another project that was consigned to the dustbin of overwork.  The exposed films sat on a shelf mocking me every time I saw them, a constant reminder of failure.

With my new found enthusiasm and commitment I finally got off my backside and headed down town to Sauter Munich's largest camera shop and one that still actively promotes and supports film photography.  OK, I should have developed them myself, but a step at a time. A week later I had a bit of work to do with my scanner.  The films were over a year old,  so it was quite interesting to see what I was thinking back then.  One of the rolls was some nice snow scenes, pretty, but more an exercise in exposure latitude than anything else.  The other two, however, were rather interesting.

One of the films was shot on a hard winter day whilst walking along the Isar river.  My mood at the time was very bleak, I was struggling with the course and losing confidence in myself as a photographer, I think the photographs reflect that feeling.

I have slightly cropped the first photograph, there was some distracting detail to the right side, however, this is the only photo I have cropped.  I find the huge viewfinder allows me to frame more accurately and the square format somehow makes achieving verticals easier.

Once in the trees the bleakness of the landscape really comes out, and again the framing is far more carefully managed than with Digital, every photo was clearly thought about and planned.

There is also something about medium format and the softness of background blur that works for me visually:

The photographs in the woods along the river bank reflect what I was feeling and also perhaps a longing to get back to a more considered approach to photography. I am much more in my element walking slowly and thinking about what it is I want a photograph to present.  I enjoy looking at a complex scene and trying to work it out in a photograph, wanting to solve the puzzle of representation.  When shooting people I don't have that sense of reflection and have to work far faster than I am comfortable with.  I enjoy street work, but am more drawn to the framework of the street rather than the people occupying that space.  The people become ornaments, not subjects.

During the past year I have thought a lot on the topic of representation of the world I experience and what I want to say as a photographer.  It must be personal and it must somehow capture my world view.  I am increasingly disillusioned by the modern corporate world and consumerism and yet at the same time captured by it.  I begin to think of myself as an addict trying to kick a habit.  The question will be how to translate that feeling into imagery, no answers yet, maybe in a few years I may develop something.

In the mean time my last roll of Tri-X was heading in that direction.  I spent some time exploring a very fashionable shopping arcade in the city, the images reflecting an interest in the space and what was on sale there.  These are not critical photographs, at least not in the way I present them here.  Juxtaposed against some of the urban poverty I also see around me they might have a different meaning.  Again, food for thought for future studies.

Really more of an experiment in shape and form, than social commentary.  However, these images give me confidence in the capabilities of film and my GF670.  There is a different look, the photographs are more considered and I like the texture of the grain in the film, it somehow conveys the physicality of film.  I don't buy into much of the psychobabble about film versus digital, but it is certainly different both in practice and result.   Better, nope, but there is a value here, I just need to understand it more and work out how and if to include in my workflow.

I also notice in these images and in the final outcome of my Fest project that I work better with melancholy subjects, than with light and joy.  I have been trying to avoid the photographic cliche of imaging "The Other", revealing what that is broken in society, rather than seeking what works.  I feel there is a risk of continually portraying problems rather than solutions, however, one look at the evening news reveals that we are drawn to bad not good news.  My initial thoughts about assignment 4 were to do something bright and happy, people enjoying themselves.  I am now questioning this.  Not because I think it is wrong, in fact I think it would be a better more real study, but it might not be something I can do well.  With Fest, I started in colour celebrating the mad joy of the event, I ended in B&W portraying the casualties.  It was clear what worked better.  I simply do better making photographs that reflect my mood, and my mood is not a bright one these days.