Back to Basics

Rather than write a load of blather I thought it would explain more if I posted a letter I sent to a photography friend.

Hi Fee, I’ve had an interesting set of experiences the last week. As you may remember from my message I was in Vienna, ostensibly to see a large exhibition of Robert Frank photographs. I originally thought the exhibition was a retrospective but it turned out to the collection of some super rich dude from Switzerland. It was seriously interesting because many of the pictures I have never seen before as prints, especially as old 1950/60 prints. It’s fair to say that despite Franks disdain for convention he was a masterful printer of Black and White photographs. But enough of that, to the point.

As I’ve mentioned in previous missives I’ve been working a lot lately as an event photographer, plus the occasional portrait to keep my hand in. The work is interesting and I enjoy it, but the event stuff in the final analysis, really quite boring.

Engaging on the day, but not really satisfying long term.

I’ve also improved my P.S. skills to a sophisticated level, which means I can do more with a photo and do it fast. Sounds great, but the lack of challenge translates into a dwindling in interest in the everyday world of photography.

Solution, go back to my roots.

Hence I’ve once again taken up film. In fact the only camera I took to Vienna was a film camera.

The difference in picture making is profound. For a start, everything is soooo slow. I’m using my medium format Bronica, which means first taking a light reading, a maximum ISO of 400 and no auto focus assist in low light shots.

And there are only 12 shots to a roll, so one needs to choose what one shoots with care.

I set myself a limit of one roll of film per day, which seemed insignificant compared to the plethora of shots I shoot with my digital camera, but the daily limit proved to be more than I could accomplish.

Instead of indiscriminately pressing the shutter button it was, do I really want this shot, was this the best angle, was the light right, would it print, was there too much/little contrast in the scene and how was it going to look in B&W.

Back in Berlin I had some old chemicals at home so I carefully processed what I considered the most insignificant roll. The chemicals turned out too old to work.

The roll lost.

Despite the knowledge that there wasn’t much of value on the roll, there is still the nagging doubt that there might have been something.

The pain of not knowing is real.

Ya don’t get that sort of emotion with pixels.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not reconverting back to analogue. I love what I can do with my digital cameras, but for a break from reality, film is so engaging,

absorbing,

fraught with risk,

offers so little in the way of reward,

the rewards that come take time to materialize,

which is exciting in it’s own perverse way.

it’s full of surprises. I guess the trick is to let oneself continue to be surprised.

Cheers

Me

Bronco SQA, 80mm, f4, Classic Pan 400ASA( 9years out of date), processed with Adonal Rodinol, 1/50 dilution.

 

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Basic Instructions

It never ceases to amaze me that no matter how many times one picks up a camera to shoot the potential to learn something new is always a pregnant possibility.

On Saturday I had an event to cover, a 12-hour day/night shift so naturally I checked all my equipment the day before and double-checked on Saturday that everything was there and working properly before I left: spare batteries, spare SD cards, all lenses as well as the camera itself.

In the past, when camera manuals were small books that came with the camera I always included it my kit bag. Why? Because if something can go wrong it will go wrong and it will always go wrong when you are working, so the book helps immeasurably with little quirks that sometimes happen – quirks that are interesting when you are at home and just playing, but stressful when someone is paying for your time. After doing this work for a few years one begins to think that there is nothing about the camera to learn, but a camera can always surprise you.

So I take my camera out of the bag, check that the dial is set to manual (I always shoot in manual) and then try to adjust the aperture, a flashing L appears in the information window and that’s it. The aperture changes in Aperture priority but nowhere else.

Things were happening and I needed to take pictures immediately so I worked around the problem for the entire event.

I thought at the time it was a software glitch, what else could it be my computer wire brain told me

It was the dedicated lock button. Three minutes at home the next day in a bright and quiet atmosphere was enough to solve the riddle.

My old 5D had the feature on the on/off switch, which often irritated me but I’ve never used the lock button on this camera, nor do I understand who or why one would. I think that, as I took the camera from the bag I inadvertently moved the sliding lock button half a centimeter, enough to cause the problem.

I now know what the flashing L means.

24-70mm, f2.8, 1/125sec, ISO 8,000

meeting expectations

Berlin’s Night of Music takes place on the longest day of the year, and that was yesterday; consequently, we are now on the slow slide into winter. That’s not really a bad thing as I like the winter months. It’s also the signal to begin the marathon of festivals and events that make the summer months interesting.

Like we have done for the previous two years, I – along with a group of intrepid artists from the Brücke Kunst – took up our positions on the crossover bridge at Berlin’s oldest harbor near Jannowitz Brücke. We do this to engage with people, both young and old in the process of painting, modeling, etching rubbing, playing an unplayable instrument and posing for an almost instant photographic portrait, all for a bit of loose change.

It may sound odd but we are getting repeat business, especially for the portraits. One family has gone from one child to three over the period and they have sat for a portrait with each new addition, becoming old friends, although I was assured that there would be no extra child in next year’s picture.

The two young ladies in today’s image are sisters from Melbourne, Australia who are travelling Europe and only in Berlin for a couple of days.

And if you were to ask ‘Why do I find this picture interesting? Because it looks like any standard tourist snap shot” then I would reply, “Where are the flash marks, why aren’t the highlights (faces) blown out by the flash, and isn’t the light nicely balanced to bring out the blue in the night sky?” It’s a movie version of what a snapshot should look like.

It looks like a travel snapshot because it’s designed to look like one.

In post some grain was added, a vignette filter to darken the top and warmed the image up a little, but other than that it’s straight out of the camera.

The soft even lighting on the young women is not the product of skillful lighting on my part, but modern technology in the form of a ring flash that cost just over €100. that I was using as a key light in portraits for the first time yesterday.

I think it is important to consider what a photograph will be used for, which in this case is memories of Berlin, and that’s why it is the way it is.

50mm, f5.6, 1/180sec, ISO320, Yongnuo Ring Flash at ½ power

Quiet Moments

At heart I am a bit of a minimalist, and I do love a good photorealistic painting, which is why the late Jeffrey Smart has been one of my favorite painters ever since I first saw his work in Sydney back in 2003.

So it would come as no surprise that I look for similar-style scenes to photograph. It’s the precise positioning of every element in a Jeffrey Smart painting that I find most engaging. Unfortunately, the very mechanical nature of the photographic medium under normal circumstances prohibits such fine placing of the elements at least for someone of my Photoshop skill level.

Photography does have the decisive moment, but that’s more about capturing a fleeting moment, a slice of time as it flashes by. What appeals to me in this picture is its contemplative restfulness. We can see that this isn’t a fleeting instance of action but a period of quiet stillness, made visually enjoyable by what we know as the appeal of vertical lines, disappearing perspectives and frames within frames. But without what Kandinsky explained as the tension within the frame, a tension that’s supplied by the almost perfect positioning of the people, it would be a dull lifeless image.

If it was a painting it would be ­­possible to correct the problems of left leaning, but in a photograph, despite the wonders of PS, when you correct that problem, other dimensions change, so more work is required.

The end result would be different, more constrained image, and not a picture I like.

 

FujifilmX20, f5.6, 1/250sec, ISO200

Framed

Another thing I like to do when photographing events like writers festivals is to include the audience in the picture while maintaining the viewers concentration on the principle author on the stage, which in this case is Samanta Schweblin, who is both centered within the frame and in the brightest part of the picture­.

Naturally I have headshots of her and the other authors, such shots are mandatory and everybody does them because they’re expected by the organisers for the web etc.

However, although these oddly framed shots are rarely used on festival internet pages, they do often appear much­ later in printed matter or online articles and the reason for this is something I find very interesting. Although such pictures appear to have been shot by an amateur they are in fact a part of the professionals toolbox. The deliberate “amateurish” framing of the shot makes the picture appear more spontaneous or truthful than its tightly framed brethren, a “this is how it really was on the day”-type of photo that adds visual engagement and points of reference to an article or review.

However, you do sometimes get some odd looks from people who wonder if you know what you are doing.

50mm, f4, 1/80sec, ISO12,800 (in these situations I always have the ISO set to auto)

Light Comfort

It can’t be denied that snow makes the world just a little bit more colouful, brighter as well as colder.

While the rest of Germany has been deluged with storms and heavy snow falls, Berlin has seen very little of the bad weather, which has been both great and not so great.

The occasional long snow fall made Berlin brighter, but the weathers switching between warmer/colder temperatures has made the ground underfoot in the park where I take my daily walk treacherous and uninviting, no fun at all.

But for photographers snow is a huge bonus. This picture, taken in the rear courtyard of our apartment house comes alive because the cold blue-toned light contrasts subtly with the yellow incandescent lights, which to my eye makes for a warm and inviting picture.

Odd when you consider that it needs to be cold to give the picture a feeling of warmth.

 

FujifilmX20, f2, 1/30sec, ISO400

Reality Biting

There is this enduring myth in many parts of the world that Germany or Germans in particular are brutally efficient and that the trains always run on time. I say myth because today I experienced the reality, and the reality was time consuming, irritating and uncomfortable.

I caught the 10:15 train from Berlin Zoo to Frankfurt/Oder with arrival at my destination expected to be 11:32.

In a small town called Briesen the train stopped; an announcement told all that the train would no longer continue and that all passengers should leave the train.

Exasperated like everybody else, I wanted to know how we could continue the journey. The ticket collector had no idea; in fact, no one had any idea what was going on.

As I was only day tripping I thought what the hell I’ll have a look at Briesen.

That took 15 minutes.

Now what?

As you can see by the clock in the photo I’m almost an hour late already and there is no train in sight.

Deutsch Bahn did belatedly offer a bus service, but by the time this photo was taken no bus had arrived, although another Frankfurt/Oder-bound train had disgorged its bewildered passengers to gather with the others waiting with wilting hope for alternatives to materialise.

It seems very clear to me now that ‘ruthless efficiency’ thing was something belonging to German folklore. Although maybe I’m being unfair to Germans in general, it could be that efficiency and good customer service are not part of Deutsche Bahn’s mission statement, which means disrupted journeys and customer confusion is not their problem.

I finally caught a train returning to Berlin at 12:45.

It began to rain at 12:30.

There is no protection from the weather at Briesen station

 

Fujifilm X20, f4, 1/100sec, ISO100