Glass of Water in Sunlight, Revisited
November 28, 2023
Permalink | Tags: Photography, Film Photography, Adapted Lenses
Earlier this month, I posted an image of sunlight passing through a glass of water. At the time, I was trying to use up a roll of Ilford Delta 100 black and white film I had in my Nikon F, and this subject seemed a good way to do so. A moment later, I also shot the same thing with my Canon EOS M50 and an adapted 58mm Carl Zeiss Jena Biotar lens.
Having gotten my latest round of film back from the developer, I can now share both renderings. The one on the left is the film image, and the digital one is on the right:
I’ve grown to love working with film, but I have to confess I’m torn between the film rendering and the digital one. The film image has a natural softness in both resolution and grey tone that I like. The other has the distinctly clinical resolution that I’ve come to expect from digital photography. But it also has a satisfying contrast punch, and its depiction of light reflecting off the grain of the table’s wood is rather pleasing to me.
Which is better? I'm not sure.
The Ansel Adams Guide: Basic Techniques of Photography, by John Schaefer
November 28, 2023
Permalink | Tags: Film Photography, Photography, Book Reports
Several times over the past few years, I’ve checked out the first volume of John Schaefer’s The Ansel Adams Guide: Basic Techniques of Photography from my local library. I’m rewarded every time I do so.
When I first pulled that book off the library shelf in 2021, I had just begun my own journey into exploring photography more seriously. At the time, I was more interested in digital photography, so I glossed over much of the book’s content centered on film.
Published as a revised edition in 1999—the initial one came out in 1992, when film was all that was available—the book appeared at the dawn of the digital age. Some of the content in that revised edition touches upon digital photography, and in the year 2023 that content can seem rather quaint.
But beyond that triviality, Schaefer’s The Ansel Adams Guide: Basic Techniques of Photography has great value. The book has wonderfully in-depth coverage of an entire range of topics of interest to all photographers regardless of whether they shoot digital or film: lenses, tips on photographic visualization and composition, and so on.
But as time has gone on, its value to me has only increased especially as my interest in film photography has grown.
For the film photographer, there is a ton of meaningful information. Topics for individual chapters include technical aspects of black and white film that make exploring that medium so fascinating, film exposure, a step-by-step guide to developing negatives and making prints, and challenges unique to color film photography. As I’ve been exploring using film more seriously, I’ve found the insight this book has offered me to be invaluable. Yet again, it’s a reminder that one needs to turn to a seriously written and edited book rather than rely on what one finds on the internet.
I like the way Schaefer navigated one perennial question: is expensive gear really worth the cost? What’s the difference between what one can accomplish with a $500 camera versus a $5000 one? To be sure, cheap gear often underperforms relative to more expensive gear. Poor optical quality and mechanical construction has a way of turning up in images one produces with inexpensive camera bodies and lenses.
The difference is most often slight albeit perceptible. Does that difference warrant the cost? On this question, Schaefer writes (p. 44):
The answer is again relative. If your confidence is enhanced by knowing that you are working with the finest optical instrument available, and if you respond to the challenge and opportunity it offers, the answer is yes. Remember, however, that as factors in the quality of the photographs produced, the physical properties of camera and lenses are less limiting than the photographer’s technique and imagination.
Although he offers thoughts that let the individual make up his own mind about the question of cost—after all, what’s costly to one person isn’t to another—Schaefer reminds us that an image with true stopping power isn’t that way because of the camera. It’s that way because of the photographer’s ability to visualize an image and to creatively use a camera—any camera—to capture that image in a photograph. You can’t teach that, and you certainly can’t buy that. The instinct that lies behind the most powerful images has to be developed, and the obligation is on the photographer alone to do that.
But perhaps the most useful advice I’ve gleaned from this first volume of The Ansel Adams Guide: Basic Techniques of Photography concerns the purpose of photography. Why make all the images I feel so compelled to make? Why do photography to begin with?
These are questions that point to the importance of projects. In the final chapter of his book, Schaefer touches upon the search for photographic themes (p. 384):
Writing a colorful phrase or sentence is one thing, but crafting a poem or an essay is another matter altogether. Beginning photographers often use their cameras to create images at random, responding to momentary impulses; while individual photographs taken in this manner may be successful, the viewer is usually left with the impression of having received fragments of messages rather than fully developed ideas.
Schaefer suggests a different approach:
As you learn to master your equipment and expand your skills as a photographer, you should work toward creating photographic “essays” that examine themes in more depth. A portfolio of a dozen superb prints organized around a single idea is often much more effective than an assembly of prints of a dozen unrelated subjects.
A bit later, Schaefer continues:
One of the best ways to progress in photography is to select a subject that is accessible and of interest to you and make a commitment to create a portfolio of prints on that topic. Some of the themes that lend themselves well to such an approach are the landscapes of a region; the nature scene and nature; portraiture; people and their culture, rituals, and history; architecture; current events. Pick one of these or any other subject that stimulates your enthusiasm. Be prepared to work on your project for several months, and plan to persevere until you have assembled a collection of fine prints that you would be pleased to share with an audience. You will be delighted to find that along the way you have become a reasonably accomplished photographer.
I often take pictures of things that happen to catch my eye at random. I have a nice collection of images that document life in this way, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Life, after all, rarely if ever goes according to a predefined plan.
But I’ve also come to realize the wisdom of Schaefer’s advice. By engaging in a project, you give your photography purpose, and that purpose will help drive your photography and make it a well-formed and meaningful “essay” with greater depth than what you can accomplish by collecting little fragments of this and that and making it into a collection that ultimately lacks any coherence.
I’ve realized that meaningful projects help focus my mind, drive me to explore a theme or subject, and ultimately push me to create and assemble a collection of images that say something worthwhile.
November 21, 2023
Permalink | Tags: Film Photography, Photography
I was reminded of something this morning, something that I’ve known for a long time now: eBay is insidious.
I am guilty of being a serial window shopper. I usually succeed in mustering enough discipline to resist temptation. On numerous occasions, my tendency to wring my hands over big purchases has served me well in that regard. But every now and again my curiosity gets the better of me.
Today it was an old Praktina FX camera that appeared for sale on eBay some time ago. Introduced in 1953, this interesting camera model was perhaps the first system SLR to appear on the market. Its East German manufacturer, KW, targeted the Praktina toward professional photographers. It had interchangeable viewfinders and focusing screens, a unique breech-lock lens mount, and countless accessories. (For more on the Praktina, visit Alberto Taccheo’s extensive website on the Praktina camera and Mike Eckman’s thoughtful review.)
The example I own came with my all-original 1962 Questar and has a unique modification for use with a telescope. That modification flips the reflex mirror up well before an exposure is made, thereby eliminating one source of vibration that would blur the exposure being made at high magnification. (I have much more about using a camera with a Questar telescope here.)
My Praktina FX is in near mint condition, but I can’t imagine that it’s been serviced in the recent past. I’ve always been reluctant to take it out and about and really use it.
For a while, I’ve hunted around for another example that I’d feel more comfortable with putting through the paces. Egging me on are a few other accessories that I’ve accumulated over the years, a collection that begs to be put into action.
But having put a few rolls of film through the example that I have, my logical side has always reminded me about my actual experience using it. In a nutshell, the Praktina feels downright crude compared to my Nikon F, which I use regularly. Indeed, the Nikon F deserves its reputation as a truly great camera. In contrast, the Praktina’s film advance action feels a little flimsy, it lacks an instant-return reflex mirror, its semi-automatic aperture is a bit clumsy to operate, and so on.
Old hankerings sometimes die hard, though.
Okay, so another Praktina FX is for sale on eBay, and it looks like it’s in great condition. To his credit, the seller disclosed that the shutter operates inconsistently. I would expect as much on a camera that is around 60 or 70 years old. The question is whether I could get that problem fixed.
A quick telephone conversation with the good folks at Advance Camera in Portland helped enormously. Having gotten my Nikon F serviced there earlier this year, I wouldn’t hesitate to send another camera to them for work.
I knew that, if I purchased another Praktina to use while I’m out and about, I’d mostly likely be committing myself to substantial repair costs. If those repairs aren’t possible, though, it’s better to avoid buying the camera to begin with, right? And what better way is there to make a decision along these lines than a simple phone call?
I’m glad I made that call. The gentleman on the other end of the line advised me that the shutter mechanism on those old cameras is incredibly tricky to adjust once the camera is disassembled. In light of the difficulty, they were not willing to take the camera in for repair.
That five-minute call saved me a lot of money and a lot of headaches. It also brought me to a stronger conviction that perhaps my one and only Praktina FX camera is enough for me.
A Place in the Sun, by John Humble
November 16, 2023
Permalink | Tags: Photography, Book Reports, Travel
There are times when I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.
One of those moments happened earlier this year. On a trip to Southern California my wife and I made this past spring, we spent a handful of nights in Santa Monica. Having decided to capture the whole trip entirely on film, I had my Nikon F with me as we strolled down the Third Street Prominade in downtown Santa Monica one afternoon. Suddenly a gentleman who was sitting on the prominade asked about my camera, and we struck up a conversation. After trading contact information, we parted ways.
That gentleman’s name was John Humble. I didn’t know it upon first meeting him, but after spending some time looking at his work through his website at johnhumble.com and his Getty Museum profile, I began to realize that I had just met someone who would become one of my most admired photographers.
Even though I haven’t totally detached myself from rendering my images in electronic form on a device screen, I’ve been warming to the value of having and looking at physically printed images. And perhaps the best way to appreciate those images is in a thoughtfully assembled and high-quality book. In many respects, as the truly good photographers will tell you, books are better investments than camera gear.
Having become familiar with his work, it became clear to me that a sampling of John Humble’s work deserved a place on my bookshelf.
A Place in the Sun (2007), the companion book to the Getty Museum exhibit of the same name, shows John Humble’s masterful ability to find beauty in settings that one might believe is completely devoid of it. He especially succeeds with locating people in the context of their surroundings. I also love his ability to draw out the simple yet striking beauty of the sweeping lines of freeway overpasses from the more human perspective of someone on the ground.
John Humble’s book became not only a valued part of my photography book collection but also a little reminder of the importance of good luck that sometimes happens when I’m out and about.
How I Make Photographs, by Joel Meyerowitz
November 15, 2023
Permalink | Tags: Photography, Book Reports
A while back I picked up a copy of Joel Meyerowitz’s 2019 book How I Make Photographs at Powell’s Books in Portland. This great little book was actually sitting on a shelf of discounted books. But I would have been happy to pay full price for it considering how thought provoking it is.
“Joel Meyerowitz is one of the most celebrated street photographers of his generation,” trumpets the blurb on the back cover inside flap. And he does indeed offer a ton of great advice to practitioners of that genre of photography. Meyerowitz tailors all of his book’s chapters around a tightly-conceived theme or suggestion, and many of those deal specifically with the challenges of street photography: “Own the Street,” “Embrace the Everyday,” “Anticipate the Moment,” and “Make Connections” are the titles for the third through sixth of the book’s twenty chapters.
But beyond street photography, Joel Meyerowitz offers something to every kind of photographer. He opens his book with a chapter entitled “Discover Your Identity as an Artist.” Along with the next chapter entitled “Be Inspired,” where he encourages his reader to let other photographers’ work spark creativity in one’s own work, Meyerowitz echoes themes I encountered in Andreas Feininger’s The Complete Photographer, namely the importance of establishing one’s own unique character as a photographer.
A sense of exploration and inexhaustible curiosity about the world drives Meyerowitz’s book. The camera, in a sense, becomes the mere vehicle by which the photographer learns more about the world and himself. “The way I see it,” Meyerowitz writes, “photography is like putting a key in a door, opening it, and seeing the world suddenly come alive” (p. 61).
I also appreciate Meyerowitz’s emphasis on trusting one’s gut. Although one needs technical competence, doing photography is not a matter of executing canned formulas. At that split-second moment when you decide to press the shutter button, an inner sense of what makes a compelling image should be the driver. It can’t be taught. It’s in all of us. Meyerowitz encourages his reader to trust that sense and develop it.
I’m guilty of being fascinated by camera gear. Maybe I shouldn’t feel guilty about that. Whatever the case may be, I know that camera gear exists to be used. Its purpose is to make images. As such, it’s important to find gear that feels comfortable. Here, too, Meyerowitz makes a compelling case. He puts particular emphasis on one’s choice of lens. After expressing what draws him in particular to wider-angle lenses, Meyerowitz turns the question back to the reader. “My most important technical advice is to find a lens that suits your personality.” Find a lens that matches how you see the world and stick with it. Don’t change lenses constantly. Be disciplined and stick with a single prime lens. “Trust me on this. Pick a lens that feels right, and if it makes you feel frustrated, change it” (p. 82). The simple and ubiquitous “nifty fifty” lens and short telephotos have, for me, become those windows I feel most comfortable using. They allow me to record how I see the world without getting in the way.
After offering some suggestions for composition, Meyerowitz encourages his reader to be courageous, push beyond personal limits, and seek out opportunities that may feel uncomfortable but that make one grow in the end.
One of my favorite chapters in How I Make Photographs is the one Meyerowitz entitled “Photography Is About Ideas.” After having spent recent years moving beyond mere snapshot shooting and becoming a more serious photographer, I’ve reflected on why I do what I do. After admitting it took him time to develop and evolve as a photographer, Meyerowitz drives home an important point. “Photography looks like pictures, but it’s really about ideas. And they’re your ideas; they are unique to you.”
He then asks a direct question: “What do you want to say?” (p. 103).
That is exactly the question that’s been on my mind lately. As I write this, I have well over 6000 images in my catalog from these past two years. That level of production is far beyond the yield of prior years when my photography practice had a more casual pace. What exactly am I trying to say with all those images?
This question doesn’t require a pompous artist’s statement to answer. Posing as expressions of profound insight, such statements more often come across as contrived gobbledygook that are ultimately meaningless. But an awareness of the elements that make one’s best work what it is still has value. Articulating what those elements are can be a challenging exercise, but it is often rather revealing.
And here the importance of culling and editing one’s work emerges, something that Meyerowitz explores at the end of his book.
In one passage, Meyerowitz reflects on one experience he had reviewing a collection of his images. After looking at hundreds of photographs, he realized that a certain theme—flowers—appeared again and again in his work. He eventually tailored an entire book, Wild Flowers (1983), around that theme:
This was a subject that popped up for me out of the editing process. So if you are searching for something new, take a journey into your own interests first. Look at the work you already have and see what it is you’ve hit on again and again. Your subject has identified itself already; it’s just that you may not have recognized it yet, and that’s your responsibility (p. 106).
Recently I’ve been doing a fair amount of editing myself. (To be clear, when I refer to “editing” I mean paring down my mass of images and identifying photographs that have more stopping power than others, not post-production editing using software like Photoshop. I’ve come to believe that no amount of post-production work will make a bad composition into a good one.) One trend I’ve noticed in my own work is one that I’ve noted in the recent past: even though I admire photography of people, I’m not really a people person. The cynical side of my personality sees a certain loneliness that characterizes life today, and I’ve been exploring that theme more consciously in my photography.
I also like portraying urban grit especially when oblique light underscores it. Black and white film in particular allows me to do all of this more effectively. I’m not trying to make any kind of groundbreaking statement here. I just like the look of it.
All of this is to say that reading Joel Meyerowitz’s How I Make Photographs gave me a good boost to continue improving my photographic practice. Buying my copy required only a small financial investment on my part, but there’s no doubt in my mind that it gave far more back to me.
Glass of Water in Sunlight
November 12, 2023
Permalink | Tags: Photography, Adapted Lenses
Intent upon finishing a roll of film I had in my Nikon F, I saw that late afternoon sunlight was streaming onto the kitchen table. Remembering an earlier photo shoot I did with a glass of water, I filled the same glass, attached my 135mm f/3.5 Nikkor, and worked the scene. I only had three exposures left on my roll of film and quickly finished it off.
I wanted to see what my Canon EOS M50 could do with my Carl Zeiss Jena Biotar lens, so I got that camera and lens and continued to work the scene.
It’s amazing how much beauty simple objects can have in the right light.
November 10, 2023
Permalink | Tag: Photography
Over the past few years, I’ve become much, much better with developing and maintaining solid metadata for my photography. It’s become a key part of my photographic practice.
Before I was a very serious photographer, my practice was to take whatever pictures I took with my camera and dump them into a folder system very loosely and arbitrarily organized by date. If I went on a trip or if some other kind of significant event happened, I would start a new folder. Afterwards, I might start yet another folder and would continue down this route however I felt like it at the time. It was all very unsystematic.
In more recent years, I turned around my unsystematic ways and got more organized. As a database programmer, it came very naturally for me to spin up a custom database by which I manage and describe all of photography. Going all the way back—all the way back—to the very beginning of my photography, my AFS exchange year to Australia in 1994, I spent a lot of time dating photos to the best of my ability. With digital images this requires no work since the camera records a date with the image upon creation. But for my film photography, this was much harder. Certain cases were more problematic than others simply because I didn’t bother recording dates during my teenage years and my early 20s when I was using a film camera. Beyond dates, I’ve also been grouping photos under various series centered mostly around location (i.e., where I took a photo) and rating photos, among other things. Especially in cases where I didn’t have a lot of solid information to go on, piecing together clues stoked old memories, which was fun.
I’ve found that last thing—rating photos—to be especially useful. With a rating scale of 1 to 5—1 representing photos that are so bad I don’t know why I hang on to them, 2 representing photos that make me think “meh” upon seeing them, 3 representing solid but not remarkable images, 4 representing worthiness for a photo album, and 5 representing exceptional images—the exercise forced me to consider what elements of a photograph make for better compositions than others. And it’s just a way to isolate photos I truly like from the mass of so-so photos I’ve taken over the years.
With the recent turn of weather away from summer and toward clouds and rain, now has been an excellent time for me to get myself caught up on another data point I’ve neglected in my photography database: keywords. Using a somewhat looser system for capturing everything from a feeling that a particular image may have—urban grit, dreamy softness, humor, and so on—to a particular photographic technique I may have used—backgrounds in focus with foregrounds out of focus, wide angle closeups for intentional distortions, and so on—keywording each image is proving to be more time consuming and mentally taxing. But again, it’s made me far more conscious of what makes an image a pleasing image to me.
For my keywording project, I’ve made it back as far as August of this year. That’s a span of about a thousand images (I guess I’ve been taking a lot of pictures these past three months). My plan is to do diligent keywording both moving forward as well as going back as September 2021, or the time I got my hands on a decent interchangeable lens camera. I may go back in my personal photography catalog even further.
November 3, 2023
Permalink | Tags: Out and About, Photography
This morning I woke up to thick fog. It didn’t take me long to realize that I had a great photo opportunity to take advantage of. A brief convention got underway in my mind: “Do I shoot on film, or do I grab my digital camera? I’m thinking digital. Okay, what lens do I use? Hmm... it’s damp outside, and I don’t want to use my good Nikkors. I think I’ll go for my cheap 35mm f/1.7 Meike lens.”
It proved to be a good choice. My 35mm Meike isn’t the sharpest lens in the world, a characteristic that’s actually an asset in those cases when I want a bit of softness to emphasize the dreaminess of the fog.
November 1, 2023
Permalink | Tags: Travel, Film Photography, Photography
On more than one road trip to Southern California, my wife and I have simply blown through Sacramento. But thanks to a conversation with a neighbor about, of all things, a movie—he had recently seen Oppenheimer in the IMAX theater there—we got put onto a train of thought that ultimately led us to reconsider a town that we had merely seen as a pit stop. Feeling the call of the open road, we decided to spend a few days exploring Sacramento.
We began the visit by doing a bit of hobby shopping. While my wife made a visit to a yarn shop in Midtown Sacramento, I strolled over to Mike’s Camera to pick up some film and to see if they would be willing to indulge my curiosity about a particular Canon full-frame mirrorless camera I’ve been ogling, the R8. I wanted to know what it felt like to bring the camera up to my eye and hold it in my hand, and I liked what I saw.
It also turns out they had a great selection of 35mm film in both color and black and white. While I stood there making my purchase selection, I observed a healthy amount of traffic at their film processing drop off and pick up counter. If there was any remaining doubt in my mind about whether film was alive or not, there was none after that.
I myself ended up with a fresh stock of ten rolls of film: a few rolls of Ilford Delta 100 to try out—I’ve never shot that film stock and am interested to try it out—and eight rolls of Ilford FP4 Plus, which I’ve grown to like more and more.
With our respective hobby shopping out of the way, my wife and I converged again and visited a number of sights.
Highlights included the California State Capitol, where we casually wandered around.
Seeing portraits of various governors of the nineteenth century on the ground floor, it occurred to me to hunt around for more recent ones. It didn’t take long to find them at the top of a stairwell. One pair of portraits, that of Ronald Reagan and of Jerry Brown, hung next to each other in stark contrast. Their stylistic differences clearly underscored the differences in their respective administrations.
We also visited the Crocker Art Museum. Both my wife and I are aficionados of modern art (she more than me), so we naturally gravitated to their more recent collection of art.
In a nutshell, we enjoyed browsing through their exhibits. But as far as art museums in mid-sized cities are concerned, nothing compares to the modern collection at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Another highlight was our visit to the Leland Stanford Mansion. Interior photography was unfortunately prohibited, but I did snap this photo of the striking contrast between the mansion amid the modern office buildings that surround it.
Having grown up in a Rust Belt town myself, maybe I have a soft spot for underdog cities. I get the feeling that Sacramento doesn’t get fair credit for what it offers especially given the fact that it sits in the shadow of the Bay Area. But I’m glad we made a point to visit Sacramento because we discovered a city with a ton to do and with a lot of interesting character.
October 28, 2023
Permalink | Tags: Out and About, Photography
Fall colors at their peak in my region of the Pacific Northwest. Yesterday, I couldn’t resist getting out between errands to snap a few photos of the natural beauty surrounding us.
One of my favorites, the reflection of color off of a pond, has an almost impressionist quality to it.
Lately, I’ve been leaning heavily toward black and white film photography. But there are times when modern digital color photography is undoubtedly the best medium to capture a scene.