Thursday, March 28, 2013

Shaping ideas which shape images...

A Wandering Mind is a sometimes fascinating thing to watch as it meanders from idea to thought to stumble across what ever is found on the path.  Particularly when it's my own mind.

I friend, Pascal Jappy of Dear Susan blog fame, told me about his latest photographic project.

"Click" went my mind.  "On" went some deeply recessed part of my brain.

Chef d'Equipe ~ Aether Engineering

I recalled making platinum/palladium prints from digital negatives printed to Pictorico OHP Transparency Film using a pigment printer.  Platinum/palladium prints, when properly prepared, are thought to be very archival.  It was an enjoyable, simple process.  A little UV light.  A little very expensive Pt/Pd solution.  Certain papers.  A brush.  A contact print frame.  And away you go.  Hmmm... OK... so maybe it wasn't so simple, but it was enjoyable.  Print quality can be truly outstanding, as my friend Ray Bidegain's work attests to.

Making Pt/Pd images put me in the mood to emulate early large aperture long exposure photography.  I love the way light works through the alternative process print and bounced back to the viewer in subtle and gorgeous ways.  I also liked the idea of allowing a scene, as rendered by large aperture optics, to move from extremely sharp, narrowly defined areas into smooth, soft out of focus regions.

Chef d'Equipe ~ Aether Engineering

It is this last effect that I've been giving a lot of thought to since moving to digital capture.  When I shot large format (4x5inch to 12x20inch view cameras, or what the French call les grandes chambres), optic effects were quite easy to achieveJust take a long focal length optic and shoot it wide open.  Or better yet, take an early portrait lens of long focal length and large (for it's time) aperture and watch as the magic manifests.

For me, it has been important to remember that what many people "feel" early photographs were like is actually not the case.  I see where photographers make an emulation of an "early" print by using toy camera lenses that are not sharp, and give harsh out of focus area rendition.

Historically, you will see that even the earliest photographic images are extremely sharp on the plane of focus.  Wander the aisles of any open air brocante in Paris and you will perhaps see what I mean.

Chef d'Equipe ~ Aether Engineering

I worried (nay, obsessed) over how to achieve similar results using APS-C and Full Frame digital cameras.   I looked at buying an adapter that allowed me to take large format lenses to shoot sections of a scene using a digital camera and to later stitch together a scene.  While the approach was promising, it would mean re-purchasing camera equipment that I long ago sold.  It also meant I would be limited to shooting static scenes requiring the use of a tripod.  The whole setup begged to simply return to shooting film, which is not really viable, given our current living situation.

Thoughts, never giving up hope and faster than a speeding bollide, turned to see what kind of aperture I needed in Full Frame digital to match, say, a 300mm/12inch lens shot at f/11 on 8x10inch film format.  That aperture setting is fairly bright on the format.  I have a contact print I made of an image I shot of my father holding a classical guitar he built.  It was shot on 8x10inch film using a Kodak 12inch Commercial Ektar f/6.3 with it's aperture set to f/11.  Talk about a narrow depth of field!   It's a gorgeous image, if I may say so myself (though it sits in storage in the US and I never scanned it to digital to share... oh well...).

Chef d'Equipe ~ Aether Engineering

A depth of field calculator was found and I proceeded to investigate various lens speed/focal length combinations.  It appeared my existing, inexpensively acquired (cheap!!!) Nikon Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 (pre-Ai) and Nikkor 85mm f/2 Ai lenses, shot wide open, could emulate the old large format solution.  These are sharp optics.  I sifted through a small stack of renowned lenses, rejecting a Nikkor 55mm f/1.2 as well as Nikon's highly vaunted fanboy vintage glass, the 85mm f/1.8 H (while fine stopped down, frankly, it was soft wide open), for find this pair of gorgeous image makers. I was looking for an excuse to use these lenses and that excuse had been found.

Putting the shout out for a model (better models should easily be found, but they're not), I found a lighting configuration that emulated early photographic tent studio light, set up a backdrop, calculated the exposure, arranged the materials, and away I shot.

When I started processing the images, I felt my now typical heavily textured approach would be a great way to express what I "felt" about vintage photographs... but... I wasn't completely pleased with the results.  I had over-processed my work.

Chef d'Equipe ~ Aether Engineering

It turns out, direct, nearly straight out of the camera was closest to what I wanted to achieve.  I fiddled with the curves just a bit and applied a tint taken from an early print.  No sharpening nor blurring were needed.

Will I make Pt/Pd digital negative prints from these?  I doubt it.  I'm very pleased with the results as they stand.  I may, however, try to find an imprimateur who can supply these printed on a good heavy weight cotton pigment digital print stock.  You see, there is a photo-show coming up that I might want to display some of this work in.

What puzzles me, though, is why this simple, easy to achieve, quick to implement solution to my photographic problem took seven years and numerous complex investigations to solve?

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Tools... getting smaller...

Well, Canon has gone and done it.  The Wee-Beastie has been released into the wild.

Boiler Cleaner ~ Age of Steam

The small size of the Canon SL1 is the thing that really catches my eye.  Gizmondo's article shows just how small this DLSR really is.  Sony followers are doing their best to believe in their heart of hearts that Canon will take nothing away from the NEX mirrorless market.

Positives of the new Canon, from my perspective, include -
  • Extremely small size
  • Every AF EOS lens known to man will work on it, including and particularly my hugely expensive and rather large L-glass
  • Nikon, Leica, and Pentax manual focus SLR lenses can easily and cheaply be adapted
  • 18mpixel image quality (remember when pro-level Canon's 1Ds was the "cat's meow" at 16mpixel?)
Negatives include -
  • No WiFi to move data to Nexus/Samsung/iPad tablets for quick processing and upload to the 'net
  • No articulated LCD
Note: I don't yet know how accurately the AF system will allow big aperture lenses to be focused when using a chipped adapter (such as I use with my old Nikkor manual focus SLR lenses that date from the Age of Dinosaurs). When a f/1.4 lens is used on the 7D, accurate focus can be achieved in 90 percent of the cases.  When the same lens is used on a 5D MkII, I experience a 20 percent "hit rate". I think the chipped AF adapter focus success has to do with the 7D's outstanding AF system.  How the new SL1 performs will need to be seen.
Master Engineer ~ Age of Steam

I love my Sony NEX5(original) cameras.  They are world class image making machines.  I bought a pair of NEX5 cameras refurbished off Amazon when they became available for cheap.  So I split my camera system into two.  The DSLRs are used where focusing performance (ie: birds in flight - BIG) and studio light controls (ie: Einstein and Elinchrom monolights into huge light modifiers) are required.  The mirrorless system where wandering the streets and playing "tourist" is the Game Plan of the Day.

To me, Sony NEX system up-sides include  -
  • Incredibly small size and extremely light weight
  • Somewhat articulated LCD (flip-up only, still, it's enough for many situations I find myself in)
  • AF system is decent for contrast detect
  • Shallow flange to sensor distance that allows just about any lens ever made for any application to be used on these cameras (including 16mm cine optics, if you're into that kind of thing)
  • The Sony NEX "peaking" function is pretty sweet for focusing old optics
  • WiFi connectivity has been added to the NEX5 and NEX6 cameras
Boiler Cleaner ~ Age of Steam

Sony NEX downsides include -
  • Sony's optical performance could be improved.  The 16mm and 18-55mm kit lenses show obvious distortions and chromatic aberrations at all apertures.
  • Slow to non-existant AF focus when used with the 18-200SEL at long focal lengths.  There is far too much hunting going on for my taste.  I've missed shots because of this.  
  • Camera buttons and controls are so closely set that I constantly change settings unintentionally.  I really have to pay attention to what I'm doing when I'm trying to work quickly because I all too often bump something causing my setup to change.  These cameras a nearly too small for their own good.
  • "Peaking" focusing with my Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 Ai at wide open is very "hit or miss". I resort to magnifying a scene to more carefully focus large aperture lenses when shooting wide open.  Which means using the NEX as limited DOF situations is dodgy and time consuming at best.
  • I really have to work at making the NEX cameras work in studio environment and there's no possibility of tracking BIF.  This is why I use them for Wandering Around photography only.
Comparing the costs of the two systems, there is little difference between them.  800USD for the SL1 with a kit lens is 150USD more than a NEX5r with it's kit-optic, and the equal to a new NEX6 with the newer 16-50SEL kit lens.

As you can likely tell, I've been considering selling the NEX to go with the new Canon.  I invested a certain amount of money to go with the Sony mirrorless equipment.  This necessitated my duplicating lenses and batteries and adapters to make the portable kit work.  It became rather expensive (particularly when I purchased the 18-200SEL and added a second camera).  I really only need one small body and a good zoom lens.

Master Engineer ~ Age of Steam

I would like my Wandering Around camera body to be WiFi connected so that I could implement a faster creativity stream.  I would like to see what it's like to move from image capture, through image processing, to upload while I'm working live and on-site.  While I'm yet unclear what value this kind of speed would add to my artistic ability, the approach might yield something unexpected.

As an experiment to see if I could achieve clarity about moving to the new Canon SL1, I took my old Sony NEX5 with 18-55mm lens into a cathedral to see what I could come away with.  Using the flip-out LCD, setting the ISO to 200, the aperture to f/11, using a small table-top tripod, and using the remote commander trigger controls I came away with some potentially stunning work.

If I buy the new Canon, I'll need to find something other than my NEX to sell to pay for the SL1.  My Sonys continue to enable my present level of creativity in ways I find compelling, even if the optics suffer under the scrutiny of pixel-peeping. 

Which means I'll likely stay where I am with my equipment selections.  For now, at least.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Tools... they're just tools!

Gods! I love watching the photo-industry, following the rumors, and thinking about my current setup.

Queen's Web ~ Fracture

You see, it's a distraction from actually going out and making images.  Isn't it so?  Or perhaps it's what I do between shoots.

Canon looks to release a super small mini-Rebel DSLR.  They'll do this perhaps tomorrow or the next day.

It'll be a very sweet treat for people invested in Canon DSLR, looking for a very small camera, and not wanting to sell (at a loss) to buy into a mirrorless system, like Panasonic/Olympus or Sony.

While I love my Sony NEX5 first generation cameras, there's something that attracts me to the idea of a small DSLR.  I can't explain it.  First I complain about the size of DSLRs and buy into a mirrorless system.  Then I wish for a small DSLR and think about selling the mirrorless gear.  Then I worry and wonder about Sony's yet to be announced full-frame NEX that is rumored to cost more than their current RX1 with the fixed mount Wonder Zeiss.

Dusty Rose Victoriana ~ Fracture

I have too much time on my hands and am left thinking and rethinking, hashing, and rehashing my image making tool choices.

I find myself in this silly though spiral after spending nearly three weeks processing a few rather tasty images from a photoshoot I had with Fracture.  She came over from London to spend a weekend here in Paris.  We worked a theme of Noir Victorian Gothic and it was a great experience.  Now that I'm finished with the first big pass through the material, my mind has turned back to the mundane.  Tools.

I know what would happen, too.  I'd buy the new Wonder Toy.  I'd be happy for a few weeks.  But when the next photoshoot came up, I'd grab the 5D MkII and 7D and dive back into the studio to make more images.  I trust these cameras as they've been with me for going on five years now and there is still nothing demonstrably better on the market today.

Last night, before I dropped off into the Land of Nod, I read in Reponses Photo #253 a letter that mirrored back to me the silliness of my emotions.

A person had been using a Canon 20D since they were introduced.  They seem to limit their tool choices to two lenses, a 50mm f/1.4 and a 300mm f/4.  The writer was bemoaning the fact his beloved camera suffered serious heart failure (as in deep electronics "went south") and they needed to replace the boite with something new.

Brazing Engineer ~ Steam Power

I think back to my old film days.  First I'd own a Canon AE1.  Then I'd sell it and buy a Nikon FM.  I'd sell the Nikon FM to buy a Pentax MX.  Then I'd sell the Pentax MX to buy a Canon F1.  Oh, such a circle it was.  Predictably, I had very little to show for it.  And this was before I wandered down the large format film camera road, which was a Minor Insanity all it's own.  All the while admiring those artists who used their Leicas and Sinar systems for decades on end.

This morning I stood back and looked at my chosen tools of image making and know, intellectually, that I can't make any better image by acquiring more or by changing the mix of what I already have.

Still, it's fun looking through "what's new" and wonder.

I must be Mad.  Really.  I must be.

My only hope, in the Deepest Darkest Night, is that I have a few images to show for all this Thrashing Madness after all is said and done.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Rumor Mill Cranking Away...

I love rumors.  They drive speculation and specsmanship in weird and odd ways.  People seem to love talking about things that may never ever be true.  I must be one of them.

There's a rumor concerning Sony's yet to be announced full frame (FF) NEX costing more than 3000USD when it comes out (sometime in 2014?).  It's gotten tongues wagging.

Louvre ~ Detail

I love the idea of moving away from my current Canon FF DSLR. The camera body is heavy and the lenses are quite large.  The system retains it's world class image quality and overall system performance.  My cameras and lenses still crank out work that is the equal of just about anything Phase One makes in medium format sensored systems (Mamiya and Fujiblad come to mind).

Yet, projecting into the future, I can see I would have more than a few questions about a new Sony FF mirrorless camera.  Yes, it could be small.  Yes, it could be light.  But...

If a Sony FF NEX mirrorless camera is introduced costing more than 3000USD, it had better have a LOT of compelling features to get me to switch.  I have a lot of money invested in the current system.  So the important question will be, what differentiates a FF NEX from non-mirrorless?  Something that neither Canon nor Nikon FF DSLR already have years of product development behind?  It's difficult to see that happening from this point of view.

Louvre ~ Detail

If, OTOH, Sony took a huge leap and dropped the Android OS onto their FF mirrorless with full WiFi, then they'd have my attention.  I have blogged a little about the impact of portability and the availability of image processing software for iPhones and Android-based mobiles.  I continue to feel the opportunity to edit and upload work onto the 'net straight off the camera is ripe and appropriate for high-end excellent image quality photographic systems.

Given any reservations I might have about a Sony FF mirrorless, what I see is that they could help FF DSLR users transition away from Canon/Nikon if they offered a small interchangeable lens FF NEX that undercut the cost of the 6D/D600 cameras.  That way people could throw a Sony FF NEX into their bag and not take such a huge hit in transition costs to a new system all at once.

AND, this is extremely important to me, any new FF mirrorless would have to perform at least as good as my current systems in a studio.  This includes being able to easily trigger lighting systems as well as being able to focus accurately in low light (the typical background light intensity that I use so as to no contribute to the effect of the light setup).

Louvre ~ Detail

As I said at the outset, this is all speculation.  Sony is known to be in the process of roto-tilling it's imaging system roadmap.  The success of their NEX and RX1 cameras and the sagging sales of their DLSRs seem to be the prompt.  We shall see what we shall see, eh?

Side note:  The images posted along with this blog entry were made using one of my two Sony NEX5 APS-C sized sensored cameras.  I mounted large aperture Nikon manual focus lenses (pre-AiS) to the NEX and wandered the Louvre.  In this setting, the image quality is truly outstanding as I have the time to focus accurately and there is enough light to allow low ISO to be used, even at these wide aperture settings.