Monthly Archives: June 2005

Weathered Tree

Weathered Tree, Copyright 2005

I’m working through the images from the XA from my May trip to Moab. In case you hadn’t noticed, my work pace is excruciatingly slow. I think I need to work on improving my workflow efficiency. One nice thing a rangefinder-type camera can do in a landscape setting is pick out an object in the foreground. This tree shows years of being worn away by the wind. In Utah, there are whole forests of trees that never grow beyond 5-7 feet high, due to the constant barrage of wind and sand.


What About Digital, Mike? (updated)

Gordon Gulch – 2005
Originally uploaded by mjm1138.

Ah yes, what about digital. It’s certainly easier to deal with than film. And I suppose digital photography is far more ecologically friendly than film. I mean, I probably waste 20 gallons or more of water every time I develop two rolls of film. That along with the chemicals I use and discard, film photography is really kind of an environmental nightmare. It’s just that digital photography is so…digital.

I like to think back to the analogous time in music. It was the mid 1980’s. Synth pop was a fully established force in music. Then came the advent of digital synthesizers. They were cheaper, more reliable and easier to use than their analogue ancestors. Suddenly analogue synths were begging on the market (I remember seeing micromoogs in music shops for $100) as everyone jettisoned their old gear for the new. Then, pop music died, and its putrescent corpse became what we remember as the music of the late 80’s and 90’s. In case you didn’t know, that’s what happened. Everyone in the world started to sound exactly the same since, as it turns out, the digital synthesizers of the time had a far less organic and creative feel. Most of the sounds from them were pre-programmed at the factory. Music has recovered somewhat. Nowadays, three things are happening: vintage analogue synthesizers are commanding ridiculous prices on eBay and at music shops, manufacturers are actually re-introducing 25-year-old models to the market, often with few refinements over the original, and the current generation of digital synthesizers are prized for their ability to accurately emulate old analogue gear.

And so with photography. Is digital photography today of sufficient quality to supplant film with no disadvantages? I mean, I don’t print on photographic paper anymore, so any darkroom tricks have long since moved to the computer. The answer though, at least at the price range us mere mortals get to play in, is no.

The image above was taken yesterday on my Sony DSC-P9 “CyberShot” digital camera. It’s a little 4 megapixel point-and-shoot that my employer gave out as a holiday bonus a few years ago. It does a fine job, especially considering it’s a few years old, but as a consumer camera it produces images that wouldn’t stand up to real close scrutiny. Zoom in all the way and you can see the artifacts of image compression and detect the limits of color contrast (that is, the ability to differentiate shades of color). It’s great for snapshots and the like, but is not quite there for serious shooting.

It also bothers me, the comment I made in the paragraph above: “especially considering it’s a few years old”. A fine camera should last indefinitely, and I don’t cotton well to the notion that your camera should join the ever growing list of “stuff you have to replace every three years because it’s obsolete”. I mean, I guess film formats have come and gone, but within the standard set of formats (35mm, 120/220, 4×5, 8×10), your 1930 camera should be as usable today as it was the day it was made, if you’ve taken care of it.

We’re just not quite there yet. My guess is, as with the music industry, the photo industry will be entirely digital (i.e. no new film cameras being made, except in niche markets) before the technology is really ready, and then it will catch up a few years later. Here’s hoping Ilford, Fuji and Kodak keep making their emulsions and chemicals in the mean time. Kodak recently announced that they’re no longer making black-and-white photographic paper, so I guess I wouldn’t bet on it.

Update:Well, okay so I’m on the digital bandwagon now. There are still some very real limitations of shooting digital, and here’s hoping I actually advance to the level where I’m encountering those limitations, I guess.

A Couple Shots From Moab

Here’s a couple shots from our last trip to Moab, shot on the Olympus XA.

Tracks Through Rock – 2005

One of the Cool things about the Moab area is how easy it is to get completely away from civilization. Not far from town, there are panoramic vistas where you can see no sign that humans have ever been there. So it struck me when we were on a hike when we crossed this railroad track. Almost the converse of the Moab experience, this seemed like a grandiose mark of humanity out in the wilderness. The vertical lines betray the sheer force with which the rock was cleared out to make way for the tracks. On the trail, we encountered a couple who asked if we thought the canyon the tracks passed through was the work of humans. I was slightly floored at the absurdity of the question.

As for the picture, you’ll note that the frame is not visible around the image, meaning I had to crop it, since I wasn’t holding the camera straight. I don’t like cropping images. Call it a compulsive desire not to discard any image information. It also means I wasn’t shooting carefully. 35mm negatives have a limited resolution, as does the XA’s lens, so to maximize that I really need to compose the image in the viewfinder. Aside from that the presence of the frame as defined by the camera keeps the camera itself in the image. Photography is not a literal representation of reality, but rather reality as rendered through a particular instrument, and I don’t want to pretend otherwise. In fact, that’s one of the things I like about it. Cropping for me is like trying to dive into the image and remove the process that created it. When you do that, you’re more apt to focus on the shortcomings of the medium.

View Down Long Canyon – 2005

See the difference? By abstracting the view with the frame and recalling the process of image creation, I think this shot brings you closer to the reality of the moment when the image was taken.

I may end up going back into Photoshop and seeing if I can make the snow-capped peaks in the background pop a bit more. Those peaks must be 50 miles from where I was standing, and I’d like to get a sense of that scale.

I’m not sure I’ve captured the feeling of standing on that cliff, several hundred feet from the creek below. Suffice it to say that I did not get any closer to that edge than what you see here; it was terrifying and exhilarating in that way that only the wilderness can be. In Utah as with Colorado, you frequently get a sense of the indifferent lethality of nature that I never got growing up in Iowa. Not that nature feels malevolent, just the overwhelming feeling that you should not feel so different from the bug you stepped on that morning, you can go at any moment, in just as arbitrary a fashion. A few more steps, and there would be no hope for you. In a few months, the desert would swallow you whole, and there would be no trace of you left. Perhaps people who are hostile to the environment have had an epiphany like this and rebel against it. I find it enlightening and liberating. The danger here is very obvious, as opposed to the danger so often hidden in human intentions. The rules here may seem arbitrary, but they’re very clear, and subject to precious little negotiation. The first rules humans to which humans had to adhere were those imposed by nature, and most of those rules still stand today. Anyway I’m not sure I captured that.

Both of these images were shot on Tri-X Pan, the film to which I’ve retreated while I regain my footing. I’ve been learning a lot about the scanning and exposure control process lately, which I hope will produce some sharper results.

Another Trip to Moab – Equipment Notes

I find the nuances of cameras themselves fascinating, and am always intrigued by the role the camera plays in the creative process. I also like to ramble on about my own creative process. If you don’t find this interesting, skip this post. My wife and I took another early May trip to Moab, Utah for some camping, Jeeping and photography. I was a bit happier with my output this time around; I feel like I’m starting to get the hang of the cameras with which I’m shooting.

This is no small deal, as it takes me some time to learn both the controls and the quirks of a given camera. This ends up slowing down the shooting process, and creating mistakes. Last year the Nikon FM2 was a very recent acquisition, and I was using a Canon Canonet for rangefinder shots. This year I’ve had a year with the Nikon, and my Olympus XA made rangefinder shooting much easier. The Nikon had replaced two SLR’s: a Canon FTb that belonged to my grandfather and a Minolta X-700 that had replaced an earlier X-370. The FTb is a fine instrument with a fine piece of glass on it, but was starting to show serious signs of wear. Not wanting to degrade it further, I retired it. The Minolta X-700 simply stopped working one day. I was later to learn that this is a common complaint with this vintage of Minolta SLR, and there’s naught for it but to replace the body. Since I wasn’t particularly crazy about the lenses we had for this camera, there was no compelling reason to stick with Minolta, so we decided to make the jump to Nikon. Since I generally buy cameras off the used market, I wanted to feel like I was buying into a platform that I could rely on, and for which a healthy after-market exists. The Nikon FM2 is constructed like a tank and does not use an electronic shutter, which means that even if the meter battery dies I can continue to shoot with it.

The Minolta was an program auto-exposure camera, which meant that when it was in auto mode it was trivially easy to shoot with. The Canon is a match-needle metered manual camera. I had been shooting with the Canon for so long that shooting had become second nature. The Nikon was a bit of a shock, doing metered manual with a simple plus or minus LED display, and little windows to show f-stop and shutter speed. More informative than the Canon viewfinder, but still takes some getting used to, and I find the LED is easier to ignore than the match needle. In addition it has a motor drive fitted, which means it’s easy for a rusty shooter like me to fire off half a roll before I realize I haven’t been paying attention to exposure. Rookie mistake, I know. Anyway, the Nikon is starting to feel more natural. I’m not particularly happy with either of its lenses. Not that they’re not good glass, but due to the eBay nature of how we came to own this camera, it so happens that the two lenses we have are a 28-200mm zoom and a 500mm prime. Neither seem particularly well suited to landscape photography, and the zoom lens has a problem where the barrel will tend to slide back and forth on its own if the camera is tilted. And they both weigh a ton. I think the next gear investment I’m going to make will be a couple of shorter-length prime lenses for this beastie, say a nice standard 50mm and a 100mm. And I think I’m going to take off the motor drive, at least until the next time I’m doing a studio shoot.

As for the Olympus, I have to say at this point I wish it had a higher resolution lens, since I keep using it for landscape photography. When I’m out in the Jeep, it’s just much easier to grab and fire a couple shots with than the Nikon. When I have the Nikon out Jeeping, I’m constantly worrying about whether it’s going to get hurt. I’m getting good shots with the XA as well, I just miss out on some detail in the negatives. Of course, this is probably also a function of using a flatbed scanner with a film attachment, so for now I’ll keep shooting with it. It’s quick to focus, has a nice bright viewfinder, and is almost totally silent. I’m convinced it would be a great street shooter, if I had the guts to do street photography. Anyway, it’s a much more reliable camera than the 40-year-old Canonet it replaced. The Canonet is extremely finicky about things like how you press the shutter release. The result is that sometimes you can advance the film without cocking the shutter. A pain in the ass when you’re in the field trying to get a shot. It has a nice fast lens and a lot of personality and history, plus it has a selenium photocell meter, which means that it never needs a battery. In the end, though, it was so flaky that I didn’t enjoy shooting with it.