Tag Archives: digital

Slowing down: shooting a full roll of film (again)

One of the things that I (and others) say we like is about medium and especially large format photography is that it “slows down” the process of making images, with the implication that this is something that is harder to do with the advent of digital photography.

Certainly, with large memory cards and every image being “free” (they’re not, of course, but let’s not discuss that just now!), it can seem easy to just click away like mad.  In fact, I often have my DSLR set to “continuous” (which means something ridiculous like 6fps – though I very rarely shoot more than one frame at a time).  In the old days, before I bought my first DSLR in 2008, I used 35mm film all the time and often I’d use a single roll for each “event” in order to make cataloguing easier (sad but true!), and then hopefully one or two images on each roll would be vaguely ok.  This meant, for example, that if going for a walk, I would use a whole film up so that I could easily identify the 36 or 37 images from one particular occasion (there was no EXIF data!).  I know I am not the only person who did that, but one thing it did was force me to make photographs – and of course, many of them were pretty rotten.  Somehow, I never really made the connection between “speed” – “thoughtlessness” – “quantity” – “rotten photos” or at least, it took me a while to make that connection! 🙂

This continued when I first bought a DSLR too, partly because, you know, photos were suddenly “free”(!) – I would take LOTS of photographs, on the basis that at least some would work out.  Of course, many were deleted, and many reside on a hard disk, never to be seen again.  It was my first weekend photo workshop with Bruce Percy in Torridon in 2009 that made me begin to slow down a bit, and I’m tremendously grateful to him for helping me to do that.

Now I go for long walks and whilst I often take a camera with me, I rarely even take it out of the bag other than to make a quick snap of something I might want to come back to later: most of my “real” photography happens when I go out in order to make photographs. But I know that I can now compose and create images more thoughtfully and deliberately at speed (I’ve photographed at events, incl. weddings, when that is a necessary skill), and I wondered if that might still be the case if I tried to use a whole roll of film in one go.

The rules for the day!

The rules for the day!

So earlier this week, when we were going out for a family walk, I decided to “shoot a roll” and made a note of some conditions that I would use, setting myself some parameters (I was using a digital camera):

  • I would take exactly 24 or 36 photos (i.e. a full roll of film)
  • I would use only one lens (I chose to use a Lensbaby, a manual focus distorting lens… because, well, just because…)
  • I would allow myself no chimping or subsequent deleting of images – this would be “a complete roll”
  • I would allow myself to crop later to either 5×4 or square format if I thought that was appropriate – in the old days, I just cut prints to make them the size I wanted, so this seemed a legitimate reinterpretation of a pair of scissors!
  • I would mostly use f2.8, partly to accentuate the craziness of the Lensbaby, partly because I knew that I could just be lazy by not changing the aperture (which involves swapping out little metal rings using a wee magnetic stick, and is a bit of a bother; however, it did mean I would need to focus pretty accurately).

So with these restricted parameters, I went with the family on a short walk through the woodlands at the base of Beinn Eighe. I made 24 images, as follows (click to show larger versions):

What thoughts emerge from this?

  1. It’s not a surprise that I used to stress over this kind of thing – 24 photographs in one go is really hard work, and I can’t imagine how I was able to take 36 photos in one go like this!  I actually found this exercise pretty stressful, and the last two images are from the car park – I just could not think about making enough creatively interesting images fast enough.
  2. There is some duplication of vistas, partly because I couldn’t spend time thinking about the best way to make a particular scene “work” for me. And yet… none of these really “work” for me!
  3. Ignoring the distortions produced by the Lensbaby (why didn’t I just take a normal 50mm lens with me??), most of the images are vaguely ok, but they’re nothing very special – they are clearly composed at speed and with no contemplation time.  Furthermore, I was constantly trying to keep up with the family – it’s notable that the one image (no. 13) that includes them shows them from behind – and that just adds to the pressure!
  4. The images that are ok follow very conventional patterns of imagery – rule of thirds and such like – and that is what makes them ok.  I didn’t actively think about that kind of thing, it comes pretty naturally.  However, there’s nothing like the sand/grass/sky image that I wrote about in my last posting, which is a more creative, imaginative and personal interpretation of a location than any of these images will ever be.  These are mostly just pretty boring (though I quite like no. 21).

So in conclusion, my mental photographic processes have clearly slowed down considerably in recent years and they don’t speed up just because I am using a digital camera, even if every image is “free” (rather than nearly £5 for a large format image – that’s buying the sheet film and getting it processed… oh, don’t let me think about that too much!). And now when I’m out with a large format camera, I am mentally worn out if I take more than about four images in one go, because I now have patience and take the time to compose and think about them, never really in terms of cost, but in terms of a very simple “does it say anything” or perhaps better: “does it say what I want it to say?”  I can easily take 30 minutes or more to contemplate and make a single image.  Many of these tend to be images I want to keep and use, which none of the snapshots above really are.  And this is not just about large format photography, however: I know that when I take my medium format or DSLR cameras out for landscape photography, I am also very slow and deliberate.  It feels like a liberation from the pressures I used to put myself under.  And that is rather wonderful.

And now, having inflicted lots of mediocre images on you, here’s one I rather like from a few days later. I took some time over this one, using my DSLR and a 50mm lens (my most frequently used focal length). I didn’t use a tripod, but lay in the grass to stabilise the camera and my thinking.  This little row of buttercups by the shore line at Rhue, north of Ullapool, is very simple, and although they take up such a little space at the bottom of the image, there’s a tenacity to their joyous yet fragile beauty that contrasts with the dark hard stone behind them – and I thought it was rather lovely.

Tenacious beauties: buttercups at Rhue

Tenacious beauties: buttercups at Rhue

Once I’m back home I’ll also get all my film processed, and then I hope to post other images from my time here too.  All of them took longer than the “roll” above!

——

Postscript, 27.7.2015 (prompted by comments received to the original posting)

Of course, this blog posting is mostly about the reactive encounter with a new context. I am not seeking to make any comment about the thinking processes that go on before stepping out of the house. The key issue around making snapshots to come back to at a later date describes my way of working with subjects that I might find helpful for a particular theme a week, a month, a year later. Confusing the processes of conceptualisation and reactive thinking is easily done, and is one reason for a lot of bland photography – reactive thought is often mistakenly thought to be conceptual (it rarely happens the other way around, but it does also happen, with tedious and overwrought imagery being the result)

These processes are related, for sure, but are also distinct.

These processes also inform each other: I would assume that to be obvious to most people.

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Revisiting images, locations

We are on holiday in the north-west of Scotland, escaping the rain our house-sitter is experiencing, and getting different rain! 🙂

I’ve revisited some locations that I first encountered on the two Bruce Percy workshops I’ve been to in this area – one based around Torridon (2009), one around Assynt (2011).  It’s been very interesting photographing one or two of these locations again and seeing how differently I’ve approached them.  Here are three images from Achnahaird Bay that are quite different to the previous ones from four years ago; clicking them will show you the older images from the bay.

This first image is really what the bay is about for me, I think: three elements in different patterns.  It’s not always necessary to be really clear about what I’m seeing when standing in the middle of the bay looking around it, something I’ve tried to achieve by the grasses being sufficiently in focus to be discernible as grasses, but not clearly defined (I know, I know, thousands of £ on camera equipment to make out-of-focus images, but…!).

Achnahaird Bay, 2015

Achnahaird Bay, 2015

Achnahaird Bay, 2015

Achnahaird Bay, 2015

Achnahaird Bay, 2015

Achnahaird Bay, 2015

These are, of course, digital images.  I have been making large format film images of my wanderings too, but they’ll come later.

PS As it happens, I caught up with some of Bruce’s recent blog posts, and he wrote about revisiting images too (but honestly, after I took these and thought of posting them here!)

Fairy Knowe, Gartmore

Here are some photographs I made yesterday using a digital camera from a wee walk around the Fairy Knowe by Gartmore.  It’s almost bluebell season in this part of the world, but we made it to this hill before the clichés begin! 😉

There are wonderful stories about faeries in local folk beliefs connected to the Fairy Knowe.  Robert Kirk, a local minister, took a great interest in the faeries, publishing a book in 1691 about the folk beliefs surrounding them (with the catchy title Secret Commonwealth: or an Essay on the Nature and Actions of the Subterranean (and for the most part) Invisible People heretofor going under the names of Fauns and Fairies, or the like, among the Low Country Scots as described by those who have second sight).  Although his ultimate interest was no doubt in convincing his parishioners to be good Christians rather than believe in what he regarded as superstitious folk tales, it is said that publicising the stories about the faeries did not go down well with the faeries themselves.  They wanted their secrets kept, and in 1692, as he went on a walk up the hill (which was behind his church), they captured him and took him away to faerie land so that no further secrets would be revealed.  The folklorist Andrew Lang wrote a poem about him:


Now far from heaven, and safe from hell,
Unknown of earth he wanders free.
Would that he might return and tell
Of his mysterious company
For we have tired the Folk of Peace;

No more they tax our corn and oil;
Their dances on the moorland cease,
The Brownie stints his wonted toil.
No more shall any shepherd meet
The ladies of the fairy clan,
Nor are their deathly kisses sweet
On lips of any earthly man.
And half I envy him who now,
Clothed in her Court’s enchanted green,
By moonlit loch or mountain brow,
Is Chaplain to the Faery Queen.

The Literary Loch Lomond and the Trossachs website (a wonderful resource, if you don’t know it already) has the full poem and discusses this episode in more detail.

My wife was telling me about this story as we were going up the hill (she had been there before and read about it), and it really is a magical sort of place – it’s easy to see where such stories come from.

Fairy Knowe, Gartmore

Fairy Knowe, Gartmore

Fairy Knowe, Gartmore

Fairy Knowe, Gartmore

Fairy Knowe, Gartmore

Fairy Knowe, Gartmore

Fairy Knowe, Gartmore

Fairy Knowe, Gartmore

Equipment for sale

I am having a bit of a clear out of some camera equipment I no longer use.

You may be interested in two lenses I am selling:

In the near future I expect to be selling the following, so do look out for these if you’re interested:

There may be other items for sale before long.

Cashel Forest and Strathcashell Point, Loch Lomond

On Saturday we went for a walk by Loch Lomond.  This was intended to be a woodland walk, but it was so wet, it became more of a bogland walk – but was still very enjoyable.  We went to Cashel Forest and up Cashel hill, which would normally be a relatively easy walk, with occasional steep parts.  Water gushing down the hillside, at times washing away what path there was or turning the path into a slippery morass, made for a slower ascent and descent.  Nonetheless, being high over Loch Lomond did reward us with some beautiful views.

Loch Lomond, 4.1.14

Loch Lomond, 4.1.14

I had taken a digital camera with me.  This was my first ‘proper’ excursion for some time, what with moving house and work demands stopping me from getting out with a camera since the summer, and whilst these were little more than snapshots of new views for me, I was wanting to engage fully with the context I was in.

Cashel Forest, 4.1.14

Cashel Forest, 4.1.14

In the periods when it stopped raining (or rained less), this was, of course, easier to do, not least for simply enabling greater visibility.  However, the great thing about wetness is that it emphasises some of the fantastic colours in the trees and bushes, with purples and reds dominating.  In the spring and summer this will all be covered in foliage and so will mostly be green (which is a different kind of beautiful), but I do prefer autumn and winter for the richness and variety of the colours on display.

When it rained, it rained heavily, testing the waterproofing of our raincoats pretty thoroughly!  It also became much more difficult to make photographs – this image was taken on my iphone and the rain was so heavy I could barely see the screen:

Loch Lomond, 4.1.14

Loch Lomond, 4.1.14

I tweeted this from the hillside, but later deleted it when I saw it in detail.  I should not have done that – it does actually convey a very real sense of the hillside views in the rain!  Shortly afterwards, in a brief drier moment, I made the first image above of a similar view.  At one stage, when I wanted to photograph the path and the colours we were on, I took out the camera to find the lens almost completely misted over.  So I breathed on it to mist it over completely, and made this:

Cashel Forest, 4.1.14

Cashel Forest, 4.1.14

Of course, we buy cameras with millions of pixels and expensive lenses so we can breathe on them and create blurry images…! 🙂  I jest, of course – but this actually represents our view for much of the walk, so it’s an accurate image – you can just about make out a path leading from the bottom left, and see the outline of the hills.

Strathcashell, 4.1.14

Strathcashell, 4.1.14

Before we went up the hill on Saturday morning, we walked briefly towards Strathcashell because I wanted to see the way to Strathcashell Point, a place that I wanted to visit on my own on Sunday morning.

The track to the Point goes past a patch of woodland that I intend to go back to – widely spaced trees in various states of growth and decay, offering some interesting explorations.

The Point itself is reached by following the track almost to the end, and crossing a field with livestock in it.  The Point has ruins of an old fortification, presumably an ancient watch post to monitor traffic up Loch Lomond, but the ruins consist primarily of the remains of some exterior walls, none higher than about 50cm.  The point is itself shielded by a small cluster of trees that do not really suggest a promontory at all when viewed from the land:

Strathcashell Point, 5.1.14

Strathcashell Point, 5.1.14

The trees would offer shelter in wilder weather, but in contrast to Saturday’s strong winds and torrential rain, early on Sunday morning the air was completely still: with birds singing, and the sun gently rising, it felt as if spring was on the way!  Because nothing was moving I was able to use some longer exposures and still keep detail in the branches of the trees.  I made a few images overlooking the Loch, in part towards the snow-covered peak of Beinn Eich on the western side of the Loch (at least, I think that’s what it was), but mostly I just paid attention to the partially submerged trees – the high rainfall in recent weeks have clearly filled the loch.

Loch Lomond, 5.1.14

Loch Lomond, 5.1.14

Loch Lomond, 5.1.14

Loch Lomond, 5.1.14

Loch Lomond, 5.1.14

Loch Lomond, 5.1.14

Loch Lomond, 5.1.14

Loch Lomond, 5.1.14

Strathcashell Point, 5.1.14

Strathcashell Point, 5.1.14

Strathcashell Point/Loch Lomond, 5.1.14

Strathcashell Point/Loch Lomond, 5.1.14

I quite like these images, and it was reassuring to know that being out with a camera again felt so natural.  After all these months when it has not been possible, I’ve really missed not making anything more than occasional snapshots, and whilst the images above are mostly simply to be ‘enjoyed’ rather than being particularly thought-provoking, they give me great satisfaction.  Not photographing for any length of time always results in my mind developing doubts about my ability to ever make images again: I am very good at self-doubt!  So this weekend was carefully thought-through and planned to counter this gnawing insecurity: apart from identifying locations on a map and on PhotoTransit and then scouting the Point on Saturday, using a digital camera rather than film meant I could do something with the images as soon as I came home.  Whilst out with the camera, everything felt completely natural – this is hardly a surprise, but it is still very reassuring (telling myself this would be the case in advance doesn’t work: I need to see that it would be so).  That is why digital made sense this weekend, even if most of my landscapes are now on film.

I have no idea what kind of half-used film is in my sadly-neglected 35mm and Mamiya 645 cameras that are still in the cupboard, but I’ll be getting them out and finishing the rolls shortly.  Now that everything has settled down a little after the move, my mind is clearer and I can start to think about creating imagery again.  It is also helping me with thinking through the next stages of the windfarm essays (ha! I bet you thought I’d forgotten about that!).

Also: this week, my new darkroom equipment should be arriving… more excitement!

Playing with Lightroom 4’s black and white conversion

I don’t convert many colour images to black and white. In general if I want a black and white image, I tend to use black and white film. I know that there are many people who use specialist conversion software, but given the cost of this kind of thing, I’ve never been that keen on going down this route.

Incoming storm, by Loch Scridain, Isle of Mull (click image to see larger version)

Incoming storm, by Loch Scridain, Isle of Mull (click image to see larger version)

However, I think the new version of Adobe’s Lightroom (we’re at version 4 now) has improved the black and white conversion processing no end. I installed it yesterday, and today I played with an image from a visit to Mull last autumn that I have tried to convert to black and white several times, but never in a way that I was really happy with. Perhaps it just needed multiple experimentations, but I do have a sense that it was considerably easier to achieve this result in version 4 of Lightroom than in version 3. I’m not sure I’m completely finished with it as I wonder if it’s maybe a little bit too dark, but it certainly now represents more of how I felt the landscape, the clouds and the weather appeared to me at the time – the fast-moving storm from the loch off picture to the left, across to the mountains. It corresponds to how I envisaged the image turning out when I took it. A minute or two after squeezing the shutter, I was back in my car, as the rain hammered down.

I don’t normally find software releases very exciting, but it seems to me that Lightroom 4 is a significant improvement on version 3. And if you want to get it at a reduced cost, Adobe has it on offer at a cheaper price at the moment to mark the release…

PS In case you’re interested in these things, the photograph was taken on a Nikon D90 with a 10-24mm lens at 24mm (that’s equivalent to 36mm in full frame terms).

Musings on film latitude and related matters

I’ve posted very little here recently, and have only added a couple of incidental items on my micro-blog.  This has two main reasons: I’ve been very busy travelling for work (Germany, Norway, England in the last four weeks), and I’ve also had quite a backlog of films to scan and process.  Concentrating on film and finding a revised routine to my workflow – now that I think I’ve understood what I’m doing with my new Epson scanner – takes time, and after various false starts, I think I’m finally getting there.  There is now, of course, a bit of a backlog of both film and digital images (I’ve not stopped photographing!), and coupled with a desire to redo the galleries here, you’ll appreciate that I’m struggling a bit…

A beautiful Rollei image, as scanned

A beautiful Rollei image, as scanned

However, this posting is tangential to all of these thoughts!  I have, partly because of the 1953 Project (and yes, there are images to go online from that, too!), occasionally been carrying the Rolleiflex with me as a ‘casual camera’.  This regularly elicits interesting conversations with complete strangers, which can be surprising and very nice.  For example, last week I was dining with a friend in London and after our meal I wanted to photograph her with the Rollei; a couple at a neighbouring table began talking to us about the camera, photography and so on… culminating in a request that I might consider photographing their wedding next year; of course, I declined!

Adobe Lightroom settings

Adobe Lightroom settings

The film I’m using for the 1953 Project is Ilford FP4Plus, which is rated at an ISO of 125.  Ilford’s website says it has ‘enormous latitude for exposure error above and below‘ this speed.  I chose it for the project partly for this reason, thinking it wouldn’t much matter if the exposure was slightly off on my portraits because I could always recover the images once they were scanned in.  I didn’t realise quite what ‘enormous’ meant to Ilford, but these images clearly show that.  The first image above is the scan from the negative (Vuescan reversed the negative for me).  I made adjustments in Lightroom, as this screen capture shows: upping the exposure by four stops, pushing the fill light and brightness up, and then reducing the contrast and clarity settings to bring the grain under control.  Aside from dust removal, these are the only changes I made to the image, revealing… Elizabeth Eva Leach, Professor of Music at Oxford University, with whom I had a stimulating lunch at the beginning of September (click on the photograph to go to her blog):

Elizabeth Eva Leach

Elizabeth Eva Leach

It’s not a great portrait, but it astonishes me that it worked at all, not just because of the film exposure issues: the café was relatively dark and I could barely see anything on the ground glass (so focusing was mostly a lucky guess), the lens was wide open at f2.8 with an exposure speed of 1/10th of a second – and yet it’s reasonably sharp despite all this!  And this isn’t a coincidence: another portrait taken under similar circumstances was just as underexposed and with similar Lightroom adjustments it came out fine too:

Another Ilford FP4Plus sample, with similar exposure settings

Another Ilford FP4Plus sample, with similar exposure settings

What I love about all this is the visceral nature of the film and the process.  For sure, I could have taken these portraits on a digital camera and bumped up the auto ISO settings – but I’m not convinced they would have looked any ‘better’ (they would have been different…).  Of course, even the process of ‘extracting’ an image from an almost entirely black square of film gives me enormous pleasure – it’s like finding a treasure!  I don’t regard myself by any means as a format fetishist, but returning to film does give me huge pleasure: my use of the Mamiya for landscapes makes me photograph with much greater consideration and precision than I used to with the digital camera, and I LOVE that.

For example, here’s a dawn image from the Mamiya taken on Velvia 50 of the Ratzeburg Küchensee in northern Germany this August.  I remember taking quite a while to compose it in order to make sure the twisted twigs were below the tree line, whereas I think with a digital camera I might have fired off a good half-dozen shots at different heights and then hoped one had worked when I was back at the computer – but here I composed slowly and carefully, got it right, and then made… two exposures (er… the first one had a misplaced graduated filter that I noticed after squeezing the cable release!).

Küchensee, Ratzeburg

Küchensee, Ratzeburg

(I’ve lightened the exposure by half a stop and added a little fill light, otherwise it’s as it came from the scanner.)

In a few weeks’ time I’m off to Assynt with Bruce Percy.  I’m really looking forward to this, and though I’ll take my Mamiya, I will mostly use the Nikon D90 so that images can be readily critiqued by Bruce and the group.  I’m keen to observe myself with this, as it were: I’m sure my recent return to film will have changed how I use the digital camera for landscapes.  Before going to Assynt, I’m also going to the Isle of Mull for a week of secluded reading – and I may just take a photograph or two whilst I’m there…