Tag Archives: perspective

Scenes seen

“Occasional unseen scenes, now seen: a photoblog from Michael Marten”

That is the byline for a new photoblog I’ve created.  Having commented yesterday on how difficult I was finding it to select images for a series, I want now to point to what might almost be seen as the opposite: a new photoblog with a very different purpose.  The intention here is simply to show images, some old, some new, that would not necessarily have a home on this site, but that I think are perhaps worth putting online somewhere to give a slightly different perspective or outlet to a certain kind of creativity.  I don’t like Flickr and such sites very much, so creating my own little site seemed like a good idea.  I expect there to be very little text, if any, accompanying each photograph – the point is just to offer photographs for viewing (and commenting etc.).  There will not be a new photograph every day, but there probably won’t be more than one a day.  I have an ‘about‘ page that explains all this in more detail.  So take a look!

Here is the photograph I posted yesterday – an expression of positive thinking, that this little project will hopefully go down a route that will (at least occasionally!) show something interesting and different!

Portobello Park, Edinburgh

Portobello Park, Edinburgh

(By the way, if you’re kind enough to follow this blog, it won’t automatically post details of the new one – but there are follow and RSS options down the side.)


On laziness, composition and zoom lenses

One of my main gripes about Nikon’s so-called ‘super zoom’ for DX cameras, the 18-200mm lens, used to be the distortion that made curves out of straight lines (mine is the older version, but the new version still has the same levels of distortion, as I understand it).  And then came the fantastic new version of Adobe Lightroom and it was possible to fix all that at the click of a button.  Then Nikon introduced a firmware update to the D90 and other cameras that took care of all this in camera – so you might see a sagging horizon in the viewfinder, but the camera now works out compensatory adjustments to remove this distortion, and you would see straight horizons directly on the camera’s screen (by the way, that link is to the Mac version, but if you haven’t yet upgraded to a Mac, there is a Windoze link somewhere too).  Both fixes work for dozens of lenses.

So: on a recent excursion through a woodland outside Edinburgh, I thought I’d just take this zoom and leave the primes at home: exactly the opposite of what I’d been doing for quite a while now (I was only really using the zoom for portraits).

But I’d forgotten how lazy a zoom like this makes me!  Here are two tree images from that walk.



The first is not particularly great, but it sort of works.  The four dark trees are offset by the dried out white wood at the bottom of the image, and there is a kind of lead-in through the trees framed on either side by the differently toned greens of the trees on both left and right from just above the white wood.  Shot at 95mm (i.e. about 142mm in 35mm format), it still has just about enough depth to make it look like an interesting woodland.  I’m not going to be framing this and putting it on my wall, but it is vaguely passable.

More trees

More trees

But this image really doesn’t work.  I was initially attracted by the white cross/plus at the top of the image – an interesting feature that I wanted to set in the wider context of the trees around it.  It was only visible from a particular angle, which I happen to have found.  But this image is a victim of my laziness brought on my using the zoom: shot at the full length of 200mm (300mm in 35mm terms!), it is completely flat and totally boring, as all the detail of the surrounding trees just blends into one amorphous mess.  I should have walked towards it, used a much shorter focal length (that cross would still have been visible) and shot it then – but somehow, when composing, I completely ignored/forgot that wide-angle lenses increase the illusion of depth, whilst telephoto lenses diminish it.

At least this little exercise ensures I’ll take my prime lenses with me next time and just work a bit harder at the composition, including using the zoom facility known as ‘walking’ – and then this kind of silliness is less likely to occur… I hope!

Alternative aspect ratios

Bruce Percy, one of my favourite photographers, posted another interesting entry on his blog a few days ago.  As you may know if you’ve read other entries on my blog, he is not only a gifted photographer, but also offers brilliant photography workshops.  This particular blog posting was (provocatively) called “Abolish 3:2 (35mm)” and discussed aspect ratios: the size/shape of the viewfinders and resultant images in cameras. From the early days of 35mm film cameras to today’s DSLR cameras (as well as most compacts etc.), the format has stayed the same: all images are a multiple of 3 x 2. This makes for relatively long images, horizontally or vertically, but it’s not a very “natural” format, particularly for landscape imagery. After all, we don’t see the world in this way: our (peripheral) vision is much broader than this, and we see more in all directions. I have to say that I think the 3:2 format can work well for portraits because it can be used for the length of the human body. But for landscapes, a “squarer” format often tends to work better, either a real square (i.e. with sides of exactly the same length) or nearly square (such as 4×5 or 6×7 or similar). One of things Bruce tries to encourage is visualisation: “seeing” the image as you want it to be, even before you squeeze the shutter. He’s written quite a bit about this in his ebooks too (especially in “The Visual Sense“).  His blog posting was picked up by others (for example, The Photographer’s Ephemeris and then Tim Parkin, and a lively discussion took place about all this (on Twitter).

However, it is not always easy to visualise in a different aspect ratio to the one the camera offers.  Tim Parkin pointed to a product that did this for his DSLR (though Tim is mostly a large format, not a DSLR photographer). That seemed like a good idea, but even if it were available for my camera, it seemed like an unnecessary expense to a poor person like me, so here is my version of the same thing for my Nikon D90, manufactured at great expense (er… yes… that is a wonky piece of card I’ve cut to size and jammed in behind the plastic cover of my screen…):

4x5 template for D90

4x5 template for D90

It does present problems when I want to see all the settings, as some of the key menu options are hidden under the bottom piece of card:

4x5 template for D90

4x5 template for D90

Nonetheless, once I remembered to use the “liveview” function on the camera rather than composing through the viewfinder, it did change how I went about composing: rather than guessing at what a 4×5 ratio image would look like, I could really see it on the screen. It is stating the obvious to note that it does make quite a difference to see the image in the proportions I am ultimately aiming for – even if I intend to crop the image later.

4x5 template for D90

4x5 template for D90

Of course, what I want next is a quick and easy way to convert this template to a square format.

And for my film camera… er… I can see the argument for a new investment coming…

The wonder of film

This evening I needed to be in nearby Musselburgh, where I would be waiting for half-an-hour at the harbour. Musselburgh has a lovely small harbour, and at the moment all the sailing boats are ‘parked’ in the car park round the harbour (in spaces that are marked ‘dinghy parking’!).

Stephanie, photographed on Ilford FP4 plus (ISO125)

Stephanie, photographed on Ilford FP4 plus (ISO125)

On the way out of the house, I took my camera, tripod, spirit level, filters, a 28mm and a 50mm lens – and looked forward to capturing some of these boats and the harbour scenes. I took my favourite film camera, the old Nikon FM2, with one of the last three rolls of Fuji Sensia that I have: this is a bit of a trip down memory lane for me, since I used to use Sensia a lot before switching to Fuji Velvia for colour landscapes; Fuji have recently announced they are stopping the production of Sensia so I have just bought three rolls of it to play with for the last time. It was fairly dark when I arrived in the harbour, and as I took my bag out of the car and began to set up, I realised that I had left my light meter at home – since the FM2’s slowest shutter speed before getting to the bulb setting is 1 second, the camera’s meter would be useless and I would have had to more or less guess all my exposures… so, sadly, I packed everything away again and went to buy a newspaper instead. Next week, when I expect to be there again, I’ll remember the meter!

I’ve read two nice postings on other people’s websites recently about using film. The first one was from the great Bruce Percy, who discussed how much he enjoyed using a particular kind of Kodak Portra film for a recent trip he made to Ethiopia and then, referring to Canon’s 5D digital camera, noted:

I get a lot of correspondence from people wanting to know how to get the same look with their 5D. You can’t.

If you want the look of film, then shoot film.

It doesn’t get much simpler than that! The other piece I’ve come across is more of a short essay by the wonderful Max Marinucci (though the second part describes how he develops film, so you may want to skim read that bit if you just want to pick up on his philosophy about film):

…patience and parsimony are virtues to be cultivated and nourished. When shooting film, you immediately accept the fact that it may be a little while before you see the fruits of your work and, by living with this, you will become a more disciplined shooter, which will in turn carry on to your digital side as well. It also means that shooting everything in sight without any thought into basics like light and composition is out of the question since you only have 24-36 shots in a roll of 35mm and it makes no sense in spending time/money developing simple, careless snapshots. This is a valuable exercise in restraint and it brings us to actually THINK before we shoot. Would you have taken a picture of your toes with film just because you can? I sincerely doubt it.

Although I use my Nikon D90 digital camera a lot, there is something wonderful about film that cannot be beaten by the more ‘clinical’ nature of digital… and it has to do with all these key components of photography that often go missing in the techno-madness that camera manufacturers obscure from us as they add ever more silly functions to their cameras: patience, composition, light, perspective… I’m not a dogmatic film shooter: of course digital cameras have their place (I couldn’t be involved in the same way in the African film festival if I wasn’t using digital, and I do like my D90). I think it is just a question of being reminded of that at times, of using film and digital in different circumstances as appropriate, and above all, appreciating film for all the wonder it can bring to the craft of photography.

Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ and a new lens

Although I don’t remember exactly when it was (it may have been when I was in Cairo in 1997), I vividly recall the sensation I had the first time I read Edward Said’s book Orientalism.  It was a mind-blowing experience – the ways in which he addressed constructions of Otherness, how it became possible to rethink what it meant to write about anyone, anywhere, and anything, what doing that meant… and all these things continue to fascinate and intrigue me, impacting on my writing and research, and on how I live.  I tend to re-read most of Orientalism once a year, and find more in it each time I read it.  Of course, many scholars, reputable and less-reputable, have engaged with his work in more or less helpful ways, but there is no doubt that Said transformed numerous disciplines through his work, including visual arts.  Each year now at the university where I work, I teach a course in which I introduce undergraduate students in some detail to Said’s thesis.  I love watching them wrestle with the topic, seeing how for most of them, it unsettles them, realigns their thinking, and makes them work through their world-view, thereby challenging numerous preconceptions about themselves and the world as they have hitherto known it.  This is one of the things I have been doing at work this last week.

And the connection to lenses?  Yesterday my new ultra-wide-angle lens for my Nikon D90 arrived: the 10-24mm.  I’ve owned and used a variety of lenses over the years, including what are generally regarded as wide-angle lenses (28mm in traditional 35mm format, 18mm in Nikon’s cropped frame format).  I’m very aware that photographing at 28/18mm can do strange things to perspective, and it is very noticeably different to shooting at a standard 50/35mm.  For my FM2 camera, I’ve recently acquired a lovely 28mm to complement the existing 50mm lens – that’s wide, but not crazy.  This new lens takes wideness to a whole new level – photographing at 10mm (15mm in 35mm format) does really wacky things to what you see, and from playing with it yesterday afternoon and today, I feel as if I need to relearn how to see things with the camera, at least if I want to use this lens to its full advantage.

Although wide-angle lenses are popularly seen as being able to ‘get more in’, that is actually rather boring.  Here are two such boring shots taken from the same spot a few seconds apart, at 19 and 10mm (the latter with my shadow in it – oops!):

Lots of beach

Lots of beach (19mm)

A bit more beach

A bit more beach (10mm)

The wider angle doesn’t really do much for the image, does it?  The advantages of such a lens, it seems to me, lie in the possibilities offered by exploiting the distortions it creates, rather than seeking to ignore them, as these two beach shots show.  So here are a couple of snapshot images that show precisely that kind of distortion being used, again at 19 and 10mm, both taken from exactly the same spot, immediately after one another:

Portobello Public Art

Portobello Public Art (19mm)

Portobello Public Art

Portobello Public Art (10mm)

In other words, this lens, more than anything else, is about re-imagining the world, thinking about it in a different way.  Of course, as soon as we look through a camera’s viewfinder we are looking at the world differently: the artificial nature of the perspective offered, the reduction to two dimensions rather than three and the corresponding ‘flattening’ of multiple layers of three dimensional vision – all are a function of new perspectives on the world.  But I think I have become used to the changing perspectives offered by ‘normal’ zoom lenses as they move from pretty wide (e.g. 28/18mm) to fairly strong telephoto positions (e.g. 300/200mm) – I usually know what I am going to see at different focal lengths and can ‘see’ my image accordingly, often before I lift the camera to my eye.  With this new lens, I’m reminded of the transformative shift in world-view I gained by engaging with Said for the first time: the radical shift in perspective of my own position coupled with the excitement offered by his views, made for a fantastic journey of (self-)discovery.  With this new lens, I feel I am starting to do the same kind of thing: as when I first read Said, I can guess at the road ahead, but the radical shifts in perspective offered by the weirdness of the lens’ abilities require re-seeing the world, re-imagining my place in it, and making it something I feel at home in again.  This involves practice, both in the sense of learning and getting better, but also in the sense of usage and engagement, and that is what I am looking forward to with this fantastic new lens.