Category

Opinion




  • Opinion, Photography Techniques

    “Reading” and Image Orientation

    01.19.12 | Permalink | 7 Comments

    It is commonly known that the direction in which a culture reads can affect how people in that culture view photographs. Here in the U.S. (or more broadly the “West” in geopolitical terms), we read from left to right, and top to bottom, or more precisely, from the top left corner to the bottom right corner.

    When we look at a photograph, especially one without a commanding visual center or dominant element, we will typically scan it from left to right, based on our style of reading.

    A short time ago I posted a photograph on photo.net, my favorite on-line photography discussion site. The photograph is shown below, and it consists of a series of lines of new crop vegetation on a sweeping hill that intersects visually with other hills in the background.

    Gardena Hills, Sweeping Down. Hasselblad H4D-40, 210mm f/4 HC lens.

    I received a very helpful comment on this photograph. The person who commented said it made his eyes work “harder” than they should have to. The natural tendency is to follow the lines of the foreground hill downward from left to right (“reading” the image), at which point the eyes reach the right-hand edge and leave the frame. To get back to the photograph, the eyes must “pick themselves up” and re-enter the frame at the top, move back to the left, and follow the upward sweep of the hills in the background.

    By flipping the photograph horizontally, the eyes would take a different path. With this new orientation, the eyes would naturally “read” the photograph by following the lines upward from left to right. But this time, instead of running out of the frame, they would first encounter the intersecting hills that are coming down to meet the foreground hill. From that point, they would more easily shift and “zag” in the opposite direction to the background to take in the remainder of the photograph.

    Garden Hills, Sweeping Up. Hasselblad H4D-40, 210mm f/4 lens.

    This simple change enhanced the overall image, IMO, simply by making it easier to read, based on the way that our culture scans and reads text.

    Making the horizontal flip was easy to do technically, but it was harder for me to do as a landscape photographer. The second photograph, the one that is easier to read, does not exist in real life. One cannot drive from Walla Walla to Lowden on US-12, turn south on the Lowden-Gardena road, and eventually find what I have shown in the second photograph. Instead, one would find what I have shown in the first photograph.

    This bothers me somewhat, and it gets to the heart of what is sometimes debated with great passion among landscape photographers: Are we documenting the wonders that we see in our travels, or are we presenting artistic interpretations of the wonders that we see in our travels?

    The answer to this varies widely among landscape photographers, with many nuances along the way. Personally, I tend to want my photographs to be based on the experiences I’ve had, not on the way that I wish the landscape had presented itself.

    On the other hand, I’ve never experienced a black-and-white landscape, yet I enjoy sharing those photographs. My wide-angle lenses and telephoto lenses both distort the landscape in ways that I’ve never seen with my eyes, yet I enjoy sharing those photographs as well. I’ve never seen a silky smooth waterfall, nor have I seen a perfectly crisp waterfall with individual drops visible, yet I can create those by adjusting the shutter speed of my camera, and I enjoy sharing those photographs.

    While the camera seldom records reality, it can come closer than any other art form with which I’m familiar. But how far are we willing to take a landscape photograph from what we’ve seen to our artistic interpretation of what we’ve seen, especially in this day of the computer when digital manipulation is so easy? Every photographer has his or her own answer to that question, and our responses usually evolve over time as we create, share, and discuss photographs.

  • Opinion

    First Thoughts on the Hasselblad H4D-40

    11.28.11 | Permalink | 3 Comments

    In late 2010, Hasselblad USA had a special promotion in which it would include a lens of one’s choice when a Hasselblad medium format digital camera was purchased (that’s the gist of it; I didn’t see the ad, so I may have some of the details wrong). At the time, I was waffling over my love affair with film (discussed in a previous post), and I decided to purchase the Hasselblad H4D-40 along with the Hasselblad 35-90mm f/4-5.6 lens.

    Despite the fact I was getting a very expensive lens nearly for free, I was still paying more than I had ever dreamed of paying for a camera body. I don’t earn money from my photography, and for many that’s a significant reason to not spend so much on any photography equipment.

    Nevertheless, I made the leap. Now, nine months later, if I had it to do over again, with the advantage of knowing what I know now, I would make the same leap without hesitation. This post, while not a full review or evaluation, will provide my initial thoughts regarding the H4D-40.

    The outstanding attribute of the H4D system is, IMO, the tonal range the camera is able to capture in a single exposure and which the Phocus software is able to bring out from the digital file. The first time I came to appreciate this is when I took a photo of some storm clouds, and the light varied from very bright clouds in the sky to wheat fields in shadow on the ground. I was impressed when I looked at the histogram after taking the shot, and I was astounded when I saw the image on my computer screen and later in a print. That first photo is shown here:

    Storm clouds above Skyrocket Road Near Prescott, WA. Hasselblad H4D-40, Hasselblad 35-90mm f/-5.6 lens.

    The camera came with two PDF manuals, one covering the camera and the other covering the software (Phocus) that brings photos from the camera, makes corrections and edits to the digital files, and then saves them in a designated place (it does more than that, but that’s its main function).

    I found the camera manual to be well-organized and fairly easy to understand. I also found the camera’s menu system, in which options regarding the functions of the camera can be selected, to be fairly intuitive. Navigation through the menu system has not been difficult, I’ve been able to easily access my most used function (2-second timer, a.k.a. 2-second delay in raising the mirror to the actual opening of the shutter to make the exposure after the shutter button is pressed), and I’ve easily transferred lens focusing from the shutter button to another button on the back of the camera. Much of this is important to many photographers who do a lot of photography.

    The camera handles well in my hands. I always shoot from a tripod, but I would anticipate no difficulty using this camera hand-held. The only handling difficulty I may have is removing the lens with one hand, simply because the lens barrel is relatively large and it can be difficult to get a good grip, press the lens release button, and twist the lens off in one motion, especially if the camera is on an elevated tripod. Fortunately, the lens does not have to rotate far before it disengages from the body; this seems to be a characteristic of Hasselblad cameras, because the same was true of my Hasselblad 501cm film camera. Note: I have fairly large hands and I like to lift weights; a more diminutive, less strong person may find themselves using two hands to change lenses and to mount the camera on a tripod.

    If I had a complaint about the body, it would be regarding the battery. A fully charged battery will generally last just for a medium-long day of shooting, and then it requires a number of hours to fully recharge when plugged into an electrical outlet. This is in strong contrast to the battery on my Canon 1DsMkIII which seems to last for days of shooting and then recharges in relatively short order. Sorry I can’t quantify this, but it’s a very distinct difference. As a result of this characteristics of the Hasselblad battery, I carry two such batteries as well as a battery holder that can run the camera with three CR123 lithium batteries.

    A second complaint that I hear from some Hasselblad owners is the relatively poor resolution of the LCD screen on the back of the camera. It can be very difficult to get a good view on that screen of the photo that has just been taken, even with hardware improvement that was recently implemented to improve screen resolution and function. However, I’ve never used a screen to evaluate the adequacy of a photograph except in the most gross sense. Instead, I use the screen for the histogram, and I don’t expect this to change even with an improved screen. I use the screens on my Canon cameras in the same manner.

    My experience with the Phocus software has had its frustrations. I must quickly add that the software is more integrated into the characteristics and use of this system than I’ve found in any other camera system I’ve owned. It’s hard for me to think of the camera by itself; the Phocus software is a very significant component of the Hasselblad system.

    In general, I’ve found the software manual to be less clear than its hardware counterpart. Most especially, I’ve found the software to be less intuitive; it just doesn’t seem to manage the files in the way that I would expect. It has been a struggle to get the images where I can view them, select some and discard others, and then save the edited image and it’s RAW original in a specified location. It took a few months with the camera to have a photo session that went smoothly from start to finish when processing photos.

    Despite the difficulties I’ve had understanding Phocus software when files are being moved around, I’m incredibly impressed with the ability of the software to bring out the most from a RAW file to a finished photograph. Processing a file that’s on my screen has been relatively easy, intuitive, and very thorough. I’m sure there are features that I have not yet discovered, but what I have found has sometimes made any additional processing with Photoshop completely unnecessary. I will soon have a very smooth and powerful workflow as well as two great partners in hardware and software.

    An aspect of the Hasselblad system that was new to me is the ongoing relationship that is expected between the new camera buyer and the Hasselblad dealer. To help with my difficulties in understanding Phocus, I should be going to the dealer who sold me the camera. That’s a relationship that I’ve never had or expected after purchasing any previous camera system. The problem I have in this regard is that my camera was a special leftover from Hasselblad’s promotional program of 2010, and only a single dealer in Detroit had a deal like this available when I decided to make the leap. My dealer, therefore, is in Detroit. Perhaps I should have or still could initiate that on-going relationship, but I have not yet pursued it.

    I started out using my “old” “V” lenses from the 501cm film camera by purchasing an adapter that enabled their use on the H4D. However, they were manual focus only and required a cable to be attached to the sensor in order to be fully functional. This was a hassle, and I soon made it my goal to use “H” rather than “V” lenses; most of the “H” lenses are designed and meant for use on the H4D and other Hasselblad “H” cameras.

    New “H” lenses are expensive. Fortunately (at least for me), new lenses seem to experience a sharp decline in value when they leave the camera store; it’s somewhat like buying a new car. All of my additional lenses (28mm HCD, 100mm HC, 150mm HC, 120mm HC macro, 210mm HC, 300mm HC, and 1.7x converter) have been purchased used, in excellent condition with relatively low activations (number of times the lens has taken a picture), for about 50% of the price of a new lens (37% at the low end and 67% at the high end). As a result, I feel that I have a nice range of lenses for not a huge outlay of funds, and I’d be able to recoup most of my lens costs if I had to sell my equipment in the near future.

    I’m finding the H4D to be somewhat overlapping in its functions as a landscape camera with my Canon 1DsMkIII. The fact that I also have a Canon 1DMkIV makes the 1DsIII have an advantage only at very wide angles. However, when traveling to faraway destinations for once-in-a-lifetime trips, I would prefer to have two camera bodies that use the same lenses. For that reason alone, I plan to keep both Canon camera bodies.

    I once said I had all of the camera equipment I would ever need. That was two camera bodies and several lenses ago. I’m thrilled to be using the H4D-40, and the Canon bodies complete it in special ways. This time I really mean it when I say that I have all of the camera equipment I will ever need. Except maybe for lights if I try my hand at portraiture. Except maybe for extension tubes if I want to get serious with macrophotography. Except maybe for a really nice walk-around camera for non-photography trips (if such a trip exists). If my photography is ever exceptional, it will be in this sense of the word.

  • Opinion

    The End of Film (for me)

    10.12.11 | Permalink | 2 Comments

    I took a serious interest in photography in 1971 when I bought my first 35mm film camera, a Miranda Sensorex.  I can still remember being amazed that I could actually adjust the shutter speed and aperture to suit the conditions — a whole new world of taking pictures was opening up to me.

    I took that camera to the Philippines in 1972 when I joined the Peace Corps.  During my service there, I switched to a Konica AutoReflex camera that had the option to automatically set the exposure (a feature that I used exactly once).  Film was sent to Australia for developing, and I received a box of slides back in about two weeks.

    My best adventure with 35mm film began when I returned to the U.S. in 1974 and got into Nikon cameras, first with a Nikkormat.  That camera still remains one of my favorite cameras, in memory at least, simply because I got to know it so well, especially how the meter was reading the scene.  Of course, there was no instant feedback regarding exposure, so one had to learn how to make good exposures simply by knowing how to best operate the camera.  Even though exposure bracketing was often recommended, 95% of the time my first exposure turned out to be the correct one, and I threw away the exposures that were 1-stop under and 1-stop over.

    I continued with a variety of Nikon cameras and lenses over the years.  The culmination came with one of the best values I’ve ever had in a camera, that being the Nikon F100.  It was a strong, reliable camera with many of the features of Nikon’s top cameras but at a much more reasonable price.  My favorite lens was the Nikkor 35-70mm f/2.8D zoom lens.  While the range of the zoom was limited, the image quality was outstanding, and it was my best walk-around lens.  The 24mm focal length was another favorite, as was the 80-200mm.

    When film was to be developed, I drove to Seattle and dropped the rolls off at Ivey-Seright for their 3-hour processing.  I then drove up to REI, parked for free in the garage, went to the book section to select several trail guides or photo books, and settled in a comfortable chair by the fireplace to read and get inspired while my film was being developed. That was heaven.

    But heaven didn’t last forever.  Ivey-Searight, like a lot of other local photo processors, went out of business when digital became well established.  REI started charging for parking, and they turned their comfortable “reading room” into the children’s play area.  Life was no longer the same.

    For several years I shot film as well as digital.  As film cameras dropped in price, I was able to move up to medium format.  A Pentax 67 was my favorite camera for some time, but the weight of the system became an issue, especially out on mountain trails.  I switched to the Pentax 645NII and a range of zoom lenses, and it was a much-loved camera for many years. Like the Nikon F100, I’ve felt it was one of the best values in film photography:  great quality at a relatively low price.  Along the way, I also tried large format (4×5) photography, and while I liked the quality, the process of getting several images along a trail was slower than I wanted.  In addition, I couldn’t afford $50 to $100 for a drum scan of a single transparency, and scanning on a consumer flatbed scanner seemed to be a terribly weak link that detracted from one of the most significant advantages of large format: image quality.  I gave up large format, tried a medium format rangerfinder in a Mamiya 7II (superb optics, undesirable handling characteristics for me), enjoyed a Hasselblad 501cm and some superb optics for about a year (the square format challenged my vision, something I enjoyed immensely), but finally settled back with the Pentax 645NII.

    During this time digital technology evolved at a tremendous rate, and I moved through a series of digital cameras, eventually switching to Canon for their wider array of lenses and somewhat better prices.  Even though digital technology was improving, I still preferred film, especially Fujichrome Velvia (strong colors) and Astia (more neutral colors, wider exposure latitude).

    I scanned my film on a Nikon Super Coolscan 8000 scanner.  I had purchased one of the first Nikon 8000 scanners when they were introduced, and it was a great scanner for 35mm and medium format that I enjoyed immensely.

    But a ball had started to roll down the hill, and new advances in digital technology seemed to come at the expense of the world of film.  Some films were discontinued, but most important to me was the decline and essential disappearance of 220 format with only 120 remaining.  I have never understood why photographers would want to put in a new roll of film twice as often while out shooting, but 120 was the only format that could be found for the films I liked to use.

    While film had a decided advantage over digital for some time when it came to image quality, the evolution of digital technology began to blur the distinction, at least for my eyes. The nail in the coffin came when Nikon ceased the manufacturing of their medium format scanner (which by now had been upgraded to the Super Coolscan 9000).  With this news, I managed to purchase one of the very last 9000 scanners available in the country, thinking at the time that my use of film would continue for many years.

    Shortly after I purchased the Nikon 9000 scanner, the reality of film really hit me:  no local labs, 2-week turnaround in getting film developed, no 220 film available for the brands I liked to use, and questionable image-quality superiority to digital.  I also appreciated some of the distinct advantages of digital, which for me included immediate histogram feedback, very rapid “developing” and image availability, and ability to change ISO on the fly.  Another nail in the coffin came when I had the rare chance to purchase a superb medium format digital camera in the form of a Hasselblad H4D-40 and the new 35-90mm zoom lens for much less than the market price at the time.  While the cost was still shockingly high, I felt that if any digital camera could come close to replacing what I had enjoyed in film, it would be this camera.

    With the nail firmly driven into the coffin, I sold all of my film cameras and lenses, scanned my remaining transparencies and sold the Nikon 9000 scanner, and acquired a few more Hasselblad H lenses to round out the H4D system.

    Today I use primarily the H4D-40 for my landscape photography.  While I haven’t had the camera for very long (at this writing), I’m impressed with its dynamic range as well as the integrated software, Phocus, that is an important part of the system.  I’ll write more on that in the future.  I also continue to use the Canon 1DsMkIII which can take advantage of a much wider range of focal lengths in the lenses, and I’ve acquired a back-up body with a Canon 1DMkIV which I really look forward to using to photograph birds in flight and other fast action.

    Film still has a future, and I know I could have used film for the rest of my life if I had really wanted.  The Nikon 9000 scanner would have served me well for the rest of my life. However, I just came to appreciate the image quality and workflow of digital cameras more than that of film cameras.  Despite the popular perception, I have found digital photography to be exceedingly expensive, simply because the technology is changing and improving so rapidly.  It was a cash outlay I was willing to make because of the importance of photography in my life.  I think I’ve reached a plateau in digital photography where I’m going to be satisfied with my current cameras for many years to come (any photographer who reads that last line will certainly smile).

    As a tribute to my decades of involvement with film, here is the last transparency I scanned before parting with the scanner.  It’s a photo of a marvelous sunrise near the Sweetgrass Hills in north-central Montana.  The composition is nothing to write home about, but I intend to stitch several photos to make a panorama that I hope will hold more interest.

    Sweetgrass Hills Sunrise, Montana — Nikon F100, Fujichrome Velvia 100


    Also attached is one of the last photographs I made with film, taken during my last photography trip to the southwest during January-March, 2011.  It was one of my favorite photographs of the entire trip.

    Joshua Tree Granite (near Jumbo Rocks Campground) — Hasselblad 501cm, 120mm makro lens, Fujichrome Astia


    Thus ends my love affair with film.

  • Opinion

    Interpretations of Photographs

    On the photography website of photo.net we recently had a lively discussion regarding a very flowery description of the photographic process written by an unknown person and appearing in a 1966 edition of Life Magazine.  The flowery description and ensuing discussion can be found here.  Of the many posted comments (most aimed at the original poster who commenters assumed, incorrectly, had written the prose himself), one comment in particular stood out in my mind.  It was written by Mark Drutz, who offered the following thought:

    “If you are saying that a photograph has a meaning beyond what was intended by the photographer, I agree. A photograph is a bit like an inkblot. We each can see something in it that others, including the person who took it, does not see. We all perceive things, including photographs, through conscious and subconscious filters that affect the way we perceive them.”

    I thought that was a very good summary of how we all view photographs, largely at a subconscious level.  There is such a great range of human experience and therefore individual interpretations of the artistic expression embodied in a photograph.  People make different kinds of photographs for different reasons, people view this diversity of photographs from very different points of view, and any number of interpretations or feelings may be generated among viewers by a single photograph.  It’s sometime surprising what thoughts and emotions our photographs may generate in our viewers.

    This is yet another reason why I find the world of photography to be such a fascinating as well as challenging endeavor.  It helps to explain why I enjoy devoting my time and energy (and, with the purchase of a new camera system, my limited financial resources) to photography.  I suspect other photographers may feel the same, although it may take a statement like that made by Mark Drutz to bring this to a more conscious level.

  • Opinion

    Digital Manipulation in Photography

    Photography as an art form.
    Is photography an art form? That can be debated, but I’m going to accept that most photography, perhaps with the notable exception of news journalism, is a form of art in the same league as painting, sculpture, collage, wood-carving, pottery, neon, jewelry-making, glass-blowing, tattoo-making, and others.

    If we accept most photography as an art form, what distinguishes it from the other forms of art? One unique aspect of photography lies in its root words: photo = light, and graphy = writing; photography is writing with light. Light affects a photo-sensitive material or device (usually film or sensor), and this then forms an image (chemically on film and digitally on an electronic recording device and eventually on a computer screen). Both of these are often in turn translated to paper for easier viewing.

    Another distinguishing aspect of photography is that it captures a moment, unlike any of the other art forms that don’t concern themselves with a specific moment in time. It is this aspect of photography that the general public understands and appreciates. It’s seen in photographs of family gatherings, children and students in school groups and annual yearbooks, formal portraits, wedding albums, and similar life events and markings of the passage of time. Painting may capture these events as well, but paintings don’t pretend to be an immediate depiction of a specific moment as does a photograph.

    A final distinguishing aspect of photography is that, at least initially, it captures a moment in time in a realistic way. The object in front of the film or sensor reflects photons back to the photo-capturing device (nearly always a camera) in a manner that the initial image is a relatively true representation of that object (“relatively” because many things can distort the photons along their path to the film or sensor, and different films can react in different manners to these photons). Film and sensors do have limitations, in that they often can’t capture a broad range of light, and often the range of light being reflected back to the camera is beyond the capabilities of the film or sensor to record. In addition, sometimes light may fall on the film/sensor for several seconds, minutes, or even hours. When the exposure to light is extended in time, events such as movement of the subject are recorded over that period of time. The blur of a speeding car, the silky smoothness of a waterfall, and trails of stars across several hours of a nighttime sky are good examples of a moment that is long enough for the object being recorded to change during that “moment.” Despite these exceptions, photography can be distinguished from other art forms by its relatively realistic initial depiction of whatever was photographed. The exceptions that can be identified don’t wholly negate this particular characteristic of photography.

    The decisive moment.
    Henri Cartier-Bresson is famous for his photographs that capture the “decisive moment,” that moment when random actions intersect in a single instant to make a photograph that is aesthetically appealing, or that best expresses an emotion, or that embodies the spirit of the place or time. It’s the moment when a scene is at its photographic best, when the light is “just right” and when the compositional elements are “just right.” Cartier-Bresson said that photography is not like painting. He said there is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture — your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Cartier-Bresson said, “Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

    While the decisive moment is often applied to people and the world involving humans, it can be applied to nature and landscape photography as well. Jack Dykinga, a notable large-format landscape photographer, has said that landscape sometimes is all about the decisive moment. It occurs when the light is at the right angle and intensity, when the clouds and wind are just right, and when the components of the environment are perfectly aligned or arranged aesthetically or as the archetypical representative of the subject being photographed.

    Sometimes a capture of the decisive moment is a matter of luck, and other times it is the result of careful planning: knowing the season, consulting tide or lunar calendars, knowing where the sun will be at a particular time, looking at the weather forecast, and knowing the landscape from one or many previous visits to a place. Whether by luck or careful planning, it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I’ve often said that the key to getting a great photo is a matter of being there.

    The death of the decisive moment.
    The application of digital manipulation by some photographers is rendering the concept of the “decisive moment” obsolete. No longer do these photographers have to be at the right time and the right place. No longer does the light have to be “just right” or the compositional elements “just right.” No longer is careful planning necessary. No longer do natural objects such as the sun, moon, and clouds have to be in alignment at a decisive moment. Instead, any of the elements that contribute to a decisive moment can be created or altered to be a facsimile of the natural decisive moment.

    Rather than directly experiencing the decisive moment with our eyes, we can imagine the decisive moment in our creative minds and use digital software to bring that imagination to life in an image that began with a camera but which owes its existence largely to a computer.

    Concerns.
    “But is it real?” That’s one of the first and most frequent questions I hear from the general public at art shows or other venues where photography is being displayed. In other words, the public is asking whether the beauty and uniqueness in the photograph is something that was seen and captured with the camera in a decisive moment, or rather if it is something that was created / enhanced with a computer.

    Some photographers who engage in extensive digital manipulation argue they are producing art, their altered photographs are artistic expressions, and as such their photographic work is above the question of manipulation.

    But as I’ve stated, photography is connected to reality in a way that other forms of art are not. Photography captures the moment, and its initial capture is an authentic representation of that moment.

    For me personally, the uncertainties I experienced and medical treatments I received for cancer in the 1970s have made it impossible (thankfully) for me to take the beauty of the natural world for granted. Trying to capture the essence of a natural place through photography enhances my experience of being there. For me personally, the experience comes first, the photography comes second. A photograph must capture and represent the experience: that series of decisive moments I encounter when I’m on the trail, in the forest, walking through the desert, floating down the river, or sitting on the top of a mountain watching the sun and moon come and go.

    However, it does not require a life-threatening illness to acquire an appreciation for experiences in the natural world and to value photography as a means of capturing decisive moments. Many landscape photographers share these values, as evidenced by their work and their words.

    Consequences of digital manipulation.
    Digital manipulation can be done to a degree and in a manner that makes the decisive moment irrelevant and that avoids the experience entirely. Those are two separate issues, and both are important in the discussion of digital manipulation of photographs.

    When significant elements are not captured in a decisive moment but instead are created via computer software, the moment didn’t occur. The planning wasn’t necessary. The luck of being in the right place at the right time is immaterial. The authentic representation of the natural world is unimportant. It is these considerations that, in my mind, make the manipulated photograph less than the un-manipulated photograph, even if both photographs look identical. In other words, the process is just as important as the outcome. Whether the photograph “works” is not enough; the process of obtaining the photograph is part of that photograph.

    I’ve been trying for more than five years to capture a nearly full-moon rising above Mount Rainier. From my particular vantage point, that happens only twice each year. Given western Washington’s notorious cloud cover in the spring and fall when these alignments of the moon and mountain occur, I have not yet been successful (although I came close once). However, I could create this photo digitally. I could take a photo of the mountain on a relatively clear evening just as the sun is setting, and then capture the moon on a different evening as it is rising above the horizon. I could then paste the moon into the photo of the mountain, and if I’m sufficiently skillful with my manipulation software, a viewer would have a very difficult task of detecting the composite photo.

    However, in my mind, and in the minds of many other photographers as well as non-photographers, there is a difference between the two photos. One is an authentic capture of a decisive moment, while the other is not. One is the result of careful planning, while the other is not. One is the result of good fortune, while the other is not. One is the result of being at the right place at the right time, while the other is not.

    Of great importance to me is the fact that one is the outcome of a significant experience in the natural world, while the other is not. One photo occurred as I was witnessing a rare event of a full moon rising above Mount Rainier on a cloudless evening, while the other photo occurred as I was sitting in front of a computer. That the photo “works” (i.e., is aesthetically pleasing, dramatic, strikingly beautiful, or has a “wow” factor) is not enough, or at least it’s not the whole story. A photo that was captured through the pain and long process often required for a wonderful photo will always, in my mind, be superior to the “same” photo (“same” being defined as looking similar on paper or the computer screen) that was created through digital manipulation. Creating a photograph is not the same as capturing a photograph.

    At a point that’s sometimes hard to define, a manipulated photograph enters the realm of digital alterations and digital art. Digital alterations can be an interesting, challenging, and thought-provoking aspect of photography; I fully support it as a relatively new art form. While the division between the two realms is difficult to define, and despite the fact that much past and current landscape photography involves manipulation to a degree, I contend there is a difference between landscape photography and digital alterations. When the two are treated as equal via the attitude that art is art and all photography is simply artistic expression, then manipulated photography degrades the traditional realm of landscape photography. We know degradation is happening when the first question asked regarding an outstanding landscape photograph by members of the general public at a photography exhibit is, “Is it real?”

    The only reason this question is asked is because we all know that some photographs were largely created in a computer, while other photographs were captured while experiencing a decisive moment in nature. In the minds of many, this is a significant difference.

    On being different through digital manipulation.
    I don’t understand how one can take a relatively mundane, everyday shot of a landscape and jazz it up by adding a single, odd color to the sky (say, purple or green), thereby creating something very unusual, and suddenly that mundane photo becomes a striking, outstanding, or exceptional manipulated photo that receives high praise from some viewers. Similarly, photographs of intertidal rocks covered with bright, neon-green algae on the shadow side of a sun that is resting on the horizon often receive praises of “great color!” It’s as if we have become jaded with “regular” landscape photography, as if the real world has become so common that it’s boring, and only by making this “regular” landscape something that it isn’t can we once again become interested in it.

    I think that’s sad. There are many aesthetically interesting views of nature and natural objects as they really exist. Sometimes it’s a challenge to find them and to frame them in an interesting way, but that’s one of the joys of photography. Taking a shortcut by simply creating something that doesn’t really exist and has therefore not been seen before and letting that be the criteria by which to judge the value of an image misses, in my opinion, the point and value of landscape photography.

    Being different is not the same as being good, despite what may be a person’s jaded interest in the natural world. Really good landscape photography captures the decisive moment…. that moment when composition, light, and subject all come together. It’s difficult, and it’s rare. Do we really think we can create decisive moments at will simply by pushing software slider? In my opinion, all we end up with is a caricature of a landscape.

    Finding the balance.
    Nearly all digital photographs require further processing. If they were captured as jpegs, then the camera has already done a lot of the processing. If they were captured as RAW files, then processing and sharpening are required with software.

    Knowing where to draw the line regarding the degree of processing is terribly difficult, especially if a photographer is posting a photo for public viewing and feedback. We seem to have the notion that if a little bit is good, then more will be even that much better. And when “more” is so easy to do (just push a slider, or just enter a new number in the saturation level), it’s even more tempting to apply.

    But just because we can doesn’t mean that we should. Finding the balance in digital processing when so much is so easy is key in this new age of using computers in the workflow of bringing information contained in a camera’s sensor or in a scanned image to a printed photograph.

    New language is needed.
    Often, our language does not keep pace with the way in which our culture and technology change. This has happened in photography. What we need now is a new or expanded concept regarding photography. We simply have not incorporated into our language appropriate concepts that relate to what we see in photographs that have come into being by very different processes. Digital manipulation offers vastly more and different capabilities than traditional darkroom manipulation. This means that digital processing cannot be characterized merely as the “digital darkroom,” implying that digital manipulation is no different than what photographers in previous decades did in their chemically based darkrooms.

    What is being produced when a photograph is significantly manipulated is not a photograph but rather digital art or computer art. It may have started with a regular photograph, but at some point it enters a very new realm, one that is so new that there hasn’t yet developed commonly accepted language and standards. However, the lack of language and standards does not prevent me from recognizing that a photograph that relies primarily on a computer for its existence is not the same as a photograph that relies primarily on a camera for its existence.

    Photography is an old word being used to describe something new. It isn’t the right word for this new, computer-based process, and we have not found the right words to define and describe it. This is where much of the controversy regarding digital manipulation arises. The word “photography” now means something different to different people. If we had a new language, one that incorporates this new form of photography and this new form of art, much of the current controversy would disappear. But the evolution of new language can be a difficult process, especially when technological change in photography has been rapid and when some of these changes can minimally be likened to traditional darkroom practices of the past (dodging, burning, alteration of tones, changing development routines, etc.).

    It’s also difficult to develop a new language when many photographers don’t see a need for a new language. For those photographers, all that matters is the outcome, or whether the image “works.” To them, the concept of the decisive moment is irrelevant, and the idea of experiencing that which is photographed is unimportant. When these photographers remark on a manipulated photograph, a photograph that has come into being through the computer, by saying “nice shot,” they are in error. They really should be saying, “Nice computer skills,” or, at the very least, “Nice shot and nice computer skills.” However, that language and that attitude have not yet developed, and the question, “Is it real?” continues to be asked. As a result, traditional landscape photography based on capturing decisive moments is suffering from these false look-alikes of digitally manipulated images because they can’t be trusted to be real representation of an actual experience.

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    “A photograph is not created by a photographer. What he does is just to open a little window and capture it. The world then writes itself on the film. The act of the photographer is closer to reading than it is to writing. They are the readers of the world.”
    Ferdinando Scianna, Magnum photographer

  • Opinion

    Where Should a Landscape Photographer Live?

    10.23.10 | Permalink | 2 Comments

    I lived in Olympia, located at the southern end of Puget Sound in western Washington, for many years when I worked for the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Olympia has a number of great photographic opportunities nearby. These include Mount Rainier (2 hours away), several creek drainages on the east side of the Olympics (beginning 45 minutes away), Pacific Ocean beaches (beginning about 2 hours away), the Hoh Rainforest (2.5 hours away), Second Beach and Rialto Beach (about 3 hours away), trails in the North Cascades (about 3.5 hours away), Mount St. Helens (about 2 hours away), the Columbia Gorge (about 3 hours away), the varied terrain and basalt cliffs of eastern Washington (beginning about 3 hours away), and many other areas I haven’t mentioned.

    Unfortunately, western Washington is also known for its winter rain, which arrives in October and doesn’t leave until May or June (at least that’s what it felt like to me). While there may be some storms that come in off the Pacific and leave large amounts of rain, much of the rain in western Washington comes in the form of a light sprinkle that might go on for days or even weeks. Bad weather often creates great photographic opportunities, but those are not as appealing when one is struggling to keep cameras and lenses dry. Dark, gray days that last for weeks before a glimmer of sun is seen can weigh on a person.

    When I retired in 2008, I decided I had had enough of the rain, and I wanted to settle down in an area where the word “rain” was heard much less. I went to high school and college in Walla Walla, located in the extreme southeast corner of Washington, and that’s the community I chose.

    The weather in Walla Walla is absolutely wonderful: hot and dry in the summer, perfect t-shirt weather in the spring and fall, and cold with occasional snow in the winter. It just never seems to rain. When it does, the rain often comes at night and then quickly leaves. I enjoy that aspect of eastern Washington immensely.

    But Walla Walla is also surrounded by wheat fields and seemingly little else. I’ve gotten some great photos of rolling, frost-covered, fog-shrouded hills in the winter, and beautiful, green fields in the spring (especially in the Palouse region located about 1.5 hours north). I’ve discovered some cemeteries of the early pioneers, and the wheat harvest has big machines combining the hillsides, so there are possibilities for some human-related landscape photography as well. Unfortunately, I feel like I’ve run out of interesting places to photograph after having been here only a year, and I keep returning to the same landscapes.

    I miss the diversity I had in western Washington. For months I’ve been struggling with a single question: Is the amount of winter rain in western Washington worth tolerating so that I can have many places close by where photography has been so enjoyable, or do I live in the wonderful weather of eastern Washington and save my photography for extended, multi-day or even multi-week trips to interesting locations (something I can do now that I’m retired)?

    I don’t yet have an answer, and the slow economy and poor housing market have further reduced my opportunity to make a change if that’s what I choose. Perhaps another year will help shine a brighter light on the best place for a landscape photographer like me to live.

  • Opinion

    Squares and Rectangles

    06.16.10 | Permalink | 3 Comments

    What’s the best shape for a photograph: a square or a rectangle? How do you see the world: in squares or rectangles?

    I’ve always photographed with cameras that produce rectangles. 35mm film has an aspect ratio of 2:3 (i.e., two units in one direction and 3 units in the other direction), as do many digital cameras. My Pentax 645 is a little more towards square, with an aspect ratio of 3:4, and my former Mamiya 7II and Pentax 67 were closer still with an aspect ratio of 6:7. The large format camera that I once used was also close to a square, with a 4:5 aspect ratio.

    Some digital cameras have aspect ratios that can be changed, so they may be 2:3, 4:5, or even square (1:1).

    Panorama cameras will have one length that is significantly longer than the other, with common aspect ratios of 1:2, 1:3, or something even more extreme.

    Because I’ve always seen the world in rectangles, and because nearly every camera I’ve ever used has produced rectangular images, I think it’s time to shake up my world view and look at the world in squares. To do that, I’ve purchased what may be the world’s most famous “square” camera: a Hasselblad. I want to challenge myself when I view a landscape by looking at it more closely and from a different perspective. I think this will help me appreciate landscapes even more.

    That said, I don’t think any one aspect ratio is perfect or even preferred for all types of landscape compositions. Depending on the elements, one aspect ratio might express the essence of a place in an aesthetically pleasing manner better than a different aspect ratio. In the past, the 2:3 aspect ratio has worked best for me. In fact, I tended to dislike 4:5 and 6:7 because they were too square, and my eyes just didn’t naturally view the world like this. So what better way to shake myself than to go to a full 1:1 square!

    As I look a photos taken by other photographers and posted on forums like photo.net and fredmiranda.com, I think most have chosen the best aspect ratio (and this is aided by the use of zoom lens that can more easily find the best composition while looking through the viewfinder). However, I’ve been having fun thinking about other possible aspect ratios of some of these photos. Some rectangular photos I’ve viewed could, in my opinion, be better shown as squares, and some square photos I think would look better if cropped to a rectangle. Of course, this is what many photographers do when they work on an image by cropping to what seems to be the best aspect ratio for a given image.

    It’s a bit different, though, when looking through a viewfinder that is square when nearly every experience in 45 years of picture taking (except for a very brief stint with a Rolleiflex) has seen nothing but rectangles. I want to find images that are initially best represented by squares, rather than producing a square image after the fact by cropping a rectangle.

    In addition, I think it will be fun to use a camera system that has a very long history and has been used by some of the world’s best photographers (not that I have any illusions of becoming part of that group!). It’s also the camera that “went to the moon.” Finally, the model I’ve chosen (501cm) is strictly mechanical; there’s not a battery to be found anywhere. The lenses I’ll be using include a 50mm wide, 80mm normal, and 180mm moderate telephoto.

    The mechanics of this camera are remarkable. This is the first time in many years that I’ve had to read the manual carefully just to manage the basic operations of taking a single photograph.

    It’s a very different approach to photography, one that I think is entirely appropriate as I “celebrate” my 62nd birthday (and the start of social security!). What a great time and way to learn something new and to challenge my artistic vision.

  • Opinion

    Landscape Photography: Have we become jaded?

    04.12.10 | Permalink | 1 Comment

    I’m struck by the extent to which beautiful landscape photographs are often “enhanced” with significant color saturation, placement of an out-of-place moon, or similar digital alteration. With respect to color, the attitude seems to be “if a little bit is good, then even more will be that much better.”

    I tend to look for aesthetically pleasing compositions that capture an essence of the landscape I’m experiencing. That tends toward “classical” rather than “odd” or “unusual.” It’s my personal opinion that all of us take much for granted, that we often become bored or jaded with the usual (it’s everywhere, all the time!), and that many therefore often feel the need to go beyond the usual in order to photograph something interesting or meaningful. That’s not where I’m at. I thoroughly enjoy experiencing the “usual,” and I try to present it in a composition that captures the beauty of the usual. That’s also the basis for my lack of interest in extensive post-processing that creates scenes that my eyes did not and could not see (although some of my images, especially the long exposures, are exceptions to this statement). I appreciate the visions and skills of those who can create such scenes in a dramatic and mature way, but my own interest lies elsewhere. These different approaches to photography simply reflect, in my opinion, the diversity of our life experiences and personalities. However, I feel a degree of sadness for those who scoff at traditional landscape scenes, saying they’ve been done too often and are therefore boring photographic subjects. In my mind, the essence of living in the natural world, for the very short time that we have, is in these landscapes.