22 February, 2015

To see and take pleasure in seeing

State Library of Queensland, in Brisbane [click to enlarge]

I really like the movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It wouldn't be helpful to describe the movie in detail, except to say that it's set in the final days of of Life Magazine.

The movie is nothing like Thurber's short story that first appeared in the New Yorker in 1939. But, I'm a fan of his and I'd like to think Thurber would like this new movie — although he didn't like the first (1947) movie version that was a vehicle for Danny Kaye.

The new (2013) movie version (directed by and starring Ben Stiller), mentions the motto of Life Magazine, but I didn't recall seeing that motto before. 
So, I did a little Googling and found the prospectus written by Archibald MacLeish and Henry Luce, for what later became Life Magazine.

The motto, recounted in the movie, was reworked from the first part of that prospectus:
THE PURPOSE:
   To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things—machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon; to see man’s work—his paintings, towers and discoveries; to see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to; the women that men love and many children; to see and to take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed;
   Thus to see, and to be shown, is now the will and new expectancy of half mankind.
   To see, and to show, is the mission now undertaken by a new kind of publication, THE SHOW-BOOK OF THE WORLD, hereinafter described.
MacLeish was a artillery captain in World War I, editor of the Harvard Law Review, lawyer, poet, three-times Pulitzer Prize winner, Academy Award winner, Tony Award winner, the Librarian of Congress and an editor at Fortune Magazine. (You don't see that every day). And, coincidentally, MacLeish was born in the same town as my father, albeit 20 years earlier.

50 megapixels?

After the rain, Rockhampton, Queensland [click to enlarge]

Sony's A7r and the Nikon 800/810 series cameras are the current pixel count kings at 36 megapixels. Canon, however, has announced a 50mp, "full-frame" sensor for release later this year; and Sony is expected to do the same. Studio, landscape, macro photographers, and those who print very, very large, will all be over the moon at the news.

Most of us publish our work on the web. I publish to this blog, for example. A smaller proportion of us print larger than 4x6; and fewer still print large format. So, what makes 36mp so popular? Is it just the belief (or hope) that more pixels are better? Is it like having a Ferrari to drive to the supermarket?

Better to have megapixels and not need them, than need them and not have them?

Olympus and Panasonic get it. They strike a balance between pixel count (16 mp) and sensor size (Micro Four-Thirds). Olympus delivers outstanding five-axis stabilisation based on that reasonably sized sensor. At the same time, however, Olympus has introduced a way to use sensor shift to derive a 40mp image. (Hasselblad has a multi-shot technology in their H5D-200c.)

Sony gets it, but has a bet each way. With their A7 series they have 12mp, 24mp and 36mp versions – the most expensive is the 12mp.

One day I might try my hand at serious landscape photography, and think about many more pixels. But for the moment, 24mp works just fine for me.

I suspect that in the future, stabilisation technology, both physical and electronic, in combination with higher usable ISOs and improved dynamic range will make this discussion irrelevant. But not today and not tomorrow.

18 February, 2015

Nice try, Willy

Mt Coot-tha, Brisbane [click to enlarge]

I wanted to talk about the humanist photographers, and I went to pick a photo for the post. As you might have noticed, the posts and the photos don't often match. But I, at least, wanted humans in the image when the post would be about humanist photographers.

When I chose the photo above, however, I noticed the similarity to a Willy Ronis photo that I put in a post on 2 October 2010, after Willy's passing in 2009: A cityscape, with a young couple at the rail (see below).

It was very cunning of Willy to anticipate my 2012 shot and copy it in his work in Paris in 1957. Obviously he didn't think anyone would notice. Nice try, Willy.

Willy Ronis photo
Willy Ronis is always in my list of the greats. If you don't know his work, have a look.

(I'll have to leave the post about the humanists to another day.)

17 February, 2015

Manual focus Loxia lenses

At the State Library of Queensland, in Brisbane [click to enlarge]

There are more than a few photographers who wax lyrical about the benefits of optical viewfinders. This isn't a criticism, but I'm just saying that I'm not amongst them.

My struggles with optical finders are of long standing and pre-date the digital era. In my Olympus OM2-S, for example, I never liked the split ring (rangefinder style) focusing glass. And, I didn't like the microprism spot or matte spot either. I wasn't satisfied until I dropped in the full, matte focusing screen. It was a bit darker, but it worked for me.

I mention this bit of manual-focus history because, for a while, it looked like the auto-focus features on modern lenses had completely trumped any idea of modern, manual-focus lenses. Sure, you could do a bit of "fly-by-wire" manual adjustment on auto lenses, but it wasn't fun.

Using legacy lenses on mirrorless cameras brings back manual focusing, but with some cost in digital features.

Well, it's "back the future" with the Zeiss Loxia lenses. They are manual-focus and manual-aperture lenses. But, because these lenses communicate with the electronics of the A7 series cameras, when in aperture mode, for example, the aperture ring on a Loxia lens operates as if you were using the camera's rear dial to adjust the aperture on an automatic lens.

When you focus a Loxia, the viewfinder automatically jumps into magnification mode for careful focusing. Give the shutter release a half-press and the finder returns to the normal (un-magnified) view.

And because the lens is passing along distance information, the A7II applies five-axis stabilisation, rather than 3-axis. Cool.

No auto tracking, but no grid of phase detection points. No face detection boxes. No smile release. No green lights to signal focus. No back and forth "hunting" in low light.

Just point, focus and shoot. What an innovation.

11 February, 2015

License

Brisbane Art Gallery [click to enlarge]

Annie Leibovitz wrote that, "The camera gave you a license to go out alone in the world with a purpose." So, I try to think of my camera as a license to take an interest in the business of others – uninvited. And, mostly, it works. But, if someone waves me away, I don't take the shot.

People usually smile, or mug it up, or, occasionally, ignore me (and my "license"). So, then, for a moment, I think, "what was I so worried about?"

If I only took candid shots, or from behind, or from a distance, I'd miss most of what's in front of me. (I miss too much anyway.) There's nothing wrong with any of those shots, but they're not enough.

I'm still hoping it will get easier.

(The image above comes out splotchy in Blogger. Sorry.)

01 February, 2015

Matte Paper

Port Vila, Vanuatu [click to enlarge]

If you simply rely on the specifications, matte papers seem to lag behind their glossier cousins in every regard. Compared to semi-gloss and glossy papers they have "inferior" brightness, whiteness, dmax (darkest blacks), dynamic range and contrast.

On your computer display you probably have a contrast ratio of 600 or 700:1. On a glossy paper you can probably count on 160:1, or more. On a matter paper, however, you'll be happy to get above 50:1.

So, with this "information" under our belts, why would we want to use a matter paper?

It has to be remembered that all photography is a bit of an illusionist's trick. Like the movies or television, the photographic print is an attempt to get the viewer to relate to an "unnatural" image, using the cues of what the eye sees naturally. Matte papers have some qualities that can sometimes facilitate that endeavour.

When you look at most prints you can see that it's paper underneath, with ink on the top. Matte prints have a different look. A word often associated with matte papers is, "organic." Because of the way in which the ink fuses with the paper (okay, it soaks in a bit), matte paper has the ability to get the hell out of the way.

I can't show you what matte prints can conjure up using images on your computer screen or tablet. But if you have a printer, I urge you to get a sample pack of matte papers and give a few of them a try. I'm a big fan of Epson Hot Press Natural. I like a smooth paper, and HPN is one of the smoothest. It also has outstanding Dmax for a matte paper.

Just a hint: Be careful not to judge the Cold Press papers too harshly based on the small print sizes from the sample pack — CP work best in larger prints.

Epson has a series of videos with a few photographers talking about the papers. David Lynch talks about HPN. (It's advertising, but it's interesting.)

Certainly, if an image demands the resolution to show high-frequency detail, or needs the blackest blacks, the highest contrast, or the brightest whites, then matte paper may only be a distraction.

But, when you see a matte print with the right image that's been done rightly, you don't look at the paper, your don't look at the ink, you don't think about contrast — your eyes just carry you into what seems to be the realism of the image.

As with so much in photography (and most things) it's not what you got, it's how you use it.