I should stop saying “Real Camera” versus “Phone Camera”

It's A Nice Day For A Light Wedding

Language is tricky. A camera is a camera is a camera. Sometimes I need to clarify that I’m referring to a traditional device and not a hardware feature on a phone. One answer is to refer to such things as a “real” camera, and yes, please, include the quotes Mr./Ms. Editor.

I won’t do that any more, even if I’d done it half-jokingly in the past. Last night I was at the LA County Museum of Art and happened across a couple getting professional photos taken in their wedding clothes. I was spending the afternoon in tourist mode so of course I had my full Urban Guerrilla camera on a sling, and two lenses. I wound up using the iPhone 6s Plus for this instead.

This photo is about 90% as the iPhone shot it. I did push some sliders around in Lightroom. A hardware generation or two ago, I’d be doing that to rescue the photo. Here, I was just improving it adjusting it to my taste, as I do with the stuff I shoot with my Olympus E-M1.

I’ve been deep-testing the cameras of the iPhone and the new Nexus phones. Modern phone camera photo quality is excellent across the board in flagship-class devices. Now, “it’s a good camera” means it <em>handles</em> extremely well, and (like my Olympus) acts as an extension of my brain’s visual center.

There were a couple of practical (boring) reasons why I used the iPhone instead of the Olympus. Yes, one of them was that I knew it’d make a cool demo photo for my Sun-Times review. Another: I hoped that if I used the iPhone’s burst mode, I might get lucky and catch a frame illuminated by the photographer’s flash.

But just as important is the fact that I trust the iPhone. If I have a tiny window in which to get the shot, I know that the iPhone will come up with a halfway decent photo. (So long as the subject isn’t moving. The iPhone loooovvveeessss slow shutter speeds.)

At my skill level, getting a good photo with the E-M1 in a lighting situation I’ve rarely had to deal with requires some trial and error. A woman in white in front of 200 densely-packed streetlamps at night certainly qualifies.

Sometimes, I even just want a snapshot. I enjoy the immersive creative nature of photography but the risk is that I go into my Photo Trance and I’m no longer really there. In this case, it was the end of a long and fun day, my brain was in “dinner and bed” mode, and I no longer had enough mental bandwidth for immersive photography. I was in “push a button and get a photo” mode.

This year, time and time again, I found myself treating a phone in my pocket as a “second camera”…part of my arsenal, alongside the Olympus on my shoulder, to be used when it felt to me like the more appropriate camera for the situation.

A camera is much more than a good picture. A camera is how you take that picture. Today, a phone camera is manifestly a “real” camera.

The Tweaker

Chad Johnson, aka OMGChad, at PAX east. Bon vivant and all-around good egg.
Chad Johnson, aka OMGChad, at PAX east. Bon vivant and all-around good egg.

 

Oh, whoops: by “Tweaker” I’m referring to me, not to the subject of this photo (Chad Johnson, aka OMGChad, a fab former producer at TWiT who’s now off on his own and building his own business hosting his own YouTube channel).

And I don’t mean “tweaking” in the sense of being hopped up on meth. I mean “obsessively making minute adjustments, forever.”

Perhaps I could have saved some trouble by choosing a different title for this photo.

I just wanted to get at the fact that the PAX East photos I’ve been posting to Flickr are my first full project since switching from Aperture to Lightroom. It’s clear that Aperture did not, in fact, just off to the store to get a pack of cigarettes and that it’s never, ever coming back and I wonder if it ever really loved us, anyway?

Well, whatever: Apple’s not going to support my favorite photo library/editing app any more. I’m going to have to convert my Aperture instincts to Lightroom instincts at some point…I guess I might as well get started now.

It’s a frustrating and universal experience. You build more equity with an app or an OS the longer you use it. At this point I am really, really good at walking (no joke; I can walk across almost any surface without falling over…even if I’m carrying lots of stuff at the same time). It sucks to have to throw all of that away and switch to crawling.

Learning a photo editor isn’t the same as learning to run away from predators. You do get to carry over some basic understandings of how color and light work and an inarticulable personal definition of what constitutes a photo that “looks right.”

But this photo took me wayyyy longer to process that it would have in Aperture. It was shot in the press room, with that terrible institutional overhead lighting that knows only hatred and lives only to create unflattering skin tones. Just nudging the White Balance and Tint sliders won’t do.

It’s kind of a nice portrait and I wanted to get a copy to Chad before I forgot about it. I’ve now had a few more days with Lightroom and a little more time to focus, and this second version is way better. There’s more depth to the skin tones and Chad’s plumage is closer to its natural (or should I say “natural”?) red.

Getting back to “personal definitions of what looks right.” I feel like I screw up photos like this one by trying to make terrible overhead institutional lighting look like terrific balanced studio lighting. I’ll get better results by trying to make it look like good institutional lighting…or, as if it was shot with a camera that costs three times as much and is way better at solving white balance problems automatically.

Life is a learning process. I even post photos differently. I used to come home from an event like PAX or Boston Comic-Con and spend two or three weeks culling hundreds and hundreds of photos down to 80 or 90, editing and captioning each, and then posting a huge album all at once. Now, I use the brick-by-brick approach of posting a photo a day until I think I’m done. I like the pace, I like the ability to treat each photo like its own special project, and I like the fact that each photo typically gets thousands of views instead of just a few hundred. I also seem to think that 30 photos tell the story just fine, whereas when I did this the old way going from a shortlist of 110 photos to 83 final selections felt painful.

Well, so long Aperture. You were a great app with lots of life left in you and I’m sorry that Apple abandoned you for something younger and mobile-focused.

Super (-ish) Moon

I shot the supermoon tonight in my backyard. If the Moon is going to be accommodating enough to get a little bit closer to my camera, then I really shouldn’t look a gift satellite in the mouth, should I?

I find that the Moon is a most agreeable subject. It’s much more patient with the hobbyist photographer than the Blue Angels. The Moon has places to go, yes…but it’s in no hurry to get there and it’s willing to indulge the local paparazzi.

My consumer zoom tops out at a sensible 200mm which is fine if your subject is somewhat nearer than 240,000 miles from the focal plane but less than optimal if you want to take a photo of anything orbiting the planet. I don’t need an ultratelephoto lens (or a telescope with a camera adapter). I only want one. And I only want one a couple of times a year…like right now!

Amazon’s drone-delivery system (if real) is brilliant. I’m in my backyard and seeing this little white circle in my viewfinder. I could unpocket my phone, tap a few buttons, and then a half an hour later…RZZZZZZZZZZZZ! A quartet of quadrocopters with a net slung between them drops a Celestron gently onto the grass, next to my tripod. That’s the way to do it! Lock me into the sale at the moment of need, before I realize that this is a silly impulse and an unnecessary expenditure.

I’ve never owned a telescope. I suppose that these days, we use better technology for looking at the heavens: the Internet. Awesome (in the literal sense) collections of imagery collected by the latest generation of spacecraft observatories are right there to be found. Much of it is nicely collected in apps and services, like Google Sky.

I’m sure that I’m not getting the same visceral excitement that I’d experience by peeping at this stuff through an optical viewfinder. But I must swallow my pride and confess that the Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer space telescopes et al (and the people who click the buttons) are way better at finding and photographing interesting things up there than I am.

(It also doesn’t involve freezing one’s butt off when a comet is passing by at an awkward time of the year.)

Besides, the Moon isn’t like the Space Shuttle. There are a million photos of Endeavour, but only a few that capture the orbiter the way I saw it, conveying the emotions that I felt when seeing it. The Moon just hangs there, like the Mona Lisa. Once you’ve seen it, it’s hard to think of something new to do with the thing.

I still have “Milky Way galaxy” on my photographic bucket list, though. It’s a tough problem to solve. I’d need to go somewhere with no light pollution. That’s not a big problem. I’m actually intimidated by being interrupted by angry people with guns and flashlights wondering what the hell I’m doing in the middle of their field. One day, maybe, I’ll find an astronomy group and make a trek out on a good night. Is it BYOB, or do they have a cooler with an honor bar?

MacBook Pro with Retina Display: Retina on Retina

Screenshot of Aperture on Retina Mac display...you can see me reflected in the doggie's eye.

This mini-review on the Sun-Times site amounts to an outline of the full review I’ll be posting on Monday. It’s the best Mac Apple’s ever made. Which isn’t to say it’s for everyone. And I said in the review that most Mac users don’t care enough about onboard Ethernet and future expandability that it’s a debilitating issue. Which isn’t to say that those shouldn’t be considered faults. But yes, if my editor and I are eager to get something of value up on the site and in print before the week is out, and I try to put everything in 600 words, then this is a review I can stand behind.

Now I’m playing with the new edition of Aperture. This is the sort of app that underscores the real point of the Retina Mac display. The purpose of the 220 ppi screen isn’t to show more pixels. It’s to show more information. Photo work is terrific. Thumbnails are so dense that you feel like you can truly pick out the winners in a sequence of photos without having to maximize each and every one of them individually.

It’s so good that yup, when you do go maximum, it’s immediately clear that the little shadow inside a dog’s eye is actually a self-portrait of the photographer. Click and look closely…you can see my hat and everything.

Anyway. Tune back in on Monday for greater verbosity.

The Mac App Store: Falling In Love Again

BPL Staircase

Y’like that photo? It represents two things: the grand staircase of the Boston Public Library, and the regular renewal of my love for the Mac App Store.

It’s one of those rare scenes where it’s almost impossible not to come away with a great photo. I mean, just look at what’s there. Plus, the balcony that the camera is sitting on is at exactly the same level as the bottom sills of the windows on the other side, and there’s even a seam in the marble that shows you where to center your lens.

The shot and the composition is right there waiting for you but you can make things better with proper technique. I’ve taken this same photo over and over again and I think this version includes pretty much every mix-in ingredient from the sundae bar. The camera was sitting flat on the balcony to eliminate camera shake; I selected an aperture from the lens’ “sweet spot”; I used a super-wide-angle lens to get the whole thing in one shot; I shot on an overcast day so that the west-facing windows didn’t blow out the stairs; I manually selected an exposure point from the midtone range of the scene; I waited until the area was clear of people (or for there to be a person in there standing still and doing something that enhanced the scene); and I shot seven bracketed exposures, which I assembled into an HDR image to get around the limitations of the image sensor.

To summarize: I tried to Ansel Adams my ass off with this one. Gosh!

The HDR image was created by Photomatix by HDRSoft. It’s the go-to app for people who think a High Dynamic Range photo should look like a photograph and not like a frame from a computer-generated short circa 1998.

Generating this image was a needlessly long and complicated process. Oh, the app is easy as pie. It was only complicated because I hadn’t really used the app in ages. I downloaded a fresh copy from HDRSoft and looked in my Mail archive for the license code, but I couldn’t find it. I used their website’s automated thingy to have it re-sent to me, but they didn’t have the code on file and it was a holiday weekend.

So I had to dig through my closet for Lilith 9, my 2008-edition MacBook Pro. After thirty minutes of charging, I booted it up for the first time in a year and a half. I remembered my admin password after seven failed tries and I had to remember how things work in MacOS 10.6. But then it was like I was entering the tomb of The 2009-2011 Version Of Andy Ihnatko. Here, arrayed in the undisturbed air almost as though he had just departed moments ago, were all of the tools and amusements and artifacts that he surrounded himself with in life. For what purpose were they buried with him? History may never know.

Anyway, yes, Photomatix was installed and licensed on this machine. More good news: I could upgrade to the 2012 edition and still use the old app’s registration credentials. I copied over the source images and soon had the merged HDR image that I’d come for.

If I’d acquired Photomatix from the App Store two years ago, I’d have had it up and running on Lilith X after just five minutes of clicking…no registration code required. Every time I encounter into a situation like this, I love, love, love, freaking love the Mac App Store. I want to put five dollars in an envelope and send it to Apple, in the hopes that it might land in the hands of someone who was responsible for making the App Store happen.

The Store is still a source of some worry. Apple is the sole authority on what apps can and can’t run on an iPhone, iPod, or iPad. That rankles, given that an iPad costs as much as a Windows 7 notebook. Shouldn’t I have the right to do whatever the hell I want with a computer I paid $400 to $875 for? The situation is different on MacOS but developers still feel enormous pressure to kowtow to Apple’s rules and seek their approval. The App Store’s where all the money is.

So noted be. But damn, yes, the Store makes life so much easier for every user.

Which is why we sigh and we move on, instead of driving to Cupertino with a trunk full of V for Vendetta masks and a collection of signs that we hope will be amusing enough for people to reshare on their Tumblrs.

The Man Who Shot Superman

The Best You Can Do

The last of my photos from New York Comic-Con are finally up. It took me two months, sure, but do you want them Right Now, or do you want them Done Right?

(Eh? You don’t want them at all?)

(Go to hell.)

New York Comic-Con 2010 – The Costumes

I get truly excited when I know I’m coming to an event or a place with terrific opportunities for picture-taking. It’s like a wonderful scavenger hunt. I know that there are incredible photos hidden somewhere inside this enormous place and I have just three days to find as many of them as I can.

There’s also a serious puzzle-solving component to the adventure and that part of it can deliver as much frustration as pleasure. Some elements were easy: there were going to be lots of colorful people at the event (check) and all of them were going to be perfectly happy to stop for someone with a camera (DOUBLE-check).

Fab! But they’re walking around inside the Javits Center. I’d attended plenty of shows there. Even compared to other convention centers, I knew that this was one dark, dark set of exhibit halls.

So I came to New York with pretty much the whole inventory of photographic armament. I had my D200, the really fast 50mm lens, the plain-jane wide-to-telephoto zoom lens, and an external flash. Clearly I was going to have to rely on a lot of trial and error to get decent results.

Ach. It was kind of even tougher than I had imagined. I’d hoped that I’d figure out the right combination of equipment and settings that would yield clear, sharp, colorful photos with a properly-illuminated subject and background. Instead, I had to file this under the “accept the things that I cannot change” part of that embroidered poem you’ve seen hanging on a wall at your aunt’s house.

Over those three days, I think I tried every trick and combination of settings imaginable. But nothing was really foolproof. Even using rear-curtain sync (a slow shutter gathers a blurry handheld image of the background, while a pop of flash at the very end overlays a sharp exposure of the person in the foreground) didn’t work 100% of the time.

Here’s the solution I came up with to the problem of Ambitious Javits Center Photography. These notes are for my future benefit as much as anybody else’s. Alas, it’s rather boring:

  • You need a real SLR. Cameras with big image sensors can handle high ISOs very well. Almost any pocket camera can barely take a decent photo at 400 ISO.
  • 800 or 1000 ISO seems to be the sweet spot. With my SLR (and most others) that’s enough sensitivity to pull details from the background without introducing so much noise that it starts to get in the way.
  • Simple, direct flash is the only surefire solution. I wanted three things in each image: sharp detail, strong colors, and lots of background detail. It seemed as though I could only have two of them at once. If it isn’t in sharp focus, it isn’t a usable photo. And what’s the point of shooting costume photos with dull color? Sometimes you’ll get lucky and there’s enough light in the background to give you some kind of detail. Or at least enough light that you can salvage it in Photoshop. But in the end, it’s best to simply accept that some venues just aren’t great for photography.
  • Just trust to luck. After assuring myself that there was no one Magic Answer, I settled into a routine of taking two separate shots, with the flash on and off. My camera has a user-programmable function button, which made it easy. I didn’t even have to take the camera away from my face between shots: I just hold down the function button with my ring finger, sight-unseen, to suppress the flash. One of those two shots would come out OK.

So that’s what I wound up with for shooting costumes at the Javits Center. I hope to do better next time. And there’ll definitely be a next time: I had a great weekend at the Con, and much of what I did there was actually job-related.

I did take away two lessons. Next time, I might decide to more or less set up camp in the Javits’ atrium area. It’s loaded with people coming and going and there’s plenty of great light. It sometimes seemed as though everyone you’d ever want to shoot was walking through there at one point or another. All of the photos that made me think “Hey, that one came out great!” were shot outside of the exhibit halls.

And the experience underscored how handy it’d be to own a fast, wide-angle lens. Remember, when I snap the 50mm onto the SLR body, it turns into a telephoto-ish 75mm lens. I tried using it during the first day but I was missing way too many shots because I just couldn’t get my subject into the frame. Digital SLRs are popular enough that prices of nice, fast, 30mm lenses are starting to come way down.

Photoshop Disasters: The Home Game ANSWER!

The line “…I wonder if you can spot it, too” in Saturday’s post was a spontaneous thing but boy, did I enjoy all of the responses. Here’s the original photo again:

A lovely photo of Boston's Public Garden, with two swans sliding into a calm lagoon and a 140-year-old iron footbridge in the background.

I’ll show you the original, untouched imagery. But first, let’s roll through some of the guesses:

  • “The debris in the water looks like dust on the bed of a scanner.” Nope…this was shot digitally. I did momentarily consider erasing all of those little bits, but that would have been overkill.
  • “Is it the unexplained circle of water ripples?” Oddly enough…nope. I myself have been trying to think of why the ripples look a little out-of-place. Maybe the swan entered the water at one angle, and then changed course? Midway through the edit, I thought “Damn…I must have made a clumsy, square selection at some point.” This is why I sometimes find myself returning to the original image to make sure I’m not “fixing” something that’s actually a natural feature.
  • “Oversharpening of the trees?” Nope. Or at least I didn’t give the trees any special attention. I don’t think I applied any sharpening to this image. I might have done it to the whole thing by reflex.
  • “A little quaint for my taste.” Point taken. I think it’s more photographic and stylish than hotel room art, but the image would still be alarmingly appropriate for the title screen of a wedding video. The main focus of my attention was the bridge, which I think is one of the prettiest public structures in Boston. Other shots of the bridge in this series use angles that are more dynamic. I liked that I caught one of the swans just as she was about to jump into the water.
  • “It has to be the light on the left. It looks like it is behind the tree at its base, but the post and light are in front of the tree.” Nope, I didn’t do anything to the trees or the lights on the bridge. I think the trees behind and in front of the light are just sort of compressed together in the image. But yeah, I see what you mean.
  • “My untrained eye keeps coming back to the lights on the bridge. They appear to be lit, even though daylight has arrived.” This was shot at about 6:30 AM. The sun was up but the timer on the lights hadn’t tripped yet. I’m grateful that there’s a little color and texture in the lights.
  • “the bit of sky in the top right hand corner. I keep looking over there and there is nothing to see.” Interesting. That wasn’t the “mistake” I was thinking of but maybe I’ll just see what it looks like with some cloned foliage filling the gap.
  • “Ok, I’ll go with ‘Something seems wrong with the water in the extreme lower left corner, just to the left on the standing bird’s reflection.’ Hard to tell at iPad screen resolution, but the ripple and reflection patterns look like they’ve been modified.” OooOOoooh…very close. I had to look carefully and compare the source to the final photo to check. No, but you’re verrrry close.
  • “Maybe too much cloned tree by the rightmost lamp.” Nope, I didn’t clone any trees.

Nobody got it. One of you would have won the $30 Outback Steak House Gift Card (had I offered one as a prize) for coming closest: Jay Horsley sensed that there was…something…going on with the reflection of one of the two swans.

I actually did two different major edits to this piece. It’s a composite of not one, but three photos.

Firstly, there are two swans in the Public Garden but only one of them is represented in this photo. The other one was minding the nest on the opposite shore of the lagoon. I shot a multiple-image sequence of the swan jumping into the water and paddling off. After Photoshop automatically aligned the two shots I’d selected, it was easy to “paint in” the swan on the shore.

I used the “swan in the water” shot as my main image; it saved me the trouble of removing the woman from the bridge.

Jay’s comment encouraged me to examine the Before and After images side-by-side and see if I should have painted more of the “shore” swan’s reflection into the water. The only thing missing is its head; I think it should be obscured by the ripples of the water. But maybe I’ll play with it some more.

That edit was easy. The tricky one was cleaning up the bridge abutment. “It’s a focal point of the photo and it’s covered in bird s***,” an art critic might say.

I thought that’s what it was, too. But actually, it’s just lime scale seeping through the cracks in the mortar.

“Uh-huh. But it still looks like it’s streaked with gallons and gallons of bird s***.”

Critics!

There was just way, way too much of this stuff to “fix” the stones via the usual Photoshop tricks. So on a later visit to the Public Garden, I shot a closeup of the opposite abutment, which (praise Tarim) was much, much cleaner:

Photo of bridge abutment.

Damn and blast, I didn’t have a copy of the photo with me at the time. I had to guess at the right angle and I wasn’t even close. But it’s a tiny part of the final image so I suppose it doesn’t really matter. I mashed and distorted it until it was the same shape and size as the one covered in bi…in lime scale. Then I used a mask to knock a hole in the master image and lined up the replacement abutment under the hole, flipping between the “Before” and “After” to make sure that the blocks matched the original.

But look what I forgot to do:

Detail of image, showing the "fixed" abutment of the bridge, with the original "messed up" abutment still reflected in the water.

Yup…I forgot to fix the reflection of the original streaked-up abutment.

I was pretty proud of the replacement job (though I think I’ll fine-tune the edges a little) and I stopped working without thinking about how The Thing Wot I Changed had influenced other things in the image. That’s a common mistake. You see it all the time on the “Photoshop Disasters” site. You might have done a great job fixing the whatsit. But before you move on, you need to look back at the original image. Is the whatsit reflected in something else? Does it cast a shadow? Is it supposed to be reflecting light on something else? If so…what color is that light? Do any of these things need to be updated?

Thanks for your comments about the photo. I wasn’t actually fishing for reassurance but hey, who doesn’t like reassurance and encouragement?

Some people like to unwind with a game. I tend to sublimate that kind of adventuring into creativity apps. When I run into a problem, it rarely really frustrates me; I actually enjoy trying to figure out how to get the Babel Fish. I keep getting killed on the “replace the background without leaving a color halo around the foreground figures” level. But I keep at it, or I buy a cheat guide, and I figure out how to beat it. Hoo-rah!

…And then I start getting killed on the “intensify a specific color without compressing the image’s dynamic range” level instead.

Speaking of cheat guides: my pal Lesa Snyder has a new edition of her fab book, “Photoshop CS5: The Missing Manual” It was within reach throughout most of this little job.

I really do use it as a cheat guide. The table of contents doesn’t actually read

  1. Man, Andy…you’re such a dumbass about layer blending
  2. I guess you owe that print service an apology…you’ve had the color management settings set wrong all this time
  3. How on earth did you get through several decades on this planet without ever knowing how the Histogram tool works?
  4. …Or you could fix that sky in about three seconds by doing it the right way, but what the hell do I know, I’m just a Photoshop book

…but it might as well. I have a problem, I open the book, I find the solution.

Photoshop Disasters: The Home Game

A lovely photo of Boston's Public Garden, with two swans sliding into a calm lagoon and a 140-year-old iron footbridge in the background.
A nice little shot of Boston's Public Garden. The Public Garden is a much more quiet and peaceful place before the tourists and bridal parties descend.

I’m a big fan of the Public Garden (the oldest public horticultural garden in the USA) and a few weeks ago I decided to make a special early-AM trip out there to do some Serious Photography.

I got some nice shots. But I haven’t really posted anything on Flickr yet. Why?

Yes, of course: I’ve become a Button Freak. Like Oskar Schindler at the end of the movie, who wandered in a daze, paralyzed by the thoughts of everything else he could have done, I keep looking at these shots and thinking “But there must be a way I can restore the blown-out highlights in that sky.”

(So when do I get my adoring biopic? Well, okay: Schindler had to wait 50 years for his. Plus, he did save a whole lot of people’s lives. I guess I’ll just have to wait my turn.)

There comes a point at which Photoshop, Aperture, and The Ambition To Produce A Lovely Pick-cher become handicaps to the amateur photographer. This shot of the swans — a lovely lesbian couple; you should meet them sometime — is probably my favorite of the series and a case in point. I can’t stop tweaking it. I went from “I like it; I’m going to include it among the 20 I’ll post to Flickr” to “I like it; I’m going to export it from Aperture and edit in Photoshop, for more control” to “I really like it; I think I’ll make an 11×17 print of this”…which ultimately landed me at “If I’m going to be staring at this on my wall for years to come, then this ought to be perfect.

Next stop: bedlam. Now’s a good time to start stowing any personal electronics because we should be landing there shortly.

I thought I was done working on this photo, honestly. But then I spotted a problem…a mistake I made in editing. I wonder if you can spot it, too.

Over-doing Photoshop is like over-doing plastic surgery: you don’t know you’ve gone too far until you’ve gone too far. But unlike Joan Rivers, I can undo the damage I’ve inflicted upon what God created by simply hiding a few adjustment layers.

Stupid lousy Food Network…

Baked Chicken, plated somewhat artfully.

Today’s been a pretty busy workday. I didn’t have time to make a big production of dinner. I just rubbed some olive oil and seasonings onto a chicken breast, sealed it in a foil pouch, and tossed it into the oven for twenty minutes…like I’ve done a thousand times.

But I’ve been watching a lot of Food Network shows recently. So when it was nearly time to pull the chicken out of the oven, I found myself squirting barbecue sauce into a soup spoon and then giving it a swoosh around the plate.

And when the chicken was done, I found myself slicing it into two pieces and arranging them artfully.

Stupid lousy fricking Food Network…

(Photo taken with my iPhone 4, with assistance from my video lighting rig…still in place after recording MacBreak Weekly an hour earlier).

Nubble Light

Nubble Light in York Beach, Maine.

A comment on that lighthouse photo. This is Historic Nubble Light in York Beach, Maine. It’s been designated as a Historic site because two Presidents were born there, three were conceived there, and the armistice agreements that ended the Civil War, World War II, and the Browser Wars of 1997 were signed up in the lamphouse.

Actually, like most lighthouses, “Historic” is another way of saying “Nobody got around to knocking it down, and then someone came up with the idea of opening a seafood restaurant next to it.”

I define Nubble Light as the ultimate test of utter photographic cluelessness. It’s damned pretty. There’s an observation area just across from the inlet, and it faces West into the golden setting sun. If you can somehow remember to hold your camera with the lens bit facing away from you instead of towards you, you’ll take a fantastic picture.

If you don’t get a fantastic picture, then you need to hand your camera to the Brigadier General of Photography without further argument. You suck at this. He will break your camera in two pieces across his knee, hand it back to you, and then his lieutenants will escort you from the premises, with the understanding that you are henceforth banned from every scenic location everywhere in the world.

The only downside is that every photo of Nubble Light tends to look like every other photo of Nubble Light. Smart photographers will throw a newspaper or a “People” magazine or something into the shot, just to establish that you yourself recently took the photo.

Gramma’s Old Capture Album

Be Prepared

Two recent conversations with fellow shutterbugs have left me thinking about the way I take pictures. It seems as though both of these photographers maintain the philosophy that when they click the shutter of their camera — yes, even a digital camera — they’re “taking a photo.” I’ve come to the realization that when I press the button, I’m thinking 75% in terms of “capturing data.”

The photo comes when I dump the memory card to a hard drive and start sorting through a hundred files with Aperture much later. But there at the place and in the moment, I’m thinking of all the scene data that this device in my hands can collect, and I’m making sure that I record as much of it as possible before the moment (and I) move on forever.

Is the camera in RAW mode? Because I want it to record all of the data spilling off of the image sensor. I don’t want the camera to throw away any of the image’s dynamic range or detail by compressing it into a JPEG.

If the camera isn’t in RAW mode, have I set it to its highest resolution? When I only have limited free space left on my card, I’d much rather carefully shoot 16 full-resolution JPEGs than 48 lower-res ones.

I’m in a restaurant. Is there any way I can possibly get this photo without setting the ISO above 200? A camera increases the light sensitivity by “turning up the volume” on the image chip…and just as when you crank up the volume on a stereo, there’s an unavoidable increase in “distortion” (in the form of noisy pixels). What if, instead of increasing the sensitivity or popping the flash (which would kill the “natural” feel of the image), I leave it at 100 ISO, hold the camera against the table for stability, and just take LOTS of shots and hope that I get lucky and I manage to click the shutter during the one fifth of a second that my subject isn’t moving around?

Am I leaving plenty of room around the “meat” of the image? I try to avoid the instinct to “crop” an image in-camera. It’ll be a fine photo as-is but what if later on I want to make an 8×10 or a 5×7, and I discover that I can’t choose a different aspect ratio without cropping out something important?

Have I turned off all of the camera’s “arty” shooting modes? I love black-and-white imagery but I’d much rather turn a color photo into black-and-white on the desktop, where I can let the colors define the areas of light and dark. I’m taking home more data.

The iStore, in Hamilton Bermuda. Not an Apple Store, but an incredible simulation.

Is it worth shooting a panorama sequence, so that I can record what it felt like to be in this place? Is it worth shooting a whole mess of bracketed exposures, to ensure that I’m pulling detail out of shadows? Should I lock the camera down and shoot an HDR sequence, which I can later process into an image with ungodly-high dynamic range? If it’s a group shot…why not take a clean shot of the background without any people standing in the way? C’mon, be honest: how long is your brother’s third marriage going to last? Someday, your sister is going to want a copy of her wedding photo with an empty space where that Fresno barfly used to (unsteadily) stand.

Cool car parked outside a tattoo shop in Worcester, MA. I think this was a five-frame HDR.

And is it even worth shooting a couple of video clips? Is the movement of this place or this object part of its “story”? Years later, will I be immensely grateful that I preserved the sensation of “looking around” here and walking from room to room?

 

The biggest joy and biggest burden is to have friends who are very smart and who often disagree with you. It’s easy to argue with a dumb person. You just say “That’s nice” and move on, thinking only of whether or not you should be offended that (according to this dumb’s person’s statement) there’s a huge gay agenda and none of your gay friends ever tried to recruit you into it.

It’s tougher when a smart woman explains why she always shoots JPEG. The arrogance in this discussion was all mine, I should point out; I was baffled as to why someone would have a RAW setting on their camera and not use it. I made the argument that 8 and 16 gigabyte cards are so cheap that the “you’ll run out of space” point was no longer valid. She simply pointed at the 500 gigabyte external hard drive that was connected to my MacBook. She keeps her entire JPEG iPhoto library on her internal hard drive.

I don’t think she could rebut my argument that she was leaving money behind on the table every time she clicked the shutter of her SLR. She replied that she almost never does the sort of image editing that exploits that extra data, anyway.

I sensed that I was either about to, or already had, crossed an invisible line between Enjoying The Argument and Being A Jerk About My Point Of View, so I ended it.

Another friend likes to shoot black-and-white. I’m not sure that I fully understood the explanation of why he prefers to do it in-camera instead of “cooking” a monotone version of a color image back at home on the desktop. It was mostly a style thing, I think, and you can’t argue against personal style (David Spade’s wig notwithstanding).

I respect these ideas but yoiks…their perspective mystifies me. I suppose my fresh aghast-ification is at least partly the reside of an ongoing project to collect all of my digital photos into a single library. My first digital camera shot web images at 320×240 pixels and even so, filmless photography felt as though we were tampering with incredible forces that God intended for us to leave alone. Then the resolution doubled. Soon, we were were talking about “Megapixels” and it was at last possible to print photos that were every bit as good as what you’d get from a film camera.

It took a while before the software (and its users) started to treat digital photos seriously. Photo apps did destructive edits. If you boosted the brightness and amped up the color and cropped it down to just the bit that you wanted to slap on your website, you’d just thrown away the original image forever. It’s like the difference between having the negative of your favorite photo of your parents, and only having the creased and trimmed-down print that was on the fridge for 10 years. A JPEG is, at best, a really good print that you can slap into your scanner. I want the negative…and that means shooting RAW at all times.

Rrgh. I’m taunted by 240×180 JPEGs and GIFs that I made for the 1995 edition of this blog. It’s only a whiff of the full-sized, useful photo of a once-in-a-lifetime event. I can only hope (hope hope hope) that as I drag more CD-R’s and SCSI hard drives out of closets, I might find the original 1.2 megapixel file. Even a fifteen-year-old JPEG can be vastly improved after a few moments with Aperture. Plus: it pleases me that I’m rescuing the original and making it easy to archive.

No, actually, the roots of my “capture image data first, do the Photography later” attitude predate digital photography. It goes back to my teen years, when I had been bitten hard by the bug and was checking all of the photo books out of the school library one by one.

Like anyone with a scrap of taste, I was dazzled by Ansel Adams’ landscapes. I lingered over each huge image in the coffee table books and then I moved on to his book describing his darkroom process. And gorblimey! Right there in black and white — literally — he explained the Zone System and other techniques that were in his mind as he meticulously turned the glass negative into the prints I has immersed myself in. It was important to make all the right choices out there in Yosemite with his field camera, certainly, but it was only half of the work. Each print was a meticulous piece of craftsmanship, as he toned and burned and dodged the image and made careful adjustments to the print’s chemical bath.

I just dropped off my film at Lechmere and a week later, I got the prints that I got: good, bad, or indifferent. Ansel Adams made the darkroom process seem so very Catholic. You took your film into this dark confessional, carefully examined its spirit and intentions, and then you washed away all of the negative’s sins and led the image towards Salvation.

Mr. Adams — you know, I met him when I was a kid; I should write about that some day — was a huge idol and he still shapes my modern attitude. You can’t turn a crummy RAW file into a terrific photo; you have this responsibility to think hard and make good decisions before you click the shutter. But in the end, the original image is just the raw batch of ingredients. You’re meant to cook them and combine them and plate them…and that’s what you set on the table for other people to enjoy.

OM-10 Flea Market 060.jpg

Photography pushes my brain in new directions. It keeps certain mental gears greased and cleans various synaptic valves. The relationships between myself, my subjects, and my equipment keep changing and there’s an eternal sense of play that I deeply enjoy.

Hence, my somewhat recent habit of photographing the Holsteins. It’s play.

I came home from last week’s MIT Flea Market with a nice bit of kit: an Olympus OM-10, which was one of “the” 35mm SLRs of the 80’s. “Make me an offer,” the vendor said. And not with the optimism of a man who thought I’d come back with a figure four times what the camera was worth. He spoke with the world-weary fatigue of one who just wanted to be rid of it and retain a shred of dignity.

Apparently, this shred of dignity was worth $5. What a buy! There isn’t a scratch or a scuff on it.

I bought it partly for the nostalgia factor. Wait, no: I bought it mostly because it was five stinking dollars! Even a knee to the groin seems like a can’t-pass-it-up bargain at that price.

Before I relegate it to the knick-knack shelf, however, I think I’ll load up this puppy with film and batteries and take it out for a day’s worth of shooting. A roll of film is a series of 36 irrevocable decisions and miniature leaps of faith. You have to commit to one presumption about the composition and exposure before you press the button and then continue with your walk. Either you got the shot or you didn’t. At fifty cents per exposure (the cost of film and processing) bracketing your exposures is eeeeeeek-spensive.

It’s an exercise in emulsive discipline. It’ll be good for me.

I’m still right about capturing as much data as possible at the scene, though. Just because my friends are smart doesn’t mean they’re right.

(they are NOT.)

(Are NOTNOTNOTNOTICAN’THEARYOUI’MNOTLISTENINGHMMHMMHMMMMM!!!!)