Gearhead

An introduction to the scientific, artistic, and computing aspects of digital photography—how digital cameras work, how to take good pictures using them, and how to manipulate these pictures afterwards. Topics include lenses and optics, light and sensors, optical effects in nature, perspective and depth of field, sampling and noise, the camera as a computing platform, image processing and editing, history of photography, and computational photography.

—Course Description, CS 178 – Digital Photography

My undergraduate education involved taking classes on drawing and illustration through the Engineering School. The idea was that it was easier to teach engineers how to draw than it was to teach artists how to do math. Similarly, in my art classes (through the Art Department), oftentimes it became very useful to know the technical workings of the medium. I’m not at all opposed to mixing the two worlds of techie and fuzzy. Yet when I saw the curriculum for this Digital Photography class, I quickly had a bad reaction to it.

It took me a long time to figure out why this class rubs me the wrong way. The assignments all look good. As does the technical information. Then it finally hit me; there’s nothing about seeing or communicating in the syllabus.

My drawing classes were not about turning engineers into artists. Because freehand drawing is a useful communication and notetaking tool for anyone in mechanical engineering, the point of the class was to learn how to illustrate our thoughts. I don’t get the same vibe from this photography class. Instead it looks like it emphasizes technique and technical know-how. This is always dangerous territory in photography.

When people ask me how to improve their photographs* the first thing I always ask is “what are you taking photos of?” The second thing I usually ask is “and what’s interesting about it?” Technique and gear are good to know and understand; neither of them are typically responsible for why people take bad photos.

*While nowhere near as annoying as “You must have a good camera,” “You’re so creative,” or “Did you take a class;” I hear “How can I take good pictures” or “What camera should I get to take photos like yours” enough that if I’m having a bad day, I’ll be in danger of reacting poorly. At least with the questions which indicate a wish for self-improvement, I can turn it into a teachable moment rather than smalltalk.

Why do people take bad photographs? In my experience, it’s usually a lack of vision. They fail to ask themselves: What am I photographing? Why is it interesting? How can I present what interests me in a way which interests you? Any beginning photo class which fails to emphasize that will rub me the wrong way.

The internet is full of technical experts who take boring photos. Or, worse, technical experts who don’t recognize good photos because they’re hung up on technical flaws.* At least be emotionally honest and say “this isn’t good because I don’t like it.”

*Brilliant satire becoming tragic reality.

Now, if this were an advanced photo class for people who had the basics of photography down and needed to learn more about the equipment? Completely. Different. Story. Sign me up for that class.

E-reader Expo

Our local library had an e-books expo today where “industry experts” came in to answer questions and let people try out devices. While I’m not exactly an e-reader person (yet), we do have an iPad and I have been impressed with Amazon’s strategy of moving toward a “you pick the licensing agreement, we deliver the content” marketplace. So it made sense to check things out in person.

Sigh.

I should have known better. The Barnes and Noble guys were probably the most useful but the Nook is somewhat limited in its PDF support. The rest of the “experts” were really just salesmen and it was pretty clear pretty quickly that they were not that familiar with books. Which was disappointing.

What I was pleased to see is that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland appears to be a standard e-text sample text. For what I’m interested in in e-books, Alice is probably the ideal choice. It’s supposed to come with a specific set of illustrations and it includes a very obvious concrete poem. This means that in addition to checking on obvious things like text/illustration handling, I can also check whether special typesetting is also do-able by flipping directly to the Mouse’s Tale.

The Kindle on display? Failed the test.* When I asked whether it was a function of the e-text or e-reader? Blank stares until I was patronizingly assured that it displayed pictures too.

*Our iPad passed. Was probably the first thing I did in the e-reader too.

I do like the Kindle display though. So at least not all was lost. I’ll have to keep an eye out to see how things develop. But at this point, I still get the sense that the technology isn’t being driven from a “how to improve reading” point of view.

Art, Craft, and Function

The introduction of totemism as a third term may also disrupt the binary model of art history that opposes an “age of images” to an “era of art,” or (even worse) opposes “Western” art to “the rest.’

—W. J. T. Mitchell. What Do Pictures Want?

Non-functional items from the third world are assigned pseudo-functional descriptions such as “fetish figure” when the same kind of item from the west will be given a name and creator.

—My post Serious Art

In the practice of art conservation we are used to thinking about what all the different agents of art – the artist, the curator, the public, etc. – would want for the object’s material condition.  Very rarely – if ever – do  we  consider that the object itself might want something.

Does Art Want to be Conserved? at Cantor Science

To-date, I’ve thought that the distinction between fine art and craft is one of presentation only. Fine Art is presented as being intellectual and having an equally-important creator. Craft is functional and the use is often more important than the creator. I haven’t thought of it as function of agency for the actual piece in question.

The Cantor Science blog turned me onto W. J. T. Mitchell’s book What Do Pictures Want. It has taken me a while to get through the book* and, while I can’t recommend it as a book,** there is a lot of stuff worth thinking about in there for people, like me, who consider themselves art appreciators.

*It’s interesting how, once having left school, book reports become something worth doing again.

**Good god, I’m glad to see that my skimming skills from college are still useful. I can no longer deal with 20 pages of throat-clearing followed by 2 pages of interesting stuff.

In particular, I’ve had to completely reconsider my position that the fine arts vs craft distinction in how we title western art versus third world craft somehow shortchanges the third world as being less important. The opposite is true. Unless we can articulate what fine art is supposed to be used for, it’s almost inherently less important. That so much western art is curated as being important because it’s by someone or part of a movement is a large reason why so many people don’t get art.

And they’re often right to not get it. Much of western/fine art has become an exercise in collecting specimens. The object, and all its uses, is no longer important. What matters is the artist.

The problem with this is that specimen-based curating requires museumgoers to understand the context for the art. Some museums try to explain this but most don’t. So the museum becomes an intimidating place for people who haven’t been taught any art history—no one likes to feel stupid.  And the art is shortchanged since it’s forced to exist in a vacuum.*

*I never liked Chuck Close until I saw a bunch of his work displayed together and could see what he was actually doing. I’ve had to explain Cindy Sherman’s work to numerous people. My favorite experience in an art museum is still hearing a kid point at the pile of Brillo Boxes and proclaim, “That’s not art!”—but there was no information in the museum to explain why it was.

This also explains why, in addition to my preference for design exhibitions, I find myself enjoying pre-renaissance art. The closer the artwork is to being useful, the more I find myself drawn to it.

Specimen-based curating is only acceptable in a retrospective where the artistic path of one person or movement is on display and anyone can see how the pieces fit together. Retrospectives are biographies and are committed to telling a story. The context for the pieces becomes obvious to any museumgoer.

What we need are more art exhibitions which work as both art and as craft. The art objects need to be treated as being important in their own right and not just as specimens without context. The Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibition at the DeYoung Museum was a great example of this.* In addition to being an exhibition of functional objects, there was information about the different artists as well as background information on the quilting traditions. Yet, at the same time, this was very much an art exhibition, not a natural history exhibition.

*The Pixar exhibition in Oakland is another example which comes to mind—very much a craft-based exhibition, but it was also clearly about art.

Which brings us to the question of agency. It’s not really about what pictures want but more the understanding that we all relate to functional items at a much deeper level than we relate to a specimen. Specimens are purely intellectual. Functional items, whether a jewelry, furniture, totem, etc., engage us more and we relate to them better. With regard to display and conservation, we need to take this into account and treat art, if at all possible, in a way which allows people to appreciate its use and purpose. Usage, after all, is why most things are made to begin with.

The Art of the Book

It’s always fun to go to an exhibition and feel the I want that urge manifest itself. I’m not used to that particular emotional response—even with photography. I generally approach art from a much more detached space where, while I am willing to respond emotionally, the pieces I’m responding to expect a more academic approach.

Not so this weekend. I managed to get a quick visit to the Stanford Museum this weekend to see the Art of the Book exhibition before it ends in a week. Very cool.

Books are meant to be held, handled, and read. Repeatedly. The books in the exhibition were no exception to this. As beautiful as the craft of binding, printing, typesetting, and writing were to look at, all the books present were demanding to be opened and used.

I have a hard enough time not accumulating mass-market trade paperbacks. Put me in front of finely-crafted books? I’m in for some trouble. These are things to own and use and share.

And yes, as much as having a darkroom would be cool, if I could throw myself into any craft, I’d be messing about with a letterpress and making my own books.

Gimmicks and gimmickry

GiraldaView
Quoting and expanding from one of my previous posts.

Anything photographic can become an exercise in technique over content

Photography, by being such a technology and technique driven field, tempts people with the fallacy that better/different gear or improved technique is all they need to take better photos. Sometimes, the temptation is because of marketing-driven numbers and “technical” specification which allow people who don’t know what they need to pretend that “better” can be quantified. Othertimes, the temptation comes in the form of eye-catching results which look markedly different than what comes out of most cameras.

There have been plenty of articles about the myths of sharper/faster/better lenses. I’m not going to go down that road. People who chase the myth of the better lens end up shooting lens tests more than anything else. I’m more interested in the temptation toward superficially eye-catching techniques whose results rarely hold up to additional scrutiny.

These techniques are almost always all form and no content since they only serve to say “hey guys, look what technique I can use!” I call them gimmicks since they stand out through form rather than content.

buzz buzz buzz
Commonly-used gimmicks are HDR, bokeh, panoramas, selective color, toy cameras,* through-the-viewfinder, and apps such as Hipstamatic.** These are all extremely seductive to the photographic neophyte since they are relatively easy to perform. You don’t have to learn a skill, you just need new tools or equipment. With minimal effort you get lots of eye candy*** and don’t have to worry about content.

*And all the related effects that lousy lenses, light leaks, etc. create.

**Hipstamatic and Instagram are possibly so common now that they may no longer be eye-catching. 

***debatable

Other techniques with high gimmick potential include wide-angle lenses, infrared, and contrast filters. What prevents these from being typical gimmicks is that the motivation for using them is usually content-driven. Sometimes it’s extremely naïve motivation (e.g. trying to “get it all in”) but it’s still looking at what’s inside the frame and trying do something with it.

Gimmicks, by being so form-based that they dominate the content, are extremely hard to use well. It’s already a struggle for many people to master the camera to the point where it does what they want. Once a gimmick is added to the mix? Watch out. Too much camera, not enough photographer.

Which is why I find myself being drawn to gimmicks.

bench

I don’t necessarily want to control the gimmick. I do want to be able to influence it and figure out how best to use its effects. This is the extreme of my typical approach with lenses.

I’ve been shooting toy cameras somewhat consistently for years now and an gradually getting a sense of how to use them. Sometimes it’s for the sense of achieving that “retro” look through semi-legitimate means. Othertimes, it’s because I enjoy the exercise of having to stretch my brain to figure out how best to use the camera. My Brownie Hawkeye Flash is probably my favorite toy camera since it hits the sweet spot between being somewhat retro, having limited functionality, and creating a unique look.* There’s nothing that screams Brownie about my results but I know I wouldn’t have gotten any of the shots I took with it using any other camera.

*Compared to, say, my Duaflex II which is too distinctive and toy-like for my taste.

But I’m starting to like my Kodak Pony 135 C a lot since I can almost use it like a regular camera. Now that I’ve figured out not to trust the focusing and just scale focus for near or far only, I find myself liking it for quick snaps when I’m out walking during the day.

It’s also great for double exposures.

efi multi

Probably the most obvious of the gimmicks I play with. I find myself favoring the planned versions rather than the unplanned ones. So, for example, compositing a shot in two or three consecutive exposures rather than taking the entire roll, rewinding, and reshooting it for random overlaps. Not that I have a problem with randomness, it’s just that I prefer trying to influence the gimmick.

It’s definitely an interesting exercise to try and see things that will composite well. I’m also still barely getting started in this technique so I suspect a longer post will come once I’ve had a chance to really get my hands dirty and run many rolls through the camera.

rosina with light leaks

Other gimmicks I use which I’ve already covered on this blog are shooting with my flipped lens, through the viewfinder, and even tilted horizons. With all of these, I find myself testing how to control what I’m doing and learning how to see things with the special viewpoint. For an exercise which seems to add a lot of options* I find that gimmicky shooting makes me take fewer photos than regular shooting. A roll of film in a gimmick camera takes me months to get through.

*Just point it at anything and it will look interesting!

It’s interesting to realize that I spend more time thinking about my compositions and content the lousier my equipment is. But my photography brain is growing no matter how I choose to force it to grow…

On Photoshop

A follow-up my post about relevant questions in the digital age of photography. I went running off into questions-about-consumption land but never addressed Photoshop, digital processing, and the one area where there is in fact greater public knowledge about photography.

Digital editing workflows have brought the darkroom to the masses. This is also revolutionary. Until the last decade most people had no idea about the amount of work and choice that exists between taking the photo and making the print. Now, photoshop is a verb for fiddling with your photo after taking the picture.

This increase in public awareness means we need to re-think how we display photography. Exhibitions such as the John Loengard’s Celebrating the Negative need to be given more public awareness. That museums such as SFMoMA will often display multiple prints of the same negative* is also hugely important here too. It’s important for people to know that these processes have always existed and to take their current knowledge of Photoshop and use it to teach them how converting the raw image to the final print has always involved making choices in post.

*Whether it’s comparing different photographic printing styles over the decades or different mediums all together for the final output.

We are paid professionals, do not try this at home

Grandpa Walter
This is prompted by a post and subsequent discussion on 1/125 about the persistent ignorance by photographers of photographic history.

We’re constantly seeing news stories, blog posts, etc. bemoaning how photography has changed “in the digital age.” There are debates about whether Photoshop post-processing or in-camera Hipstamatic-style filters are somehow cheating or lying or not photography. And, as in the 1/125 post, there are existential questions about what it means to be a photographer when anyone or everyone can be a photographer.

What I find interesting is that none of the questions are new but there’s an assumption by many people that something is different now. Maybe the context is different now. Maybe we’ve reached a tipping point where the same old questions have different answers than they used to.

I believe that there is indeed something different happening now but that people are asking the wrong questions. It’s very easy to ask the same old questions because those questions have been around forever.

In photography, the digital revolution is not a technological revolution. It is a social one. Photography’s history is marked by the constant democratization of access to the medium and a parallel dialog about what it means to actually be a photographer (artistically and/or professionally). Digital photography drastically increased the conversion rate of people into photographers. The revolution however is one of ignorance and innocence as the parallel dialog has come to be dominated by people who do not understand the past.

The questions now should have more to do with the consumption of photography, not the creation of it.

Now that anyone can publish, how do we know whether what we’re looking at is worth looking at? It’s fine for me to determine my own criteria, but I can’t expect the general populace to have the same level of awareness and knowledge. Who should be people’s photography guide in an age of internet experts and easy opinions?

How do I hire a professional photographer when I can no longer rely on the equipment to serve as a proxy for technical competence? 100 years ago, baby photos such as the one of my grandfather at the top of this post were made by professional photographers who operated a camera and created family photos. 50 years ago, most baby photos were taken by cheap bakelite cameras but professional photographers still existed for formal posed photos. Now, amateur equipment is identical to professional equipment* and it’s completely expected that the general public no longer knows what to expect from a professional.

*This brings up a side observation which I haven’t seen mentioned at all. While photography is distinguished by the increase in access to the tools of creation, it’s also distinguished by the gradual amateurization of professional equipment.

Our problem as photographers is that we’re focusing on the wrong questions. We’re still worried about distinguishing ourselves. What we should be concerned about is educating others. If we can’t teach people what to expect from a professional or what makes good photography, it won’t matter how much we try and make good photography ourselves.

Sports Purist

As I watched this year’s SuperBowl, I found myself wishing that I could just lose myself in the raw emotional responses to sports. I was rooting for Green Bay. Sort of. But since I have no real emotional attachment to Green Bay, I couldn’t get too wrapped up in the emotions of the game.

My brothers in law did not have this problem. Nor, I suspect, did most people. They were jumping off the couch whenever Green Bay did something good and yelling at the TV whenever they did something bad. It certainly seemed like a lot of fun. Meanwhile I found myself critiquing the playcalling and enjoying the tactical battles despite the result. Yes it’s still fun. But it’s not the same.

I noticed the same thing while watching March Madness this year. I could enjoy an exciting upset but it really bothered me to watch teams play badly. I’ve found that my interest in the tournament has waned as a result. I’d rather watch the later games when (hopefully) the better teams have survived and I can see a game between two well-coached, tactically-sound, and athletically-gifted teams rather teams relying on a hot hand, enthusiasm, and luck.

I’m not sure when my conversion to sports purist occurred.

But I now enjoy the competition and tactics of the game almost more than the result.* While I touched on this previously here, it’s really been something that I’ve been noticing in myself for a while. And as a result, I’ve been thinking a bit about what, exactly, I find enjoyable about sport.

*This isn’t to say that I don’t get excited when one of my teams wins. But even then, I find myself wrapped up in the quality of play rather than concentrating on the scoreboard.

I attribute much of my mindset to the two sports I grew up enjoying. As vastly different as they are, baseball and soccer are both sports which require a lot of situational improvisation and awareness of the bigger picture. The focus of the sport is not set pieces and understanding the game is about learning the flows and rhythms of how things develop. These aren’t games where coaches call plays for players to implement. These are games where the players have to be smart enough to know what to do and when to do it.

It’s probably no coincidence that the best examples of both of these sports are often very low-scoring affairs—mistakes lead to higher scores.

Baseball, in particular, due to its sheer quantity of games and the fact that the best teams only win 60% of the time forced me down the path of appreciating the quality of play rather than the result. You can’t be overly invested in the result of a ballgame when you attend. So instead you hope to see a good game and learn how to appreciate those games when you get them.

While soccer games involve higher stakes, a mythology has built up around those teams which played well and lost (e.g. Brazil 1982) rather than the teams which ended up winning despite playing ugly. I wasn’t conscious of my preferences when I settled on a soccer team to support. But my subconscious appears to have been fully on top of things. Xavi says it best.

Other teams win and they’re happy, but it’s not the same. The identity is lacking. The result is an impostor in football. You can do things really, really well – last year we were better than Inter Milan – but did not win. There’s something greater than the result, more lasting. A legacy.

And so by following soccer and baseball, I’m now applying the same principles to all the other sports I watch.

Corporate tool

The company I work for was running a photo contest. There was even a decent prize for the winner: $1000 and the photograph would be displayed on the building.

mural
Placeholder photo showing where the contest winner would displayed

I didn’t enter.

I didn’t even seriously consider entering.

Yet when the finalists were announced today, my reaction was disappointment followed by incredulity.

“Is that the best we can do?”

“I can totally do better than 60% of those”

But I don’t regret not entering. I’m just trying to articulate why I stayed out. I also suspect that I’m not the only photographer at the company who abstained and I wouldn’t be surprised if the others did so for similar reasons.

  1. Rights grab. Even entering the contest required me to surrender all rights to my photo.
  2. I have not yet drunk enough of the corporate kool aid to do things just for recognition from my coworkers or management.
  3. It was patently obvious what kind of photos the company wanted. This wasn’t truly a “submit your best shot” contest. Everyone knew that bright, colorful, and exciting images were going to win. Especially because we specialize in color printing and want to show off that technology.
  4. Designer integrity. Given the requirements, this amounted to a design-on-spec job. I refuse those on principle.
  5. Artistic integrity. Sure, I could have selected a generic sunrise/sunset photo whose rights I don’t care about and see what happened. But anything worth publishing is something I want to actually care about.

Also, I’m too much of a wise ass. For a corporate contest, I’d be unable to refrain from submitting something taken at work. Granted, I have plenty of nice, colorful, examples from work.
morning in foster city
full moonrise
crescent
However, when I saw the contest, one photo immediately came to mind. And it was perfect. Except it was completely not going to win.

So why bother surrendering the rights to it?
misty lot
Yup, a black and white photo of the company parking lot.

And yes, I know that properly printing black and white using full-color inks is as hard (if not harder) than printing nice color. But that’s not what we’re selling.

Mint Condition

Further expansion on my ramblings on fakeness and authenticity. This time I’m thinking about use, preservation, and the nature of old objects. While I admire and even covet finely-crafted objects, I very much believe in the concept that things should be used.

This puts me in an odd position regarding museums which are displaying objects like chairs or other furniture. So much of the purpose of design is the utility and ease of use of the object. It’s a shame to have them displayed on pedestals or behind glass where all we can appreciate is how they look. It’s always nice when a museum includes replicas you can handle and use and get a sense for all the aspects of the design.*

*This is an area where the new Oakland Museum excels.

As someone who is sensitive to craft, emphasizing use often keeps me from spending money. If I am not willing or able to use the object, I have a hard time justifying its purchase. It is very rare when I purchase a functional object with just its display purposes in mind.* What’s more typical is that I purchase a cool-looking old object with the mindset that, if I can’t get it working, at least it will make a nice display.

*My coin collection may be the only example here. And many of those coins, since they are out of circulation, are preserved as “history” rather than for their function. So perhaps it’s just the modern proof sets which really count as functional objects purchased solely for display purposes.

Keeble and Shuchat’s $5 bargain box has become my indulgence for these urges. The Kodak Retina IIa, Kodak Retina I, and Kodak Pony 135 C were all purchased with no real certainty that they worked, just that they appeared to work. If they didn’t work, they were all too interesting to pass up anyway. Which is how I developed my rules about old camera purchases. They have to take (or be convertable to) 135 or 120 film because if I can’t shoot it (even unreliably), it will feel like a waste to have it on display.

Similarly, as much as I like books and wince when I see them damaged, I can’t stand the idea of having a book so fragile or valuable that it cannot be read. The more creases I see in the spine, the better. I’d rather have a facsimile of the Kelmscott Chaucer than the real thing. And if I spent the $600 for such a book, you can bet I’d actually read it.

If the object is too expensive or fragile for me to feel comfortable using it, I shouldn’t own it. I’m not careless with what I own, I just don’t shy away from things like shooting my cameras in whatever weather presents itself. While I certainly understand the urge to protect old, fragile, or valuable objects, I just don’t see the point of having such an object if it isn’t to be used. This point of view is one which is frequently shared on Antiques Roadshow and is really the saving grace of a show which would otherwise risk getting bogged down in questions of “worth.”