25 June, 2005

Weathered Tree

Weathered Tree, Copyright 2005

I'm working through the images from the XA from my May trip to Moab. In case you hadn't noticed, my work pace is excruciatingly slow. I think I need to work on improving my workflow efficiency. One nice thing a rangefinder-type camera can do in a landscape setting is pick out an object in the foreground. This tree shows years of being worn away by the wind. In Utah, there are whole forests of trees that never grow beyond 5-7 feet high, due to the constant barrage of wind and sand.

UPDATE: I'm shutting off comments for this post, since someone spammed the comments.

19 June, 2005

What About Digital, Mike? (updated)

Gordon Gulch - 2005
Originally uploaded by mjm1138.

Ah yes, what about digital. It's certainly easier to deal with than film. And I suppose digital photography is far more ecologically friendly than film. I mean, I probably waste 20 gallons or more of water every time I develop two rolls of film. That along with the chemicals I use and discard, film photography is really kind of an environmental nightmare. It's just that digital photography is so...digital.

I like to think back to the analogous time in music. It was the mid 1980's. Synth pop was a fully established force in music. Then came the advent of digital synthesizers. They were cheaper, more reliable and easier to use than their analogue ancestors. Suddenly analogue synths were begging on the market (I remember seeing micromoogs in music shops for $100) as everyone jettisoned their old gear for the new. Then, pop music died, and its putrescent corpse became what we remember as the music of the late 80's and 90's. In case you didn't know, that's what happened. Everyone in the world started to sound exactly the same since, as it turns out, the digital synthesizers of the time had a far less organic and creative feel. Most of the sounds from them were pre-programmed at the factory. Music has recovered somewhat. Nowadays, three things are happening: vintage analogue synthesizers are commanding ridiculous prices on eBay and at music shops, manufacturers are actually re-introducing 25-year-old models to the market, often with few refinements over the original, and the current generation of digital synthesizers are prized for their ability to accurately emulate old analogue gear.

And so with photography. Is digital photography today of sufficient quality to supplant film with no disadvantages? I mean, I don't print on photographic paper anymore, so any darkroom tricks have long since moved to the computer. The answer though, at least at the price range us mere mortals get to play in, is no.

The image above was taken yesterday on my Sony DSC-P9 "CyberShot" digital camera. It's a little 4 megapixel point-and-shoot that my employer gave out as a holiday bonus a few years ago. It does a fine job, especially considering it's a few years old, but as a consumer camera it produces images that wouldn't stand up to real close scrutiny. Zoom in all the way and you can see the artifacts of image compression and detect the limits of color contrast (that is, the ability to differentiate shades of color). It's great for snapshots and the like, but is not quite there for serious shooting.

It also bothers me, the comment I made in the paragraph above: "especially considering it's a few years old". A fine camera should last indefinitely, and I don't cotton well to the notion that your camera should join the ever growing list of "stuff you have to replace every three years because it's obsolete". I mean, I guess film formats have come and gone, but within the standard set of formats (35mm, 120/220, 4x5, 8x10), your 1930 camera should be as usable today as it was the day it was made, if you've taken care of it.

We're just not quite there yet. My guess is, as with the music industry, the photo industry will be entirely digital (i.e. no new film cameras being made, except in niche markets) before the technology is really ready, and then it will catch up a few years later. Here's hoping Ilford, Fuji and Kodak keep making their emulsions and chemicals in the mean time. Kodak recently announced that they're no longer making black-and-white photographic paper, so I guess I wouldn't bet on it.

Update:Well, okay so I'm on the digital bandwagon now. There are still some very real limitations of shooting digital, and here's hoping I actually advance to the level where I'm encountering those limitations, I guess.

07 June, 2005

A Couple Shots From Moab

Here's a couple shots from our last trip to Moab, shot on the Olympus XA.

Tracks Through Rock - 2005

One of the Cool things about the Moab area is how easy it is to get completely away from civilization. Not far from town, there are panoramic vistas where you can see no sign that humans have ever been there. So it struck me when we were on a hike when we crossed this railroad track. Almost the converse of the Moab experience, this seemed like a grandiose mark of humanity out in the wilderness. The vertical lines betray the sheer force with which the rock was cleared out to make way for the tracks. On the trail, we encountered a couple who asked if we thought the canyon the tracks passed through was the work of humans. I was slightly floored at the absurdity of the question.

As for the picture, you'll note that the frame is not visible around the image, meaning I had to crop it, since I wasn't holding the camera straight. I don't like cropping images. Call it a compulsive desire not to discard any image information. It also means I wasn't shooting carefully. 35mm negatives have a limited resolution, as does the XA's lens, so to maximize that I really need to compose the image in the viewfinder. Aside from that the presence of the frame as defined by the camera keeps the camera itself in the image. Photography is not a literal representation of reality, but rather reality as rendered through a particular instrument, and I don't want to pretend otherwise. In fact, that's one of the things I like about it. Cropping for me is like trying to dive into the image and remove the process that created it. When you do that, you're more apt to focus on the shortcomings of the medium.

View Down Long Canyon - 2005

See the difference? By abstracting the view with the frame and recalling the process of image creation, I think this shot brings you closer to the reality of the moment when the image was taken.

I may end up going back into Photoshop and seeing if I can make the snow-capped peaks in the background pop a bit more. Those peaks must be 50 miles from where I was standing, and I'd like to get a sense of that scale.

I'm not sure I've captured the feeling of standing on that cliff, several hundred feet from the creek below. Suffice it to say that I did not get any closer to that edge than what you see here; it was terrifying and exhilarating in that way that only the wilderness can be. In Utah as with Colorado, you frequently get a sense of the indifferent lethality of nature that I never got growing up in Iowa. Not that nature feels malevolent, just the overwhelming feeling that you should not feel so different from the bug you stepped on that morning, you can go at any moment, in just as arbitrary a fashion. A few more steps, and there would be no hope for you. In a few months, the desert would swallow you whole, and there would be no trace of you left. Perhaps people who are hostile to the environment have had an epiphany like this and rebel against it. I find it enlightening and liberating. The danger here is very obvious, as opposed to the danger so often hidden in human intentions. The rules here may seem arbitrary, but they're very clear, and subject to precious little negotiation. The first rules humans to which humans had to adhere were those imposed by nature, and most of those rules still stand today. Anyway I'm not sure I captured that.

Both of these images were shot on Tri-X Pan, the film to which I've retreated while I regain my footing. I've been learning a lot about the scanning and exposure control process lately, which I hope will produce some sharper results.

05 June, 2005

Another Trip to Moab - Equipment Notes

I find the nuances of cameras themselves fascinating, and am always intrigued by the role the camera plays in the creative process. I also like to ramble on about my own creative process. If you don't find this interesting, skip this post. My wife and I took another early May trip to Moab, Utah for some camping, Jeeping and photography. I was a bit happier with my output this time around; I feel like I'm starting to get the hang of the cameras with which I'm shooting.

This is no small deal, as it takes me some time to learn both the controls and the quirks of a given camera. This ends up slowing down the shooting process, and creating mistakes. Last year the Nikon FM2 was a very recent acquisition, and I was using a Canon Canonet for rangefinder shots. This year I've had a year with the Nikon, and my Olympus XA made rangefinder shooting much easier. The Nikon had replaced two SLR's: a Canon FTb that belonged to my grandfather and a Minolta X-700 that had replaced an earlier X-370. The FTb is a fine instrument with a fine piece of glass on it, but was starting to show serious signs of wear. Not wanting to degrade it further, I retired it. The Minolta X-700 simply stopped working one day. I was later to learn that this is a common complaint with this vintage of Minolta SLR, and there's naught for it but to replace the body. Since I wasn't particularly crazy about the lenses we had for this camera, there was no compelling reason to stick with Minolta, so we decided to make the jump to Nikon. Since I generally buy cameras off the used market, I wanted to feel like I was buying into a platform that I could rely on, and for which a healthy after-market exists. The Nikon FM2 is constructed like a tank and does not use an electronic shutter, which means that even if the meter battery dies I can continue to shoot with it.

The Minolta was an program auto-exposure camera, which meant that when it was in auto mode it was trivially easy to shoot with. The Canon is a match-needle metered manual camera. I had been shooting with the Canon for so long that shooting had become second nature. The Nikon was a bit of a shock, doing metered manual with a simple plus or minus LED display, and little windows to show f-stop and shutter speed. More informative than the Canon viewfinder, but still takes some getting used to, and I find the LED is easier to ignore than the match needle. In addition it has a motor drive fitted, which means it's easy for a rusty shooter like me to fire off half a roll before I realize I haven't been paying attention to exposure. Rookie mistake, I know. Anyway, the Nikon is starting to feel more natural. I'm not particularly happy with either of its lenses. Not that they're not good glass, but due to the eBay nature of how we came to own this camera, it so happens that the two lenses we have are a 28-200mm zoom and a 500mm prime. Neither seem particularly well suited to landscape photography, and the zoom lens has a problem where the barrel will tend to slide back and forth on its own if the camera is tilted. And they both weigh a ton. I think the next gear investment I'm going to make will be a couple of shorter-length prime lenses for this beastie, say a nice standard 50mm and a 100mm. And I think I'm going to take off the motor drive, at least until the next time I'm doing a studio shoot.

As for the Olympus, I have to say at this point I wish it had a higher resolution lens, since I keep using it for landscape photography. When I'm out in the Jeep, it's just much easier to grab and fire a couple shots with than the Nikon. When I have the Nikon out Jeeping, I'm constantly worrying about whether it's going to get hurt. I'm getting good shots with the XA as well, I just miss out on some detail in the negatives. Of course, this is probably also a function of using a flatbed scanner with a film attachment, so for now I'll keep shooting with it. It's quick to focus, has a nice bright viewfinder, and is almost totally silent. I'm convinced it would be a great street shooter, if I had the guts to do street photography. Anyway, it's a much more reliable camera than the 40-year-old Canonet it replaced. The Canonet is extremely finicky about things like how you press the shutter release. The result is that sometimes you can advance the film without cocking the shutter. A pain in the ass when you're in the field trying to get a shot. It has a nice fast lens and a lot of personality and history, plus it has a selenium photocell meter, which means that it never needs a battery. In the end, though, it was so flaky that I didn't enjoy shooting with it.

17 April, 2005

Off The Road to Escalante

Off The Road to Escalante
Originally uploaded by mjm1138.

Another of the shots from Utah. If you look at the previous post you can see this range of hills in the corner. The photo is trying to capture the atmospheric perspective brought on by the haze that day.

Scanning negatives winds up being a real challenge. You have to play with the exposure on the scanner quite bit to maximize the dynamic range of the image information. In particular this image took several exposures, with early attempts losing a great deal of shadow detail and creating a distracting drop-out effect in shadow areas.

The trick is in noticing the color outside the frame of the image in the raw scan. The film base has a color to it; it's not fully transparent (unless you're dealing with slide film). So theoretically if you set your white point to the film base color, your exposure will be spot-on, right? At least, you don't want to underexpose and waste dynamic range on the grey of the film.

In reality, my finding was that when I exposed like that, I lost shadow detail. The tradeoff for protecting that detail, then is a loss of a few grey levels. Since I'm scanning at 16 bits per channel anyway, I really have some wiggle room there before I start losing information. Anyway it's a cheap flatbed, so let's not fool ourselves too much.

This image was shot with the Nikon, obviously much better landscape camera than the XA.

Coming soon: just got back from a trip to Vancouver, so hopefully there'll be some shots from that. I didn't shoot as much as I wanted to, but did run some color film through the XA and I have some digital snaps of the city that are kind of nice.

22 March, 2005

Last year's film

Utah Highway
Originally uploaded by mjm1138.

Continuing the process of catching up on rolls of film I haven't developed. I found a roll that was shot in the area of Natural Bridges national monument in Utah. Sarah and I were on our way from Moab to the Escalante area.

This was shot using a Nikon SLR, on Ilford Delta 100 film. Too much foreground, but I like the notion of the highway disappearing off the frame. It was quite a drive; the feeling of aloneness in the desert was overwhelming at times.

More on the way from this roll, and from Utah in general. We shot a fair amount of film there.

14 March, 2005

Sunset Over Clear Creek Canyon, Golden Gate Canyon, Car Wash, Subway

Sunset Over Clear Creek Canyon, Car Wash
Originally uploaded by Michael Merideth.

Another shot taken with the XA in Golden, CO. I'm trying out Flickr for image hosting, and it appears you can only post one image per blog entry. Or at least that's all I've figured out how to do.

The Olympus XA Takes on Landscape

Sunset Over Lookout Mountain, Loaf N' Jug
Originally uploaded by mjm1138.

I was out in Golden Colorado a few weeks ago for a friend's musical performance in a coffee shop. Walking out of the shop that afternoon, I was struck by the stunning natural features of the area, and by the juxtoposition of that natural beauty against the intrinsically transient and aesthetically void archetecture of the shopping area I was in. Luckily, I had the XA in my pocket, and for once it occurred to me to take some images.

The XA is not much of a landscape camera, as it turns out. The lens lacks the resolution to take in the detail of a real landscape. It is helped out somewhat by the forground details on the pavement, but the car and the gas station are not as sharp as I would have liked. I think a longer focal length would have helped as well, compressing the foreground a bit and bringing more emphasis to the mountain.

On the other hand, there are things I like here. I think it captured the sky nicely, and again the frame and the vignetting offer a gentle reminder of the photographic process at work. That's on an aesthetic level only, however. I think for this image to really work, the camera needs to slip out of the viewer's consciousness; the image needs to be about the image, and not the process.

And I like the idea of the image. If I notice the clouds looking just right some day, I may go and try to re-shoot with my SLR.

13 March, 2005

The Olympus XA

Hooray for rangefinders! I'm a huge fan of rangefinder-focused cameras. They're easy to focus, quick to shoot with, and generally a great deal quieter than an SLR. Rangefinders you can buy new today tend towards the prohibitively expensive end of the scale, so I'm becoming an aficionado of vintage Japanese rangefinders.

Starting in the 1960's there was an explosion of good quality consumer-grade rangefinders coming out of Japan. EBay is rich with these cameras, which can be had for a song, considering the high-quality optics in some of them. My current favorite is my latest eBay score, an Olympus XA. This was made from the early to the mid 1980's, and is by far the most portable rangefinder I own. It's tiny! I can carry it around in a coat pocket and not even notice it's there. I've had a roll of film through it, which I just processed last night (Tri-X 400 in Ilford developer, for the wonks). It has its limitations, but it hits a nice sweet spot with close to mid-range photography.

Untitled - 2005  Copyright Michael Merideth
"Untitled - 2005"
Copyright Michael Merideth

Some trees in a local park. The lens is not a super high-resolution lens, but it does produce a nice contrasty image, is fairly fast for the size, and brings in sufficient detail to do an 8x10 print, I think. There's a bit of vignetting around the corners, and the frame mask is comically uneven, but those are both qualities I happen to like in this kind of camera, at least in moderation.

This isn't much of a photo. I kind of like how the frontmost branches pop out at the frame a bit, but there's not much more I can say for the composition. Obviously, you're not going to get much of a nature shot in a city park, and in Colorado, it's absurd to waste your time trying.

Untitled - 2005  Copyright Michael Merideth
"Untitled - 2005"
Copyright Michael Merideth

Another shot on the same roll. I liked the texture created by all of the staples in the light pole. Everything is so crooked that I'm afraid the overall image doesn't work that great, but I do like the organic feeling, the immediacy of the image, which I think is a result of the vignetting and uneven frame. The camera is imposing itself into the image, and in doing so is recalling the reality of the moment when the shutter was tripped.

Coming Soon: the little Olympus takes on landscape photography.

First Post

I'm trying to inch my way back into photography, after studiously ignoring my gear for the last decade or so. I left my undergraduate studies in Fine Art in 1995 to break in to web publishing, which evolved into an IT carreer. This has been great in terms of providing a comfortable living with all the benefits a middle-class lifestyle brings, but has left me feeling creatively sapped. My torpor towards creative work may be a result of the common stresses a carreer brings, or maybe I'm avoiding the practice of a way of life I gave up on.

Whatever. In the past couple of years i've started collecting cameras again, and I'm starting to shoot pictures again. I'm going to use this space to post some of the more interesting images I manage to produce, and discuss the peculiarities of the different cameras I use and their artistic implications. I hope anyone who happens across this site will offer me feedback on what they see and read, as I seek to reignite my creativity.

Anyway, let's not do a first post without an image:

Moving Landscale

Moving Landscape, 2001 Copyright Michael Merideth

Yeah, so this is a few years ago. My wife and I took a vacation to Santa Fe, New Mexico in September of 2001. This was shot on the way. Don't remember the camera, but I'll bet it was my old Canon FTb which I inherited from my grandpa about 15 years ago. I like the sense of motion, and the visible grain, as well as the gradation in the sky. This version is a duotone done in Photoshop, and is cropped.