Photography and Art

Friday, December 14, 2007

The End of Summer

It was the end of summer. A very nice summer I might add. I went for a long walk over my noon hour, leaving my office and walking down Strachan Avenue to the shore of Lake Ontario and west along the lake front.

As I walked along, I started to pass Ontario Place, a popular summer destination for families, and was captivated by the sight.

As you can see by the images, there is nothing more bittersweet than a tourist attraction without its crowds.

It's like looking at a middle-aged woman without her make-up. The good bones are still there, but the sparkle is missing.

I was further intrigued by the emergence of a strong motif as I looked at the images. From the bars of the fencing around the grounds to the planks in the decking stacked in the parking lot, there is a strong sense of horizontal and vertical lines in all these photographs.

In the summertime, with people milling about, there is chaos and disorder. In the fall, the scene is ordered, aligned, arranged, symmetrical. Things are stacked properly. Gates are closed, spaces are confined.

Strong horizontal and vertical lines suggest imprisonment. We are being kept out, but something is also being kept in.

Who (or what) are the inmates of this prison? Certainly, we know that the chairs will never leave.

These docks are safely stowed as well. They won't be floating away to cause havoc with the freighters out on the lake.

All good things have to come to an end, but despite the sense of imprisonment and foreboding, we are secure in the knowledge that spring will return, the gates will open, the children will pour in and chaos will reign once more!

Friday, November 30, 2007

Jumppoint Jam

My friend John owns a company called Jumppoint. He was looking around for a way to treat his customers for what has turned out to be a good year for sales and revenues and he hatched an idea that I'm hoping will catch on with other companies. He decided to rent a downtown nightclub for an evening and booked a rock band for a jam session.

Several of John's customers are avid amateur musicians and the notion of jamming with a group of pros sounded like a wonderful idea. The whole thing rested on finding the right professional musicians for the evening. He needed a band that could entertain as well as a group of pros who could share their instruments with a bunch of musicians of unknown ability without visibly cringing.

Enter Kenny MacLean of Platinum Blonde fame. Kenny has assembled a talented group of musicians called RockTTA (Rock through the ages) targeted at corporate events and these guys are just terrific. Kenny is a fabulous musician and a terrific entertainer and the rest of the band is top notch. Most importantly, these are all very nice guys who lent out their instruments to the jammers, provided help with tuning and coached us through our session.

From my point of view, the evening was an outstanding success. I got a chance to play drums for the band and did three numbers with them. I used to play the drums for a rock band in university, so I don't think I sucked too badly. I also got a chance to do a favourite Ray Charles party piece at the mike and helped Kenny sing a Led Zep song with my patented high whiny tenor.

All in all, I had a very enjoyable evening with a good bunch of musicians and a sympathetic audience. What more can you ask for?

There is a bit of a photo linkage to this. I took my latest acquisition along to the party (Canon PowerShot S50) and took a few pix of the band. On the positive side, I actually had a camera with me because I always have my little camera with me. I got some decent shots of the band, which is hard to impossible if your camera is sitting at home. But, I did get frustrated with the speed of the little camera. By the time I'd composed the shot and pressed the trigger, often the musicians had moved - sometimes right out of the frame! The delay between pressing the trigger and actually setting off the flash and opening the shutter is really irritating. I would have much preferred to have my heavy artillery with me - a 5d with a 70-300 lens and a flash would have been the perfect camera to capture the action.

This brings me to the news of the day. Sigma has issued an announcement that the DP1 program is continuing and it sounds like the camera might be with us sometime in 2008. This should be the first serious compact camera with a large sensor (except for the egregiously expensive Leica of course). I hope the camera is affordable (i.e. south of $1,000) and lives up to expectations.

Here are some shots of the RockTTA band:

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Leslie Street Spit

I'm a walker. Given my druthers, I'd rather take a nice walk than do almost anything else. Give me a bag full of cameras and lenses on top of a nice place to walk and I'm in my element.

I live in Toronto, so I'm always on the look-out for good places to walk. Somehow, I've managed to luck into an autographed copy of Hiker Mike's Best Hikes in the Megacity and Beyond. One of Mike's favourite hikes is the Leslie Street Spit, a wonderful wilderness jutting into Lake Ontario just east of Toronto's downtown.

Last week, on a particularly cold and windy day, I set out to hike to the end of the spit. It's about 5 kilometers from the parking lot to the lighthouse at the end of the spit, so it took me a couple of hours of brisk walking with the occasional stop to take a picture. There were a half dozen cars in the parking lot and I must have passed a total of 8-10 hardy souls on my walk.

I took my camera backpack, so I had the full arsenal: two DSLR's (Canon 5d and 20d) as well as three lenses. I also took my lightweight Manfrotto tripod, much to my later regret.

As you walk along the spit, you nearly lose all sense of being in the city. You see a lovely widerness of marsh land and woodland and only the occasional intrusion of the CN tower on the horizon spoils the illusion. Even in late November, the wetlands in the spit were home to ducks, geese, gulls and the occasional swan. I had the fortune to see a swan taking off and flying away, but wasn't fast enough to capture an image.

The only flies in the ointment were the result of my equipment. One of the legs of the tripod decided to self-destruct when I put the tripod down in the grass to free my hands to steady the camera. It wasn't an expensive tripod, but it certainly casts doubt on the Manfrotto brand as far as I'm concerned.

The other issue was a result of driver error. I was hoping to experiment with HDR (high dynamic range) photography by taking three different exposures of each image (hence the tripod to keep everything nice and still) and then processing them in Photoshop to create a 32 bit high dynamic range image. Unfortunately, when I picked the menu option for bracketing photos, I mustn't have had my reading glasses on and I bracketed white balance instead of exposure. Not the sharpest knife in the drawer!

Luckily, I was able to get a dozen decent images. Here is a sample:

Friday, November 23, 2007

My New Camera

A couple of months ago, I bought a Canon 5d and I've enjoyed using it ever since. But, the combination of the heft of the 5d and a 24-105 mm lens together with the lack of a built-in flash makes the 5d the camera you leave behind when you go to the office each day or go out to a party. Who wants to carry around a ton of equipment when you go out for a simple noon hour walk around the city?

Now, I carry the camera in my pocket wherever I go and I've been snapping lots of city images on my daily walk. Life is truly grand. What's more, I've begun to realize that this little camera takes some nice images. In fact, I asked a friend of mine to look at two 8x10 photos of my grandson, one taken with the 5d and the other taken with the S50 and he was unable to tell the difference. At 8x10, the S50 images look pretty darned good!

And yet! Photo opportunities abound and I'm continually seeing stuff I'd like to photograph. What to do, what to do...

I'm happy to report that the problem has been solved with the help of eBay. After popping my my criteria to the camera finder at DPReview (at least 5 megapixels, ability to choose shooting modes, raw output, zoom lens), I narrowed the search to either a Canon Powershot S50 or S70. There was a nice S50 for sale on eBay for $150, so I bought it.

In this entry, there are some images I took from my car on a nasty, rainy, November evening on the commute from the office to my home. The car was travelling at maybe 10 km/hr, so I wasn't in danger of hitting anything. The rain on the windshield, the lights and the reflections make for some neat images. The S50 made it possible because I can haul it out of my pocket, turn it on, focus it, zoom in and out and take a picture ALL WITH ONE HAND. Try that with your 5d!

Now, before someone e-mails me to see if my 5d and L lenses are for sale, there are some things about the new point-and-shoot that are aggravating. Fine focusing control is impossible. The lens only stops down to f8. The sensor is noisy past ISO 100 and adjusting f-stop and ISO are a bit kludgy. And, you can't see any of the settings through the viewfinder. Whaddya want for $150?

I'll continue to use the 5d for serious photo expeditions and travelling. But, the s50 will be on my person at all times and I bet you that I get just as many good images from the s50 than from the 5d. And, I'll be able to silence my friends once and for all when they say "these photos are really good - it must be your equipment".

Friday, November 9, 2007

A Rumination on Paper

There has been a lot of buzz lately about new papers for inkjet printers that use pigment inks. Epson has jumped on the bandwagon with its Epson Exhibition Fiber Paper (see Michael Reichmann's report here). I've been experimenting with different papers, but my bank account is not unlimited (probably a common affliction shared with many of you), so my experience is not as encyclopaedic as Michael's.

However, I have tried a variety of papers and the results have been interesting. Before I divulge my faves, let's do some recapping of the types of paper out there. Basically, if you have an inkjet printer that uses pigment inks (e.g. Epson R800, R1800, R2400, R3800 etc.) you have a choice between cotton rag-based paper and plastic-coated paper. Matte papers tend to be the former and glossy papers tend to be the latter.

Cotton rag papers can be objet's d'art in themselves. They are a lovely off-white colour (unless brightened with chemicals) and have a nice tactile feel to them. If you like to paw your images, then these papers are for you! Unfortunately, pigment on cotton rag doesn't quite have the depths of black possible with glossy papers, so your prints may have less detail in the shadows and may suffer from a lack of dynamic range.

Plastic-coated (sometimes called RC) papers are not pleasant from an esthetic point of view. They have a sheen to them that can be quite blinding when viewed from an angle. But, they do have more dynamic range and you'll see more shadow detail with them.

Can't someone make a glossy inkjet paper with the tactile advantages of cotton rag? But of course - that's where the new fibre papers come in. They are cotton rag papers with a non-plastic coating (sometimes baryta, sometimes something else) that creates a modest sheen and allows the use of photo black inks. The results are supposed to rival plastic-coated papers for dynamic range without losing the lovely tactile feel of the cotton rag. These papers are also supposed to resist geometric metameric failure, a situation where inks appear to match when viewed head-on, but seem to separate into gloss and non-gloss when viewed from an angle.

Here are the papers I've used so far:

Matte: My staple for home photo use and for printing works in progress is Epson Ultra Premium Presentation Paper. It's a very bright, very synthetic paper that has no pretences at being a fine art paper. But, it is pretty inexpensive and shows very nicely alongside more expensive matte papers as long as you don't touch it.

Going up the ladder, the next stop is Premier fine art paper. This is a cotton rag paper and it does have a nice tactile feel to it. It is off-white in colour and works for a lot of images. It is quite thick, so you'll have to wrestle with the paper feed on an R800 or R1800. The dynamic range is acceptable for images with lower contrast. My local supplier ( sells this paper at a very reasonable price.

The top of the ladder for me is Moab Entrada. This paper has a lovely feel and texture to it and reproduces photographs extremely well. I use this for over half of my finished images because it feels good, looks good and is easy to handle.

Gloss Papers: I don't much like the esthetics of glossy papers, but there are times when a print has a lot of contrast and just doesn't show well on matte papers. And, as many will tell you, once you put the image behind glass in a frame, the esthetic differences between matte and gloss disappear and you're only conscious of the dynamic range of the image.

My one and only gloss paper is Premier Premium Photo Micropore Luster. It stacks up well against the Epson papers that I've tried and it sells for a lot less at ccbc club.

Fibre Papers: There is a lot of buzz about this new category. Some seem to love the new papers, while others complain that these papers still don't approach the old-fashioned prints that we used to make in the lab in the good old days. Frankly, I only took up photography when it became accessible as a digital art, so I don't much care about the old days.

I don't get free samples like Michael Reichmann, so I bought the only paper that is sold locally and that would be Hahnemuhle Fine Art Pearl. It is a gorgeous paper, very nice to handle, with just a hint of a sheen on the surface. I did two prints with it: a landscape scene (see previous post) with fall colours and a river and a photo of my daughter and her boyfriend. The landscape came out very well. The dynamic range of the paper is right up there with plastic luster paper and the image has a really nice glow about it, like there's a source of light in the trees beside the river.

The portrait didn't do so well. First, the ICC profiles for the R1800 gave the skin tones a green cast. I googled around for other people's experiences with this paper and there seemed to be a lot of talk about black and white prints with a green cast and the blame seemed to point to the Epson black inks, but the ICC profile is supposed to compensate for that and doesn't. I tried a profile for Epson semi-gloss paper and got a better result with less green.

In addition, there is an area on the portrait where there is a dark green tree in a distant corner of the room. Unfortunately, the dreaded geometric metameric failure showed up in this area. It looked fine head-on, but when viewed from an angle, the tree leaves didn't seem to have any sheen. This is surprising considering that the R1800 has a gloss optimizer ink and I was using it with a gloss setting.

So, thumbs down on the Hahnemuhle FAP for portraits and a cautious thumbs-up for landscapes. At $2.00 a sheet, I'm not going to go out and buy a lot of it.

For now, I'll continue to use Moab Entrada for matte work and Premier Premium Photo Micropore Luster for gloss work.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Canon 5d Update and Other Stuff

Back on September 24th, I wrote the second in a two-part posting on my new Canon 5d. I've had the camera for over a month now and wanted to close the loop with my final subjective opinion: you'll have to chop off my arm to part me from my 5d.

There is something intangible about the photos that come out of that camera. I'm not sure it is entirely caused by the physics of a larger sensor with bigger, fatter receptors, but the images just seem more vivid and take less tweaking with Lightroom. The histograms seem to be better distributed if that's possible.

I thought that I'd use my 70-300 zoom on the 20d and the 24-105 zoom on the 5d, but I find that I'm using the 5d almost exclusively and changing lenses. I guess the 20d has been relegated to my back-up body.

In another development, one of my favourite Photoshop plug-ins just got better. I got a note from Fred Miranda saying that his Velvia Vision plug-in has been improved and now works well with Windows Vista and Photoshop CS3. The price is right - only $24.90 for new purchasers and half price for people who have the older version. I really got a kick out of ordering the upgrade. For the first time EVER, I bought an American product with my Canadian credit card and ended up paying LESS than the U.S. price. The Canadian dollar rocks!

VV is a plug-in that extends dynamic range and does local contrast enhancement. It can also tweak colour casts.

Here's the link to the VV site.

Credit River Valley - beginning of fall, taken from a very scary, high bridge
taken with a Canon 5d and Canon 24-105 L lens

Thursday, November 1, 2007

It's the Light Stupid

In the last few months, Mike Johnston has been having angst about developing a photography style and I share his pain. There are lots of elements to a photographic style, but one of the most important ones is the use of light. Michael Reichmann writes about it in an essay entitled It's About Light and one's attitude to light is certainly something that influences personal style. Nearly everyone likes the light afforded by the dawn or the dusk. Some love the soft light when neutral white clouds cover the sky, yet allow the brightness of the sun to shine through. Devotees of super-saturated shots like bright sunlight. Each to his own.

On our Canadian thanksgiving week-end (more than a month earlier than the U.S. counterpart), my wife and I decided to go to the cottage to escape from the city and take in some beautiful northern Ontario scenery. As we drove up, late on a Friday evening, I was very conscious of having my camera bag in the car and was keenly watching the sunset to see if something good would happen. The conditions were promising. There were very interesting, scattered clouds and the sun kept poking through and illuminating the farmland that we travel through to get to cottage country. Unfortunately, the sun would come out for a few seconds and then disappear before I could pull over to take some photographs.

My wife was wondering what I was up to because I seemed preoccupied and, at one point, nearly killed us both by paying scant attention to a stop sign and nearly pulling out into oncoming traffic. Little did she know that I was stalking something IMPORTANT: a really good sunset shot.

Luckily, just as the sun was dropping towards the horizon, there was a chink in the cloud cover and a lovely orange ray of sunshine shot out almost parallel to the ground and lit up parts of the farmland all around us. I pulled over to the side of the road and started taking shots of the sun shining on houses and trees. Trish got caught up in the moment and started shouting instructions to capture the vivid scenes around us.

Here's what we saw:

In this case, it certainly is the light.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Blog Burnout

There seems to be a lull in the photoblog biz. Perhaps it's because there's not a whole lot going on right now. The digital camera market seems to be settling down and maturing. Perhaps it's because my fave blog writers have been going hard at it for a few years and just need a rest. Or perhaps photographers just want to get out and take pictures instead of writing about it.

The one that really hurts is Alec Soth. He seems to be permanently off the air. The suddenness of his departure reminds me of those mystery novels where the detective arrives to find the kitchen table set, the food on the plates still warm, but everyone gone. Alec will be missed - he nearly always managed to turn up really entertaining posts about the art of photography.

I've noticed a slowdown on Michael Reichmann's Luminous Landscape as well. Granted, Michael has often travelled in the past and he's now off to Madagascar. But, is it my imagination or has the frequency and size of post declined in the last few months, coincident with the opening of Michael's studio?

The maturity of the DSLR product category is impacting some of my camera hardware blogs, like Bob Atkins and Rob Galbraith. It looks to me like consumer-level DSLR's are reaching a natural limit of 10-12 megapixels. Even the move from 8 to 10 megapixels with APS-C sensors seems to have been accompanied by more aggressive noise reduction and sharpening. Don't get me wrong, 10 megapixels is a very usable resolution, quite capable of handling prints as large as 16x24. The pro DSLR's are reaching a natural limit around 16-20 megapixels using full-sized sensors. Even the digital medium format cameras have stalled around 30 megapixels. There is a natural limit, based on today's technology, to the ratio of signal to noise that seems to have been reached at today's pixel densities. Cramming pixels tighter together just seems to create too much noise. This can be easily demonstrated by reading the reviews of any 12 megapixel point and shoot camera. Images shot at anything over ISO 200 are unusable unless a significant amount of noise reduction and sharpening have been applied by the processor inside the camera. The post-processing creates halos around edges and moire patterns galore.

With blogs either falling by the wayside or becoming quieter due to the absence of camera news, it is really nice that Mike Johnston keeps on truckin'. Perhaps it's because Mike was a professional journalist and is used to cranking out a daily column or maybe it's just his dogged persistence, but I don't care. He is the best of the web for photography, bar none.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

What's Going on with Michael Reichmann?

The usually reliable and outspoken Michael Reichmann has seemingly pulled his punches on a first impressions review of a Canon 1ds Mk III pre-production camera.

I happened to tune into Luminous Landscape web site just as the initial article was published. It was a very interesting article that asked the one question on every one's mind: now that Canon's flagship camera has reached the 20 mega pixel mark, how does it stack up to medium format cameras?

Michael's answer was pretty straightforward. The new camera, although excellent all around, did not compare favourably with medium format backs because images just weren't as sharp. Michael pointed to the anti aliasing filter (present on the 1Ds, not present on medium format cameras) as the culprit. He wondered if it was time for Canon to issue a 1Ds with an optional or removable filter.

The article was up for a few hours and then disappeared. It was replaced by a fairly innocuous version that basically said "what a nice new camera the 1Ds MkIII is". What's more, there was a fairly sheepish apology added in a prominent location on the site:

"In a version of this review which was online for a few hours on Oct 18-19, there was a discussion of anti aliasing filters and how I felt that there would be advantages to the 1Ds MKIII not having one, for a variety of reasons. Due to a mix-up an early version, not intended for publication because of mistakes in my initial analysis, found its way online in error."

"I regret any confusion that this may have caused."

This sounds highly unlikely to me. For Michael to mix up his versions or to make mistakes in his analysis just doesn't ring true based on his track record of publishing insightful articles filled with technical analysis.

It sounds to me that maybe the marketing guys at Canon threatened to cut Michael out of the free demo game and he pulled the article.

Or, perhaps there were some potentially faulty assumptions in the article and Michael agreed to pull it out of fairness to Canon until more analysis and testing can be done.

I sincerely hope that the latter is true. I like and respect Michael and have always found his web site to be helpful and thought provoking.

Michael, in the highly unlikely case that you ever read this post, please give us more details on what went on behind the scenes. It is pretty tough to accept your explanation based on the original content and the fishy circumstances.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Duality of Technical Proficiency and Creative Ability

What makes a great photographer? Is it technical proficiency -- the mastery of the camera and the printer? Or, is it creativity, that elusive quality that marks the true artist?

The scientist in me likes to think of these two qualities on a two dimensional axis with technical proficiency on the x-axis and artistic ability on the y-axis. This model can be applied nicely to photography, but can also be applied to other arts, like music for example.

This model is often used in marketing and marketers divide the diagram into four quadrants:

  • Quadrant 1: low technical ability, low creativity

  • Quadrant 2: low technical ability, high creativity

  • Quadrant 3: high technical ability, low creativity

  • Quadrant 4, the magic quadrant: high technical ability, high creativity

I thought it would be fun to explore the type of people who occupy the four quadrants.

In quadrant 1, we find the great unwashed. Let's call them the snappers. These are people who own point and shoot cameras, have not read the manual and have no idea what to do with their images once they've captured them. The digital camera revolution has created millions and millions of people in this quadrant. Their skill level varies from people like one of my relatives who keeps all his photos in the camera and can only view them by scrolling through them using the screen in the camera, all the way to people who have mastered the ability to upload photos and print them. However, people in this quadrant have not mastered basic skills like the ability to control shutter speed and aperture or the ability to edit photos using a computer program. They are also average to below average in creativity, so the photos have that generic snapshot quality that you see on facebook and myspace where you see millions of photos of inebriated people leering at the camera. Nevertheless, these folks love their digital cameras (and their camera phones) and get a great deal of joy from taking snaps and sharing them.

Quadrant 2 is an interesting one. Let's call the people in this quadrant the artsies. Can a creative person with little or no creative ability produce good images? Of course they can. Think of musicians that have only mastered three guitar chords yet have produced wonderful pop tunes (Creedance Clearwater Revival) or, better yet, musicians who can't sing and can't play any instruments (Leonard Cohen). Creative people just have a knack of mastering just enough of the medium to get their message through. A friend of mine takes pictures with toy cameras, complete with light leaks and fuzzy lenses. The results are beautiful. He has a terrific imagination and a wonderful vision of what he likes to portray. His photos of found art, such as the patterns on stained mattresses, are unique, individual and would qualify as fine art by any definition.

Quadrant 3 is where I sit, along with many of my friends and colleagues. Let's call ourselves the geeks. We love everything there is about the technical side of photography: the cameras, the printers, the paper, the lighting etc. etc. We pore over websites hunting for the latest bit of news from Canon, Nikon and Leica. We hang out in camera stores, panting over lenses we can't afford. We envy the pros, not because they produce wonderful work, but because they get neat stuff like giant white lenses provided for them. When we see images hung in galleries, we critique them for their technical failures. We see blown highlights or poor prints. We see noise in the picture or lens distortion. We read about software and buy every Photoshop plug-in that comes out. Our hard drives are littered with demos of new software products as well as old raw converters that we don't use any more. We may even be professional photographers, working on the fringes, taking photos of weddings or cows or children. Our work is well-executed, but predictable. People admire our photos because they are always in focus, always printed on beautiful paper, always composed nicely. They may buy our photos because they immitate iconic images (canoes on rocky lakeshores, muskoka chairs in the sunset) and we charge market value for our prints. But, we don't get galleries knocking on our doors.

Quadrant 4: Let's call people in this quadrant the elite. The older ones (and the dead ones) are household names: Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, Amy Arbus, Richard Avedon etc. There are also plenty of artists in their prime who exhibit several times of the year and are selling their works to private collectors and museums. People like Ed Burtynsky, Alec Soth, Bill Atkinson, Alain Briot etc. These folks know the technical side inside and out. But, they are obsessed with creativity and are passionate about their art to the extreme. I've watched interviews with these people and they would much rather talk about their vision, their projects and their philosophy of the world than they would talk about their camera equipment, yet they are perfectionists about their craft as well. I watched a documentary about Ed Burtynsky in China and he is completely anal about light and finding the right vantage point for his photos. He also runs a lab/printing shop called Toronto Imageworks and is an expert on printmaking. For another example, look no further than Alain Briot who sells DVD's that follow his workflow and document the many, many layers that he uses in Photoshop to build his lovely landscapes.

Perhaps the most interesting question of all to me (and I would guess to most aspiring photographers) is this: is it easier to become an elite photographer if you are creative first and then acquire technical skill or vice versa? Is it even possible to become creative if you are the kind of person who is drawn to the technical side of photography? Can creativity be learned?

I certainly hope so with all my heart. There is a body of thought that says that creativity can be learned and the Internet abounds with great advice. Here are a couple of my favourite articles:

Ken Rockwell: How to Make Great Photos

Michael Reichmann: Learning to See

George Barr: Taking Your Photography to the Next Level

I've been at this hobby of mine in a serious way for about 3 years and I must say that my creative side is improving. I've taken a lot of good advice and now work on a series of projects so that my art has purpose. I have created an artist's statement and have thought long and hard about what I'm trying to say in my work. If I take a lot of pictures, I'll occasionaly find one that says something special. And, my art-loving relatives have started to ask for specific prints for their living rooms.

I'm not out of the woods yet. I still take lots of iconic stuff like sunrises and sunsets. I still love equipment and pixel peeping. I'm not sure I can discern a particular style emerging, although the choice of subject matter, composition and vantage point is starting to become more consistent over time.

How about you? Are you a geek too? Do you prefer downloading a new piece of software to getting up at dawn to catch the right light from the right vantage point? Do you have something to say to the world? Something different from everyone else? Do you have a philosophy, a vision, something that you long to communicate?

Wednesday, October 3, 2007


One of my favourite bloggers, Mike Johnston at The Online Photographer, has a very interesting post by Howard W. French on the subject of I'm proud to say that Mike picked my comment as one of the featured comments on the post. Here's what I said:

"Flickr is a marvel of the 21st century for several reasons—many covered in the post and ensuing comments. However, the one thing that has not been discussed is that flickr is itself a medium. An image that is popular or that works on flickr is not necessarily an image that will reproduce well as a print or in a book.

"Flickr is a world of miniatures. The photos are displayed in fairly low resolution on computer monitors in the 1024x768 pixel range (plus or minus). That means that the actual size of the photos is quite small—smaller than a 6x4 print for example.

"Photographers that excel at producing miniatures excel on flickr. Strong colour saturation, strong geometric patterns and eye-catching moments are the elements of success in this medium. Images that are designed for reproduction on large canvasses may not catch the eye of the flickr viewer. For example, it is hard to imagine an Ed Burtynsky landscape catching our attention as a miniature on flickr.

"Nevertheless, flickr provides a strong feedback loop to the image maker and encourages certain styles that may scale to large images and other media.

"My own fave photographer on flickr is a woman in Australia called Omnia who creates fabulous geometric arrangements of plant life, shells and sand. Her images would stand out in any collection.

"I don't think anyone would promote a steady diet of flickr as the only photographic medium of consequence, but the challenge of producing miniatures for mass consumption does strengthen many parts of your photographic "game." To use a sports analogy, it would be like a golfer practicing his/her short game."

If you'd like to see some of my favourite flickr photographers, follow the links to Omnia and Duchamp. Duchamp (aka Stef Powell) likes to play around with cross processing and toy cameras. Despite that, he produces lots of strong images, especially his series of found floral patterns from mattresses. Omnia, an Australian woman, is a nature photographer and excels at finding geometric patterns in nature.

My most popular flickr photo has been viewed nearly 1,000 times. I think it is a popular image because it belongs to several New York groups and people who are planning a vacation to New York want to look at the sites. It was taken from the vantage point of the Empire State Building at sunset and shows the Chrysler Building in all its art deco glory. The photo has been enhanced by masking off the building itself and increasing its contrast and brightness to make it stand out from the background.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Subject and Composition versus Equipment

Last week-end, I contributed a photo to a silent auction. It's one of my favorite images from the Road North series called Sunset on the White House. Given that the photo was going to be shown in the context of a silent auction, with people milling around comparing donations ranging from art to golf outings, I thought that I'd attach a rather detailed description of my artist's statement and a description of the image.

When I looked at the EXIF data for the image, I was shocked to discover that I'd taken it several years ago, using an original Canon DRebel and a crummy 70-200 consumer lens. This was the first of a series of DSLR cameras (10d, 20d, now 5d) that I've owned and certainly the lowest quality of any of them. The lens is not well-regarded by any of the equipment review sites that all of us frequent.

However, it remains one of my favorite images from the Road North project and I've exhibited the image upsized to 16x24 without any ill effects. It just goes to show you that the camera and the lens really don't matter a heck of a lot. It really is the subject and the composition that count.

Sunset on the White House

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Full Frame - Marketing Gimmick or Not?

Now that I have a Canon 5d full-frame camera, I'm wondering whether I just got caught up in a marketing push by Canon (and now Nikon) or whether there is something really magical about a full-frame camera. Here's why: if you wanted to buy a camera system plus three lenses that covered everything from wide angle, the cost of full-frame is pretty steep. Let's compare (using prices from B&H):

  • APS-C package
    • Canon 40D with 28-135 IS lens $1,500
    • Canon 10-22 EF-S lens $690
    • Canon 70-300 IS lens $549
    • TOTAL: $2,739
  • FF package
    • Canon 5D with 24-105 L lens $3,330
    • Canon 17-40 L lens $679
    • Canon 70-300 DO lens $1,100
    • TOTAL: $5,109
Why did I choose somewhat lesser quality lenses for the APS-C package? The smaller sensor uses the centre of the lens, so sharpness out to the corners is less critical than with the full-frame sensor. My experience with a 10d and now a 20d is that you get almost identical performance with cheaper lenses and a smaller sensor.

As you can see, full-frame comes at quite a penalty in cost. In fact, it is nearly double the cost of an equivalent APS-C system. Is the difference worth it or is it marketing hype that has driven me to buy an expensive full-frame system?

Here's an article by Ken Rockwell that goes into a lot of detail on the full-frame advantage. Ken describes why he likes his Canon 5d and how it compares to his Nikon APS-C cameras. Here are the salient points:

  • Sharpness: It isn't just the number of megapixels that determines how sharp an image is. When you look at a photo, the sharpness (assuming you've taken it in focus) depends on the resolving power of the lens as well as the resolving power of the camera. Modern APS-C cameras are capable of pretty good resolving power (measured by how many black and white alternating lines you can distinguish in a millimeter) and rival full-frame. However, lenses are not necessarily up to the task. Theoretically, if you had a perfect lens, capable of outresolving any camera, the APS-C 40d sensor would actually outresolve the 5d's sensor (the 5d has around 8 megapixels within the APS-C sensor coverage area, where the 40d has 10 megapixels). But, lenses aren't perfect and the sensor actually passes the limitation of the lens. The 5d produces sharper images because it spreads its pixels out over a wider area. Think about a photo of a picket fence. Let's say that a lens can resolve 40 fence posts per millimeter. In a full-sized sensor, this works out to 40x35 = 1,400 fence posts in the photo. For an APS-C-sized sensor, the lens is only capable of showing 40x22 = 880 fence posts in the photo. Regardless of how well the two sensors resolve the fence posts, the APS-C camera starts off with fewer to begin with. Assuming the sensors can out-resolve the lens, you'll have a much sharper photo from the full-frame image.
  • Noise: Big pixels are reputed to produce less noise that smaller pixels. It makes sense that a larger pixel will catch more photons of light, requiring less amplification than smaller pixels. Noise is a by-product of amplification. Now, it is true that Camera manufacturers are working hard to produce less noise in their circuitry and are working hard to put faster processors in their cameras so that sophisticated noise reduction programming can be applied, but why not start with less noise to begin with? Now, I'm not a big expert on camera noise, but the folks who produce Noise Ninja are and they develop noise profiles on most DSLR cameras. I thought I'd run a couple of 1600 ISO photos through Noise Ninja, one from my 20d and another from my 5d to see what the default noise profile was for each one. The result was a noise reduction level of 32 for the 20d and 23 for the 5d. I'm not sure if these numbers are linear or not, but there is a significant difference in values between the two cameras. I'm not sure where the 40d would come in, but I suspect that it would be comparable to the 20d if you turn off the noise post-processing in the Digic III processor.
  • Colour differentiation: As a corollary to the lower noise argument, if the pixels are producing less noise, it should be easier for the camera's processor to detect the true colour of a the light being received by a pixel as opposed to muddying it in response to random coloured noise.
  • Ability to use wider angle lenses: There is a limit to how wide an angle you can build into a lens and I would speculate that Canon's 10-22 AF-S lens is probably pushing it. This lens delivers a similar angle of view to a 16-35 mm lens on a full-frame camera. Canon makes a 14 mm lens that delivers a wider angle of view than possible with an APS-C camera.
  • Brighter, larger viewfinder: My 5d has a much larger, brighter viewfinder than the 20d and it is such a pleasure to use!
So, there are advantages to full-frame, but do any of them really matter when all you want to do is take beautiful photographs? In reality, the one that smacks you in the head is the brighter, larger viewfinder. It makes it easier to compose an image because all the elements in it are larger. Pretty elementary really. The ability to buy a 14mm lens doesn't turn my crank -- 17 mm is fine. I really haven't seen the colour improvement yet, but I've only had the camera for a couple of days. Sharpness and lower noise will be important when I create larger prints, but right now my printer limits me to 13 inches wide anyway.

So is it hype or reality? I'm still waffling. Maybe the differences will become more apparent as I use the 5d more, but right now I think the premium is probably too high. I'm sure it is tough to build large sensors in the quality needed. Probably a high percentage of sensors get turfed at the assembly line due to flaws. But, does that justify spending twice the amount of money on a full-frame system. I'm not sure it does.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Canon 5d First Impressions Part II

It's day two of my Canon 5d experience and I'm still down for the count with this chest cold. I finally got tired of sitting around on my butt and ventured forth for a walk just after lunch. One of the projects that I'm currently working on is a portfolio of construction images for my two year-old grandson. He's absolutely in love with construction equipment and Bob the Builder, so I've been taking photos of bulldozers and diggers for his bedroom wall.

There is a construction site not far from our house where they have knocked down an old shopping mall and are building a new-style shopping "village" with open-air stores and street parking. There are bulldozers and diggers galore on the site. Where better to test the Canon 5d?

The main challenges were the lighting and the distance between spectators and the action. The lighting at noon was pretty harsh, with the sun nearly directly overhead. Stout chain link fencing kept the spectators well away from the machinery and the fencing was fairly high.

At first, I took only my Canon 70-300 mm DO telephoto zoom lens to try to get close enough to the action. This proved to be a good choice -- the machines were right in range and the business end of the lens is only 58 mm wide so it fit between the fence links. After I got home, I decided to drive back later in the day and take a couple of wide angle shots with the Canon 17-40 mm L lens. The 77 mm diameter lens wouldn't fit inside the chain links, but I was able to find a higher perch to take the panoramic view that was needed.

And how did the Canon 5d perform? Let me first give you a caveat. I'm agin pixel peeping in general unless the performance of the sensor is getting in the way of capturing the image you want. The purchase of the 5d was done because of its full-size sensor (and how Canon lenses behave with it) and its compact size. It wouldn't have bothered me necessarily if the sensor had been 8 megapixels or even 6 megapixels. It's interesting to note that the review of the Canon 17-40 lens referred to above, done by Michael Reichmann, was written in 2003 when a top-of-the-line Canon digital camera was an 11 megapixel model. No one complained about having not enough pixels.

My comments will be constrained to how the camera felt in the field, whether it intruded into the picture taking and whether it produced usable images. Here are my comments:

  • The camera handles extremely well. Both lenses seemed totally in balance with the weight of the camera. I can't imagine using the 70-300 DO lens with, for example, a Canon Rebel DSLR because the lens weighs a lot more than the camera does and would dwarf it physically. On the other hand, I've seen the pros wrestling with Canon 1Ds models of various vintage and couldn't imagine toting one of those beasts on a nice walk on a sunny day. It would be enought to give you a back ache. Again, the camera would outweigh the lens and be out of balance.
  • As with yesterday's shoot, I loved the sound of the shutter. It sounds like my film camera.
  • The controls of the camera fall readily to hand. Of course, it helps if you've had a number of Canon cameras, but that's the beauty of sticking to one brand. All three cameras in my bag (Elan film, 20d and 5d) have identical controls, so there's never a false moment when you're screwing around looking for a dial or messing with a menu.
  • I was shooting raw files and developed them in Adobe Lightroom. The results were pretty decent. Given the lighting conditions, I expected that the focus would be spot on (lots of light to work with) and it was. I expected the photos to be too harsh and contrasty, but the camera seemed to have enough dynamic range to produce usable images. The histograms were spread out nicely and only a touch of exposure/blacks adjustment was needed. There was not a single image with highlights blown out. That's pretty incredible given the strong light and the highly reflective metal surfaces out there in a construction site.
  • I did cheat a little and zoomed in to 3:1 to make sure that my sensor wasn't a dud. Noise was very, very low as expected. At ISO 100, I didn't even bother to take the photos through a Photoshop and Noise Ninja round trip.
  • The overall impression was very positive. The photos required virtually no adjustment in Lightroom other than very minor exposure tweaking, a touch of clarity and just a touch of saturation (the camera is set at a the default saturation and is a tad low for my liking, especially for construction pics for a toddler).
  • If the 5d wasn't new and in need of a good work-out, I would have chosen the 20d for this project. Nearly all the shots needed just a touch of cropping to get the subject into a perfect position. In other words, the subjects were just a bit beyond the range of the 300 mm end of the zoom with the full frame camera. The 20d would have filled its frame with the subject and would have brought its full 8 megapixels to bear. By cropping the 5d, I estimate I was down to around 7 megapixels or more. Oh no! Not a megapixel short! In reality, either camera would have done really well.
  • However, the 5d was perfect for the wide angle shot at 17mm. I got nearly the whole construction site into the viewfinder and that was pretty cool. The full-frame sensor pushed the Canon 17-40 mm lens to its limit at the wide angle end and there was some vignetting (darkening of the image at the corners), but Lightroom has a tool that makes it a snap to fix this problem.
  • Yes, I could have bought the Canon 10-22 mm EF-S lens and fitted it to the 20D to get the same result as the 5d with the 17-40 zoom for much less money, but my main walk-about lens is a Canon 24-105 L lens and it is designed perfectly for a full-frame sensor like the 5d.
In summary, the Canon 5d is just a pleasure to use. It blends into the background as it should and frees the photographer to get into that lovely zone where the concern is purely for the subject and the light.

Here are a couple of the photos from the shoot. The first was shot with the 70-300 DO lens and the second was shot with the 17-40. Both were given a very light dusting in Lightroom:

Big Digger, little Digger

The WHOLE Site!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Canon 5D First Impressions

I've been lusting after a Canon 5D for a while, but the price tag is pretty extreme considering that you can buy a perfectly decent 20D or 30D (and now 40D) for half the price. I've been getting along quite nicely with a 20D for most of my work, supplemented by a Canon Elan film camera. Several things came together nicely to make it possible to buy the 5D at last: the Canadian dollar rose to match the US greenback, the 40D was announced, negatively impacting the 5D used market and I did a consulting gig that game me a little extra dough. As a result, I was able to find a nice 5D on and I've had the camera for a couple of days.

Unfortunately, there has been a nasty cold going around the office, so I wasn't able to get out and really put the camera to work. I've been relegated to using the camera in my wife's lovely garden, taking photos for my "fading beauty" project. In this project, I'm looking for the beauty in all things that age, whether it be flowers or people. I find that flowers in particular are far more interesting when they are past their prime and the flaws that were hidden when they were in perfect bloom are now starting to give character to each one.

So here are my first impressions of the 5D, from the point of view of someone who has owned a 10D and a 20D:

  • Physically, the camera is lovely. If you are used to the Canon high-end consumer cameras, you'll find that all the controls are exactly where you'd expect them. The camera is slightly heftier than a 20D, so if feels very solid and reliable in your hands, like holding a piece of solid metal.
  • The shutter is much quieter. It sounds more like my Canon Elan film camera than my 20D. The shutter noise of the 20D is one of my only dislikes about that camera. It sounds like a chiken clucking every time the shutter is pressed. I'm going to enjoy the sound of the 5D.
  • The viewfinder is a joy. After peering through the small viewfinders of the APS-C line, I'm delighted with the large, bright viewfinder of the 5D.
  • The display screen on the back is a little bit disappointing. Yes, it is large and bright, but when it is displaying the histogram along with the image, the image is teeny tiny. There is a lot of unused real estate for some reason.
  • The image quality is excellent, but it is early in the game to comment on this right now.
Even though I've been using the Canon Elan for quite a while and have done a lot of travelling with it, I've used it mostly for wide angle shots, taking advantage of the wider angle of view of the full frame camera. My every day camera has been the 20D, so there were very few times when the Elan was used for macro photography. As you can imagine, the fading beauty series demands a lot of medium distance macro work, where you're trying to fill the frame with a flower and its immediate environs. The 20D does this very well with my Canon 24-105mm lens. The closest focal point of the lens, combined with the effect of the small sensor manages to fill the frame with the image I'm looking for.

Imagine my surprise when I found one of the negative effects of converting to a full-size sensor. The 24-105 lens has a limited macro capability and I was already as close as I could go with the 20D. At the same distance, the 5D has a much wider angle of view, so the flower no longer filled the frame and the image included too much extraneous stuff. Clearly, I was going to have to find a better lens for this type of work.

Last Christmas, I asked my wife to buy me a set of Kenko extension tubes for macro work and I'd not really made much use of them. The combination of a 50mm lens with a 12mm extension tube was okay, but the 20D's crop factor just seemed to fill the image with too much of the subject. Enter the 5D and the combination now seems to work really well for photographing images of flowers. Happily, as one door closes, another opens up!

Here are some samples of my fading beauties taken with the 5D an the combination of a Canon 50mm lens with Kenko 12mm extension tube:

Thursday, September 20, 2007

It's the subject stupid

I enjoy Alec Soth's blog. Every day, he has something interesting to say about the art of photography. Lately, he's been focusing on the teaching of photography, largely due to an experience that he had doing a freelance teaching stint. He seems undecided on the question of whether photography can be taught or not. Certainly, the technical side of photography can be taught, but can you teach someone to see? Can you teach them how to pick a subject, how to time the shot and how to compose the image? Alec isn't sure and neither am I.

However, there are lots of articles about the artistic side of photography and I've been reading them quite avidly to try to improve my art. For example, Alain Briot writes quite often on the art of photography. He's written the featured article on Luminous Landscape called "Developing your Vision".

My favourite article is a discussion between two accomplished photographers, David Hurn and Bill Jay, a chapter in their book On Being a Photographer. You can read the chapter on picking a suitable subject here. It made a point that I hadn't really given a lot of thought to, but it is so simple that it hits you right on the forehead -- doh!

You should photograph subjects that you are passionate about! Of course. How could I be such an idiot? Don't bother with crap that is just pretty or stuff that other people are passionate about, focus on the subjects that turn your crank.

There are a couple of important corollaries to this point. First, you have to research your subject to find the right images. Second, you should pick subjects where your passion intersects some other group of people or you'll be taking photos purely for your own enjoyment.

This reminds me of Ed Burtynsky. No wonder he is so popular and successful. I heard him speak once and he is absolutely passionate about the industrial landscape. He researches each photograph for days or weeks -- stalking his subject like a hunter in the forest. He may visit a target subject many times looking for the right vantage point, the right time and the right lighting conditions.

Similarly, Alain Briot specializes in taking photos of the grand canyon and environs. He hikes for miles and miles looking for the right vista, the right time of day and the right weather conditions.

Yes, that's it! It's the subject stupid. Now, what am I passionate about? That's the question.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Framing your Fine Art Prints

If you're anything like me, you love nearly everything about photography. There is the joy of quietly stalking a subject, whether it be animal, mineral or vegetable, and the lovely zen moments that you feel when you are clicking away.

Then there is the magic of making images come alive using tools like Photoshop and Lightroom. Images that sometimes come out of the camera flat and two dimensional can sparkle and take on a fantastic depth with some judicious application of curves, levels and local contrast.

Finally, there is the process of printing out your images. First, you do a draft or two on matte or semi-gloss to see if you have a photo that wants to be an oil or a watercolour. Then you pick from your treasure trove of lovely, clean sheets of paper. You might want to use Epson Luster or something textured like Moab Entrada. You load it in the printer and press the print button and, a few minutes later, you have a beautiful print.

I think the best moments happen when the print comes off the printer and you have this lovely image in your hands. You move around the room trying it out in different kinds of light, looking at all the things that made you fall in love with this particular image. It may be the composition or the colour or the subject itself.

And then what?

This is the cruelest part of the whole process. You realize with a sinking feeling that you are not Ed Byrtynsky. There are no loyal fans lining up to buy your prints. Your walls are already full of all the prints that your spouse will let you hang and your easel is stacked full of previous endeavours. Maybe you've sold a few prints and, perhaps, you have hopes of a showing in the not-too-distant future, but what do you do with that lovely image that you just printed off?

You could hide your images away in portfolios or albums, but somehow that isn't the right thing to do. Images want to be seen.

Here's one solution that you might want to consider. It's a way of framing your prints in a fairly easy, cheap way and then rotating them on the walls of your apartment, house or studio so that each image gets some face time and you don't get tired of your gallery.

First, you make a little sandwich. Go to your art store and buy 16x20 matte board (museum quality). It should cost about $3.00 a sheet. While you're there, buy some foam core board and a can of spray glue (e.g. 3M). If you don't have one already, buy a plastic roller as well. Trim the foam core to around 16.5x12.5 inches. Foam core is tricky to trim because the foam catches on your Xacto knife. A guillotine actually works best if you have access to one at the office. Print out your image on either matte or gloss paper using 13x19 inch paper and crop your image to 13x17.

I know, I know, the Michael Reichmann's of the world would protest that you should crop your photo naturally to fit the composition, but sometimes compromises are necessary and we're only talking about small adjustments. We want the image to look nice in a commercial 16x20 frame with an inch and a half border around the image.

By now, you should have a 13x17 image, a slightly smaller piece of foam core and the 16x20 matte board. Place the image onto the matte board so that the boarder is even all the way around and mark the top two corners with a light pencil mark. Then, spray the glue onto both sides of the foam core. Do this outside so that your spouse doesn't yell at you for smelling out the place. Quickly, position the foam core onto the back of the photo and press lightly into place so that there is about a quarter inch of space around the foam core. Finally, flip the image and foam core over, line up the corners of the image with the two dots on the matte board you made earlier and press the foam core onto the matte board. Take the plastic roller and roll over your image, removing all the bubbles and making sure that the glue is well seated.

You now have an image mounted on foam core and matte board in such a way that it appears to be floating an eighth of an inch above the matte. Images can be easily stored in a drawer for future framing when their time in the rotation comes.

Now for the framing part. Again, go to your local art store or frame store and purchase the widely available Nexxt Suspense frame in 16x20 size. This is designed to be a floating frame, but it can be turned into a nice shadow-box style frame very easily.

Unpack the frame and throw away one of the pieces of glass. You mount your matte board to the back of the frame so that the sequence of pieces (viewed from front to back) looks like this: one sheet of glass, wooden spacer, matte board. Flip the little gizmos around to hold in the matte paper and you have a nice shadow-box frame to show off your image. The foam core gives the matte paper enough stiffness that it doesn't need anything behind it and it also makes the photo float up close to the glass.

The cool thing about this is that it's easy to rotate your images through the frames. Just turn the little gizmos on the back of the frame, remove one image/foam/matte sandwich and insert another and you have another image hanging in your living room.

This is a sure cure for the "I've got nowhere to hang this lovely image" blues!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007


I'm always amazed when I look at a photograph and find something unexpected that takes the shot from one level to the other. I guess I don't look at the world with enough focus to actually see these things ahead of time. Like Mr Magoo, the old cartoon character, I seem to stumble on them. The law of averages dictate that the more photos you take, the better the chances of finding something interesting and serendipitous. Here's what I mean.

I was taking photos of Edmonton, a very interesting city that goes from low-rise prairie town to high-rise city in a matter of one city block. I saw a woman exit my hotel and light up a cigarette. Terrific, I thought, here's an opportunity to add to my smoker project. I like taking pictures of people smoking outside buildings -- they have an lovely contemplative aura to them. It was a nice picture of a woman smoking, leaning up against the wall. When I developed the photo, I was surprised to see a passing bus in the frame that had a fragment of the words "peace of mind" in it. What a lucky piece of luck!

In a similar vein, I was bobbing around in a kayak on Sunny Lake in northern Ontario taking pictures of flowers in a small wetland adjacent to the lake. Later at home, I was developing the photos when I happened on a photo of a water flower that looked quite nice. The composition was fine and the flower was nicely in focus. When I looked more closely, I found an ant on the flower - posed like Yurtle the Turtle at the top of the plant, king of everything it surveyed. The photo transcended the original "post card" look and became a jumping off point for the viewer to create a story around the ant.

It just goes to show that there are terrific moments in time to be captured, when circumstances create a juxtaposition of elements that suggest a story or a mood. To capture these moments, you either have to be very good (think Henri Cartier-Bresson) or take a lot of pictures and be lucky!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Forest Fire!

We just got back from a wonderful couple of weeks at our cottage in Haliburton, Ontario. Early one evening, Trish and I decided to take our kayaks out and paddle to the end of the lake. We came out of our bay and turned to the south, spending a lovely hour splashing along, paddling into the wind. As we made our way down the lake, pushing through the waves, we were vaguely aware of a float plane doing circuits behind us.

Float planes are a common occurence on our lake. In fact, the family who used to own our cottage have a float plane and they moved across the lake to a deeper anchorage so we see their plane taking off and landing quite often. However, this plane was a fairly large, bright yellow twin otter and it kept on taking off and landing.

When we turned around to paddle back home, we noticed that the twin otter was actually dousing a small forest fire to the north east of our lake. It would swoop in from the east, taxi down the lake to take water into its pontoon tanks, take off and bank over the east shore of the lake and then do a run over the fire where it would empty its tanks over the fire. The plane kept this up seemingly for hours and, sure enough, by the next morning the fire was gone.

Here are pictures of the airplane taking on water, banking and then pouring water on the fire.

The call letters for the plane are C-COGA. It is a twin otter owned by the Ministry of Natural Resources.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Where Have All the Boomers Gone?

Yesterday, I took a walk at noon hour to stretch my legs and buy some lunch at a nearby sandwich shop. It was a nice, sunny July day and I walked out of the office, down a fairly busy city street, into Liberty Village (an area of condos and shops) and into Select Sandwiches. During my walk, I saw lots of people going about their daily business. There were cab drivers, people riding bikes, pedestrians, shoppers and panhandlers. Maybe I'm a little slow on the uptake, but, for the first time I was struck by the thought that everyone in sight was younger than me! Much younger.

I was fascinated. I kept looking around for some grey hair in the crowd - maybe a business guy out for a stroll like me or a senior citizen driving by in his Buick, but to no avail. I remained the oldest guy in the neighbourhood. A 56 year-old codger surrounded by babies.

Where have all the baby boomers gone? At one point, we dominated everything. You couldn't move without bumping into a boomer. But almost overnight we seem to have melted into the woodwork, leaving the world to a bunch of kids. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it all seemed to happen so suddenly. It's going to take a little getting used to, like having your first grandchild or realizing that all the women in the bar are staring through you like you don't exist any more.

Maybe that's it. Perhaps we're just invisible and I was surrounded by boomers on my walk, but just couldn't see them. Or maybe there's a hang-out that I don't know about where all the boomers go on their lunch hour, a place where they play psychedelic music and we all wear bell-bottoms and give each other the peace sign.

I wish it were true. Looking around my office from my sixth floor perch, I see a sea of shining, young faces. There are a handful of boomers still hanging on to our jobs, trying to keep up with the pace of change in this crazy world. The rest are retiring early, unable to keep up or tiring of the daily grind. Soon, we'll be hanging out in shopping malls with our running shoes on, doing laps on shiny linoleum before the shops open. We'll be having coffee and talking about our investments and the benefits of income funds versus annuities.

And so the world turns...

PS: the lovely young lady in the picture at the top of this post is Maggie, a friend of my grandson The picture is called Maggie and the Fan.

Monday, July 16, 2007

My Art Show

Sometimes fortune smiles at you and good things happen. Over the week-end, an art show opened up in the village of Blue Mountain (near Collingwood) featuring local artists and I'm one of 'em!

Each artist gets to hang their art in a window in the village. My window had six images, each 16x24. The images are from my "The Road North" series that looks at things that you might see out your car window on the way to the cottage or the ski hill. There are three winter landscapes and three summer landscapes.

Here are photos of the exhibit:

And, here are the photos in the exhibit. There are three winter scenes (Tractor Show June 3rd, the green house and the white house) and three summer scenes (Phonehenge, Lunar Gravity and See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil):

Thursday, June 21, 2007


Interesting photos often come out of nowhere. I've been working on a series of images called "The Road North". My main interest is to photograph the ebb and flow of life - capturing the wave-like nature of our existence. In Canada, we have this strange habit of disappearing into the country to the north of us each and every week-end to ski, camp, canoe or cottage (yes, in Canada, to cottage is a verb). Motorists jam the highway on Friday night and Sunday night, up and down the road in a weekly migration. They are intent on their destination and often don't notice the odd things by the side of the road. But, I do.

It might be a particularly funky barn tumbling down despite the efforts of the farmer. Or, perhaps a white house on white snow. Or, a sloping barn roof pointing at the moon. Or, an old tour boat sitting on someone's lawn. Each of these images tells a story that begs to be captured.

One day, I was driving along a country road on my way home from the cottage and I happened to spot something very odd out of the corner of my eye. I parked the car and walked into a farmer's field and found this image:

It looked like someone had started to buy up old Brit phone booths (now a protected species in the UK) with a view to fixing them up and selling them as decorations. A neighour in our area has one half way down his driveway. For some reason, the project looks to have been abandoned.

I was struck by the beauty of the rusty phone booths, the mystery of their presence in a farmer's field in Canada and their resemblence to Stonehenge. Who knows, an archeologist might stumble on these in the future and speculate that they were arranged in a circle for religious reasons.

Hence the title of the work: Phonehenge.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Photos of Animals

I enjoy photographing animals, mostly because I've been surrounded with pet dogs and cats since childhood and also because of the lure of capturing images of wild animals in their natural habitat. This must be a carry-over from my hunter ancestors because I really do enjoy stalking my prey and snapping photographs. I can bring home my "kill" on a compact flash card and display my trophies as photos, either on my wall or online.

My friend Mary Taylor recently returned from a holiday in Africa where she participated in a safari and captured some pretty nifty images. I'm jealous as hell. In comparison, I can only claim success in hunting down a mangy moose in Algonquin Park and a beaver swimming in his pond near my cottage. Somehow, that's just not the same as capturing a cheetah eating its kill.

I make do with visits to the zoo and nature preserves. The beauty of these environments is that you can get up close to the animals and, with a suitable lens (e.g. 70-300 mm on an APSC-sensor camera), you can get some good shots. You can also pick your weather and lighting conditions and go back several times to make sure you get the photos you want.

Mouflon - Toronto Zoo

In contrast, a trip to Africa typically lasts 2-3 weeks, the animals are free to come and go as they please and you just might not encounter good weather and lighting conditions at the time your "prey" decides to appear at the watering hole.

One of my favourite places to photograph animals is the Haliburton Wolf Reserve near Algonquin Park in Ontario, Canada. There is a typical wolf pack kept in a 75 acre reserve that is very close to their natural habitat. The wolves are fed by humans, but the feeding schedule is kept fairly erratic so that the pack is not allowed to lock into a schedule. When the pack is hungry, the wolves hang out near the food source, conveniently located next door to the viewing gallery. The gallery has thick glass that reflects the people in the gallery, presenting a challenge to the photographer.

Alpha Male watches from the woods

The best time to photograph wolves is in the wintertime where the trees are devoid of leaves, affording a good view of any shy wolves who stay back in the trees.

Strictly from an ecological point of view, zoos and reserves are probably a good thing. A trip to Africa carries a pretty hefty carbon consumption with it. Far better for the environment to bring the animals to the crowds instead of the crowds to the animals. Of course, there are many that argue that animals kept in artificial environments are disadvantaged somehow, but I'm not sure that the animals know or care whether they live in Africa or a suburb of Toronto.

Lion Couple Resting their Eyes

From a photographer's point of view, it is certainly more challenging and exciting to capture animals in their natural habitat. In the case of birds, it requires a great deal of patience and preparation or dumb luck. However, it is certainly possible to capture excellent images of animals in captivity that convey the essence of the beast. I don't think photographers should be ashamed of stalking animals in zoos or reserves and the popularity of the various zoo lover groups on flickr attest to the enjoyment that people get from this passtime. However, it just doesn't seem the same as chasing wild game in a land rover and shooting animals living life in the wild.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Industrial Landscapes

It has been awhile. I've been going through a stressful time of changing jobs (again) and haven't been in the mood to write.

Things are starting to resolve, so here goes a new post:

My daughter has a Scottish boyfriend, Ben, who works at Poscor, Canada's second largest re-cycling company. Ben is an avid amateur photographer, although he is a misguided individual who prefers Nikon to Canon. I guess he just likes soft lenses :-)

Ben was kind enough to invite me to tour the Poscor site. Re-cycling companies have been photographed by some famous photogs, including Edward Burtynsky. If you visit his site, navigate to the urban mines section of his works to see photographs of Poscor. In fact, the one entitled Densified Scrap Metal 3a is hanging on the wall of the Poscor office boardroom.

The day we visited was rather overcast, but it was bright enough to get some nice light on the subject without the harsh glare of direct sunlight. We did a tour of the Poscor yards in a pick-up truck, stopping every now and then to see the big machines at work processing scrap metal.

Poscor is a scrap re-cycling exchange. The company finds sellers of scrap (e.g. junkyards, auto plants) and buyers of scrap (e.g. steel companies). If possible, it merely gathers scrap from the source and re-distributes it to the buyer, collecting a fee in the process. Sometimes, the buyer requires that the scrap metal be processed, usually by chopping it into smaller chunks. This is done using several different techniques, ranging from sophisticated mechanised methods to manual brute force.

The most interesting machine on the lot is the shredder. This behemoth takes flattened car bodies as its raw material and uses a spinning rotor with huge hammers to pound the car bodies into shrapnel. The small pieces are then separated into steel and non-steel, with the steel being shipped to a local mill for re-cycling.

Great photographers don't work by taking a quick trip around the lot in a pick-up truck, getting out occasionally to snap off a few shots like I did. I'm told that Burtynsky spends a week or so in a location scouting out subject matter and shooting angles, then waits for the light to be perfect for realizing his vision.

Nevertheless, I did get a half dozen shots that would pass for Burtynsky photos if you squinted from a distance and didn't look too carefully at the colour balance. Here is a selection:

Large Metal Bales

Assorted Sprockets

Mountain of Junk

Old Parts

Bales of Wire

The Gears