Photography and Art

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.