Photography and Art

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.