Photography and Art

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Eric Meola

Yesterday was a pretty dull day around the office. My job mostly involves meetings and there's no one here to meet with, so I decided to download some content management software called Joomla and play around with it. This type of software is designed to make it easy to create and maintain small web sites and it works pretty well. I was able to download the software, install it and build a first iteration of a personal web site in about a day. The site wasn't pretty, but with another week or so of tweaking, it could be.

This morning, I checked out one of my favourite photography sites and Mike Johnston was blogging about Eric Meola's new book on India. From Mike's blog, I travelled to Eric's web site and was really blown away by both the quality of the photography and the quality of the web site. Normally, I'm not a huge fan of web sites written in Flash. People normally go overboard with animation and navigation really sucks, but whoever did Eric's site kept it really simple and elegant. The design is visually stunning and the colour photography is gorgeous.

I think I'm going to have to spend more time to build a really good website. When you see something like Eric's site, it really shows how top artists think through everything about their work in great detail, including the presentation.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Paths to Obsession

I spent a very nice day last Saturday relaxing in my cottage just outside the town of Haliburton. I had two good books that represented the ying and yang of current photography. On one hand, we had Mountain Light by Galen Rowell and on the other hand we had Photoshop CS4 Workflow: The Digital Phtographer's Guide by Tim Grey. These books could not have been more different if I'd selected them on purpose, but they both were Christmas gifts so it was serendipty at work.

Let me explain why these two books are polar opposites. On one hand, we have Galen Rowell, mountain photographer deluxe, who had a wonderful career as a mountain climber, traveller, National Geographic photographer and writer until he was tragically killed in an airplane crash at age 62. Rowell obsessed over the capture of the image and his book is full of details about how he followed the light and got the right exposure and depth of field to obtain the correct lighting and composition. He would be sent out in the field by National Geographic with dozens of rolls of slide film and would stalk light like a hunter stalks his prey. After capturing hundreds of shots of his subjects, he would send the exposed film to his publisher and wait months to see which shots (if any) had been selected for publication. Meanwhile, he would be on his way to his next assignment and would be enjoying himself out in the wilds taking pictures.

On the other hand, we have Tim Grey, photoshop expert deluxe, who makes his living writing about Adobe photoshop. Tim obsesses about the workflow involved in taking digital images from capture through to printing. His book is a wonderfully lucid explanation of all the parts of Photoshop that are useful to a photographer. He takes us through the basic image adjustments and all the way through advanced photo editing, including layers, masks and the fundamentals of non-destructive editing.

This brings me to the question of the day. If one's time is limited (and Galen Rowell's untimely departure suggests that the clock may even be ticking faster than we think), then where should we spend it? Should we spend it out in the field obsessing about the capture or should we spend it back in the photo studio obsessing about the digital developing and printing process?

Either activity could quite cheerfully occupy all the spare moments of my life that aren't spent working or hanging out with my family. Not only that, but both activities are enjoyable in their own way.

Let's take capturing images first. This is a set of pleasurable activities that can involve outdoor activities, travel, interesting gear and peace and quiet. Then there is the actual act of taking a picture. I don't know about you, but I get into a wonderful zone when I'm taking landscape pictures. My mind is at peace and I'm totally focused on the subject matter and the light.

However, there are barriers to the enjoyment of picture taking. First, there is the time element. You can't really get into the enjoyment of a good shoot without blocking off a few hours to drive or walk to a location, set up your gear and shoot. Second, there is the equipment issue. To do a decent job, you really have to anticipate conditions at the shoot and take the right cameras, lenses, filters, tripods etc. Rowell explains his selection of equipment at great length, so it was very important to him too. Finally, there's inertia. To get your butt out the door when weather conditions might be challenging or when it's dark and early before sunrise and everyone else is in a cozy bed is very difficult.

Developing and printing is a pleasure of a different sort. Taking a raw image and slowly and methodically building layer upon layer of adjustments to hone it to a final jewel and then printing it on beautiful paper is immensely satisfying. No wonder artists like Alain Briot spend hours and hours on each image. Briot, Grey and others have created this concept of a "master image" where you take a raw capture into Photoshop and build a pyramid of layers on top of it to refine it into a work of art. There are multiple curve layers, layers that adjust tonality in narrow ranges, dodging and burning layers, sharpening layers and masks on top of layers to narrow down the target of each adjustment. The artist can obsess over each individual pixel if necessary.

The beauty of this work is that it is done in the comfort of your home studio where it is cozy and warm. You can play tunes in the background. Just like any home workshop project, there is the satisfaction of seeing your work progress towards the finished product.

However, all is not wine and roses in the home studio. Every time you go on a digital shoot, you generate hundreds or even thousands of images. Sorting them, keywording them, trying to decide which ones to spend time on -- all these tasks are time-consuming and take you away from the pleasures of print-making. There is no editor waiting back at National Geographic to do all this for you - you are your own editor! Procrastination is futile as well. The work will just pile up and make you feel pressured. And this pastime is supposed to be fun!

I've been thinking about this for a few days and I think I've come up with a few guidelines to extract as much fun out of photography as possible as well as produce some very good work that, hopefully, others might enjoy and purchase from you:

  • Guideline #1: Take time for photography. People make time for golf, fishing, tennis and other activities, so why not photography? Book a half day away from your family and take off to a favourite location for a shoot. Prepare for your shoot just like you would prepare for a fishing trip - get your gear set up beforehand, get the car gassed up and leave early in the morning to capture that golden light at your location. If you'd enjoy some company, find some photography buddies that will come along with you. Take a picnic. Enjoy!
  • Guideline #2: Use the best tools to sort and categorize your photos. This job is a chore and you want to get over it quickly. Once your photos have been rated, sorted and keyworded, you can quickly focus on the keepers and not stress out about the other 90% of your images that didn't really work out. I've found Lightroom to be a wonderful tool for this job. I touched on the magic of Smart Collections in a previous post and find them to be a really good way of collecting your keepers by subject and organizing your workflow. The beauty of Lightroom smart collections is you can refine your workflow without having to go back and move images around - it is all done dynamically based on keywords and meta data.
  • Guideline #3: Know when to draw the line in the studio. There is a 90/10 rule at work here. If you're lucky enough to capture a really good image, chances are that you can get it print-ready with a minimal amount of development work. Not only that, but 90% of the changes needed can be obtained with 10% of the effort. Quick, accurate adjustments to exposure, white balance and contrast (using curves) can be all that's needed to make a good image work as a print. If you find yourself building a layer cake of hundreds of adjustment layers and masks, maybe your time would be better spent with an image that was a better capture in the first place!
My New Year's resolution in 2009 is to apply these three guidelines. I'm going to schedule more shoots and plan them out in advance so I can enjoy them to the full. I've already started to re-organize my workflow around Lightroom smart collections so I don't let the sheer quantity of digital images overwhelm me. And, I've decided that I will not succumb to the temptation of "polishing the stone". This is a term I sometimes use in my business life. It is all too easy to get into a business mode where a company spends all their time honing existing products and processes, losing total focus on innovation. I think photography offers the same trap. If you spend all your waking hours peering into the computer monitor trying to make a few images perfect, then you are missing out on all the enjoyment of getting out in the open air and taking photographs. That last 10% of fine adjustments that take all the time aren't really noticeable to your audience anyway, so why bother with them?

Monday, December 29, 2008

Update to the Lightroom Sharing Saga

Last week, I wrote a post about using the DOS SUBST command to fool Lightroom into thinking that a network drive was actually a local drive so that the catalog could be stored on a network drive.

Alas, although the technique worked inasmuch as I could access my catalog from both my computers (although not at the same time), the speed was agonizingly sloooooow. Lightroom took long pauses between any type of library or developing function. I guess the Adobe guys really made the application very chatty with the database.

My wired network is 100 Mbps (about 10 MBps in theory). USB 2.0 is 480 Mbps, nearly 5 times faster, so the solution seems to be to a) upgrade my wired network to gigabit (sounds expensive!) or b) go back to sharing the catalog via a USB hard drive. I'm going to use option b) until I have a better solution.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Calendars for Fallen Soldiers

I must admit to being conflicted over the war in Afghanistan. On one hand, I deplore violence and war in any and all forms. On the other hand, I oppose religious extremism, especially when it attempts to suppress the freedoms of other people. In Afghanistan, we have soldiers from North America fighting against the religious zealotry of the Taliban, so what is one to do? My view changes with the tides.

However, there is no arguing with the courage of the individual men and women of the American and Canadian armed forces who believe in the fight against the Taliban and who have put their lives on the line. As Canadians, we are saddened by the losses to the families whose loved ones fought and died in Afghanistan.

One man has decided to do something about it. His name is Shane Keating. His nephew died while serving in Afghanistan and Shane Sr. has devoted his life savings to publishing a memorial calendar to many of the Canadian fallen soldiers in honour of his nephew. You can read all about it here.

The calendar can be viewed at the (firmm stands for families in remembrance of military members) website. Like any other calendar, this one is full of photographs, but these are very special photographs, images of the soldiers that served their country and died doing it. Whether you share their cause, you must respect that they believed that what they were doing was right and just.

I was listening to a radio program about Shane Keating and they interviewed a mother of one of the soldiers featured in the calendar. She said that the photo in the calendar is her favourite one of her son, the one she carries around in her purse at all times.

How many calendars can you buy this year where the images are so precious as these?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Update on Sharing Lightroom on Two Computers

I recently wrote a post on my plans to share Lightroom on two computers, my primary editing machine in the family room and my primary printing machine in my studio. After much reading, I decided to place the catalog on a portable disk drive and schlep it between the two machines. This seems to work quite well - my files are spread between the two computers, but the catalog sees all the network files on both machines. However, there are three issues with this solution. Carrying the catalog up and down the stairs (not to mention connecting it and disconnecting it) is a pain in the butt. The portable disk is noticeably slower than a local disk. And, there is a bug somewhere in the Adobe code base that takes my network down whenever I try to edit a Lightroom file in Photoshop on my studio machine. The other computer blue screens.

The first two problems I can live with. The latter one is more troubling and I was looking for a solution when I found this article by Lightroom guru Denis Pagé.

He points out that you can get around the issue where Lightroom is programmed not to open a catalog on a network drive by using the DOS shell command SUBST to create a disk letter that is assigned to a network share. Lightroom will be fooled into thinking that the disk is local and will open the catalog. Denis warns against using this technique to support more than one person editing a catalog at a time and I intend to ensure that only one version of Lightroom is open at the same time. I will restrict the number of people who can share the catalog directory at the same time to 1.

I'll implement this over the holidays and let you know how it goes.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Online Editing

I've committed to teaching a photography class to about a dozen ten year-old kids next month at Art City, an organization that teaches underprivileged kids how to draw and paint. In preparing for this class, I've been wrestling with several issues:
  • How can I equip them all with cameras so they can have a meaningful hands-on learning experience?
  • How can I teach them to develop their digital photos after their shoot without all the complexity of Photoshop and/or Lightroom?
  • What will the enjoy as their first photo assignment?
I haven't thought too much about the third point yet, but I have made meaningful progress on the first two questions. After contacting local camera stores and camera vendors to see if they have any old cameras around that haven't sold, I pretty much gave up on that angle. The Christmas spirit doesn't seem plentiful in the camera retail space. Instead, I sent an e-mail to as many friends as I could think of asking them to dig out all the old 2-3 megapixel cameras that had been abandoned in drawers and the response was very heartening. I think I may be able to scrape up enough cameras for the course.

As far as the second point goes, there is good news there too. Adobe has a very good online editing system at You have to have an Adobe ID to use the site, but I don't think that will be an issue. There are two things that make the Photoshop Express site really terrific for young photographers:
  • To use it, you only need a decent Internet connection. Art City has an arrangement with a nearby cooperative housing development who have a nice facility with a small network of computers hooked up to a high-speed line, so this will work nicely. The rest of the time, the kids can book a computer at the local library.
  • The user interface on Photoshop Express is BRILLIANT for non-expert users. Kudos to the gang at Adobe for totally re-thinking the problem and breaking the mold completely. If you haven't tried this yourself, check it out. Here's an example: suppose you want to change the exposure on your photograph. Using a tool like photoshop or lightroom, you'd change exposure using a slider and see the impact on your photo by looking at both the image itself and the histogram. This is wonderful if you know what a histogram is used for. With Photoshop Express, you get a series of thumbnails all representing a different exposure of the image. As you click on each one, you see the results in the image itself. You can very quickly try them all out and pick the one that looks the most pleasing. This technique is used for all the major image adjustments. Very clever!
I'm looking forward to the photo class very much. The kids will each be given an old digital camera and enough instruction to make them dangerous, then they'll all head out to shoot their project. After the shoot, we'll upload their photos to Photoshop Express and they can learn the rudiments of digital photo enhancement. After that, we'll pick a few photos and make some prints.

It should be a fun day!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Winter is Here!

Winter Sunset - (c) Huw Morgan

Winter is here. There is a blizzard raging outside our office windows and it looks like we'll get 15-20 centimeters of snow. How nice! I just talked to the HR Director and we agreed it would be a good idea to send everyone home at noon.

Winter provides lots of opportunities for photography and I'm looking forward to spending some time in Haliburton where the winter countryside is very photogenic. I really do feel so sorry for you if you live in the sunny south :-)

Wetland in Winter - (c) Huw Morgan

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Travel Photography of the Year Awards

Private Conversations - Quebec (c) Huw Morgan

Like many of you I love to travel and take photographs wherever I go. Some photographers really excel at this genre and it is a pleasure to look at their work. This brings me to a recent discovery (courtesy of Rob Galbraith): the Travel Photography of the Year web site and awards.

The 2008 winners have been announced and the grand prize winner is a Canadian. Darwin Wiggett won the top prize for his photos of the Canadian Rockies. The photos are lovely, but I'm more of a fan of travel photos that feature people (as you can see from my Quebec photo above). The winners' gallery also has some remarkable work by Charlie Mahoney of the USA who submitted a portfolio of a couple of elderly Irish farmers who look like they are living in the 19th century. Here's a link to Charlie Mahoney's website. His complete Irish portfolio and the story of the two Irish brothers who are featured in it are on the site.

I also liked Adam Balcy's photos of clouds and many of the images in the Joy of Travel section. Have a look yourself and see what you like. This is a great opportunity to see how other people interpret their travels and create wonderful images.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

How to Win at eBay

Ken Rockwell often swims against the tide. He is a prolific writer who sometimes gets it right and often takes an extreme view that is just plain wrong (e.g. his preference for creating jpegs over raw images).

Today, he has published a very long treatise on purchasing items on eBay and I found it full of terrific advice for the online shopper. He covers bidding strategy, how to check out the seller and how to make sure you're getting what you want.

This article is very well researched and written and it is FREE. Highly Recommended. Read it here.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Peter Brown

One of the side benefits of working just west of downtown Toronto is the proximity of several good photo galleries on Queen Street West. Last month, I had the pleasure of ogling the photography of Peter Brown at the Stephen Bulger Gallery. This show really struck a chord with me because I just love farm countryside and Brown does just a wonderful job of capturing the mood of the plains. There is a sense of desolation and grandeur that is more powerful to me than the highest mountains or the loneliest lakes.

Sunset on the White House - (c) Huw Morgan

I've been busy over the last few years taking photos in a series I call "The Road North" depicting the rolling farmland between city (Toronto) and the Canadian shield to the north where people go each week-end to cottage. Most people drive through the country as fast as they can wanting to get to their destination in the least possible time. To my wife's chagrin, I prefer to wander up and down the side roads, frequently stopping to take photos of interesting farms and road-side attractions.

Seeing Peter Brown's work was very affirming. It seems there's an audience for subtle images of the countryside, a subject that isn't as spectacular as the great scenic vistas that captivated Ansel Adams and his followers.

The good news is that Peter Brown has published a book called West of Last Chance. The Online Photographer features a review and you can buy it here. It would make a great Christmas present to yourself and you deserve it!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Virtual Housecleaning

I spent the week-end housecleaning. No, not the usual kind of housecleaning with dusters and mops, I mean the virtual kind. For over a year now, ever since I got a second computer and moved my older machine into my basement studio along with my printer, I've been meaning to get my networking act together. Believe it or not, despite my day job as a CTO, I've been running separate file systems on both computers, two Lightroom catalogs and using sneakernet (copying files onto a CF card and then taking them downstairs) to transport files between the computers. I like to edit on the faster machine in the family room where I can keep an eye on the TV and chat with the family and then do my printing downstairs. But, this practice played havoc with my filing system. I had no idea where the latest copy of each master file was because I often took what I thought was a finished image and then tweaked it after seeing printer proofs. I did try to network the two computers together using a wireless network, but the speed wasn't up to par and it wasn't practical to mount network drives and copy files that way.

So, this week-end, I bit the bullet and ran good old cat-5 cable from my upstairs computer to a switch in the basement and then from there on to my downstairs computer. Then, it was time to adopt a single Lightroom catalog to track all my files. Here's how I did that in case you are wondering about networking and Lightroom.

  • First, I made sure that there were no drive letters in common between the two computers (to ensure that Lightroom could see the same drive letter from each computer). I went into the Vista system administration part of control panel and re-labelled disks on my old computer.
  • Then, I mapped network drives between the two computers so that each computer can see the photo folders on the other. To do this, I had to a) right click on each of the main photo folders and share them, b) go into the security tab of each folder and make sure that the special user "everyone" could have full read/write access to them and finally, c) go into my firewall software on each machine to ensure that both computers were letting the other one through. Needless to say, I don't envy the non-technical person trying to sort this out.
  • To consolidate my Lightroom catalog, I decided to use the upstairs computer as the main one and then exported all the catalog elements from the studio computer and imported them into the upstairs catalog. I backed the catalog up at this point to make sure I had all these changes saved.
  • After reading lots of articles about networking Lightroom (Lightroom is built around a lightweight SQL database that doesn't support the locking operations that you need for multi-user operation and the programmers specifically put code into the product that stops you from using a catalog on a network drive), I decided not to try one of several work-arounds. Instead, I copied the catalog to a USB hard drive and will use that to store my main catalog. Typically, I'm either in photo editing mode (upstairs) or photo printing mode (downstairs studio), so it will be practical for me to unmount the USB drive from one computer and mount it on the other. That way, I'll be able to use the same catalog on both machines and any changes I make to tweak images for printing will be reflected in the master image in the catalog. As long as I take care to right click on the USB drive and choose the "safely remove" option before unplugging it, my Lightroom catalog should retain its integrity.
After consolidating my catalog, I had an hour or so to do a little data mining. As a follow-up to my last post on smart collections, here's the fun part of the project. Once your smart collections have been set up to capture tagged images, it is a blast to go over all your images to tag them with keywords. Through the magic of smart collections, as soon as you tag an image with a keyword, it shows up in the appropriate collection.

And there you have it, a week-end's spring cleaning for my computer network and I now have that nice feeling of having my shit together. My images are in one place and I can actually find stuff. Thanks to smart collections, my projects are all together and I can now do some portfolio printing without scrambling around looking for images.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Lightroom Smart Collections

Toronto Outdoor Art in Context - Here Comes the Sun

Every now and then, a light goes on. A few days ago, I had a chance to view a very good tutorial on smart collections in Adobe Lightroom 2. I'm not going to describe what these are in any detail, so if you don't know, please view the tutorial here. The beauty of smart collections is that they are dynamic and change as the images in the Lightroom database change. For example, if you have created a smart collection of all the images ranked with four stars and then you change one of the images to three stars, the image immediately drops from the smart collection. If you have another collection of photos with the keyword "Ireland" and you tag an image in your library with the keyword "Ireland", then it will immediately show up in the smart collection.

I've been mulling this capability around in my mind and here's how I plan to use smart collections in my workflow:

  • First, I'm going to implement a new scoring system as follows:
    • One star for rejects (blurry, shots of my foot etc.)
    • Two stars for ordinary photos (nothing technically wrong, but no inspiration)
    • Three stars for photos with promise, but with a technical flaw (e.g. in need of cropping)
    • Four stars for photos that work
    • Five stars for photos that are portfolio-worthy.
  • Next, I'm going to use flagged/unflagged to indicate if the photo has been developed and is ready for posting/printing
  • I'm going to set up smart collections as follows:

    • For each of my current and past photo projects, I'm going to set up a new collection set. For example, I'm working on a project called Toronto Outdoor Art in Context and will create a new set for that.
    • I'll go through my library and assign a keyword to every image in the project. In this case, the keyword will be Toronto Found Art.
    • Inside each set, I'll set up a bunch of smart collections. Each one will pull images from the database with the keyword I've selected for the project.
    • One smart collection will look for images with less than one star. These will correspond to new images that I haven't ranked yet.
    • One smart collection will look for images four stars or greater that are unflagged. These will be the images that are queued up for developing.
    • Another smart collection will look for flagged images with five stars. These are the portfolio-worthy images that are ready for printing and posting to my web site.
By arranging my collections this way, I'll solve a problem that has hounded me since I started serious photography back in 2004: finding all the photos in a particular project and sorting them into the keepers and the throw-aways.

Assigning keywords to every image in your library sounds painful, but in practice it goes fairly quickly. Usually photos in a project appear sequentially in your folders, so you can just highlight a block of photos at a time, mouse over the keyword that you want to assign, right click and choose "apply keyword to all selected photos". My goal is only to assign project-oriented keywords, not every tag under the sun.

If you haven't tried out Lightroom smart collections yet, give it a shot. It's a huge improvement over regular collections that are built by dragging and dropping images into the collection.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Yes Virginia

There is a Santa Claus. Can a major camera producer create a new sensor that has nearly double the pixel count (and reduce pixel pitch from 8 microns to 6.4 microns) AND actually improve low-noise ISO performance? The answer is now out and it is a resounding YES.

Here's a test of the Canon 5d and the Canon 5d Mark II from DxO Labs that shows the improvements in basic sensor science over a three year period:

  • Colour depth improves from 22.9 to 23.7 (3.5%)
  • Dynamic range improves from 11.1 to 11.9 (7.2%)
  • Low-light ISO performance improves from 1368 to 1815 (32.7%)
  • No. of pixels goes from 12.8 meg to 21.1 meg (64.8%)
  • Pixel size goes from 8 microns to 6.4 micros (-20%)

So, there you have technology that nets a huge gain in sensor resolution AND improves all facets of sensor performance.

Isn't science grand?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Quick Update for R1800/R1900 Users

Printing on thicker papers poses challenges to R1800/R1900 users. These printers produce wonderful results, but seem to have issues when top-loading thicker papers (like the Hahnemuhle photo rag baryta mentioned below). Here's a thread from a review of the R1800 that might be useful:

Email From Dave Brown:

Hi Folks,
Just a note tonight to help solve a problem a lot of people seem to be
having with the Epson R1800 Printer when trying to print on heavier
stock Fine Art Papers, such as Hahnemuhle, etc.. Anyway, just bring up a
photo to print. When Print Preferences Box opens, go to Maintenance Tab
and select the bottom button, called Printer and Option Information.
Click on it and the Printer and Option Information Box opens, and low
and behold, there at the bottom on the left is an unchecked box with
"Thick Paper" beside it. Check this box, and your problems with printing
heavier Fine Art Papers are over. And also, I have been feeding them
into the top of the printer just like regular paper, and not at the
back. Give it a try for yourself......Leave it to Epson to NOT mention
this in the User's Guide that comes with this excellent
printer!!.......Maybe you might like to help spread the good word?
Happppy Printing!! Dave

Fredrik: I tried Dave's tip, and yes it does work. To be sure, I emailed Epson to find out if this would harm the printer.

Email from Epson: In answer to your enquiry, the Thicker media setting you have selected is mainly for use when printing on envelopes. For the heavier weight paper such as the Fine art paper. This should only be loaded through the rear manual feed as this reduces the strain on the paper feed mechanism as it does not need to bend the paper as much.

New Papers

Until recently, most of the camera stores in my city (Toronto) sold a variety of brands of ink jet paper ranging from Hahnemuhle at the expensive end down to Premier Imaging at the lower end of the price scale. But, as the song goes, there's a new kid in town.

I buy most of my paper and ink at CCBC, a small outfit that focuses on computer-related consumables (paper, ink, DVD's) and often has the best prices around. They have a small retail outlet in Toronto and also sell lots of stuff on the web. I was in the store the other day and they were featuring paper from Inkpress Paper. Since then, I've seen the same paper in Vistek and Henry's Camera, so the word is getting out. I was really impressed with the sheer variety of the Inkpress product offerings. They have a professional line with three papers (warm baryta, pro gloss and pro silky) and a regular line of 24 (!) types of paper, ranging from matte paper to self-adhesive vinyl. Want canvas? Got it. Want natural cotton rag? Got that too. The range is awesome.

You can buy a sampler pack for each product line (see product list here) and I did just that. So far, I've done test prints (using the image above that has a good range of shadows, highlights and colours) on the warm baryta paper and the Pro Silky paper. The images were quite stunning, although the profiles produced distinctly varied results. The baryta profile was quite true to the image, but the silky paper image looked to have too much yellow in it. I'll have to tinker and see if I can find an Epson profile that does better. I've often had success in using the Epson profiles as a substitute for wonky profiles from other vendors. However, I was very pleased with the look of the pictures on both of these papers. The baryta paper is very warm in tone and the surface is lovely. There is a real depth to this paper and the photo looks quite three dimensional. There appears to be a very good range of tonality. The silky paper is much whiter and looks to be a very high quality semi-gloss. I'll keep printing and let you know what I find out.

The paper that I've been lusting after is Hahnemuele Photo Rag Baryta. This paper sounds like a dream come true - offering the deep blacks and three dimensional appearance of a baryta coating with the long-lasting properties of a cotton rag backing. Neil Snape says that the paper is "just right", not too glossy but still capable of rendering prints with that transparent look where the paper disappears and lets you wander around in the photograph. Here's his full review.

The good news is that this paper seems to be in stock at retailers. Here's a link to Vistek's listings. I think I might buy some :-)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Celebrity Photographs

Is it wrong to use your position as wife or girlfriend of a celebrity to sell candid books and photographs? Is it OK to capitalize on fame in one field (e.g. music) by taking photos of your rich and famous friends? Do you get to call yourself a serious photographic artist if you use your position to gain access to famous subjects?

Several recent developments have got me to thinking about these issues. First, we have an exhibit going on in Toronto and New York of the photographs of Pattie Boyd. Now sixty-something, Pattie was a famous fashion model in the swinging sixties who got a bit part in a Beatles movie and met George Harrison. She married George, divorced him and then married Eric Clapton. After a tumultuous marriage with Eric, she divorced him as well. Her life and times has now been captured in a tell-all potboiler called Wonderful Tonight, Eric Clapton, George Harrison and me.

While all this was going on, Pattie was taking photographs. From what I can see from her work, she started out taking snapshots and got more and more serious about it and is now making her living as a professional photographer. Her exhibit in Toronto is called Through the Eye of a Muse and runs through to the end of the year in the Great Hall gallery on Queen Street. The title refers to her role as muse to Harrison and Clapton, inspiring great songs like Layla, Wonderfull Tonight and Something. You can see some of her photos here at the Beatlemania Shop.

Have a look at the galleries and see if you think she's a rip-off artist selling private family snaps for $2,000 plus or whether you think there is a talented artist at work here. My opinion is mixed. There are some photos that scream "snapshot" and really don't add much to my understanding of the subjects. But, just when you begin to write Pattie off as an exploitation artist, you run across a picture of Eric Clapton on stage that captures the feeling of a musician on stage to a tee. It conveys the loneliness of a man on-stage with his music.

To me, this is consistent with someone who may have started with home snapshots, but evolved over time, as her skills grew, to a very good portrait artist indeed.

Coincidentally with Boyd's exhibition, there were a couple of other announcements in the same vein. May Pang has just published a book of snapshots of John Lennon called Instamatic Karma. Pang had an 18 month affair with John Lennon while he was separated from Yoko Ono. Here we have someone who has no pretensions to artistry who has accumulated a set of snapshots that cover an interesting time in the life of a public figure. I have no issue with this at all - as far as I'm aware, she isn't selling limited edition prints of Lennon for over $2,000 a pop and the book is there for its entertainment value.

At the same time, we have rockstar/photographer Bryan Adams opening up an exhibition at Britain's National Portrait Gallery called Modern Muses. This falls into another category indeed. Adams is a serious fashion and portrait photographer and an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery is quite a feather in his cap. His photos are beautifully crafted and the subject matter consists of some of the most interesting women in the world.

Coming back to Boyd, we see someone caught in the middle between May Pang and Bryan Adams. On one hand, you have Pattie Boyd, the single woman who needs to make a living, exploiting her older photos for financial gain and passing them off as fine art. On the other hand, you have Pattie Boyd the working photographer who has learned her craft and has created some very nice work. She continues to produce interesting photographs, like a recent picture of Jeff Beck with his hot rod cars. I found it fascinating that the asking prices for her recent photos (e.g. a picture of some monks) were half that of her snaps of famous people. That implies a 100% premium mark-up for celebrity.

Is Pattie Boyd a serious artist or an exploiter of old relationships? The only answer is "yes". She is both. I'm not sure I'd shell out a couple of grand for an old Beatle snapshot, but certainly her recent work is well-crafted and worth the price tag.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Ansel Adams Gallery Workshops

Mono Lake Moonrise

I still haven't published my post on the Alain Briot workshop that I attended in October. I'm drafting it, but haven't got it done yet. I have posted some images from the workshop here and I've included one at the top of this post. It's a shot of Mono Lake around sunset when the full moon was rising.

I did enjoy my Briot workshop immensely and I believe it has improved several aspects of my photography. I'm more selective of what I shoot, I'm more patient when I'm shooting and I'm much, much pickier about the digital development and printing process.

I've been looking around for more workshops in case I can spring for the time off next year and can convince my wife to do without me for a week-end. I accidentally stumbled on a good source of workshops by following a link off The Online Photographer Blog to the Ansel Adams Gallery. Mike Johnson was blogging about a new set of prints that are for sale. These are digital prints of famous Adams photos and are available in a wide variety of sizes and come matted and, optionally, framed.

When I poked about the gallery site some more, I saw that they offered workshops in Yosemite National Park. Here's a link to the workshops for 2009. There are some very good photographers and teachers on offer including Charlie Cramer and Michael Frye. The workshops look to be three or four days long and cost around $1,000.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

RIP Kenny MacLean

Kenny MacLean, ex-bassist of Platinum Blonde and musician deluxe, died unexpectedly yesterday. He was only 52. He'd just launched his latest album and had celebrated the event with a party at the Mod Club. It looks like he was intending to spend the night at his downtown apartment/studio and collapsed when brushing his teeth. Full obituary is here.

I jammed with Kenny about a year ago. A good friend of mine who runs a small computer company decided to reward his customers by renting Kenny and his band for a night and inviting any musicians in the crowd to jam with the band. Having been a musician for a long time, I know how I'd feel if anyone from the audience could come up and hack away at my drums - not very happy! But, Kenny and his group of musicians took it all in good stride and a wonderful evening was had by all.

I was lucky enough to play three tunes with the band on the drums (including a loud rendition of Wild Thing by the Troggs). He let me come up to the front of the band and do my Ray Charles party piece, Hit the Road Jack, with Kenny playing the role of the Rayettes. It was a night to remember.

Fortunately, I had my little point and shoot with me and managed to get a snap or two in. Here is my favourite photo of Kenny, capturing his good humour as well as his Platinum Blonde hair:

Kenny will be joining the big jam in the sky.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Network Back-up with MozyHome

If you're like me, you worry a lot about backing up your photos, but don't really do enough about it. Every year over the Christmas holidays, I make DVD's of the year's photo files, both the RAW images and the final images that I used for printing. This is a time-consuming process and a bit hit-or-miss given a) the rather dodgy lifespan of DVD media and b) the rate of obsolescence of various physical media (do you still own a diskette drive?).

I also do daily back-ups of my files onto an external drive, but that drive is right next to my computer and would perish in a house fire.

My dream would be to have a utility that backed up my files daily to a big disk drive in the cloud. That dream is pretty close to reality, with a bit of a gotcha that I'm working on overcoming.

There is a web site called where for $4.95 a month per computer you can purchase UNLIMITED online back-up for your files. I've signed up, I've downloaded their little back-up utility and it all works as promised. The utility lets you pick the files and directories that you want to back-up and lets you choose the selected frequency. It is smart to only back up the delta each time it runs. In addition, the back-up files are presented as a network drive and you can restore individual files, folders or the complete file system.

HOWEVER, the challenge is to back up your initial file system to so you can have peace of mind and get into a nice space where you are just doing incremental back-ups. My issue (and I think this is true for most ISP's) is that my home cable connection is assymetrical. My download speeds are around 7 Mbps (thousand bits per second), but my upload speed seems throttled at around 500 bits per second. Not only that, but my account is capped at a total of 60 GB (million bytes) of data transfer per month before extra charges come into play.

If you work out the math, running the back up program for two weeks straight (24 hours per day) would copy about 60 GB of data to If you're like me, you have many GB of photos stored on your hard drive. In my case, if I prune dupes and things, I can probably get away with about 500 GB of archival data, with about 20 GB of incremental storage a month.

This means I can do 40 GB of archival back-up per month plus 20 GB of incremental storage. In other words, it will take me about a year to catch up with my archival storage while working away on the new stuff.

Given the importance of backing stuff up, I'm going to do this while I look around for a better way of connecting my computer to the network to see if I can overcome the uploading bottleneck.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Law of Diminishing Returns and the Canon 50d

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending an art auction fundraiser for Art City Toronto, a store-front art drop-in centre for under-privileged kids in Toronto. I donated a couple of works to the silent auction and I'm delighted to report that an 18x12 framed print of my Phonehenge image sold for nearly $400. Here's the image:

It was fascinating to watch people in the silent auction as they looked at the artwork. For this particular image, a lot of people did a double-take when they noticed the old English phone booths (the photo was taken on a farm in southern Ontario in Canada). Many people walked up close to the photo to look at the details and, I'm happy to say, at 18x12, the details hold up just fine. The photo is quite sharp at that size.

Nowadays, I take most of my photos with a full-frame 12.8 megapixel camera, a Canon 5d, but the Phonehenge image was taken with an 8 megapixel APS-C camera, the Canon 20d. With the recent advent of the 50d and the 5d mk II, I've been starting to think about upgrading the 20d. In fact, I've placed the 20d on permanent loan to my son while I cogitate about an upgrade.

You can imagine my interest level when DPreview published an in-depth review of the Canon 50d. After reading the review and looking at the resolution stats and the RAW noise levels of the new camera, I must admit that I now have misgivings. With the current state of the art in sensor silicon, it looks like the sweet spot for APS-C sensors is around 10-12 megapixels. Any larger and noise levels start to increase. Not only that, but system (i.e. camera and lens) resolution becomes a matter of diminishing returns. Look at the following tables extracted from DPReview:

Camera Measurement
Canon EOS 50D Horizontal LPH 2250 2700
Vertical LPH 2200 2700
Nikon D300 Horizontal LPH 2200 2600
Vertical LPH 2100 2600
Pentax K20D Horizontal LPH 2250 * 2300
Vertical LPH 2250 * 2500
Sony DSLR-A700 Horizontal LPH * 2200 2900
Vertical LPH 2100 2800
Canon EOS 40D Horizontal LPH 2100 2300
Vertical LPH 1800 2300

Camera Measurement
Canon EOS 30D Horizontal LPH 1850 2100
Vertical LPH 1650 2100
Nikon D200 Horizontal LPH 2100 2250
Vertical LPH 1700 2200
Canon EOS 5D Horizontal LPH 2300 2500
Vertical LPH 2000 2500
Canon EOS 20D Horizontal LPH 1850 2100
Vertical LPH 1650 2100

Looking at the absolute resolution, moving from 8 MP (20d) to 10 MP (40d) to 15 MP (50d) results in a gain in horizontal resolution from 1850 to 2100 to 2250. If this was correlated to the number of megapixels, you would expect 1850 to 2336 to 3608. Clearly, there is something (e.g. lens resolution) hitting the wall that is preventing these new sensors from delivering on their promise. Not only that, but noise seems to go up beyond 10-12 megapixels, so the extra resolution may be getting obliterated by extra noise.

All other things (i.e. automatic sensor cleaning, larger LCD, LiveView) aside, is it worth paying $1,500 to get an uplift of 22% in resolution at the expense of more noise? Consider this in the context mentioned above, where an 18x12 image produced at a resolution of 1850 lines holds up to a room full of people examining the image up close.

I'm thinking that I might wait for the 40d to come down in price and buy a good used model instead.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Mounting Prints Part II

At a recent workshop with Alain Briot, our group was sitting around a hotel room listening to Alain review prints from some of the participants. The next person to have his images reviewed was a photographer named Loren. He'd been on a few Briot workshops before, so he knew the drill very well. As a result, he had a collection of very nice images from a previous workshop and he knew that the presentation of your portfolio was very important. While the rest of us had presented naked images, basically as they had come off the printer, Loren had mounted his prints on matte board and had brought them along in a portfolio case. As a result, his images were presented beautifully and he came across as being a notch or two up the ladder compared to the rest of us.

Alain made a point of stressing that the presentation of your work is very important. If you don't love your work enough to mount it and sign it, why should anyone love it enough to buy it or exhibit it?

In my previous post, I described Natalie Briot's mounting method, a method that I've now adopted for all my portfolio candidate images. But, I neglected to talk about cutting mattes, a subject that comes up sooner or later in the career of every photographer. There are four stages of matte cutting:

  • Stage 1: you pay other people to cut mattes for you. This is problematic on two fronts. First, it is expensive. Second, it encourages you to produce standard size images that are easy to matte instead of cropping images where they want to be cropped.
  • Stage 2: you start to cut your own mattes using a steel ruler and an Xacto knife. For low volumes, this is certainly an option. But, it takes lots of patience, steady hands and tolerance for the occasional little error. Try not to throw the knife or the ruler when you manage to screw up a matte on the fourth edge!
  • Stage 3: after putting up with stage 2 for a little while, you realize that you are accumulating a backlog of images that need to be matted. It's time to get some help. Fortunately, there is gear that can help. I recommend Logan Matte cutting tools from the Lee Valley Catalog. For just over $100, you can start to produce nice neat edges in a reliable way. The cat no longer need worry about dodging flying tools.
  • Stage 4: if you are good and lucky, you'll start to sell your work in volumes that demand a better tool set. Enter the computerized matte cutter! Be warned, the price isn't quoted, but you can have one of these babies for as low as $79 a month. This is the method used by pros like Alain Briot.
I've graduated to stage 3 and can produce a decent matte in about 10-15 minutes. The process is relatively fool proof and is perfect for my relatively modest print output. I aim to produce 1-2 portfolio quality prints a week.

If you want a little more detail on this, Alain Briot has written a tutorial on the subject.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Mounting Prints

I'm still working on my review of the Alain Briot workshop, but thought I'd pass on a tidbit of knowledge that I gleaned from Natalie Briot, Alain's better half. Natalie is the brains of the Briot operation and runs all the logistics of the workshops as well as assisting Alain in the field. She also does all the matting and mounting of Alain's prints and does a fabulous job. Here's how she does it:
  1. Pick a standard outside dimension for your matte board. It is wise to choose a dimension (e.g. 16x20) that fits standard frames.
  2. Cut two identical matte boards. One will be used for print attachment and the other will fold over to matte the print. In other words, your print will be sandwiched between the two boards. The back one will provide support and the front one will present your work for viewing.
  3. Your images should be cropped to suit your art. Alain was adament that you not crop to fit a standard matte. Sometimes photos just want to be an odd size and you should crop accordingly.
  4. Print your photos to fit inside a rectangle so that there is plenty of white space around the image. For example, on a 16x20 inch outside dimension board, I'll crop my photo so it fits inside a 12x16 inch rectangle, allowing a minimum 2 inch boarder.
  5. Mount the print to the back board using archival quality plastic photo corners.
  6. Measure the size of the print and subtract a quarter to half an inch to ensure that the matte fully covers the image. Cut your matte to frame your photo.
  7. Attach the matte front board to the back board with an archival quality linen tape hinge. The tape needs to be moistened and attached to the boards.
Hey presto, you're done and your image is now framed in a durable double layer of matte board, suitable for framing or suitable for showing others your portfolio.

Just don't forget to sign your work. You should sign the actual print itself somewhere where the signature won't show through. Depending on the paper used, you might be able to use a pencil or might have to use ink. You should also sign the matte board below the image in pencil.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

LensCulture and Contemporary Photography

I don't know about you, but I admit to being a little bit lost when it comes to contemporary photography. I've read widely on the subject and I try to see as much of it as possible, but I'm pretty much incapable of telling the good stuff from the bad and frankly don't get some of it.

To use a musical analogy, landscape photography is a little like classical music. The landscape was manufactured a long time ago, just as most of the classical repertoire was written a long time ago. Musicians and photographers are adding their own interpretation to well-known works. I was thinking of this as I photographed Mono Lake last week along with a bunch of other photographers. The parking lot was full before sunrise and people kept getting in the way of each others' shots. However, it is still fun to see the way other artists interpret Mono Lake and I'm sure, given changing lighting and cloud conditions, there is still something unique to say on the subject.

I'm currently singing in two musical groups: The Toronto Classical Singers and The Ensemble Tryptych. The former is a large oratorio choir that specializes in traditional masses and features a large orchestra during performances and the latter is a chamber choir that has a more varied repertoire. By chance, both groups are performing Handel's Messiah this year, so it has been very interesting comparing the approaches of the two conductors. Jurgen Petrenko of the TCS has to cope with a large chorus of over 100 voices, so he stresses simplicity and musical singing. Lenard Whiting on the other hand is working with TET's smaller, nimbler size and can go for a much more detached musical treatment that won't get muddied by the size of the ensemble.

Two groups, two conductors, two unique interpretions of one master work. Similarly, we have had generations of landscape photographers interpret the same scenery in different ways. The constancy of the subject matter allows the viewer to focus on the interpretation and to get a sense of the message being conveyed by the way the artist has arranged the subject and the light.

Not so with contemporary photography. Just as modern music throws out the structures of classical music and all notions of timing, scales and melodies, contemporary photography seems to dispense with the structures of classical landscape photography and substitue a free-for-all.

I've been looking at an online contemporary photography magazine called LensCulture recently and there are lots of examples of interesting work. Some of the work I get. For example, there's a gallery by Hanne van der Woude entitled Natural Red Hair that I find quite compelling. The portraits of redheads are quite lovely and, being married to a redhead, I find them very attractive. The settings are very interesting landscapes as well and the lighting is wonderful.

I also really like a gallery by Jim Vecchi called Markings: Art Underfoot in San Francisco's Sunset District. This is a beautifully composed gallery of images of brightly painted sidewalk pavement arranged in unusual shapes. The images turn sidewalk art into a superior art form.

On the other hand, I just don't understand the attraction of Ebbe Stub Wittrup's Out from Under. Here's a gallery of mediocre landscapes where the images have been de-saturated, given a colour cast and in some cases blurred. To what purpose? Here's what the accompanying blurb says: "In his most recent work, the landscapes are hardly recognizable monochromatic surfaces. But still, Ebbe Stub Wittrup obviously knows exactly how to bring this mental abstraction to life. " The only mental abstraction that matters to me is the one in the head of the viewer and my eye only saw pale, ghostly imitations of landscape as if the photographer had used really old film in a camera that over-exposed each image. There was no "bringing to life" for me.

Similarly, the portfolio of Alexei Vassiliev entitled Here and gone: 21st century anonymous portraits leaves me wondering what all the fuss is about. Here's an entire gallery of blurry portraits of people. I guess this is supposed to convey a feeling of anonymity and de-personalization, but all I see is a photographer who can't seem to find the right focal point or shutter speed.

Of course, there are lots of landscape photographers that I don't like either, so finding contemporary art that doesn't speak to me should come as no surprise. It's only that I feel on firmer ground in the world of classical landscape photography. Contemporary photography kicks all the props out from underneath and I feel uncomfortable passing judgment in case I'm missing something deep and meaningful. Perhaps I'm lacking the context required to interpret these works and enjoy them.

Nevertheless, I recommend LensCulture and hope that you visit it often and join me in developing my appreciation for contemporary photography and developing my taste buds.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Galen Rowell

One of the most delightful discoveries of my recent workshop to the Eastern Sierras was Galen Rowell. I'm pretty sure that I'd heard of Galen before, but I'd not seen a lot of his work. For part of our workshop, we stayed in the town of Bishop California (Population 3,600), home of the Mountain Light Gallery, dedicated to displaying the works of Galen Rowell.

Galen was an adventurer and mountaineer who combined his love of the outdoors with photography. Photography was not an end, but a means of recording his life as he journeyed to the ends of the world looking for wilderness.

His images are not for the faint of heart! They tend to record brilliant sunrises and sunsets, big mountain vistas and wild animals in their natural terrain. Color abounds. Rowell used Nikon 35mm cameras that he carried with him everywhere and made good use of Fuji Velvia slide film to record the world in live and living color.

Rowell was extensively published in National Geographic as well as more specialized outdoor and climbing magazines. This allowed him the freedom of travelling the world looking for projects to photograph. However, his first love was the Eastern Sierras and that's where he came to live, in and around the hamlet of Bishop.

Tragically, he and his wife Barbara (a photographer in her own right) perished in 2002 in an airplane crash. Rowell was 62 at the time and fortunately had amassed a vast collection of images from around the world.

The Mountain Light Gallery displays about 50 of Rowell's best images. In keeping with his big, bold subjects, the prints in the gallery are blown up to huge proportions and are printed on high quality paper. Our workshop participants commented often on how these images, despite their humble 35mm origins, manage to withstand being enlarged to monumental proportions. Yes, you can see grain and the edges are far from sharp, but when viewed from an appropriate distance (like from your chair to your fireplace mantel), the images look just wonderful.

Coincidentally, when I was in Las Vegas just before the photo workshop, I stopped into a book store to find something to read in my spare moments (spare moments that didn't materialize until the flight home as it turned out) and purchased a book by Galen Rowell who was a prolific author as well as photographer and adventurer. The book, called Galen Rowell's Inner Game of Outdoor Photography, is a great read and provides an insight into how Galen approached his photography and why he succeeded in getting the shot while others failed.

If you ever find yourself down in the Eastern Sierras, make sure you stop in at the Mountain Light Gallery in Bishop. It will certainly open your eyes as to what's possible with humble 35mm equipment if you have talent and the motivation to be where the action is.

Ken Rockwell Really Knows How to Hurt a Guy

I was just reading Ken Rockwell's daily update and here's a quote that is killing me:

"90% of photography, and life, is showing up. It doesn't matter what kind of camera you have if you're not there. That hit home even hard this Monday morning at 7AM as I write this. I'm in Yosemite Valley, about to head out for a day of shooting, and this is also the busiest day for people reading the Internet. Over 100,000 people will be reading my site today, but only a few people are away from their computers and out shooting. Who's going to get better pictures, you, stuck in your office with your expensive gear sitting at home without you, or my grandma with a disposable camera up here?"

As someone who is stuck in his office with my expensive gear sitting at home, I send a big fat raspberry to Ken Rockwell and hope it snows!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Lightroom 2.1

I'm back from my workshop in the Eastern Sierra's with Alain Briot and will write up my impressions of the experience soon.

In the meantime, note that a release candidate of Lightroom 2.1 has been placed on the Adobe site here. There are many small fixes that are part of 2.1, but the key one for me is a fix to the interoperability between Lightroom and CS3/CS4. One of the fancy things that was supposed to work between Lightroom 2.0 and Photoshop CS3 was a seamless transfer of a photo back and forth between the two products. I remember seeing demos of this transfer and thinking about how good it was.

Of course, when I tried it, I found that the transfer wouldn't work at all. There was a partial work-around on the support forum, but certainly not the seamless experience I was banking on.

Yesterday, I downloaded 2.1 and purchased CS4 (my refund for my purchase of CS3 came through on my credit card). After installing both products, I tested the file transfer between them and, hey presto, the transfer was seamless. I was able to do neat stuff like saving a file under a new name in CS4 and seeing it appear automatically in my Lightroom DB without importing it.

I think Adobe might be getting their shit together at last!

PS: CS4 is a HUGE improvement over CS3 and its predecessors from a UI point of view. The concept of having each open image in its own tab is very well executed. There are several other neat visual tricks too. For example, when you are using the clone or heal tools, the predicted result of the operation is contained inside the circle that are using to define the affected area. You can preview the result and then click with your mouse to apply it. Neat! In addition, the vibrance control from Lightroom and ACR is now available as a Photoshop adjustment.

On the downside, I tried the new transformation function that clones/subtracts out less important parts of the image to shrink or grow it. The controls work fine and the preview looked really good. However, when I tried to apply it, CS4 gave me an "out of memory" error message. I didn't have time to see if closing down some tabs would free up the memory, but be aware that this is a potential issue.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Off on a Photo Workshop

Travel is wonderful in three ways: you get that tingling feeling of anticipation as the months pass by and your trip becomes imminent, then you get to actually experience the trip itself and finally, you get to re-live it as you look at your photos or just sit and daydream in the office.

I've been anticipating a min-vacation for months now and the departure date is now close at hand. Back in March, I enrolled in a photo workshop with Alain Briot. The itinerary sounds mouthwatering:

Friday, October 10th, 2008
We will be meet you in Lone Pine, California in the parking lot of the Best Western Motel at 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time, which is the same time zone as Las Vegas, NV.

On this first day we will start with a workshop orientation and introduce each other. We will then photograph sunset near Lone Pine.

Saturday, October 11th, 2008
We will rise early to photograph the Sierras at Sunrise. After breakfast, we will start on an all day exploration of the Eastern Sierra . We will photograph such famed locations as Mount Williamson, Mount Whiney and Manzanar, and we will also visit the exact place where Ansel Adams created some of his most famous photographs. You will be able to stand where Adams stood and visualize the difference between the scene as it is and the images that he created. We will end our day at a our chosen location where we will photograph sunset. This will be a day to remember. We will spend Saturday night in Bishop.

Sunday, October 12th, 2008
On Sunday we will focus on photographing the Bristlecone Pines near to Bishop. We will spend all day exploring the mountain and the groves where they are located. Sunday will also be print review day. Make sure to bring 4 to 6 prints of your work, 8x10 or larger. Our print reviews are comprehensive and friendly, lasting from 20 to 30 minutes per person. The print review provides a superb opportunity to ask any and all questions about your work. It is also a wonderful opportunity to get feedback on your work, not only from Natalie and I but also from other workshop participants.

Monday, October 13th, 2008
On Monday we will travel from Bishop to Lee Vining. We will photograph along the way, then explore the Mono Lake area in search of a great location for afternoon and sunset photography. We will also continue our print reviews. Sunset will be at Mono Lake and we will be staying in Lee Vining that night.

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008
Tuesday morning will see us return to Mono Lake for sunrise, to a location we will have found and selected the previous evening (we can't find the best location in the dark !). After the shoot is over we will have breakfast in Lee Vining. The workshop concludes in Lee Vining after breakfast, giving everyone plenty of time to drive back.

With any luck, I'll return from the workshop with a better ability to see. I was discussing this goal with a colleague today and used a musical analogy. There are many singers who can read music and belt out a tune, but there are very few who can interpret music in a magical way and convey the emotion of the song. Similarly, there are many photographers, myself included, who know how to point a camera and expose the scene correctly. We may also know how to develop the photo in Lightroom or Photoshop and print the photograph out in a pleasing way. But, this doesn't mean that our images engage the audience in such a way that feelings and emotions are conjured up. My goal is to learn how to make my photographs more transparent so that the viewer can see through the image into the heart of the photographer.

More on this next week when I return.

Monday, October 6, 2008

My Latest Camera

I seem to be developing an alarming predilection for losing small items on airplanes. If you saw my carry-on baggage, it would hardly seem surprising that I shed the occasional bit of plastic because I resemble Mr. Gadget when I go on holidays. Between the music equipment (headphones, Zune portable, various chargers and plugs) and the camera equipment (lenses, bodies, batteries, chargers etc.) there are 'way too many pieces to lose.

Last trip, it was a pair of Mountain Co-op sunglasses that never made it off the plane. I've been punishing myself for my stupidity ever since by wearing a $5 pair of sunglasses that I bought in Australia. The trip before that, it was a Canon S5 point and shoot. Until recently, I was doing without a point and shoot camera, but I missed having a camera with me to pick up those spontaneous shots that come out of nowhere.

I did a little bit of research. I was looking for a camera that shot Raw images, offered lots of manual controls, was fairly small, responsive (especially compared to the Canon S5 predecessor that was a slug), was inexpensive and capable of producing good quality images. The camera that seemed to fit the bill was the Panasonic Lumix dmc-lx2:

This is the silver version - mine is black.

I bought mine used on Craigslist for $300 Cdn. The young man who sold it to me must have imported it from Taiwan because the manuals and the software are Chinese, but other than that, the camera works beautifully. The controls are very intuitive and the big dial on the top is remarkably similar to the ones on my Canon cameras. It has no viewfinder, so it has taken some time to get used to shooting through the rear screen. But, the cool thing about using the screen is that it can show all sorts of useful information superimposed on the image, like ISO, shutter speed, aperture and even the histogram.

One of the neat things about this camera is its panoramic mode. Panasonic makes TV's, so it makes sense that their cameras would follow the same 16:9 format as high definition television. This is the default aspect ratio out of the camera and this really seems to work well for landscapes. For portraits, this isn't as compelling, but there are lots of pixels (10.1 MP), so cropping isn't problematic.

The Leica lens seems to be quite sharp for a compact camera and it has a very useful 28mm equivalent wide angle as well as a good 4x zoom range. There is also "Mega OIS", Panasonic's marketing buzzword for anti-shake and it seems to work very well. My old Canon S5 suffered from the occasional blur caused by hand-shake, but I've not had a single blurry shot out of the first 50 or so with the new camera.

The only knock against the camera is its noise at higher ISO's. Photos are useable out of the camera at ISO 100 and 200, but images taken at 400 and above suffer from the pox. A good dose of Noise Ninja is needed to make them presentable.

All in all, I'm very happy with this camera. I can carry it around in my jacket pocket and be ready whenever that magic picture taking moment arises. I can also attend family functions without looking like the hired photographer. Perhaps the coolest thing of all is that it allows me to lay to rest that oft-repeated phrase "those are great pictures - you must have a very good camera". Now I can reply: "But not at all, these were just taken with a normal point and shoot camera".

At normal sizes (e.g. 8x10) prints from this camera look quite indistinguishable from those taken with my Canon 5d. The white balance is not as reliable, so I often have to correct it in Lightroom, but I'm quite satisfied with the quality of the images. Here are a couple of party snaps of family members taken with the LX2:

Kate and Ben

Steve and Claire

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Canon Used Digital SLR Camera Prices

I've been doing some research on used camera prices. I'm a big believer in buying used cameras - so far, I've bought a Canon 10d, a 20d and a 5d as well as Canon S5 and Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2 point and shoots. Every camera has been sold in its original box and has performed as new right from the start. I've used Craigslist for the most part because I like dealing face-to-face with local people and I really like saving the sales tax by dealing with private parties.

Here are my reasons for buying used:
  • The price is right. Once the newest and greatest is announced, people flood the market with the previous model and the prices sink. For example, the Canon 5d is now selling as low as $1,500 US because everyone wants to generate cash to buy the mk II. There is nothing wrong with a low mileage 5d - it is still a wonderful camera.
  • Canon makes cameras that are built like tanks. I sold my original second-hand 10d to a busy web site and they are still using it 2 years later to take pictures of local restaurants and attractions. For a beginning photographer, a 10d is a viable camera, will last for years and can be had used for $300.
  • The accessories all fit. All those beautiful Canon lenses and flashes will work fine on a lowly Rebel 300D and all the way up the line to the latest and greatest 1ds mark III.
  • You can get lots of goodies thrown in for free. Many people sell extra batteries and CF cards along with the camera. Sometimes, you can get terrific deals on lenses that are included with the camera.
Enough of the sales pitch. Let's have a look at what you have to pay for a used Canon DSLR. These prices are based on a survey of four sites: Adorama's used store, B&H's used store, Craigslist for New York City and eBay. For eBay, I stuck to used equipment with a Buy It Now price. I averaged the prices within these web sites and then took the median price of the four web sites. As you may have deduced, my methods are neither scientifically accurate nor exhaustive, but the prices were surprisingly close from site to site and within each site. The market really does work. One other note: I only priced camera bodies. If the camera came with a kit lens (or any other lens), I ignored it.

Canon Used DSLR Camera Pricing

Category Model Oct-08

Entry-level SLR Canon 300D Digital Rebel $ 250

Canon 350D Rebel XT $ 370

Canon 400D Rebel Xti $ 433

Canon 450D Rebel Xsi $ -

Canon 1000D Rebel XS $ -

Mid-level enthusiast SLR Canon 10D $ 318

Canon 20D $ 469

Canon 30D $ 646

Canon 40D $ 914

Canon 50D $ -

Pro-sumer SLR Canon 5D $ 1,759

Canon 5D mk II $ -

Professional SLR Canon 1D mk II $ 1,928

Canon 1D mk IIN $ 2,700

Canon 1Ds mk II $ 4,024

Canon 1D mk III $ 3,475

Canon 1Ds mk III $ 5,700

Findings and Extrapolations

Here are some things that I spotted:
  • Thanks to the announcement of the 5d mark II, there is a glut of 5d's on the market. Prices are dropping rapidly and you would be wise not to overpay. I'd look for a good low-mileage specimin in the $1,500 range. That's pretty good for a full-frame camera with nearly 13 megapixels and an excellent reputation for good image quality.
  • In the entry-level arena, the XTi looks to be a pretty good deal. You get a 10.1 megapixel camera with a fairly large screen (2.5 inches, 230K) for around $400.
  • The increment between the 20d and 30d never really turned my crank, so I would favour paying $470 for a good 20d over paying $650 for a 30d. If I was an aspiring photographer, I'd also favour the 20d over the XTi. It's a more robust body, although somewhat hampered by its small screen.
  • A Canon 40d can still be purchase new for $970 or so, so $900 for a used model doesn't seem like much of a bargain. Look for this camera to drop in price once the 50d ships in volume and the inventory of new 40d's gets used up.
  • At $1,900, a used 1d mark II at 8.2 megapixels doesn't seem like much of a bargain when you'll soon be able to get a 5d mark II for less than $2,700. If I were a pro and was looking at something that would last and resist obsolescence, the 1d mark II wouldn't be it.
  • There weren't many 1ds mark III's on the market, but the price, at $5,700, is showing some downward pressure from the street new price of $7,500. I suspect the rumored mark IV is starting to get people thinking about selling their mark III's before the price plummets.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

One of My Favourite Photo Books

I went to the theatre last night to see Jersey Boys, the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The show was brilliant, but not everyone's cup of tea. The audience was overwhelmingly of a certain generation - those darned baby boomers. There were boomers of all sizes and shapes roaming the lobby at intermission and it was fascinating to gaze at all that gray hair and chubbiness and reflect on what used to be.

And that brings me to a brilliant photo book: The Sixties by Robert Altman. Here we are in our glory days, with our long hair, sideburns, micro-minis, tight skin, heavy eye make-up and all our idols. Here are Jane and Peter Fonda, Santana, Jess Colin Young, Tiny Tim and the Rolling Stones. In their prime! Jerry Garcia is alive and young. Chuck Berry is duck walking across the stage and Tina Turner is wearing a see-through crocheted outfit.

We are protesting the war - not the current one, but the last one. The one in Viet Nam. We are caring activists, effecting change.

We are going to concerts by the thousands, wearing our afros and cool shades. We are dancing. Naked.

How sad that time changes and we are now old folks milling about the lobby of a ritzy theatre trying to recapture some of those days through the music of The Four Seasons. How lucky we are that Robert Altman was there with his camera to capture us in our prime!