Photography and Art

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Art City Part I

I've had a tremendous amount of fun over the last two Sundays teaching a photography class to 7 students between the ages of 7 and 10. The students were members of Art City, a non-profit storefront art school for the kids of St. Jamestown in Toronto.

I sent out an appeal to all my friends to dust off any digital cameras they had sitting around in drawers and received about a dozen cameras ranging from a Kodak DC-50 of 1997 vintage through to some 3 and 4 megapixel cameras. In all, I was able to donate 10 working cameras to the cause and was able to give each of the students in the class a decent digital camera to use.

I was blown away by how quickly these kids were able to get the hang of these cameras. These kids have grown up in the digital age and they really know their way around tech devices of all shapes and sizes. Pretty soon, they were showing me how to set the cameras up to take movies.

I'd thought about this for a week or so and had prepared a 15 minute talk on the basics of photography (light, subject and composition) complete with illustrations from some good photo books. I used Gaylen Rowell's Mountain Light to illustrate a photographer who placed light above all else. I used the book called Wild, Weird, and Wonderful: The American Circus 1901-1927 as seen by F. W. Glasier, Photographer as an example of a photographer who was obsessed with one subject and I used Ed Burtynsky's book on China to illustrate command over composition. The students were surprisingly attentive and passed the books around with great interest.

After the theory, it was time for practice, so we headed out into the cold winter blast. It was snowing, so the kids had a great time running around taking pictures of the wintery scene. I'd asked them to focus on two things: taking pictures that featured lots of lines (e.g. fence posts, grates, windows) to illustrate how converging lines can be a powerful composition tool and taking pictures of each other. For the most part, the students stuck to the script although the snow started to take a toll on the proceedings as the cameras got wet and started to malfunction. Finally, snow angels won out over cameras and we went back to Art City.

The author poses for portraits

Once indoors, the Art City staff took over the proceedings and organized lots of great photo opportunities. The kids made colourful still life arrangements and took pictures of those. Then we split the group into two with one group modelling for the other. Art City has lots of dress-up clothes, so the kids had a great time modelling crazy fashions. I spent the time either dressing up for the kids or fixing cameras that had mysteriously been set to some very weird combinations of settings.

The models shoot back!

The time flew by and soon it was time to take the cameras back and end the session. I took away the photo cards with every intention of uploading them so the kids could edit them the next week.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Transparent City

Contemporary photography is like modern classical music - much of it leaves me scratching my head in bewilderment, but occasionally something really resonates. Lensculture is showing a gallery of work by Michael Wolfe called The Transparent City that really strikes a chord with me. He uses an extremely high resolution camera (over 100 megapixels) to capture voyeuristic shots of people in Chicago high rises (offices and apartments). The people are caught doing mundane things, like sitting in an office chair thinking or mingling at a cocktail party.

Wolfe does a wonderful job of capturing what it means to be a city dweller in the 21st century and communicates the loneliness, the separation from earthly things and the emotional stress that we all feel acutely at times. I particularly found the isolated, pixelated images that he's cropped out of his large images to be poignant because they capture gesture while preserving anonymity. It's very powerful stuff!

If you live and work in the city, you should spin through these images and reflect on what human life has become and where we are all going.

Monday, January 19, 2009

New Printer and Colour Management Part II

True confessions: I was a colour management hold-out. In theory, I drank the cool-aid, but in practice, I could never bring myself to shell out a couple of hundred bucks and go through the perceived hassle of calibrating my monitor.

All this changed when I got my new Epson 4880 printer. I unpacked the printer, went through the set-up routine and loaded the paper for my first test print. Maybe it was a bad omen that the guy who delivered the printer to my retailer cut his finger badly on the crate it came in, but in a fit of optimism I loaded some nice Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Baryta paper into the printer and let it rip. Not being one to read the manual beforehand (or even to look at the paper tray), I assumed that the paper loaded face-up like my trusty R1800 printer did. After producing a very soft print on the back side of the paper, I realized that the 4880 loads face-down. Doh! I ran the paper through again and the print was very dark.

I went back and checked everything: the driver settings (letting photoshop control the settings), the ICC profile for the paper (Hahnemuhle's profile in this case) and I tried it again with the same result. The only way I could work with this printer was to turn down the brightness on my monitor to 20/100. I could barely see the navigation on Lightroom and Photoshop, but at least my prints were turning out the way I could see them on the screen.

I knew that it was time I profiled my monitor and set up my colour management flow from stem to stern. Surprisingly, I found that the price for a decent monitor calibration product had dropped to less than $100, so it wasn't as painful as it seemed. After reading the reviews on this extremely helpful site, I decided to buy the Colorvision Spyder Express 2, even though there is another good product out there called the Pantone Huey. Both are supposed to be extremely easy to use.

The Spyder2 was an absolute breeze to set up. You just install the software, plug in the device and hang it over your monitor, wait a few minutes while it measures the intensity of various standard colours on your screen and, hey presto, your custom ICC monitor profile is done. It even shows you the before/after shots of a standard image to show you how much your colour rendering has changed.

My "after" image was much warmer than my "before". AND, the new profile matched the intensity of my monitor when it was set to the default factory settings. As a result, I can edit my pix at full intensity and rely on Photoshop to convert the image successfully from my monitor profile to my printer profile.

Why did I wait so long for this? It was such a snap!

If you are dithering about colour management and haven't bought a calibration product yet, what's holding you back? You'll spend 'way more money on waste paper than you will on the calibration device. Trust me!

New Printer and Colour Management Part I

I purchased a new printer just after Christmas. My old printer was an Epson R1800, a perfectly good printer that was bought on Craigslist for $400 and has performed brilliantly for more than two years. I didn't really need a new printer because I seldom print over 18"x12", but I wanted a new printer because some day I'd like to be asked for prints that are larger. Talk about wishful thinking! There was also the issue of ink costs. My R1800 has 16 milliliter tanks that cost over $16, so I'm always buying ink for the thing. The larger Epson printers have larger tanks and manage to lower the cost of ink from over a dollar to around half that. At least, that was my rationalization.

My original intention was to buy an Epson 3800. This is, by all accounts, a fabulous printer that will print 17"x22" cut sheet paper. It uses Epson K3 inks, but not the latest "Vivid Magenta ink technology". The big brother to the Epson 3800 is the Epson 4880. It does use the latest K3 ink technology and also does roll paper, but the 4880 is as big as a small bungalow and is aimed at photo studios with lots of print business.

However, these are strange economic times and we are in a buyers' market. The Epson 4880 carries a rebate offer of $480 that makes it almost as cheap as the Epson 3800. If you factor in that you get 110 ML of ink per tank instead of 80 ML of ink, then the rationalization almost works and you can make up enough bullshit (big rebate, better ink, more ink, cheaper ink, roll paper etc. etc.) to justify the purchase of a printer that is normally out of your league.

In nutshell, I bought the Epson 4880 at a great price from the Computer Consumables Buyers Club and it took three of us to load it into my Subaru. When I got it home, I was able to convince my wife (all 4' 10" of her) to help me unload it as far as the front door. After that, I was on my own and I unpacked the printer from its crate and was able (just) to manhandle it down the basement stairs to my studio. There it sits beside my older R1800, dwarfing it in the process.

You might well ask why I still have the R1800 and not the $250 cash it would bring on Craigslist. Is it sentiment? No, it is all part of the big rationalization. You see, the Epson 4880 can print on matte papers and photo papers, but not at the same time. You must choose to insert the matte black ink or the photo black ink. And, if you change your mind and you need to switch over between one and the other, it will cost you about $75 because all the black ink in the lines gets flushed out! Ouch. I've decided to use the 4880 for photo paper and keep the R1800 for matte.

Imagine my chagrin when I got the printer home, hooked it up to my network (it has a network card in it) and followed the instructions to power it up. The process involves loading the ink lines and guess what: it uses about a third of the ink tanks to do that! My whole rationalization about getting more ink in the 4880 than the 3800 went completely up the spout in the first hour.

Never mind, the story eventually has a happy ending as you'll see in part two where I struggle with colour management.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Lightroom Sharing Saga Final Update

Last night, I spent about $50 on cable and network cards to bring my network up to 1 Gbps. Fortunately, I didn't have to replace my router -- if all the computers in the network are on a Gig switch, the router only handles Internet communications. As a result, I was able to run Lightroom with the catalog mounted on the network drive (using the DOS subst command to get around Lightroom's internal network sensing code). Performance is acceptable.

End of saga (I hope).

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Eastern Light

What is it about the light in photographs shot in places like India and Indonesia? There seems to be a quality in the light that gives images a metallic look to them that is very appealing. At first, based on viewing work by Steve McCurry, I thought it was something unique to him or the film he was using. I rushed out and bought some Kodak Ektachrome, but that golden metallic light wasn't the film's doing. If you want to see what I mean, visit McCurry's site here and navigate to his India gallery.

I was cruising around pbase earlier and found a very nice Indonesia gallery called Eye on Bali by Aloha Diao Lavina. The images in the gallery are quite wonderful and they have that same golden metallic light that shows up in McCurry's work.

Last night, I watched a really good PBS show called The Story of India. The show was beautifully shot and featured lots of great shots of the landscape and the people. And, lo and behold, the light had that same golden metallic quality that I see in McCurry and Lavina's work.

For now, I'm concluding that it is actually something about the light in these climes that produces images with the quality that I really like. There is no way around it -- I'm going to have to go to India and Bali and see for myself...