Photography and Art

Friday, February 20, 2009

Going into Hock for Photo Paper

Photo paper has taken on the role that candy bars used to fill when I was a child. I know it's absurd, but if I had a zillion dollars, I'd spend it on fancy paper. The problem is that photo paper is the second most expensive thing on earth (second only to Epson inkjet ink). Let me share with you some costs:

The papers below are all intended for inkjet printers that use pigment inks. They are semi-gloss papers that are designed to look and feel like traditional fibre-based photographs. They have a high d-max, which is another way of saying that the blacks are deep and the highlights are preserved. These papers are frequently touted for black and white photography, but they make colour photos look good too.

The papers typically have two or three layers. The back layer that makes the medium nice and sturdy is either cotton rag paper or fiber (i.e. cardboard) with the nasty lignins removed. Some papers have a middle layer of baryta (barium sulphate), a stable material that gives the print a nice white background without the need for optical brighteners (OBA's) that can fade over time. The top layer is a transparent material that is designed to receive pigment inks and prevent them from soaking into the paper. Here's the rundown on the papers that I've used. Prices are in Canadian dollars, so divide by 1.25 for USD. I've shown 4 prices per sheet for 8.5x11, 11x17, 13x19 and 17x22. Price per sheet is based on the most economic size.

  • Moab Colorado Fiber Satine - This is a Fiber paper weighing in at 245 GSM. It does not have a baryta middle layer. Prices: $2.40, $3.40, $4.40, $6.00.
  • Ilford Galarie Gold Silk - Gold Silk is a lovely paper with a fiber back and a baryta layer. It isn't OBA-free, but OBA levels are relatively low. This is the value leader by far: $1.00, $2.00, $3.00, $4.00. Note that 11x17 is not available, so the best bet is to buy 50 sheets of 17x22 and cut them in half.
  • Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Baryta - This is my favourite paper. It combines the wonderful feel and longetivity of a cotton rag board with the brightness and gloss of a baryta layer. It's also nice and thick at 315 GSM and has no OBA's. See a review of the paper here. It is not cheap: $2.55, $4.75, $7.50, $9.50
  • Hahnemuhle Fine Art Pearl - FAP has an alpha-cellulose (i.e. cardboard with lignins removed) back with a pearl coating. It produces an elegant result. It's fairly thick at 285 GSM. For some reason, it's even pricier than photo rag baryta: $2.60, $5.50, $8.00, $10.00.
  • Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Pearl - PRP has a cotton rag backing with a pearl finish and weighs in at 320 GSM. It has no OBA's so the paper is warm in tone. Again, this is a lovely paper, but is very pricey: $2.60, $4.70, $6.60, $8.80.
  • Inkpress Pro Baryta Warm Tone - I've only recently tried out a sampler and found the results to be excellent. It's comparable to Ilford Gold Silk. However, I was very disappointed with the pricing: $1.49, $2.99, $3.94, $6.12.

Here's the moral of the story. If you are looking for the best value in this style of paper (i.e. alpha cellulose base and pearl/luster finish), then look no further than Ilford Galerie Gold Silk. It's a wonderful paper at a bargain price.

If you feel queasy about alpha cellulose in terms of longevity and would feel better with a cotton rag base, then Hahnemuhle Photo Rag baryta or Photo Rag Pearl are your choices. Both are over twice the price of Ilford Gold Silk.

Here's a good article summarizing many of the papers in the market.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Canon 5D Mark II Woes

Canon doesn't seem to be getting a lot of respect these days. First, we had the 1d Mark III fiasco where Rob Galbraith took Canon to task for releasing a very expensive camera with a broken autofocus. Next up, we had the tempest in a teapot over the very funny blog site FakeChuckWestfall. Chuck is the top Canon guy in North America and this site, written by a very knowledgeable Canon "fan", takes Canon to task for all its foibles. Canon tried to get the site shut down (showing a little frustration maybe?), but the author made some minor concessions and the site lives on. It's well worth the read for its take on a major camera vendor that is clearly struggling with a resurgent Nikon nipping at its heals.

The woe that currently assails Canon involves the 5d mark II. This is a camera that ought to be receiving rave reviews and, to be fair, it has had its share of praise. However, the camera seems to be prone to issues. First it was little white dots next to dark shadows and banding at high ISO's. Canon issued a firmware fix. Now it seems to be allergic to moisture. In a recent photo workshop to Antarctica attended by many photo luminaries including Jeff Schewe and Michael Reichmann, there were lots of 5d mark II's on the trip and a quarter of them failed in the damp conditions. We're not talking about torrential rain here, just drizzle. it looks like the mist leaks into the camera and plays havoc with the electrics. Perhaps Canon is channeling Lord Lucas, Prince of Darkness, who designed the electrical systems of many English cars and spoiled many holidays.

To cap it all off, Chris Sanderson, the videographer who works with Michael Reichmann, has penned a first impression of the much-touted video capabilities of the camera and has damned it with faint praise. To quote "For video it's a bit of a stretch."

Personally, I never saw the point of adding all that video capability to a still camera. If I wanted a swiss army knife, I'd buy one. Adding these functions to a very good still camera just adds cost and functionality that can break later. If Canon offered a mark II without video for $500 less, I'd be all over it.

Can Canon fix the 5d mark II recover from its damaged reputation? I must admit that there's a certain fascination in watching the titan struggle and if the price of the mark II dropped as a result of these early teething problems, that wouldn't hurt either.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Joys of Winter Photography

I really like taking photographs in the winter. The light, especially in the morning and evening, can be lovely and reflections on ice and snow give it a whole new dimension. Sunrise and sunset are closer to the middle of the day, so you don't have to get up at 5 am to photograph a sunrise. The best part about winter photography is the distinct lack of crowds. You rarely meet tourists in Toronto and vicinity in January and photographers are even rarer.

I just posted a tryptych of winter sunrise photographs in Pbase and here's brief description of the circumstances:

Sunrise on Lake Ice - Haliburton

We were spending New Year's at our cottage near Haliburton, about 150 miles north of Toronto. It was bitterly cold, but the sky was clear and I awoke to find a lovely golden glow on the horizon. I grabbed my camera, put on my woolies and walked along the frozen shore of the lake until I came to a spot that had some interesting rocks and ice in the foreground. I waited patiently for the sun to rise above the horizon and took this shot with a wide angle lens (17-40 mm) and lots of depth of field. The wide angle lens caused the sun ray effect. I did a bit of post-processing in Lightroom to bring out the reflections in the ice.

Sunrise - Shore of Lake Ontario

It was one of the coldest mornings of the year. The thermometer said -20 C and the wind was whipping. But, the sun was shining and as I made my way down the Don Valley Parkway on the way to work, I noticed a bank of clouds over the lake to my south. Thinking that there might be some interesting mist rising from the lake, I drove into the Toronto Harbour disctrict and went to the beach at the end of the harbour road. As you can see, there were interesting ice formations on the shore as well as a bank of clouds and mist sitting over the lake. On this shoot, I had the company of another photographer. He was dressed in a full snowmobile suit and I was in a leather jacket and light pants, so he was obviously better prepared. We both waited for the sun to rise and illuminate the clouds. He was comfortable, I was frozen, but we both waited patiently. The sun rose as expected and the clouds lit up. I snapped a couple of hurried shots with a wide angle lens and lots of depth of field and ran as fast as I could back to my car to try to get some circulation into my frozen fingers.

Sunrise - Farmer's Field near Collingwood

This past week-end, we were skiing in Collingwood, a small town two hours north-west of Toronto. Saturday was very cold and windy, but the forecast for Sunday was for clearing skies and warmer weather. I woke around 7 and put on my full ski gear in anticipation of a photo opportunity. On our way back from town the previous afternoon, I'd spotted a farmer's field with straw bales sitting out in the snow. It presented a rather forlorn scene raising the question as to why the farmer hadn't had time to take in the bales. I drove out to the field in the morning, put on my show shoes after parking in a nearby laneway and walked out to the field. The wind was howling and snow was blowing all around. My footprints were covered in almost as soon as I'd made them. Fortunately, the temperature was up around the freezing mark or I would have packed it in. I waited among the bales for the sun to illuminate the clouds and the snow. It didn't break through the clouds until much later, but it did light up the sky with a lovely morning glow. This scene was also captured with my wide angle lens. I used my new portable grey card (attached to my key ring) and it showed that the dawn light temperature was 12,000 - a value that I'd never have chosen unless I'd had the grey card for evidence. I also used the gradient adjustment in Lightroom to add some saturation to the sky and to bolster the whiteness of the snow. This is exactly as I remember the scene.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Art City Part II

Art City Toronto Storefront
I was feeling a bit worried about the second part of my photo class with the students of Art City. In my previous post, I described how I'd volunteered to teach digital photography to a small group of kids from Toronto's St Jamestown district. We had a great time shooting indoors and outdoors using some cameras donated by my friends and I'd taken all the cameras and photo cards home to figure out how we would complete the digital darkroom part of the class.

Still Life
Deborah Harding, who runs Art City, had found a computer lab in a housing cooperative down the street that the students could use, but I didn't have the money to buy a copy of Photoshop for 7 students, so I was looking for some digital darkroom software that was easy to use as well as cheap (or even free). That's when I discovered If you haven't checked this out, it is really worth your while. Adobe has created a free photo sharing web site that has an excellent photo editor as part of the package. If you are on the look-out for photo editing software for someone who isn't particularly handy with computers, is just perfect.
Student Photographer
It allows you to do all the usual editing stuff (exposure, brightness, saturation etc.) with a very easy interface. For example, if you pick the exposure control from the menu, you are presented with a little slide show of examples of your image in a variety of exposures ranging from dark to light. You mouse over the thumbnails and your image changes to the exposure of the thumbnail. When you see the exposure you like, you click on the thumbnail and the image changes.

I set up 9 accounts on (one for each of the cameras that we used in the workshop) and uploaded all the photos that we had taken.

When the kids showed up on Sunday, we hiked down to the computer lab and I showed them how to sign into and let them get on with editing their photos. They were asked to focus on developing two or three of their best shots that I would print out for them.

Little did I know that had just released a beta of a photo decoration feature that allows you to decorate your images with clip art. One of the kids discovered this feature and from that point on, the class took on a whole new dimension. The Art City students had a wonderful time putting little animals and captions on their photos and the afternoon passed very quickly.
Photo with Decorations
The kids all managed to prepare 3 or 4 excellent photos and enjoyed themselves immensely. I was able to download the photos and printed them off during the following week. I heard that the plan for the next Sunday was to build picture frames for the photos.

All in all, this was a wonderful experience and Deborah and I have decided to have a repeat class in the spring where we'd visit the zoo and take pictures of the animals.