Too much information

The digital world is all about information.  Everywhere you turn it’s being talked about – too much, not enough, right, wrong, incomplete.  Granted, most of the time pundits are only talking about data instead of information but the buzz is ongoing and probably won’t stop until everything is available at all times.  By then we’ll have browsers imbedded in our brains and voices in our heads will not be a sign of mental illness.  For all that data and information we probably will think we’re smarter but really we’ll just be more informed about tidbits of lesser and lesser significance to our daily lives.

Digital photography is the same.  Each little bit of visual data brings something to the desired outcome and demands to be controlled, manipulated or processed, usually many times over.  These little digital puzzle pieces and their seemingly infinite forms of assembly are what makes photography fun, intriguing, mysterious and available to just about everyone.  How else would the world find itself the stage for millions of tweeted, facebooked, vimeo-ed and youtubed images ranging from mundane to original art?

Even using film these days gets one embroiled in the digital world because sharing the results (and isn’t that what photography is all about these days?)  means converting from the continuous analog world of silver halide crystals and dye clouds to the finite, discrete digital piecework now known as social photography.  Previously you’d need to visit a gallery or a photographer’s studio to gaze on an image, and then take that memory with you to be imperfectly explained to any interested person you encounter.  Now, having the global population gaze on our work is merely a few clicks away from implementing.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m fully supportive of the new technologies as evidenced by the numerous images found on this site.  As much as the next person I appreciate the ease of showing off the product of my efforts and gleaning comments that encourage me to continue.  Those efforts, however, are starting to run up against the huge amount of data generated by trying to connect with the digital world.

I’m talking about film.

It started for me with scanning 35mm slides, usually only to a size that would merit a 4×6 print.  Venturing much beyond that size was a journey I was opposed to given the quality I felt the images represented.  It was this search for clearer, cleaner, sharper images that moved me to medium format and large format film.  All well and good – the images started looking better – until pixels started piling up.

On a recent trip out west I hauled along my large format camera, stock with 5×7″ and 4×5″ color slide film.  It was the bigger size I was aching to work with – so much more real estate over the “puny” 4×5″ sheets I’d been learning to use.  Although my exposure calculations continue to be pretty close, I still awaited the processed slides with trepidation.  Did I waste my time and materials just to get bigger images?

Doesn’t seem that way at first.

Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe, Fuji Velvia 100, 120mm, 1/15 sec., f/45

Lake Tahoe from Highway 431 overlook, Fuji Velvia 100, 120mm, 1/15 sec., f/45

Nonetheless, right off the bat I can tell you these two images, shown on whatever expensive monitor you’re using, do not present the full experience of seeing the slides on a light table.  On my laptop the colors are muted, there is banding in the sky, and the sharpness is less than what you can see on the slides with the naked eye.  I’m still learning how to scan these large images and preserve as much of the original impact as possible.  Experts write this can only be done through high resolution drum scanning (I’m using an Epson V700 flatbed, scanning at 300 ppi for the size I want, which for these is about 14×20″) and perhaps one day I will have an image that justifies that exercise.  For now my greatest challenge is managing the digital information, of which there seems to be almost more than I can handle.

I fully expect to improve my scanning technique.  Call it ego but some of these images are just too pretty to keep to myself.

Each of these image files is about 150 Mb in size, which seems reasonable (Photoshop on a Mac can open a 2 Gb file) until you start processing the images.  That’s quite a few pixels to manipulate for anything you want to do.  There’s lots of noise in these images because I didn’t run the noise reduction program – would take too long for such quick scans.  They aren’t as sharp as they could be – again, would take too long.  I could scan at a higher resolution (my scanner goes to 4800 ppi optically) but I’ve found little increase in sharpness or color rendering, just humongous file sizes.  There literally is just about too much data (or information as digital engineers would say) to handle.  Yeah, a faster computer with more memory could deal with it but one isn’t sitting on my desk right now so I got what I got.

Amazingly, this was never a problem in the darkroom.  A direct contact print of these slides, where the physical film is placed on a piece of photography paper, exposed and developed, would preserve the vast majority of detail and, with proper filters and developing, maintain the colors just as the original slide portrayed them.  No darkroom expert would dream of worrying about “too much information” because the analog tools being used were at least in a 1:1 relationship – the final image would contain exactly all the information found in the original image.

No, you can’t post a contact print on Facebook without going through the digital conversion.  But it makes you start wondering just why are we making all these images in the first place?  Are we reveling in our documentarian side that insists on sharing our world with everyone?  Are we using them as examples in some lessons about life we feel required to share?  Are we simply showing off – I was here, I did this, ain’t I great?

Don’t have a good answer; I struggle with the question for myself quite a bit, oddly more as I get better at the whole photography thing.  I do enjoy the technical challenge of trying to convert an analog object into a digital signal while preserving the original as best possible.  But beyond that, I’m not sure what the objective might be right now.  Business?  Perhaps.  Simple pleasure of doing it?  There’s quite a bit of that here for me.  Wrestling with the digital demon to declare triumph of man over machine?  I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

In the meantime I still hold the two technologies in different baskets.  Digitally I get instant gratification but I’m linked to some secondary means of seeing the results, some tool that contributes I don’t know what bias to the image.  On film, I look at the original and gaze without other influences on the magic of chemistry and art melded together for the purpose of…..

One day I’ll know.

 

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An eagle’s eye

Any article about eagles usually contains some description of how amazing their eyesight is compared to we mere humans.  The science of their visual system is pretty straightforward, the result of evolution leading to sharp-eyed survivors over the millennium.  What is not so easy to grasp is what it’s like to live in such a world.  What if you could read newspapers at a mile away?  How would that influence your relationship with reality all around  you?

I was watching a webinar today about panoramic landscape techniques and the instructor was showing off his digital medium format camera, one of the benefits being more information collected that can become greater resolving power in the image.  As an example he used a photograph he’d made at Yellowstone, a version of which I made as well (along with hundreds of other people since Artist’s Point is one of the most popular spots after Old Faithful).

To show off the resolving power of his camera he zoomed in on the top of the waterfall to show there are people standing at another overlook.  It was impressive for those of us who are wow-ed by resolving power.  But it got me to thinking – when I made the above image I didn’t notice that overlook or any people there.  Did I miss something while standing there?  The above image is from a 4×5″ slide I made with my view camera so I put the film back into my scanner, highlighted the area around the falls and scanned at 6400ppi.  And I found this.

How about that – there are people there all the time as well.  I would have never noticed that.  It’s a little grainy but keep in mind this is an enlargement of about 1% of an image taken from 1/2 mile away.  I really need to stop worrying about focus on my view camera….

The point of this is not to show off my Yellowstone photo or impress with the resolving power of the lens, but rather to think about the kind of world an eagle lives in.  In their world the people standing on this overlook 1/2 mile away are very apparent.  As is every detail between the overlook by the falls and Artist’s Point.  All the rocks, pine needles, waves in the water – everything is apparent.  Sure, their visual system is impressive for resolving power but think about what their mind has to do in order to sort through all those details to identify the few truly important ones – fish surfacing in the stream, deer carcass in the next valley over, mate sitting in nest in a distant tree or outcropping.  That’s pretty impressive.

And that’s for a predator.  Our evolutionary relatives were probably more in the prey category, benefiting from our binocular vision to tell not necessarily what something in the distance could be but rather which way is it going – toward me or away from me.  The eagle needs sharp eyesight to find specific food; we apparently only need to be able to gauge how far away.

What would our lives be like to have an eagle’s perception?  We think multi-tasking makes life complicated at times with all the different inputs to be sorted and dealt with but what if we had to process every little detail?  Would that be a blessing or a curse?  Or just an episode of the Twilight Zone?

Would it affect our personal relationships if we picked up every little tic of people around us?  Would highway accidents decrease if we could see problems that far ahead of us?  Would we finally be able to see the trees instead of the forest?

The adjustment from regular to HD TV has been interesting as consumers now get movie quality pictures in their homes.  And one comment I’ve read about the new iPad3 screen is the resolution is so much greater that pictures formerly looking pretty good are now rather not-sharp.  So, technology may be answering my question as we continue to enhance our ability to see more around us.  Certainly the history of such changes reveals as more is provided, more will be demanded.  But at what point will our brains cry “enough!” as the visual stimulus builds?

More fun with old stuff

Continuing my work on Kodachrome film that was developed as B&W negatives I realized the traditional sharpness and detail of the film when processed as slides was not going to be equally apparent after this alternative process.  I’m sure there’s a really good technical reason why but I don’t know it and probably wouldn’t understand it.  So, you work with the materials you’re given.

Besides, this takes away my temptation to render all my B&W images as shades of grey.  In many of the images I got back the blacks are pretty solid with no detail and the highlights can be the same.  Why not work with that.

Here I tried to return some of the color I remember to the benches while maintaining the rest as monochrome (the original is all B&W – this is a Photoshop effect).

For this one I wanted the shadows to drive the viewer’s eye to the flower, where I attempted to recover some of the detail in the original image.

The original image was soft and it turns out the best feature is the way the light wraps around the subject while the fence remains black and the background featureless.  I left the wash streak on the left side because it just seemed to compliment the B&W effect.

I’d forgotten about making these images one day and now the idea of putting them together just seemed right to go along with the irony of the subject matter.

Odd that a film that for 75 years was just about the standard for color photography has suddenly become an experimental medium.  There  remain sellers of Kodachrome on eBay and I might pick some up to continue playing around.  I’d love to hear from anyone else who is continuing this tradition.

Visual Textures

 

Kodak Portra 400VC scanned as B&W, Mamiya 6MF, 50mm, f/32, 1/60 sec

Some B&W film is pretty contrasty as it is intended to give inky blacks and brilliant whites.  I prefer a less stark look to my monochrome images so I play around with scanning color negatives as B&W, finding the conversion of colors into tones gives more of the look I find pleasing.  Yeah, I could find different B&W films or make adjustments in my scanner to give this look but this is more fun.  Besides, it makes me compose with an eye for tones rather than colors and I think getting better at that will pay dividends later for my color photography.

I continue going back to this local lake they are draining to kill off an invasive mussel species because there’s so many interesting elements being revealed as the water, and now the snow, recedes.  This play on textural contrasts interested me.  The granular nature of the stones in the foreground against the smoother look of the ice behind kept drawing my eye.  Wish there had been some big puffy clouds in the sky as a reward for your eye moving from front to distant back but none in attendance on this day.  The faster speed film giving some grain in the sky along with a little vignetting in the corners do keep the upper part of the image from being too boring, though.  I enhanced the local contrast of the distant hillsides on each side of the ice to show off their texture as well, although on the screen they seem too far away to really contribute to the image.  The main feature I keep coming back to, however, is the line of rocks across the center of the image acting as a transition between the coarse foreground and the smoother background.  And of course it’s hard to ignore the stumps in the lake, dark trunks against the bright ice surface.  Almost like skiers gliding away from the camera as they curve down a slope.

A little more about B&W photography can be found here,  If you’re interested in converting some of your digital images to B&W here is a place with some starting information.

What’s your tone?

Kodak TMax 100, 75mm, 1/250 sec, f/16, Mamiya 6MF

As I continue learning the nuances of B&W, both digital and film, I’m realizing I have a bias for the look of an image, a bias that is getting in the way of my expectations.  After looking at some scans with default settings versus manual settings, I’ve found my bias is toward lower contrast, more evenly toned images.  I didn’t notice this with digital because my exposures are pretty much that coming out of the camera but when I started scanning some higher contrast films, like TMax, and watched myself making changes to the scanner settings, I see how I’m pushing the tone curve together, eliminating the deep blacks and bright whites.

Why?

Don’t really have a clue.  All the experts in this field continually point out the value of some deep black and bright white in an image, something to give the viewer a frame of reference for the endpoints in the tonal range.  Seeing my bias now I realize why I keep getting frustrated at the “flatness” of my B&W images – there’s no wide range of tones and thus low contrast between dark and light areas.  Especially at edges, where depth is created with skillful control of the dark to light transition.  Perhaps my bias comes from using slide film for so long and trying hard to fit the exposure of a scene into the narrower dynamic range of transparencies.  At least I’ve recognized this aspect and can now take more effort to connect my artistic expectations with my technical application.

It appears my scanner is smarter than I am about this.  Perhaps I’m putting too much thought into trying to be more skillful than the machine.  A photographer I talked with today made the point we need to be skillful enough to get the most out of our tools – camera, lens, film, sensor, scanner, printer, etc. – before we seek more sophisticated (and expensive) ones in the belief they will magically improve our images.  Wise words.  I don’t believe I’m threatening the capabilities of my tools so there’s some road left for this part of my journey.

Converging film and digital

I wasn’t so into film photography when I was younger that I had a darkroom and played around with various processing chemistries or running different films through alternate developers.  Read a lot about it and looked at pictures coming from experimenters in the area, but it just seemed like more than I wanted to devote to photography at the time.  After all, I was just interested in clear documentation of scenes, sites and vacations, not creating unique art to stand out from a crowd or fulfill some inner vision I had of a scene.

Now digital comes along and suddenly I have tools that make this “playing around” easy, mouse clicking easy actually.  Want to see what an image would look like were it a print negative processed like slide film?  There’s an app for that.  Want to see if a duotone would improve the look of an image?  Click on a button.  Wow, in seconds I can take advantage of knowledge built over decades by photographers and technicians patiently developing film and recording the results for posterity.  Playing around with all these tools suddenly makes me appreciate the old-fashioned photographer working in a darkroom as chemist and physicist.

Reminds me of my college French classes.  I learned more about English language use and construction while suffering through French than I did in many years of pre-college education.  Oh, so that’s what an indirect object is and how it’s used and why it’s necessary for a sentence to be comprehensible.  Wow, I really wasn’t paying attention in high school, was I?

The point of this is while scanning some negatives lately I came across a set that looked like color print film but didn’t really have much contrast or color, just the orange-ish colored mask.  It was a roll of film someone gave me to play with and when I checked the film designation I found it is Kodak Portra 400VC, a film designed to deliver vivid color (VC) in subdued or flat light.  Which, as it turns out, were the conditions I shot it under but since the images in the negative weren’t screaming COLOR to me I decided to scan it as a B&W film.  You can do that – any film will scan as B&W, even slide film.

What I got was very interesting.  Maybe it was the film or maybe the location and type of light but I found the images to have great shadow detail and soft contrast in the harder light areas.  This image lent itself easily to adjustments with NIK filters and I ended up with a nice, subdued, sort of tranquil scene.  Which is why I made this picture in the first place but this isn’t the version I had in mind at the time.

Or maybe it was because this image certainly gives me the sense of place I had while standing there on the river’s edge.

Now I see why some film photographers were always playing around with alternate film stocks and developers.  First of all it’s fun, and second you sometimes get something that you wouldn’t have seen through the viewfinder at the time.  It’s still the image, but it’s a personal slant on the image through the miracle of chemistry.  Or in my case, the miracle of not knowing what conditions the film is suited for combined with computer technology.  Going backwards in photo technology time means I’ll be relying on serendipity quite a bit as I push buttons and pull sliders around.