Friday, March 29, 2013

Catching Light

Frozen Land and Rays of Light

I have to say I'm finding it very difficult to stay committed to picture-making these days. It has been one of the cruellest months of March that I can recall, and I'm glad it's coming to a sweet end on Easter day, when finally there is some warm sunny weather in the forecast. Not to mention that my so called Canadian ruggedness to brave the elements has been seriously cut down by the fact that I've had a miserable cold all month.

But enough moaning. The weather is finally turning, and I'm starting to feel better. I will soon be out enjoying the click of my shutter(s) again. Meanwhile, I'm going back to a picture I did over a year ago, in the dead of winter, when this kind of weather is at least appropriate, and therefore to be enjoyed. I was using the EOS 40D at the time, well before it broke. It was a great picture maker, considering it's vintage - a DSLR over five years old is considered ancient, given all the "progress" that modern digital cameras are undergoing  year after year. This particular shot is one that I had set aside as having some potential, but I am only now getting back to it.

As I was working it up in Photivo, it dawned on me (again) just how dark and lifeless this scene was, out of the camera. I finally gave in to the plain truth  that a digital camera is in fact, a computer with a lens on it, and it is only capable of doing exactly what you're telling it to do. In this case, I was using Aperture Priority with Evaluative Metering (as I usually do), which is an automatic exposure mode which is meant to provide the best overall exposure throughout the entire scene. In this scene, I was shooting directly into some very glorious natural outdoor lighting, and I had yet to learn that when using a computer with a lens on the front, you cannot rely on the computer's evaluative metering to make the right evaluations. So, naturally, the computer measured most of the light as being concentrated in the clouds and atmospheric sun-rays, and set the exposure for the entire scene based on that. I've finally learned that "evaluative metering" does not necessarily evaluate the entire scene coming at it through the lens. No. Rather, it evaluates the sum-total of the light in the entire scene, regardless of where that light is located, and then compensates the overall exposure to fit within the dynamic range of the computer's image sensor, resulting in this:

JPEG Straight Out Of Camera

You can see exactly why I decided to set this one aside - this should've been a good picture straight out, and if I had been using a real camera, and not a computer with a lens, it would've been glorious. But instead, all the computer with a lens managed to do was "evaluate" the rays of light in a way it deemed to be correctly, and then compensate the rest of the scene to suit the limits of it's image sensor. A true camera (the kind you put film into) would've managed this differently, because it doesn't have to make decisions based on such limits. Film, especially modern print film, is extremely generous with light range, and the built in metering does not "evaluate" or make decisions. It doesn't have to, nor does it even know how to - in a real camera, there is no such thing as "evaluative metering". Rather, it simply sets a shutter speed that is appropriate to the amount of light the lens aperture is letting into the camera as measured in the middle of the frame, and that light, all of it, gets "captured" by the film. I've proven this to myself time and time again, and is the biggest reason I've come to prefer film cameras.

How then did I manage to get the almost acceptable result as seen in the top picture? I did it with lot's of post-processing of the RAW file. Just a reminder for those who may be new to my Blog - I almost always set my DSLR to RAW + JPEG. On rare occasions when the JPEG comes out OK, I just go with it, but more often than not, I have to post-process the RAW file with my computer (that is, the big box with the keyboard and mouse attached, not the computer with a lens on it, more commonly called a digital camera.) The RAW file contains all the data about the picture - it's not really a finished picture file. It can only be "seen" by a computer, which in turn does you the courtesy of providing you with a preview of what the final result would look like once you convert it into a standardized graphic (picture) file. The saving grace of RAW Data Files is that every bit of data they contain can be changed - and because they are from 12 to 16 bit uncompressed files, as opposed to JPEG's compressed 8-bit, there is far more adjustment capability contained in a RAW file. Essentially, having a RAW file at hand allows you to completely re-expose a picture using your big computer, after it was taken with your little computer with the lens on the front. In the case of this shot, here's what I did, using "Photivo" (which is a free Opensource "clone" of Lightroom):

  • Brighten the shot by two full stops, using the Reinholdt algorithm, but with a "film curve" turned on so as to not blow out the highlights (I always use Reinholdt because it has some smarts built into it; I find it far better than merely turning the EV up)
  • Increase the Gamma, to get rid of that hazy cast, and increase overall contrast
  • Compress the Dynamic Range, which is actually a means of "fooling" the picture data into allowing what is perceived by the human eye as a wider range from the lightest to the darkest values
  • Everything I've mentioned so far creates noise in the image, seen as "speckles", because it's all trickery, and noise is the price that is paid for it. The software gives you several options of noise reduction, which really only give you plenty of ways to "smudge" the pixels together. The noise I had generated so far wasn't too bad, so I opted out of Noise Reduction
  • Sharpen the picture by applying "local contrast" as needed. Local contrast, as opposed to overall contrast, actually increases the contrast at a micro level, between one pixel and each of it's neighbouring pixels. It can selectively be applied to shadows, mid-tones and / or highlights. I think in this case I did it to the shadows and highlights, leaving the mid-tones alone.

There might have been a couple of other minor tweaks I applied, but I don't remember everything I did.

I should point out that I actually enjoy post-processing, but there's quite a learning curve to doing it. I'm teaching myself through experimentation - what works for me may not be the same as what works for you. Experimentation and observation is my learning style - the downside of it is that you are left with a lot of holes in your knowledge, because after a few tries you tend to gravitate only toward what works best for you. and don't bother learning the other stuff. If you'd rather learn from someone else, there are plenty of online tutorials, or local Photoshop and Lightroom classes. Another way of getting the results you want is to use a real camera - that is, shoot film. You can then avoid most, if not all of the post-processing required to make a picture look great.

Making a great picture, whether through Photography or Painting, is all about creating contrasts - the capture of light versus non-light, or the interesting contrasts that are visible within nice textures. Sometimes, a computer with a lens on it doesn't do this very well, unless you know how to program it to suit the scene you're shooting. Real (film) cameras do a much better job of it of course, but it is just as much an "art" to use a digital camera, and make those programming choices both before and after the fact.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Another New Cheapo Lens

"Merlin" EOS 600D, ISO 1600 With Cosina 50mm f1.4 @ f1.4

I made another Thrift Store purchase yesterday. For $20 I got a Cosina 50mm f1.4 Manual Focus K-Mount lens, complete with a hopelessly broken Cosina CT-1 camera. The whole rig is cheap plastic, which Cosina was known for in the 1980's, but the price was right, especially for a lens as fast as this. For Newbies, "fast" means it has a very wide Aperture, represented by a low numeric value. For instance, my fastest 50mm before this purchase is a Pentax Takumar with f 2. This one is f 1.4. Typically, a lens with a maximum aperture of f 1.4 is almost as good as it gets, although in the Leica Rangefinder world, there are some f 1.2, and even a f 0.95, which is absolutely a big as it gets. But you never pick up this kind of thing in a Thrift Store for $20. These would sell for $2000 if you're lucky.

Alright, so this is a Cosina plastic bodied lens, not highly regarded. But how does it perform? I would expect it has Multi-Coated glass optics, and indeed it is marked "MC" on the front - so that's gotta be good.

I snapped a few cat photos this morning with the aperture wide open. Of course there's no auto-focus, but I do have a "chippped" K-Mount to EOS Aapter, which means there is electronic communication with the camera body for exposure and focus. It provides automatic exposure for Aperture and Shutter Priority shooting, and more importantly, it enables the focus sensor, so that as you're manually turning the focus ring, the camera will beep and show the green focus dot, as well as the red cross-hairs in the Canon EOS camera viewfinder. This set-up, with "chipped" lens adapters works with ALL Canon EOS cameras, both film and digital. It's fantastic to have, and once you get confident with it, I would say that focus can be achieved manually almost as quickly as you can get Auto-Focus.

With cats, you have to be fast, and with "Merlin" above, one focus point lit up just ahead of his upper ear. As you can see, that zone of the picture is sharp, and the rest of it is soft. But I'm happy enough with it.

For Newbies again - recall that the bigger your Aperture setting (smaller numeric value), the less of the picture will be in focus from back to front, especially at close range. I could've gotten Merlin's whole head in focus by stopping the Aperture down to f4, but this was intended as more of a lens test to see what this lens looks like wide open - and it is quite good. Here are a couple of other cats:

"Brother Cadfael" ISO 6400, f1.4, (very low light)
Notice here the sharpest zone is across the bridge of Cadfael's nose; the rest of his body is much softer

"Larry"  ISO 1600, f 1.4
Again, we have sharp around the forehead and ears, but the rest is softer. As this shot was taken a bit farther away, a little more of his head is actually in focus. That's how wide apertures work -  the farther away from you are from your subject, the more in-focus the shot will be from back to front.

Conclusion - Focus is a bit soft overall, but this is true of any lens when used wide open. I'm looking forward to trying some night-time street shooting with this lens - that's what it's made for.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Exporting Cheese (From GIMP)

Things are always changing. Lately, I've been less active as a "photographer", I think because of the horribly cold, dreary spring we're entering into - it's just not very inspiring out there right now. Nonetheless, as I've been spending more time in study of my Christian faith, and considering a move to Orthodoxy, I've also been silently active in making pictures with the very cheap Canon BF-10 35mm camera, as well as my Smartphone. These are all experimental diversions (including the Orthodox Christian part), and through all of it, I'm discovering more and more that it is pictures that I'm fond of, not "photography". Confused? Don't worry, so am I. But instead of running from confusion, I prefer to embrace it, because confusion can often lead to a great leap in self discovery.

So what does all this have to do with cheese and GIMP? Well, aside from sounding like a great recipe, it's everything to do with how every shot I took with that Canon BF-10 turned out to be a tosser, but I was able to turn them all into total picture magic with GIMP. Once again, I leaned heavily on the Lomo Filter ("Filters > Light and Shadow > Lomo..."), but this time did a lot more experimenting with the sliders and settings within the filter. This way, I was able to rescue 16 of the 24 pictures on the roll that came out of this crappy little camera. Some of them are here, and here are some more:

Yet, it all sort of leaves me with a strange sense of floating and drifting. Although these are photographs, this is not photography. And although I used digital fakery to create a "Lomo look", this is not Lomography. And although I used film as my medium, it was all no good until I applied the fakery.

I'm guessing that Lomography is close to what I'm about, yet not quite. Here's a definition that I can really relate to:

Pictures are what Lomography is all about. Nothing compares to the feeling of visually diving into a pool of shining, new, sweet-smelling lomographs. My pictures, your pictures, pictures of the world, pictures of fleeting moments, secret passions, boring, brou-ha, left toes, blurred nothings. Simply everything. Lomography collects, treasures and presents all of this.

That's what I'm trying to say. I love to sit and stare at pictures just as much as I love making them. I also love the "cheese" aesthetic that I used to see as a child looking at my Mom's family photos she took with her Bakelite Kodak Brownie. I also love the huge chronicle of pictures taken by the not so good photographer Charles Cushman. My eye is drawn to the "not so good" just as much as it is turned off by the "professional". Yet, unlike with Lomography, I do not use toy cameras, and I do take pictures using my viewfinder; I do insist on some semblance of composition. Light and texture mean everything to me, and if a picture is lacking in both of these, I consider it a lost effort. I once was a very active painter, as I've mentioned here before, and my use of a camera goes way back to when I used my Spotmatic for the sole purpose of collecting material to include in a painting - my way of "sketching" as it were. Now I simply use cameras,  instead of brushes and canvas to make my pictures.

So there you have it - my philosophy has grown into this: "cheese is good", and the GIMP Application has a huge variety of great ways to import a bad photograph and export it as a great picture.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

How Bad Can It Get?

Fixed Focus 26mm Lens Film Compact

I bought this last year for $3.99, and have just gotten round to putting a film through it. I thought maybe the extra wide 26mm lens might be of decent enough quality to be useful... boy was I wrong! I tried it with Fuji Superia 800 film, which is actually tricking it out, because the camera is designed to accommodate ISO 400 maximum. This would be a good thing for night shooting, as long as the exposure meter attempts the shot at it's maximum opening for 400, this would add more light on the ISO 8000 film. This trick appears to have worked, but although low light exposures were great, the overall results were poor.

Well, sometimes bad is good - that's what Lomography is all about, right? Correct, but with this camera and film, bad is just plain bad - straight from the camera, Lomophiles wouldn't be interested I don't think.

A few examples:

Way too much blue cast - this house is a dark neutral gray... but...

Even bad pictures can be saved - how about a spooky B&W, except for the light in the window...

Or warm things up a bit with a GIMP Fake Lomo treatment...

Next, let's see how the Superia 800 fared in strong daylight. First, a picture straight from the camera, scanned with my Epson V500:

Very strong sunlight made for a very bright exposure, but film by nature is very forgiving...

I was able to save it with G'MIC Psuedo Grey and some added contrast.

I'll show just one more of the strong daylight shots, in which the film speed caused a stop of overexposure -

Again, strong light overexposure straight from the scanner...

... But with G'MIC Boost/Fade, I was able to make it more interesting.

The Boost'Fade, somehow made the colours more natural, and the overall visibility within the picture much better.

Finally, a bit of added contrast helped correct the exposure problem.

I think that for those who say "it's not about the equipment, it's the photographer", there is a point at which this is no longer true. Certain cameras become unusable - you would not be able to take a good photograph with a camera that falls below a certain quality point. The lens in this little Canon BF-10 is just plain bad. So also is the Industar-61 that I have on my FED-5. But there is a tremendous difference - the Industar 61 is "charmingly bad", and I love it; what it lacks in quality it makes up for in character. This Canon BF-10, however, is of bad quality, and it can only be redeemed by using digital effect filters to add some character. It is not worthy as a Lomography camera - but it's still possible to use digital "Lomo faking" to save the day. 

Under the topic of junk store camera shopping, this shows that buying old film cameras, especially the plastic compacts, is a real crap-shoot. I love my Pentax Zoom-90 I bought for $6.99. It always amazes me, and it is one of my best cameras for picture quality. But for a meagre $3.00 less, the Canon BF-10 really falls below the line. If you're not into film at all, the best bet by far these days is the camera in your Smartphone. Typically equipped with a fixed wide angle lens, and sheer simplicity, there are similarities comparing the Smartphone camera to a plastic film compact - but when it comes to picture quality, the Smartphones are simply amazing, given the extreme miniaturization to which they're built. I was expecting the Canon BF-10 to be at least as good, but not so - a big thumbs down. If you keep your eyes open, you can do much better for still under $10.00

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Linux Has Hundreds of New Filters!

G'Mic Mirror Array Effect

If you like playing around with Digital Photo Filters, have I got something for you! Although it's been around for awhile, it has just had a major upgrade, adding hundreds of new filter effects. It's called G'mic, which is short for "Grey-C's Magic for Image Computing". Strange name I know, but appropriate, as it can take you into a wonderfully strange world with your images. It is developed under the Opensource license (Linux), which means it can be had for free, and is in fact, normally installed as a single plug-in for GIMP, which you should know by now, is fully platformed for Linux, Windows and Mac Operating Systems. I have frequently mentioned GIMP as an Opensource alternative for Photoshop, and now, with the full extended package of GIMP and G'MIC combined, it's even more compelling.

GIMP is capable of doing most of the things you've learned to do in Photoshop, breaking your images down into Layers and Channels, along with hundreds of special effects. G'MIC just added hundreds more, to truly bring out the artist in you. Now since I've declared that I am not a Photographer, but rather an "Enthusiast for Photographs, not Photography", I dare to say that I like my photographs to look like photographs, and not something else, and herein lies my contempt for the High Dynamic Range technique, as the end result, unless applied with great subtlety, does not come out looking like a photograph. However, I've found in GIMP and G'MIC some fun and creative ways to play around with your digital photos, and still retain your integrity as a photographer, instead of blowing your integrity all to hell using HDR. This is a short little demo of some things I like about G'MIC's latest toys.

First, a source image:

Out My Front Door, Canon T3i with Industar 50-2 Lens

I've frequently shot this scene, as it's one that I can do with sock-feet. All I need to do is open my front door and shoot across the street. It's nothing more than a straight from camera JPEG test shot, so let's see what G'MIC can do with it, shall we? The picture at the top is done with a filter called "Array > Mirrored". Here's another one which might be the most important of all, although it's value is not apparent when viewed on a screen - this is for photographers who do B&W printing:

Psuedo Gray Black and White

A discussion on the importance of this is found here. Psuedo Gray is a means of converting a colour image to black and white which actually makes use of digital colour values that are "almost grey". Normally, a Black and White Conversion makes use of 256 values of Luminance. A Psuedo Gray conversion is able to add thousands more values, as needed, to make a much smoother tone transition within the picture. It is difficult to see any difference on a computer screen, but it should make a terrific difference when doing B&W prints. I should also mention that the current version of GIMP is only 8-bit, and to get more than 256 values, a 16-bit platform is required. The really good news is that the 16-bit GIMP will be coming very soon, and this will really open up a new world for B&W printing using Opensource software.

Now, let's get away from the technical stuff and have some good old "filter fun":

Tiled Normalization on the Saturation Channel


Old Photo

I'm sticking to the extremely conservative here, because like I said, I like my photographs to look like photographs. But G'MIC offers plenty of really wild stuff, if you're so inclined.






I could go on, but why not see for yourself? GIMP is very easy to install, and the newest version 2.8.4 comes with G'MIC and all it's latest enhancements. To verify that all is well, open a picture in GIMP, then go to Filters > G'MIC... > then you should see a large list of categories, starting with "Arrays and Frames, Artistic, Black and White, Colors" .... etc. I should also mention that each individual effect has it's own Slider box that opens in a separate pane which allows endless degrees and modifications to each effect.

G'MIC is like Instagram on mega-steroids!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

I Am Not a Photographer

Ambrotype, Summer 2009

In the strictest sense, given both the historic and modern perspectives, I am far from being a photographer. The above genuine Ambrotype of Kathy and I at the Sherbrooke Historic Village provides the historic perspective, when going to a Photographer was a lot like going to the Dentist. Ambrotype photography was a craft in which a coated glass plate was exposed in the camera, and then development of the picture was done chemically on the same plate using a liquid bath of Collodion and Silver-Nitrate. The photographer was a learned professional who had to be in control of the entire process of making a photograph, from the exposure through to development with these extremely toxic chemicals. Sherbrooke Village, located well down the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia is the last place in Canada where this technique is still being used in it's historic professional setting, we were told. After dressing up and posing in front of the huge antique wooden view camera (exposure time was 20 seconds during which we had to remain perfectly still - only natural lighting was used), the Photographer immediately went to work on the glass plate, and an hour later, we went back and paid her the $50 and it was ours - a thoroughly authentic wet-plate photograph done up exactly in the same way as it would've been circa - 1890! Talk about your One Hour Photo!

Many technical developments began taking place, as wet plate gave way to film and paper, with small negatives and enlarged prints. The Photographic profession kept on throughout the 20th Century, and the technology of photographic film in portable cameras allowed these professionals to branch out, from strictly studio portraiture,  into photojournalism, family event photography, art and landscape magazine photography, fashion and glamour photography, sport and event photography, war photography and so on. The media professions of newspapers and periodicals were all very image hungry, and professional photography was the supplier of these images. It was a noble profession. Personally, I have never engaged in any of these branches of the photographic profession. I dabble in the arts of painting and art photography, but solely for my own enjoyment - it's a hobby. One could say I'm an amateur photographer, but to this, I say "no I'm not". To say so is being too presumptuous.

I have come up with my own ways of making pictures with various cameras, but this makes me little more than a "Tinkerer". I sometimes find myself in the company of true amateur photographers, and they are a lot more like professionals. I quickly realized I am not like them. They have a drive to move forward that I don't have, nor do I want. They want to explore and fully learn all of the contemporary, and sometimes historic methods behind their chosen craft. I simply want to enjoy my retirement with cameras.

Don't get me wrong - I've learned a whole lot about Photography over the past five years or so, and for a year now, I've shared much of what I've learned through these pages. But now I want to share something very extraordinary with you - something through which I can truly say "I'm Not a Photographer" and I'm glad about it.

Here goes - you may disagree, but this is the way I see it. Photography, whether amateur or professional, requires consumers - people who want to view the images that Photographers create. Over the past ten years or so, these consumers have drifted away from the still image - everybody is consuming video now. I've become all too aware of this since last week when I had the latest fibre optic internet and television service installed in my house - I suddenly became a major consumer of video! Then it dawned on me - this is what most people are now doing with their spare time - watching video. It is the single biggest media profession on earth now. More and more "awards" events are popping up everywhere. Video has become the newly crowned king of visual art. This hasn't just happened overnight. As usual, I am simply late in noticing it. National Geographic magazine, although it still exists, now gets far more wealth from National Geographic Television - and that's just one example. There are specialty channels now for everything, and the LCD / LED TV is now the dominant force in most households, along with clever new ways of delivering the same video content to small handheld devices that ere once referred to as "telephones".

Finally, in the world of advances in photographic equipment, more and more, a camera's capabilities in creating high definition video are now more important than the device's still image performance.

As or me, I've become a major couch potato consumer of video. But am I interested in creating video, to join the latest trend of photography? not on your life... not now anyway. I am a late, late adopter. I am not "on-trend' and therefore, from Ambrotype to Digital Video, I am not a "Photographer".