Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Forrest Gump of Digital Photography


The "Stupid is as Stupid Does Award" this week goes to a company called Slides.com.

The company, based in Wisconsin, takes digital images and transfers them to 35mm slides. But this is apparently as far as their digital knowledge goes. It's pretty scary actually. A company that purports to offer services to digital photographers knows little about digital photography (or analog for that matter).

Get a load of this crap from the company's F.A.Q. Under a section entitled "Adjusting the Appearance of an Image" comes this little gem:

Digital photography is more natural than film photography. Your vision system is subjective. Your brain is continually adjusting the appearance of what you see. Digital photography puts this subjectivity into your photographs, thus enabling you to take pictures as you see them. First take the picture, then use your computer to adjustment the image to match what your eyes saw.

This is complete and total gibberish and makes absolutely no sense. Not only that, but it contradicts itself. If digital photography takes photos subjectively, just as your brain sees things, then why do you need to adjust your photos to "match what your eyes saw?" And if digital photography is capable of taking "pictures as you see them" then the photographer is not needed. Just tell the camera what you want and send it out to photograph it.

What I think they are trying to say (and I may be giving them way too much credit here for brains they probably don't have) is that with digital photography, it's easier to get to a final image that is exactly what you had envisioned than with film. Even this is not true, unless you are a Photoshop guru. It takes a hell of a lot more time and manipulation with digital photography than it ever did with film.

Then there's this little piece of digital wisdom:
Unlike the human eye, film is not subjective. As a result, film doesn't do a very good job of capturing what you see.

Huh?

Ummm. No.

True, film is not subjective. It only sees the light reflected off what the camera is pointed at. As a result, it is very good at capturing exactly what you see. Or, more precisely, exactly what you're looking at.

I'd translate this into English for you, but I have no idea what the hell they are trying to say here.

And, last but not least, there's this little pearl of wisdom:
Outside the studio, photographers using film have to pick subjects that the film can capture well. A lot of images that look good to the eye simply will not photograph well. So, film photographers lose a lot of opportunities because their eyes can see something interesting but the film simply cannot reproduce what their eyes see.

This one actually makes some sense. Sort of.

Yes, film photographers can lose a lot of opportunities because they can visualize a scene, but their film cannot keep up. But this is what separates the men from the boys. A good photographer knows the limitations and characteristics of his film -- which scenes will photograph well and which won't. This is not a limitation of the film, it's a limitation of the photographer. The film doesn't do the work, the photographer does.

Ansel Adams popularized a concept called "visualization." He's set up a scene in his mind and visualized what it would look like on film and in the final print, then he'd go out and shoot it. He'd get exactly on film what he wanted. The film didn't reproduce what Ansel Adams saw, he reproduced on film what he visualized in his mind's eye.

Digital photography is great and has some advantages over analog. Sometimes it's the right tool for the job, sometimes it's not. But digital photography is not magic. It's also not rocket science.

The people with a vested interest in digital would do themselves a favor to learn a little bit about the principles of analog photography. After all, it's still photography. And the fundamentals are still the same.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

You Learn Something New Every Day


At the Spring photography auction at Sotheby's auction house last April in New York, an early vintage print of Ansel Adams's Thunderstorm, Yosemite Valley came up for bid. In auction parlance, a vintage print is one that was made by the photographer soon after the negative was shot. Subsequently, these prints fetch top dollar.

The auction estimate for Thunderstorm was placed at $25,000 - $35,000. It sold to collector Michael Mattis for $96,000.

Now, a vintage print by Ansel Adams selling for more than twice the auction estimate is not news. In fact, it's generally expected. However, what is news is what Mattis found out about the print prior to the auction.

In addition to it being the only known, dated vintage print of Thunderstorm, the date of the print was revised as well. Generally thought to be from 1944, it turns out the print is actually from 1938.

"How often does this type of redating happen?" Mattis asked in American Photo magazine. "Not bloody often!"

Sunday, August 21, 2005

R.I.P. Analog Photo Magazines?


If you're into photography, particularly digital photography, there are a ton of magazines out there that offer good, useable advice and feature wonderful portfolios.

But what about those of us who also are into good, old-fashioned analog photography (that's film photography for those of you who care). Well, there aren't that many publications left that specialize in analog topics and the ones that do cover the traditional subjects basically suck.

It's obvious digital is the wave of the future. And publications accept ads from digital equipment manufacturers because there's plenty of dollars to go around and there are plenty of advertisers to go around.

But analog is not dead yet. In fact, there are two new publications covering analog photography that either just recently debuted or are about to make their debut.

One publication, called Inked (it just recently announced it will change its name to Focus ) just put out its first issue. But already it plans to revamp is publication and change its focus. It used to be geared toward collectors of black and white analog photography. Now it plans to cater more to photographers than collectors. The first issue (which was actually the second issue. The first issue was so riddled with mistakes and typos the publisher said he recalled all the issues and went back to the drawing board).

Then there's a new publication called Emulsion. It's premier issue hasn't come out yet, but it promises to be just what the analog photographer ordered. It claims to be so anti-digital that it will not accept digital advertising or cover digital topics.

One can only hope.

And then there's the Ansel Adams of analog photography magazines, LensWork. if you believe all the chatter on the newsqroups about this magazine, LensWork is the savior of analog photography. But the problem is, it's boring and its portfolios are so pretentious.

Granted, its a beautifully printed magazine. It's printed on heavy paper stock and meticulously edited. The photos are reproduced wonderfully. But it's boring. The photos are your typical pretentious "art photography" crap that passes for good work.

They also put out a CD version called LensWork Extended, which offer more photos and photographer interviews than they can stuff into the magazine. These photos are no better than the paper version's.

I subscribed to both versions, just to see what all the fuss was about. I've read four issues so far and cannot for the life of me figure out why anybody reads this magazine. The articles cover the typical "art photographer" pseudo-philosophy crap about hiking in the mountains and sitting around for six hours waiting for the light to be just right.

But by the way this magazine is described on the newsgroups, you'd think it was the Second Coming or something. Obviously, there's a need for good, quality analog photography publications. But what we're getting so far ain't it. I guess when you're desperate, you'll take whatever slop they throw at you.

Friday, August 12, 2005

The Pixel-Pushers' Agenda


The Internet is a wonderful place if you are looking for real-world reviews of photographic equipment. Everyone has their opinion and there are tons of web sites and news groups where they can make those opinions known. Many of the opinions are valuable, coming from people who actually use the equipment and can clue you into the quirks and annoyances of the particular piece you are interested in.

But in a world increasingly divided into Digital vs. Analog, many people who parade themselves on the Web as experts are anything but, having a need to push their own agendas. What they have to say may not always be impartial, or even correct.

Case in point: A recent user report of Leica's new Digital-Modul-R (DMR) digital camera back on the Digital Outback Photo (DOP) Web site.

Entitled the "Leica DMR Experience Report," the review covers many of the digital basics: technical specs, review methodology, etc. It also offers some sample photos, shot with the back and Leica lenses. All this to give the review an air of authority.

But where they give away their bias in favor of anything digital is in the test photos they publish and their evaluation of them.

"The images at ISO 100 and 200 are pretty good and 400 quite usable. We would use ISO 800 only in exceptional circumstances. The noise patterns is about the same as we have seen with other cameras that use Kodak sensors."

The only problem is that looking at the photos, particularly the ISO 200 and ISO 400 shots, anyone who is not half blind can see that the noise is incredible. The noise gets progressively worse as the ISO range increases.

Now, this is nothing new with digital cameras. Most people expect the noise to increase at the higher ISOs. It's just a fact of digital life. But stating that the images are good at ISO 100 and 200 and usable at 400 proves that DOP has blinders on when it comes to digital photography. Either they have very low expectations or they are seriously deluding themselves (and anyone who believes the review).

From the 100% crops in the review, its clear that the ISO 100 shot is the only "usable" one in the bunch. At ISO 200 the noise is becoming apparent. At 400 and 800 the noise renders the photo useless.

In fairness, the Kodak sensors have had a reputation for being noisy above 400. At least they used to. But the company has worked the problem and seems to have worked out the bugs. My Kodak DCS Pro 14n digital camera was pretty much useless at anything above ISO 400. It uses a similar sensor to the one Kodak sells to Leica for the Digital-Modul-R back. But I had the camera upgraded to a 14nx model, which uses an updated sensor. The camera now takes wonderful pictures all the way up to ISO 800 with little apparent noise.

Apparently at DOP a digital bias just isn't enough. They also have a Canon bias. Nothing is as good as their Canon equipment. And the output from their Canon cameras and lenses are just fabulous. Canon apparently is the standard by which everything else is judged.

(FULL DISCLOSURE: I have never been a fan of Canon's film cameras, preferring Nikon equipment. I am not a fan of Canon's digital equipment either. But that's not to say that the company does not make quality equipment. They do.)

In yet another set of 100% crops comparing the output from a Canon 1DS Mark II camera to the Leica R9 with DMR back, DOP finds that the Canon output is superior. The DMR is a 10 megapixel back, the Canon is a 16 megapixel camera. Despite the fact that the Canon uses a full-frame sensor and the Leica's is a 1.37 crop, DOP notes that they are not that far off. You would expect the Canon to blow the Leica away. According to DOP, it's a close call.

Using a shot of a brick wall, the 100% crop (apparently the 100% crop is an industry standard) from the Canon supposedly provides more detail than the Leica.

"As you can see the 1Ds Mk. II provides quite a bit more detail to work with. In any case we most of the time we would be happy with the DMR resolution."

Actually, I don't. Both photos look identical. I don't see the "quite a bit more detail" that the Canon supposedly provides. Granted, comparing this kind of stuff on a computer monitor is a futile endeavor (pretty ironic considering the digerati love these types of comparisons and use them to bash film every chance they get.) But the supposed clear difference is anything but clear. In fact, it's nonexistent.

That's the problem with the so-called "experts." They usually aren't.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Digital Stomping Sales of Film Cameras



As if you needed any more proof that digital photography is rampaging across the globe like Godzilla through Tokyo, word comes from BBC News that U.K. retailer Dixons plans to discontinue the sale of 35mm film SLR cameras as soon as its current stock runs out.

Dixons, which was founded in 1937 as a photo studio and began in retailing as a camera reseller, said it will no longer stock film cameras.

Digital cameras obviously offer a better profit margin for the retailer, which said its digital sales outpace film sales 15 to one.

The retailer also said it will continue to stock some film cameras at its airport locations, to cater to professional photographers looking to buy duty free items.

As if that isn't enough proof that the analog cameras days are numbered, Nikon Corp. said its quarterly operating profit quadrupled, largely due to high-end digital camera and lens sales.

The Japanese photo company said its operating profit totaled 13.94 billion yen ($126 million) in the first quarter of 2005, up from a profit of 3.13 billion yen ($28 million) in the same period a year ago.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Sit Down and Say Cheese


Apparently the hottest craze these days in Hollywood (where else?) is the Photo Booth.

That's right, the good, old fashioned, right out of the 1950s Photo Booth. But not just any run of the mill Photo Booth, but a black and white, dip and dunk version of the booth. Seems many bars in Tinseltown have these installed and charge anywhere from $1.50 to who knows how much for a strip of four photos. The manufacturers of the dip and dunk machines stopped making them in the '80s.

The first Photo Booth was patented in the U.S. in 1925 by an immigrant from Siberia named Anatol Josepho. He sold the patent two years later for $1 million. Not a bad deal, huh.

The booth we're all familiar with from our childhoods (ok, maybe not all of us, but I'm sure you've heard of them) was invented by I.D. Baker and Gupp Allen in 1946. It was a variation on Josepho's original design.

The largest supplier of dip and dunk Photo Booths in the U.S. in the '60s and '70s was a company called Photo-Me USA. They are still in business making booths today. You can rent one for about $2,000. Or if you are so inlcined, you can buy one for $3,500 to $9,000.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

I've Been Looking So Long at These Pictures of You...


...that I almost believe that they're real.

So go the opening lyrics to the Cure's Pictures of You.

I never realized that so many songs either have something related to photography in their titles, lyrics, or are about photographs.

For instance, there's Paul Simon's Kodachrome, a 3 minute 35 second commercial for Nikon cameras and Kodak's Kodachrome film.

The J. Geils Band was big on photography with Freeze Frame and Centerfold.

Then there's Duran Duran with Girls on Film. The song not only is about photography, it also features a camera's motor drive winding noise.

Def Leppard has their Photograph, and Ringo Starr had his Photograph as well.

Of course there's The Vapors, those one-hit-wonders from the early '80s with the great Turning Japanese.

I'm turning japanese
I think i'm turning japanese
I really think so


For those of you who were wondering (or worried that The Vapors weren't being politically correct) the song is about a guy in prison looking at a picture of his girlfriend. "Turning Japanese" apparently is slang for masturbation.

Which could lead to another story about masturbation songs. Anyone for Chuck Berry's My Ding-A-Ling or Christina Amphlett and the Divinyls' hit I Touch Myself?

Monday, August 01, 2005

Mama Don't Take My Kodachrome Away


Nikon is running print ads for its new Nikon D50 digital SLR camera with the headline "It Gives You the Greens of Summer." An obvious (to anyone over 30 anyway) reference to Paul Simon's 1973 hit song "Kodachrome."

It's pretty ironic that a camera company would use a song about traditional film to sell a digital camera, considering you can't use Kodachrome in the camera. Kodak discontinued Kodachrome 25 in 2001, but Kodachrome 64 is still available.

All of which leads me to my point (bet you didn't think there was one!)

Whenever I hear Paul Simon's song, I don't "think back on all the crap I learned in high school," but rather, I think back to a day in the early '70s right after the song came out. My friend John and I were in his garage working on his motorcycle (actually, John was working on his bike, I was just handing him tools).

While taking a break, we noticed a roll of undeveloped black and white film on his workbench. Since we were curious to see what, if anything, was on the film, we dug out an old film reel and can mixed up some developer in his basement. We plopped the film into the developer (most likely it was D-76) and then realized that since neither of us had a watch, we had no way to time the development.

But then one of us had a brilliant idea. I'd like to be able to say it was my idea, but I can't. I can't remember who thought of it. Since "Kodachrome" had just come out and John had the 45 (that's 45 RPM record) near the record player, we decided to use the song as the timer. Since the song runs 3 minutes and 35 seconds and we probably needed 7 minutes or so for development, we played the record twice and then took the film out of the developer.

The negatives were a bit flat, but nothing to bad. I wish I could remember what was on that roll of film. Obviously nothing so remarkable, or I would have remembered it.