Wednesday, January 28, 2009

How long will film still be available?

How long will film be around?
It’s a question that often pops up on photographic forums and in chat rooms. The answers range from “a year” to more than “100 years”.
As a dyed-in-the-wool film guy, with a love for old film cameras -- my favourite is a beautiful 1957 Voigtlander Prominent -- it’s a question that does concern me, as it no doubt does hundreds of thousands (more like millions) of other film-camera users.
It will be a sad day when I can no longer lovingly fondle and use my Nikkormats or my Rollei because film is no longer available. But I do not think that scenario is likely to happen, either in my life nor more sons’ and I think my future grandchildren will also enjoy the wonderful experience of opening a fresh canister of film.
For many that will be a wild, optimistic statement they’ll vigorously dispute.
“Film is already dead,” they’ll say, “it just doesn’t know it.”
There is no doubt digital photography has made major inroads into the market for film. The biggest blow has come, not from dedicated digital cameras, but rather from camera-equipped cellphones. No arguments there.

Where the argument falls down.

Where the contention falls is it is most often made by people living in rich western countries and, the truth is, there is a big world beyond that.
I recently stopped in at a few one-hour mini-labs in Johannesburg and nearby towns. I asked the owners what their experiences were and the answers surprised me. All reported that around 50% of their “film” business still comes from developing, scanning and printing 35mm film.
In more affluent areas digital photography occupies a larger proportion when compared with poorer areas. In a busy mini-lab in Randfontein -- a less affluent area -- I was told film make up two thirds of their business.
I would guess the situation in South Africa is reflected in Asia, China and South America. There are a lot of people in those parts of the world who already own film cameras, who cannot afford, nor want or need to supposedly “upgrade” to digital cameras. For them, using film requires no computer equipment, no power, no expensive batteries, no CD burners, no external hard-drives...well you get the picture.
And as long as that remains the case, someone will make and supply film. It may not be the traditional, large, film manufacturers, although Kodak, Fuji and Ilford have all, in the recent past, said they are committed to continuing to make film although, in fairness, it must be pointed out, some non-profitable lines have been dropped from their ranges.
But even if those companies decide to withdraw from the film market, someone else will step in. I am surprised that, with the flood of Chinese goods into South Africa, I have not yet seen anyone importing Chinese film which, by all accounts, is very good.
Film will never occupy the position it once did but it will be around for a long time. We may not be able to buy it in every corner shop and garage kiosk, as we can now.

Medium format difficulties

Unlike the situation in Europe and the US, where reports say medium format and large format film sales are seeing something of a resurgence, the opposite seems true in South Africa.
Many professional labs that used to process such film have shut down and, even if you develop it yourself, getting it scanned and printed is a problem and setting up a wet darkroom is something I do not want to do again!
But, if push comes to shove, the world is a small place nowadays, so I’ll either buy a medium format scanner or mail the negs to a lab overseas.
I love film and I love the fact that so many phenomenally good cameras are now within my reach because people are dumping them for crappy digital point-and-shoots.
Dust off those old cameras and get out there and have fun, then when, you’re too old, give ‘em to your grand-children so they can give those old gems another lifetime of use.
Film is dead! Long live film!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Photo-compositing IS manly!

I continue with my foray into digital scrapbooking -- to make it sound more manly I have decided that in future, I'll use the more high-falutin' term, "Photo-compositing."
In my defence, it was done while waiting for my eldest son to arrive so we could head into the mountains for a bit of dirt bike riding -- a very manly pursuit! While awaiting his arrival I figured I'd fiddle around with some images of my other son, Kevin, and see what I could come up with, using Gimp and "layers".
I could just as easily have used Photoshop but, as I run post-processing photo courses in which students receive a free copy of and learn to use Gimp, I thought I should use that program to illustrate what is possible.
In total, eleven layers were used to build up the image, which is a little more complicated than it appears at face value.
I am pleased with the result and, in truth, found the process thoroughly enjoyable. Photo-compositing is definitely manly!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Digital Scapbooking and Photography

Recently I was asked by someone if I could teach him digital scrapbooking. It is not a craft with which I am particularly familiar. In fact, I had to do some internet searching to see exactly what it entailed.
Scrapbooking is something that I figured only bored housewives got together to do, so they could complain about their husbands. But a friend, who runs a scrapbooking studio, showed me examples of her work and I was blown away by her creativity.
I can't say I am likely to be joining a morning housewives' scrapbooking session any time soon but I learned once again that I should keep an open mind before judging things about which I know nothing.
I reasoned the principles of digital scrapbooking must, in many ways, be the same as those applied to photographic manipulation and post-processing.
So I sat down behind my computer, fired up Gimp and had a bash. To be honest, I am quite pleased with my first effort - though I am sure experienced scrapbookers could pick many holes in it. That's fine. I saw how a number of scrapbooking techniques can be applied to conventional, art photography and will be experimenting in the future.
In truth, I rather enjoyed the process. I just hope none of the guys I knew when I wrote for Soldier of Fortune magazine read this blog!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Your tripod is your sharpest lens

Over the years I have been fortunate to work with some great photographers, all of whom taught me something.
None more so than the late, great, Jimmy Soullier, for many years Chief Photographer at the Sunday Times in Johannesburg.
Jimmy was a small, unassuming Australian, always ready to help neophyte like me. He always seemed to just get on with his job, never seeking the limelight but he was brilliant at what he did. I stand under correction but I believe he won the World Press Photography Competition twice.
Like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Jimmy started and ended his adult life as a painter, with photography filling the gap in between.
I only ever knew him to use Leica rangefinder cameras -- M3s if I remember correctly.
On the occasions we worked together -- I did the words, he did the pictures -- he never once used a flash, no matter how dark the scene was. When I asked him why, he replied like a painter: “Why mess with the natural light? Isn’t press photography about capturing the scene the way it is and not altering it?”
The most I ever saw Jimmy do was use a reflector -- often just a sheet of newspaper -- to bounce a bit of light, if contrast was excessive.

Set apart

It was that outlook that set James Soullier’s pictures apart from the rest. They always had atmosphere, were dramatic and told a story, a far cry from today’s press images that tend to be blitzed and over-lit with high-powered speedlights.
It was this in mind that I recently shot the image of a vet taking a tea-break in between operations.
The light in the picture is completely natural and exactly as it was.
I don’t remember the exact camera settings as I was using the Rolleiflex which naturally does not record EXIF data. But it was slow enough to have to use a tripod, somewhere around one second at about f8. The exposure reading was taken with a hand-held light meter.


The old pros always said: “Your sharpest lens is your tripod”. They were right.
On photographic courses I run, I always urge students to invest in a quality tripod and to use it along with the natural light to illuminate their images.
Try it, it’ll take your pics to new levels.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Five simple steps in GIMP to improve your pictures

Many people own digital cameras, either sophisticated DSLRs or simpler point-and-shoot versions.
It is my guess, based on questions I am asked on the courses I run, that the majority of people do not end up with particularly good images. Most digital camera-owners simply hand their camera’s memory card to the guy or gal behind the counter at the one hour lab and pretty well accept the results dished up to them.
This entry is a quick, down-and-dirty lesson that I hope will help you improve your images during the post-processing phase and show you how to get them the way you want them to look. This page can be downloaded as a PDF here.
To do this you need an image manipulation programme. The market-leader is undoubtedly Photoshop and Photoshop Elements followed by an up-and-coming Paintshop Pro.
These are brilliant pieces of software but for many, are simply too expensive.


But there is an extremely powerful, albeit quirky, absolutely free alternative. GIMP has been around for years and, in my opinion, is in many ways better than Photoshop, though others will feel differently. More power to them. This entry is not about the merits of the software. Use which ever you prefer, the principles are the same.
GIMP can be downloaded at and the latest stable release now is version 2.6.4. I’ll assume you have it loaded on your computer.

Note: Images are not displayed at full size on these blog pages and are not easy to see. Simply click on the image and a full-sized version will be loaded!

Step 1:

Launch GIMP. The toolbox and the working area will open in separate windows.

Step 2:

Click “File” then “Open” and select the image on which you want to work. Click the “Image” drop-down menu and make a duplicate so you always have the original if you mess up. Name the duplicate and close the original.

Figure 1. Open an image

The image I selected for this example was shot with a Kodak digital point-and-shoot and, as you can clearly see, is washed-out and lacks “oomph”. The highlights in the sky on the right-hand side are blown out and cannot be recovered but let’s see what else we can do.

Step 3:

Select “Colours” from the list of drop-down menus at the top of the working window then select “Levels”. (In Photoshop the sequence is “Image” then “Adjustments” then “Levels”.)
A window like that in Fig 2 will open displaying a histogram. Notice how the graph stacks up against the right-hand edge of this picture’s histogram -- that clearly shows some of the highlights have been blown out.
Directly under the graph are three “arrowheads” that indicate the image’s black point, mid-tone and white point.
Figure 2. Adjusting Levels

In this example I dragged the black point as well as the mid point to the right in order to darken those areas. There is no purpose in attempting to adjust the white point as dragging it to the left will only make it lighter.
Adjust the arrowheads until you are happy then click “OK”.
The picture already looks better but there is still more we can do.
I think the colours should be more punchy.

Step 4.

Figure 3. Adjusting Hue and Saturation

Select “Colours” then “Hue/Saturation”.
Dragging the “Saturation” slider to the right makes the colours pop. Play around with the sliders until you have the result you want. When you’re happy click “OK”. Remember you can undo any step by opening the “Edit” menu and selecting “Undo”.
Now it’s time to add a little contrast.

Step 5:

Figure 4. Adjusting Contrast

Go to “Colours and select “Brightness-Contrast”. Move the sliders until you are happy then click “OK”.

Step 6:

Figure 5. Unsharpening

The final requirement is to sharpen the picture. Select “Filters”, “Enhance”, “Unsharp Mask”. Yep, that’s correct it’s UNSHARP MASK for reasons I won’t discuss now.
I believe sharpening must be done in small steps or else it is easy to over-sharpen and end up with an unnatural and unattractive image. These are the settings I use, but experiment and see what you like.
Click “OK”, you’re done. All that remains is to save your picture, write it onto CD and get it printed.

The finished product. Not great art but a definite improvement!

Before I get flames from the experts I know there are a lot more ways to improve images by using layers, masks, dodging and burning HDR techniques etc. I teach some of these in a course I run.
The intention of this article was to present a quick, easy way to improve images.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Shooting the old warriors

I hate the Christmas holidays! It’s a time when there is usually no work and expenses seem to rocket.
It’s also a time of immense boredom, so when my son suggested we visit the military museum next to the Johannesburg Zoo, I eagerly agreed.

Over the years South Africa’s military museum has grown and expanded and is well worth a visit. Unlike other South African museums, it has thankfully not become politicized and has on display the full gamut of the military conflicts in which ALL South Africans were involved -- including that by the participants of the freedom struggles. It offers an unbiased, honest look at South Africa’s history.
On display are many exceptionally rare pieces of military equipment, the most notable of which is the World War II ME262 jet night-fighter, the only example of its kind in the world!
But museum exhibits can be difficult to photograph and make look interesting. The lighting is often poor, other people somehow always seem to find their way into your shot and backgrounds are usually cluttered and intrusive.


To overcome these obstacles I decided I would isolate pieces of the equipment in a way that would hopefully evoke some sort of emotions. You’ll have to be the judge of whether or not I succeeded. All images were taken with a Nikon D40 and either an 18 - 55 mm zoom lens or and old 50mm/1.8 prime.
The first two images I got to take were of an old ambulance and 5,5 field gun, both quietly rusting away in the car park.
Both are familiar objects to me as they are to hundreds of thousands of other South African Defence Force veterans.
In a way they are symbols of a generation of men and women that gave much but is now forgotten.