Thursday, March 26, 2009

10 steps to winning camera club competitions.

1. Throw originality out of the window. Judges love pictures of wild animals. Birds are also particularly popular, especially masked weavers. Photograph them hanging upside down at a nest. Look at what other people are doing and DO EXACTLY THE SAME!
2. Go on club shoots, take a big lens, set your camera on “auto” and shoot the same animal from the same position as everyone else. As long as your camera’s software algorithms correctly expose the image, the camera’s auto focus function is working properly and the subject is located on diagonals or thirds in the frame, you will win a gold.
3. The guy with the most Photoshop filters wins. Add motion blur, wind-shear, neon edges or any other combination of filters and effects to crappy pictures. Judges love that. They think its creative.
4. Shoot pictures of lonely trees on top of hills against over-saturated skies. Better yet, replace the sky with a painted-in unnatural blue.
5. Desert scenes are also a favourite. Study the picture submitted by a thousand other photographers and DO EXACTLY THE SAME.
6. Always paint highlights into subjects’ eyes, even if the light-source is located in such a way that the highlight defies the laws of physics. Remember, judges don’t care about such things, they want highlights!
7. Bugs are big. Insects may be uninteresting but they’re big with judges.
8. Saturate, saturate, saturate. Judges are fascinated by bright things...saturate.
9. Never use a fish-eye lens. Judges don’t know what it is and are frightened by anything unusual.
10. Stay away from the “photo journalism” categories. Photo journalism shows backgrounds in order to establish context. Judges don’t understand that. They will tell you they are marking the image down because it has a “busy” background. Rather stick to safe categories like birds and animals.

  • Judges look for what is wrong, rather than what is right.
  • They don’t look at the actual image, preferring rather to focus on accepted “rules”. Therefore, follow the rules, dammit!
  • Always use fill-flash so that your pictures look like everyone else’s.

Read this hilarious brilliant satire on how famous photographers would be judged on the internet.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Expensive disposable cameras.

Ken Rockwell has a way of riling people.
I first started reading his writings about three years ago when his site, turned up in an internet search.
The Californian is opinionated, shamelessly self-promoting and has a tendency to present himself as a scientist, “real photographer” and latter-day sage and philosopher.
He likes to pepper his articles with scientific terms and jargon.
But for all of that, I like him. Rockwell calls a spade a shovel -- even when it’s sometimes a rake.
Over the years that I’ve visited his site I have seen his tone and almost blind worship of the merits of, particularly Nikon, digital cameras change and watched his enthusiasm wane.
It was therefore not all that surprising when Rockwell called Nikon’s latest flagship camera, the D3X “disposable.”
This 24.5 megapixel machine boasts more options, buttons and software than was used to put Apollo 11 on the moon. It also comes -- without a lens -- with an approximate R100 000 (US$10 000 approximately) price tag. There is a comprehensive article about it here.


The fact is, Rockwell has got it right this time. All digital cameras are in effect disposable, much like computers. The 10 year-old, top-of-the-line digital SLR that cost a similar price back then, is today, pretty well worthless.
Every time a new generation of DSLRs arrives it invariably has a different version of RAW that is not backwardly compatible with the previous firmware version. And, while it is true, software vendors like Adobe quickly introduce new editions of Photoshop that are able to handle the format, it is yet another expense.
It is a fallacy that digital is cheaper than analogue. Right now, a roll of Fuji colour film costs me about R13 when I buy it in a pack of three. Developing costs around R25 and a 16-base scan of a roll of 36 exposures comes in at around R25. That is a total of R63 or R1.75 per image.
“Ah,” I hear you say, “But you still have to buy Photoshop.”
No you don’t. There are plenty of free alternatives that do the job of photo-manipulation and re-touching just as well and I could just as easily do the necessary adjustments on the lab’s computer.
The truth is, I hate sitting behind a monitor sorting through hundreds of digital images. When I shoot film stock, I shoot fewer images and the computer work is so negligible it takes only a few seconds per image.
But what about quality?
Nikon’s new wonder camera is the first DSLR to have a sensor that is...wait for it...exactly the same size as a frame of 35mm film.
There are differing opinions on what resolution 35mm film is capable of capturing, ranging from 15 to 25 megapixels. I don’t know, I just know it’s enough. I also know film has a higher dynamic range and can capture more detail, particularly in the highlights.
Let me lay my cards on the table and say right here: I am not anti-digital in any way. I recognise, the convenience, the superb image quality and all the other advantages.
I guess, like Rockwell, I am trying to say the prices charged for an item likely to become obsolete in just a few years, are ludicrous.

Screwing us

The camera manufacturers are screwing us. There is no way on earth the Nikon D3X -- and the equivalents from the other manufacturers -- is worth R100 000, or even R30 000 for that matter!
Consider this. A new analogue, Leica system will probably come in at about R50 000 (still way over-priced) but it will still happily be taking quality pictures 50 years from now, long after the current crop of digital cameras is just a footnote in history.
And, if history is anything to go by, the Leica will sell secondhand for the price it was bought new, effectively making it free.
Digital camera makers have done a wonderful job convincing us that, after the initial investment in equipment, our picture-taking is free.
The world is littered with similar marketing examples: “free” cellphones, a free holiday when we sign a contract etc.
As they say, there is no free lunch. The first hit is free - then you’re locked in and have no option but to purchase over-priced manufacturer-only, non-standard rechargeable batteries, flash-guns that only work with that particular model, new wireless remote triggers, “upgraded” software...the list of never-ending expenses is endless.
And all to produce and image that is the same practical quality as that produced by my 25 year-old Nikkormat bought for R200. Let’s not even talk about the quality a used medium format camera system I saw advertised for R5000 will dish up!
I for one will not be dumping my film cameras.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Take an incident reading.

The quickest way to take your photography to a new level is to invest in a hand-held light meter.
No doubt many will disagree and point out that, with the arrival of matrix metering -- I believe first seen in Nikon’s FA in 1984 -- and now digital cameras complete with built-in histograms, separate light meters are completely obsolete.
Today’s camera metering systems, with intricate algorithms and databases containing thousands of lighting permutations are incredible, no arguing that.
Most of the time, stick your camera on “program” or “auto” modes you’ll end up with a well-exposed picture.
If you used negative film and the camera’s meter, it was a rare case that exposure wasn’t acceptable. But that is not so with digital cameras and their tendency to blow out highlights. In far too many instances do-it-all matrix metering does not cope with intense highlights.

Reflected light

The problem with built-in camera meters is they measure REFLECTED light. Brighter objects reflect more light and, unless you take that into account and adjust accordingly by using your camera’s exposure lock facility, you could end up with an image not as you saw it.
Reflective meters see everything as being 18% grey and adjust exposure accordingly. Photograph a pure white object using a reflective light meter and it will reproduce as grey. Do the same to a pitch black subject and it too will reproduce as grey.

The fact is, if you want you whites to be white (sounds like a washing powder advert!) you need to give MORE exposure than indicated by your meter. The opposite applies if you want your blacks to be black.
So what’s the solution? Learn to use your camera on its “manual” setting and adjust accordingly or, keep you camera on “manual” and get yourself a good hand-held incident light meter.
An incident meter has a white dome or disc that covers the light-receiving cell. Often it looks like a cut-in-half ping-pong ball.
The main advantage of an incident meter is it measures the light that is falling ON the subject and that reflected by it. It does not matter whether the subject is black, white or anything in between.
It is the most accurate way to measure light and set exposure. Period! End of story. If you doubt that statement ask why it’s the method used by Hollywood when shooting million dollar movies.

Simple steps

How do you use an incident meter?
Follow these simple steps and you’ll be amazed at how dramatically your images improve.
1. Remember you need to measure the light falling ONTO the subject.
2. Set the ISO speed your camera is set at on your meter.
3. Position yourself in such a way that the light-gathering dome FACES THE CAMERA IN THE SAME LIGHT STRIKING THE SUBJECT.
4. Read off the aperture/shutter speed setting that is appropriate to the effect you wish to achieve.
5. Set your camera to “manual” and transfer the light-meter reading to your camera.
6. Take the picture.
Why not simply “chimp” until you get it right or just try to fix it in Photoshop? You can do that but I personally hate sitting behind a computer and fiddling with images -- much better to get it right in-camera first time, with a minimum of fuss.
A separate light-meter also allows you to use the wonderful old cameras manufactured without built-in exposure meters or whose meters have died or for which batteries are no longer available.
In my case it also allows me to use the phenomenal old prime lenses I’ve gathered over the years that work perfectly except for the fact they will not meter on my digital camera.
Each image posted here was shot in difficult lighting circumstances, with a manual prime lens and metered with my hand-held Polaris digital light-meter.
No Photoshopping other than slight sharpening and re sizing was done.

Using an incident meter meant the detail in the bright concrete trough was still maintained. The bright reflectance would have fooled the camera's built-in meter.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Shooting a "new" old classic

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to shoot some portraits of an uncle and aunt on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary. Somehow, the talk got around to my fondness for old film cameras and my uncle mentioned that he had a camera he bought when they were first married.
It had not been used for years and, if I wanted it, it was mine.
Did I want it? Is the Pope Catholic? Do big dogs pass gas?
A few days later I collected a beautiful Kodak Retina Reflex, the first SLR Kodak made.
Made by Kodak AG in Stuttgart, Germany it is an SLR camera with interchangeable lens components. It is unusual in that the rear of the leaf-shuttered lens is fixed while the three front elements are contained in a capsule that bayonet-fits into the front. The 50mm standard front lens-cell can be replaced with one of three Schneider components - an 80mm, and two different 35mm components.
Sometimes called the "Stuttgart Leica" or the "Poor Man's Leica", the Kodak Retina was introduced as a rangefinder in 1934.
The camera is also unusual in that the winding mechanism is situated on the base-plate and it has a few other quirks you can read about if you do an internet search.
The Retina is a phenomenal example of German engineering -- some would say OVER-engineering. It is all metal except for the film winding-spools and is like handling a piece of jewelry.
The leather, ever-ready case is a work of art.
I received the camera in perfect working order except for stuck-open shutter leaves, a common problem with lenses of this type that have been left unused for lengthy periods.
It was an easy fix. I simply removed the front lens capsule and doused the shutter in lighter fuel which dissolved the gummed-up lubricants.
Naturally I couldn't wait to run a roll of film through the camera that, according to Kodak records, was manufactured in 1957.
The Retina SLR comes equipped with a built-in selenium light meter that in this case, still works perfectly and does not need a battery. Also supplied is a white disk that can be clipped over the light-gathering cell to convert it into an incident light meter. The readings from the Retina's meter exactly match those of my hand-held digital light meter.

How well does the camera work?

Within it's limits pretty well but it is certainly no Leica. With the lens wide open images are very soft. In my opinion, unacceptably so. Sharpness increases from about f5.6 and is not bad from f11 but the truth is, it cannot hold a candle to my Nikon lenses.
Without a lens-hood, the 50mm lens -- the only lens I have - is particularly prone to flare. Fitting a lens-hood helps a lot, but does not entirely eliminate the problem.
The truth is, beautiful as the Retina is, there are other cameras of that era (Voigtlander and Leica in particular) that are considerably better. It is also easy to see why Japanese SLRs that were beginning to make an appearance at around the same time, quickly captured the market.
But with all of that said, it does not mean this is not a fun camera. It's a precision instrument, kind of like driving a beautiful old vintage car -- you know, in terms of features and performance it comes a very distant second to a modern vehicle -- but there's still something wonderful about it.
There is no doubt, I will continue to lovingly and often use the Kodak Retina. It produces a look that, in some ways is unique.
I have posted a few pictures -- nothing special or particularly artistic -- that I shot in an effort to see what the camera can produce. A few have had their levels tweaked in Photoshop but no sharpening was done.
Also posted is a picture shot with the Retina and then "hand coloured" in Photoshop.