Technical perfection is fool’s gold

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Most photographers love gear.  Love extracting the highest levels of quality from it.  Love getting more and more and more of it.  This all goes with the territory and so is to be expected.

Knowing this, all those engaged in earning a living and generating profits in any and all endeavors associated with this craft will throw ample quantities of gasoline on this fire.  As a result, we are constantly introduced to:

Infomercials masquerading as content.

Upgraded bodies and lenses that squeeze more megapixels, better low light performance, greater contrast and clarity or any number of other essentially meaningless features into the latest and greatest rendition.

‘Become-a-better-photographer’ training programs (and while you’re at it, regrow hair on your head and get rich quick too).

Post-processing shortcuts (e.g., “presets”) that promise nonsensical one click pathways to artistry.  Ugh.

We photographers are the horses being led to this water.  We are the target market.  We are the fish in this barrel.

Marketers offer these and other measures to show the value of their wares.  More megapixels.  More social media likes.  More usable pixels at insanely high ISOs.  More convenience because of smaller and lighter kits.  More, more, more, more…

more technical perfection.

What’s near impossible to measure?  How about an eye for creating compelling composition?  Or an ability to tell a story by freezing one single instant in time?  Or what about evoking emotion from the viewer?  Or seeing and expressing the movement of light across the ordinary… rendering it extraordinary?  Or how about artistry?

Can’t sell stuff related to those things.

So… what would you rather be?

A consumer?

Or an artist?

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Lensbaby Velvet: Gimmick or Godsend?

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According to their marketing materials:

“Reminiscent of classic 20th century lenses, the Fujifilm X mount Velvet 56mm f/1.6 Lens from Lensbaby produces a uniquely soft, glowing image quality that is well-suited to making expressive and ethereal portraits. The overall softness can be controlled by stopping down the lens while still retaining the smooth tonality of a soft focus lens.”

Expressive, check.  Ethereal, check.  Soft focus, check.  Just based on the marketing materials, I was intrigued.  But I wondered: was this akin to the selective color effect?  Cool at first but ultimately a gimmick.  Or was this something I could just as easily do in post, i.e., via software afterwards?

I recently had a chance to test the Lensbaby Velvet 56 (roughly 85mm, i.e., the classic portrait focal length, in 35mm terms) to determine whether this might have a place in my kit.  First off, it’s well constructed and nicely machined.  Unlike prior Lensbaby offerings, this is a traditional lens in both form and function.

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When all that remains is the light

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Along the National Seashore on Cape Cod lies a peculiar hiking spot.  The Atlantic White Cedar Swamp Trail is up here in a place normally associated with beaches, dunes, salted air ocean breezes.  Not swamps.  I’ve long wanted to check it out, camera in hand.

Last weekend offered a few unencumbered hours and so Joey and I headed out.  Across the street from the more typical dune clad Cape beach, we found our way from the parking lot down into the cedars and toward a boardwalk split swampland.  It was hot and humidity dripped into and onto us.

Before too long, it became clear to me that this must be quite the destination in the spring, when elevated water tables and snow melt fills the swamp up to near the level of the boardwalk.  It must be plush green then.

Or in the autumn, when oranges, yellows and reds spill across the canopy above and around.

Or imagine winter after a snowy dusting, white and glistening in the crisp and cool.

But not now, not the summer.  The swamp was mostly gone, the colors deep but singular green, and the air unwelcoming and thick.

All that remained for me was the light.

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Atticus Finch, Charlottesville and the End to Innocence

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I have seen “To Kill a Mockingbird” exactly two times.  And had exactly two different reactions.

The first was during my college years.  The second was this morning.

First, the film is an extraordinary depiction of honor, of courage… and of hatred and the drive for justice.  Seen mostly through the eyes of a young brother and sister and their summer visitor, this is a glimpse into a different age… a time when “the code”, as Finch strikingly calls out the chief witness’ principal offense, the temptation of a black man by a white woman, was enough for the jury and townspeople of Depression era Macon, Georgia to suppress logic and to convict an innocent man.  Jem, Scout and Dill, eyewitnesses to injustice, learn, as Atticus poignantly noted: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view–until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”  For them, it was an end to innocence.

I recall watching this the first time, feeling relief that such hatred was mostly a thing of the past.  That we had made great progress since those days, and that justice was largely equally preserved.  For all.

Then this morning, just two days after the violence in Charlottesville, I saw this film through an entirely different lens.  This time, it broke my heart.  The quaintness of the past, the enlightenment of the present were no longer steady pillars… my confidence was crushed.  Hatred thrives still.  Injustice pervades.

And it was the end to my innocence.

Of brick walls and blurry babies

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Art, by its very nature, is subjective, nebulous, difficult to pin down precisely and define with logic.  It is in the eyes of the beholder, though expressions of beauty and emotional nudges can also be universal.  Science and math are less so.

I was recently testing a Fujifilm 14mm prime lens that had taken a minor tumble by shooting images of a brick wall at varying distances and apertures.  Side to side sharpness can be ascertained, providing clues as to the quality of the lens as well as whether any damage had been sustained.  It’s a well worn trick, often detailed in internet forums and blogs.  I’ve often frequented those sources and learned many other tips that point me toward better photography.  But that’s where science and math fail.  Both are critical in this craft as we are dealing with the physics of light, but they are near useless to the pure pursuit of art.

The second image above was captured as Gabriel was exploring his environment, focusing on the dangling distractions hanging from a new toy arch in front of him.  My camera was set to -1.2 EV, low ISO and manual focus from an earlier shoot.  My camera and I were not ready for this moment but as Gabriel experienced the joy of discovery, I used what I had.  Time was fleeting.

I shot the image.  It is a technical mess.  It’s just wrong.  Composition is off.  Science and math be damned.

But I love this.  It captures the child, the one singular instant, now forever lost.

But forever captured here in its beautiful imperfection.

Art.

But This Was Different, and I Could Tell

The party could be described as standard, the guest-list repetitive, and the food expensive. The room was beautiful, with a view of the ocean at high tide. I’d been to countless others just like it. Some attendees enjoyed the loud noises, vapid discourse, and rare delicacies. But this man was different, and I could tell.

***

I did it. I finally did it. I’ve been afraid for some time now by the prospect of approaching strangers and asking to photograph them. I prefer to make portraits with people I know or stealthily capture the visage of complete strangers. But this time was different, and I could tell.

***

It’s an odd thing, using someone else’s photography equipment. I’m a rather big advocate of “getting to know your gear.” I believe that the path towards taking better images starts with a photographer’s decision to learn his or her gear, and I mean really learn the gear. The lens I had on my camera was brand new to me; I’d never even held it before. But this lens was different, and I could tell. Continue reading

Summer in High Key

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An atypical day for July on Cape Cod.  High breeze, monotone sky, Autumn temps.  This beach, typically jammed this time of year, was desolate, bare.  A few walked along the shoreline, seagulls careened with the pulsating gales.  Somber, no fun here.

Eventually, near a winding tidal pool, I spotted two boys playing with a small wave board and another attempting to skim the approaching surf.  These images are the result of my observation.

Bringing them into Lightroom, I was left with flat, depth-less images which was largely a function of the weather and conditions.  So, rather than let my post-processing try to combat that, I decided to accentuate it.  If you can’t beat ’em…

I pulled down contrast and pushed the highlights a bit as well as opened up the exposure closer to high key… though not quite there.  My goal was to try to emphasize the  dour mood of the day.  Which, in reality, was quite the opposite of the mood of these young boys.