Using the Monochrom

Steps Away

I haven’t been traveling as much in the last two years as I did in my previous jobs. I was lucky to spend much of last week in Paris with one day available just to walk the streets of the city.

I chose to bring the Leica Monochrom (Type 246) with me rather than shoot film or use the newer M10 with conversion to grayscale. Even though it’s hard to really distinguish in the final images, I find each camera I have renders the world somewhat differently.

For me, the pleasure of photography is in the process from seeing to final print. Even seeing is affected by the camera in hand, since I anticipate how the camera will respond to the world I see. I’m looking for interesting presentations for the camera to capture. Of course, I’m surprised when I see the rendering in camera or after scanning the film, pushing me to look for more tricks of light or form suited to the camera at hand. Digital provides the feedback instantly. TriX takes more time, but teaches me just as well.

I’ve taken many pictures of moving feet, many pictures of manhole covers and many images of damp streets and sidewalks. So this image is a nice summation of my work.


Across the Table

It takes all of the courage I have to simply point a camera at what’s in front of me. Painters had no problem with studying the flowers on the table, asking models to sit for them. Why then should photography always be looking for the extraordinary moment, the place that has been unseen until now when the commonly seen holds so many secrets still?

I’ve taken to shooting in pubic parks because no one bothers you, no one looks for motive. It’s a park and snapping pictures is just something people do there. Acceptable. Not potential terrorist activity, not secret real estate dealings of the gentrifiers. Just snapping of picture in the park.

And yes, the park is ordinary until the sun starts to set casting shadows and pulling the aged wood of the picnic table into sharp relief. As illustrated here.

Workflow as Sequential Image States

Field Blocks

Here’s another recent Leica M10 image rendered in monochrome. This image required very little post processing from DNG to the final JPG.

In traditional printing techniques, like lithography, the print process moves through a set of “states”, from initial image through final image as the plate is worked. Sometimes those states are printed and may continue to exist as alternative versions of the final edition. Digitally, while there’s much more freedom to work and rework in an iterative process, there is still a necessary movement from state to state.

I begin with a RAW file, the data collected by the sensor sites in the camera. It’s a final, irreversible state since that exact capture can never be duplicated. It’s important that the capture be seen as an initial state, though, not the final image. It is the raw material that feeds the rest of the process.

In these images, the next state is the monochrome image. This image, so close to monochrome at capture, was converted in Adobe Camera Raw inside of Photoshop. The grass stalks are yellow orange in the light of a setting sun. So that color can be used to bring them to the lightest tone in the image. Then it’s a matter of a few layers to improve the sense of depth. It’s useful to thing of workflow as moving through print like states.

A word of thanks to Dave Morrow, who has been building an incredible site and set of YouTube tutorials on capture and post processing. His work has been a big motivation for me to get outside and capture some real landscapes outside of my usual suburban environment. Dave’s discussion of Color Theory is great example of how engineering and aesthetics contribute to the experience of creating and viewing images.

DSLR and Rangefinder Explorations

Can Row

Looking at images like this, I’ve come to an obvious conclusion. The success of the final image is not determined by the camera. The capture device provides opportunities to create images. The latent RAW file is the starting point to show someone else what you saw at the time.

The question is whether I need the size and weight of the Nikon D800 with the big 24-120mm lens to show what I’ve seen out here. I look at my environment, capture, and present a representative image. It’s a simple level of photography. Obviously you need a telephoto and sophisticated autofocus tracking for optimal capture of a sporting event. Wireless flash systems for good off camera flash.

The Nikon provides increased pixel density (36 megapixel for the Nikon compared to 24 on the Leica) and the flexibility to choose focal lengths on the fly. With the leica, I keep that 50mm f2.0 lens on the camera most of the time. I’ve got the 28 when I want to switch it up. Very unlike the 24-120 where those and more are covered. With the D800 I could even go radically wider with a lens like the 14-24mm f2.8, now celebrated for its sharpness.

The Leica kit on the other hand is small and direct. It’s engages me in the act of looking while the Nikon asks me to make a picture out of what I see in the viewfinder. My reaction to the machine.

There does seem to be a style difference in these Nikon shots. My solution for now is to push forward with the D800 and see whether it can earn its keep as a tool to practice with. And see whether that style difference communicates what I see well or poorly

Quality of Light

Pile with Cat

Nikon returned my 24-120mm f4 from repair this week, so I’ve been out testing it with the D800. For the last two years I’ve used the Leica rangefinders, film and digital, producing most of the photos on my Flickr Photostream. But that’s been mostly through the 50mm view as I discussed recently: “One Camera One Lens”.

I’ve established with this first set of images that Nikon did a fine job of fixing the lens to work to a very high specification. They replaced a few parts of the focusing and Vibration Reduction mechanisms, so there must of been something seriously wrong. As a tool it’s functional again.

Do I really need to bring back the D800 as a tool? I’ve been taken with the rangefinder experience. The DSLR is a completely different experience for image capture. This a camera that can do anything.

With a zoom lens that takes me from wide-angle viewing (24mm) to modest telephoto (120mm), the possibilities are immediately greatly expanded from a rangefinder at 50mm. The problem is the immediate confrontation with the Paradox of Choice, the counterintuitive notion that too much choice is a bad thing. I put that Leica opto-mechanical capture device to the eye and I see what part of the world it will capture at 50mm or 28mm. The DSLR forces me to choose a focal length then look and frame. Or I can look through the lens and change its focal length and then reframe by moving camera orientation or my position. Its far from seeing and reacting, my usual way of working.

Here’s the crux of it- by taking up a different tool, I disrupt that habit I’ve developed of looking and capturing, looking and capturing. It seems to me to be worth it for a bit to see if I can become more flexible in image capture and widen the possibility in the final print.

Closing the Loop

River Trees

Images look so seductive on the screen. Yet that stops short of the intent of photography which is putting the image back into the world as a print. So I’ve started printing with this fine image to start. The good news is that modern printer technology brings it within reach.

I think it’s inevitable that this movement to a different medium, from screen to paper, requires a new feedback loop to fine tune the print. In the darkroom, you’d see how the negative printed as a whole on the contact sheet. The negative was against the paper and one could see which were dark, which were light. Focus and detail were hard to judge, but that little postage stamp image revealed a lot about the compositional potential in the image.

As I recall, an afternoon in the darkroom would yield just a final print or two. I remember how I’d attack printing a negative enthusiastically and give up after wasting a few sheets of printing paper, realizing that it wasn’t going to give me what I had hoped. Not much different from post-processing from RAW in the digital age. But once onto something, there was an interactive process. And dodging and burning with the. negative in the enlarger light table projecting the negative image onto the paper in its easel was a performance that moved closer and closer to the final image with each try at it.

Same thing here really. It took about 4 turns at the printer to get something that represented the feeling of what I see on screen here. A few photoshop layers and some adjustments in the new Epson Print Layout app on the Mac. So hopefully, printing becomes part of the standard workflow with the opportunity to show this work outside of Flickr and this site.

Be the Canvas

Trying to Escape

My heart leaps up when I behold<
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is the father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
– William Wordsworth

I have no real idea why this image has attracted so many views o Flickr. It’s a mysterious scene, actually a clear plastic tarp pulled over some landscaping work we’re having done at the front of our house here in Pikesville, MD.

One of my major photographic inspirations were the macro photographs that I remember being in the grade school newspaper, “My Weekly Reader”. There’d be the head of a nail blown up, or dimples in a golf ball. It was the form and texture divorced from the object and context that fascinated me. I think that the Highlights Magazine hidden picture series and the “what is wrong with this picture” images also trained me to look carefully with images for the interesting detail that escaped initial examination.

Most of what I photograph is still pretty recognizable, but reaching to reveal what I’ve seen in the scene. My form of communication here is pretty simple- “Here’s what I’ve seen. Have a look and I hope you find it interesting too”.

It’s an idea that I think I heard Tim Ferriss first refer to as “being the canvas“. I’m making art here by being present rather than being the actor, the prime mover, the creator. It’s made in gratitude of the sensuous life we’ve been granted, it’s made in recognition of those clever inventors of these tools, and I’m grateful to share the experience.

What I Saw Yesterday

Just One of Those Days

This photograph is the Miami Fort Power Station on the Miami River outside of Cincinnati. This part of my exploration of the new Leica M10 as a tool for landscape photography. It’s a very straight conversion to monochrome with Capture One. That’s the story really of what I saw yesterday.

I consider myself an environmental photographer. That’s environmental with a lower case “e”. I’m looking at my environment all the time. It’s my very personal way of seeing. Since starting my photography, I’m taken by texture and light. I see photographs all the time- at least when I’m active in the craft and engaged actively with seeing. It’s a fault of mine that I don’t have the camera ready all of the time and that I don’t take the time to capture images when I see something that takes me.

Yesterday the clouds were braking up towards the end of the day. I thought about how the light might come streaming through. The photograph is a way of showing what I saw and felt. Here in a little town on a warm February afternoon, a power plant sending its own clouds up toward the sky.

I thought about it as a black and white image. But the image on the back of the camera was color, just like the world. The digital RAWs were all full of color too. So I used a cataloging program to strip the color out from that world and saw this. Which is what I saw yesterday.

How to Practice by Exploring Alternatives

Stevenson Field

Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect. – Vince Lombardi

This image was captured with my 28mm lens. After writing about customizing the camera to own the frame, it might be surprising to see a different lens, a different approach. This is me practicing. The 50mm perspective is easy and automatic in use framing images. It’s much harder to isolate objects with this wide of an angle of view. But moving out of my comfort zone is very much like strength training. It’s a struggle when doing the work, but it makes functional activists that much easier because of the power available behind it.

This also started as a color image. I used the NIK Filter Silver Efex Pro to convert to grayscale. It was pretty much a monochrome image to start, but as it turned out, a tough image to get close to right. I really wanted to get the tree fragment to pop more in the image, but the grass and it are just all to close to mid grays that I can’t pull either up or down enough to do what I wanted. In the end, the fault is in the original capture, taken in open daylight.

The reason why I decided to explore processing this capture was the gesture really. It’s an odd thing to see a big part of a tree in a field and it points backwards. It’s got a different texture from the rest of the image which caught my eye.

So not one for the portfolio, but a useful exercise. And some proof I can use the 28mm to capture a broader view that still fits into my vision, so more reason to explore landscape in addition to the streetscapes I so often photograph.

One Camera One Lens

Boo Rail

And it’s that old same thing It’s that old same old thing Now tell me who to blame? The whole world’s fighting about that old same thing Yes it is Willie Dixon – The Same Thing

I never owned a zoom lens until I bought my first DSLR, the great Olympus E-1. When I moved over to Nikon, I bought the Nikon 12-24mm wide angle zoom just to get something wider than the primes I already had from my film setup. Then Vincent Versace convinced me I was crazy not to take advantage of the quality and flexibilitiy of a modern zoom, so I ended up with the Nikon 25 – 120mm f4 zoom on my D800.

That zoom and DSLR were a huge package that just didn’t get taken out as much as my earlier lighter its did. And I don’t know that I ever really fell in love with the image quality of those Nikon setups as I had with that Olympus. In fact, the lens is at Nikon right now for alignment to try to get it sharper at edges.

On the other hand, my Leica cameras and lenses are an ever growing obsession, dictating the direction of my photography. I started shooting film with a used M6ttl , but bought the M-E, the cheaper version of the M9 once it was available used at a relatively low price. And I was taken with the image quality once again. All without zooms.

Looking over my images from the last year or so, they were captured with the Leicas- digital and film. And mostly shot with a 50mm lens. They are beautifully sharp edge to edge. Exposure and focus is generally on the money. For the most part, I’m a chromatic grayscale photographer. I see the image as form, light and gesture and really only want color in the image when color is the point of the image.

The flexibility of zoom lenses obscures the original reason for interchangeable lenses, customization of the camera. The back holds film. The choice of film was one way to customize the device to be fit for use. Choice of lens was the other variable to customize the device. You’d chose a lens for purpose, with the flexibility to use a different lens with the back at another time. It wasn’t uncommon for photographers in the film era to carry multiple cameras loaded with different films with different lenses mounted on each. Zoom lenses and modern post-processing provide infinite flexibility, so the camera as tool suitable for purpose is lost.

I’ve customized my camera to suit my art- monochrome, isolating a subject in space, with a sharp style of drawing by the lens. The last choice- film or digital is an interesting one. There’s a big convenience factor with digital, as well as lower cost and the instant feedback on the LCD screen regarding composition, focus, and exposure. Film on the other hand, renders images with a tactile quality that reveals the method of making the image. It’s an interesting tradeoff and one I have not yet come to grips with.