The Charm of Tri-X

At the Bar

Last week I was in Boston for the Clinical Trials in Alzheimer’s Disease (CTAD) conference. The Boston Leica store and Gallery were located right there in the conference hotel, so I got to drop in on the Gallery a few times and take in Jim Marshall’s Jazz Festival exhibit. Marshall is justly famous for his photographs of musicians, having captured many iconic images of jazz and rock figures. The images taken at the festivals are like glimpses into the hearts of these artists, taken by a photographer who is looking in, unnoticed.

I actually was more interested in Marshall’s environmental photographs of peace signs found as graffiti, buttons, and stickers during the 1960’s. It reminds me that all of the images that we take today, seeming so banal because it’s just our everyday environment, will read as historical records in 50 years.

All of the images were scanned Tri-X negatives printed digitally on 20″ x 24″ paper. The grain in these large images was often very apparent, with velvety blacks and nice tonality. I couldn’t help but wonder whether their impact would be different had they been printed as traditional silver prints, but it appears that this hybrid process is now accepted as a way to show negatives captured 50 years ago. Perhaps we’ll need to accept more fully that the negative is the score and the print is the performance, to be interpreted on period instruments or modern instruments, changing tone but creating the music nevertheless.

Great News About Nik

Lines and Distance

Welcome News

Breaking: DxO acquires Nik Collection from Google, will continue development via Photo Rumors:

DxO plans to continue development of the Nik Collection. The current version will remain available for free on DxO’s dedicated website, while a new version is planned for mid-2018.

I learned the Nik U-Point technology via Vincent Versace’s materials on the Nikon RAW converter program as well as the use of the tool’s in his Oz books. As I’ve mentioned many times, Vince’s cinematic approach to digital image processing improved my work a great deal, in which the image portrays a reality that never was, yet is believable in the rendering of light.

Making Digital More Non-linear

For me, the Nik filters overcome some of the flat, plastic rendering of digital sensors. Film emulsions are inherently non-linear. And film reacts both to light intensity and to spatial gradations, just like the eye does. Digital sensors are linear and flat spatially. So the scene is rendered in a way different from the way it is seen by the eye. They eye, presented with that digital capture, knows that it is an artificial capture.

I have a quick workflow now for digital in which I rely on Capture One for RAW conversion with basic exposure correction then an export to Nik for local manipulation. It works well for me since it mimics my old darkroom flow. Pick an exposure time for the print and the right paper grade, then fix local intensity by dodging and burning. Only rarely do I need to take an image into photoshop to create layers with masks to further manipulate the image. I’m not using any HDR or compositing these days, so contrast and intensity are really the only controls I need in an image.

Manufacturer Tools vs All-in-One

Leica works closely with Adobe on RAW conversion. Nikon has its own tools. Capture One does a credible job with both so saves me using different RAW converters when I switch systems. Capture One also does cataloging and non-destructive editing of RAW files like Lightroom. I don’t shoot a high enough volume that I need the advanced organizational tools of tagging and metadata that these programs provide.

My one complaint about Capture One is that it needs to be tricked into cataloging TIFF files that come out of my film scanner. The program is set up to be a raw processor, but will generate TIFFs and jpegs within the catalog. I discovered accidentally that if I drag TIFFs from the Finder into an existing catalog, the import dialog comes up and functions fine.

In the end, workflow needs to easy, automatic and work to create flow. Capture One does that for me and I’m happy that my Nik tools will be there for the foreseeable future

First Image Nikon D850

The Mushroom's Edge

I got in on one of the early shipments of the Nikon D850 DSLR. I had bought the D800 soon after release, but skipped the D810 upgrade as there was no real change in the sensor. I really liked the D800 image quality and it’s remarkable micro contrast. Over the last few years I’ve shot much more with the Leica system, both film and digital with the Nikon sitting on the shelf. However a few months ago I sent my 24-120 mm f4.0 to Nikon for repair and it came back producing really nice images.

So I brought the D800 on a summer trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Out in wilderness and scenic areas, I find I don’t mind the size and weight of a DSLR with large zoom. The 24 -120 mm range covers my most used focal lengths and on a tripod, the image quality is the best I’ve every seen out of my cameras. It’s a different approach than the Leica because the equipment is so much larger and pro looking. I feel comfortable walking the streets of a city carrying a rangefinder, while a full frame DSLR is very conspicuous piece of equipment and so relegated to times and places where capturing photos is socially acceptable.

While the new sensor is my main reason for upgrading the Nikon system, there are a few new technologies in the camera, like focus shift, that are of interest. The speed, fancy tracking autofocus are all outside of my use case. And with a day or two of shooting, I’m seeing another step up in quality through the 24-120mm lens.

Now to explore how it sees the world.

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.