Precision and Predictability: Killing Creativity

I recently attended a meeting where local photographers delivered brief presentations about their favorite mobile photo apps. There were a handful of interesting editing tools discussed that I could see myself using. Other apps have tools designed to facilitate being in the right place at just the right time to execute a specific image. One example cited was a feature that would tell you precisely when the sun would be peeking over the famous Half Dome at Yosemite National Park, so you could snag the shot.

I ran across this old country store a few years ago as I was returning from a tomato festival. It ended up being my favorite image of the day.

Now I’ve played around with similar apps in the past - in particular, a couple of different apps that predict the golden hour and blue hour for a particular place and date. It can be helpful to have a general idea of when I can go outside and catch some great lighting conditions. I sometimes find myself wondering when I can catch the golden hour to grab some nice portraits outdoors.

As useful as these tools are, though, there’s something about the high level of precision using them provides that chips away at my enthusiasm for the craft. Fundamentally, I’m not interested in making technically perfect (as if such a thing exists) images of anything, nor do I want to know that I need to be standing in spot “X” at a specific time in order to make a photo that looks like… well, everyone else’s photo who may have stood in that same spot in the same conditions.

This “canned” approach to getting the shot reminds me of the “Peak Bagging” trend in hiking, where the goal is to check off as many mountain tops as possible from a list. I love hiking, and there are few things in life more satisfying than ascending a high peak and being rewarded with a beautiful view and a well-deserved sense of accomplishment. For me, the goal isn’t to “bag” another peak; I hike to be in nature, and so I take my time and drink it all in. I’d rather climb fewer mountains, and spend more time connecting with the soul of each place. Mountains are not objects that I collect or conquer; they aren’t a commodity, but a beautiful gift to savor. At least that’s how I look at them.

Much of the joy in making photos - at least for me - is in spontaneously seeing something not altogether expected, and pressing the shutter as fortune delivers that moment to my sensor or film. Yes, the photographer chooses where to go and when, but many of my best photographs owe their existence to serendipity. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve gone to a particular location, planning to photograph one thing, and then suddenly noticing something else that is more interesting. On the way to shoot some over-photographed waterfall, I might see a nicely lit patch of moss in the woods, and I end up treasuring that photo above every other shot I took during that outing.

I don’t mean to suggest there’s never a valid use for many of these apps, but I worry that over dependence on them may tend towards creating boring, cookie-cutter images, and in some sense ultimately devalues the craft.

A Handy Trick for Manual Focus on a Fujifilm X Series Camera

If you’re a Fujifilm shooter, you may be aware that there are a few onboard features that can aid in focusing a lens manually. One of these is focus peaking, which I frequently use when shooting macro. When using a manual lens, though, it can sometimes be difficult - even with focus peaking enabled - to determine if you’ve nailed the focus on your subject. This is especially true in sub-optimal lighting conditions.

After occasional frustration with focusing my Meike 35mm f/1.7 lens (which I have reviewed in a previous blog post), I finally figured out a method for focusing that is nearly foolproof. You’ll need to consult your manual if you’re uncertain about the following steps, but in a nutshell here is what I do. A similar approach likely will work with other mirrorless camera systems.

  1. Set your film simulation to any of the various black & white options (you can leave your camera on RAW if that’s how you normally work). This will change your viewfinder to monochrome. RAW images will still be captured in color.

  2. Change your focus-peaking color to red (or any color you prefer).

Now when you focus manually, the area that has active focus will stand out in vivid contrast to the rest of the scene in your viewfinder. This is such a simple trick, I can’t believe I didn’t think of it sooner. I find it especially helpful when using my older X-E2, since the viewfinder is considerably smaller than the X-T2.

Flickr: A New Hope

Sensible donkey agrees: Flickr is the place to be!

TL;DR It’s far better to pay for a service like Flickr than to be the product sold on Instagram.

Since last April’s announcement that SmugMug acquired Flickr from Yahoo!, there’s been a mixture of optimism and skepticism online about what changes it might bring. Many longtime users, including myself (I joined in 2008), are holding out hope that Flickr might see a return to its former glory. Personally, I’ve noticed an uptick in traffic, and some well-known photographers (here and here, for example) have begun using or recently returned to the platform.

Predictably, there’s also been plenty of snark to go around, couched in the usual dismissive, “Is Flickr even still a thing?” remarks. For millions of users, Flickr has never stopped being a thing.

What has some people grumbling in particular is last November’s announcement that SmugMug is imposing storage limits of 1,000 photos and videos for free Flickr accounts, while simultaneously doubling the annual pro member fee from a modest US $25 to $50. Despite, or even arguably because of, these changes, I would suggest that Flickr remains the best photo sharing site for serious amateur and professional photographers. Let me explain why these changes might be a good thing.

Let’s say you’re one of the Flickr free account users who has benefited from unlimited image uploads, and you have 98,000 photos in your image gallery. Ask yourself honestly: how many of those thousands of photos are good examples of your work? I don’t know about you, but my ratio of “keepers” to duds is lower than I’d care to admit. Even among the keepers, only a fraction of those are images that I think are interesting enough to be shared publicly.

For the sake of argument, let’s say you really have 98k stellar photos. Awesome! Now the only question is how are you going to get eyeballs on ALL of them? I hate to break it to you, but you’re not. When is the last time you browsed through someone else’s photos online (whether Flickr, Instagram, or elsewhere), and scrolled back through more than a few screens of their work? That’s right. You don’t do it often, and neither does anyone else. After a while, image fatigue sets in. Even the best photographers have to curate the content they want to share with their audience. I don’t know how many photos Sally Mann has taken in her storied career, but it’s probably safe to say she’s taken far more than you or I will ever see.

Roughly every 6-12 months, I prune my Flickr gallery. There are old photos that I’m simply tired of looking at, while others make me wince and ask, “What was I thinking?” Others are meaningful to me chiefly because of the memories associated with taking them; artistically, I later realize they’re actually not very good. As a longtime pro member, I don’t think I’ve ever had a thousand photos in my gallery at once. In fact, at this moment I have just over 500 photos sitting in my gallery. That’s only half the number of images that are now permitted on free accounts. There’s nothing stopping me from uploading 98k photos if I want to, but why would I? Who is going to ever look at them all?

When Flickr announced several years ago that all members were being granted unlimited storage for photos, did the quality of content improve? I didn’t see any beneficial impact. Of course I mainly follow people who try to post their better work, not the serial picture dumpers. One of the problems that has long plagued Flickr is that some users treat it as a junk drawer, or a glorified cloud backup plan. Nothing prevented them from doing so, but that’s never been the main purpose of the site. Nobody wants to see all 8,000 photos of your last vacation in the Bahamas. It’s great to have your most important photos “backed up” in one more location, but that’s only an ancillary benefit of a photo sharing site. (Incidentally, cloud backup services aren’t free, either. Data storage costs money.)

Flickr differs from Instagram in that it has long fostered a sense of community. It encourages lingering. Users can create groups that focus on any number of interests - whether it be a place to discuss specific cameras and lenses, or specialized topics such as vintage cars from the 1950s, or (for some of us), the joys of shooting film. Predating the now ubiquitous hash tag, Flickr lets you apply relevant tags that are separate from any descriptive text you want to include. While some groups have become virtual ghost towns, others remain quite active. You can just “like” photos if you want, but it’s also common to post comments. Each group has its own discussion area, and you can learn a lot by reading discussions or posting questions.

Part of being a community means that you don’t see the typical games played by popular “content creators” on Instagram. It’s far too common to run into Instagram users who will insincerely follow you, wait for you to follow them back, and then drop you within days or hours - all to inflate their own metrics. This may not bother other people as much, but that kind of deception doesn’t sit well with me. I enjoy sharing my work, and viewing other people’s work, and I’m not out to win a popularity contest. I value sincere interaction, and I deeply resent being used. Follow or unfollow me as you like, but please don’t do it for dishonest gain.

It’s a truism that if you don’t pay for an online service then you are the product. Flickr may be somewhat unique in that they don’t take as much from even their free users as does much social media. The fact that you can opt to pay for a premium service means that you are a real customer, and you can hold Flickr accountable for the service you’ve contracted with them to provide. That’s simply not true with many sites and apps today. There is currently no amount of money you can pay to have ad-free, premium features on most social media platforms. Why do you think that is? In the big picture, what Flickr offers (without intrusive ads, or selling my data to to third parties), is well worth paying $50 a year to have.

There are a couple of other considerations to note about Instagram in particular, as it relates to Flickr. For starters, to share photos you are required to use their app (notwithstanding plugins or other unofficial workarounds). Flickr has an app, but you don’t have to use it to post photos (I never have). For people who do most everything on their mobile devices, this may not matter much. As a professional photographer, however, most of my serious editing happens on an actual computer. I like having the option to interact with a service using a standard web-browser. Further, there’s good reason not to trust an app owned by the Facebook Juggernaut (more on that in a moment). Unlike Instagram, Flickr gives you the freedom to display your images at any size or ratio you deem appropriate.

Another concern about Instagram relates to their terms of service (TOS), which essentially states that they reserve the right to modify or sell your photos to any third party without any compensation to you. Moreover, it’s not just your images that can be bought and sold. Using a firewall app to monitor traffic on your phone, it’s readily apparent that the app actively tries to phone home to a Facebook-owned server. Unless you block it, as I have, there’s a nearly constant stream of information it collects about you that has nothing to do with adding a location to your photos. This happens even when the app is not running on your screen. You really are their product.

As it stands, Flickr’s terms of service are more limited in scope. While they assert a similar right to use your content (presumably for promotion of their services), there’s no stated provision for redistributing your photos to third parties. While the TOS for any online platform are subject to change, the fact that SmugMug is now in charge makes it unlikely that Flickr is going to introduce policies that sell photographers down the river. Such a move would seriously compromise their reputation. Significantly, my firewall app seldom, if ever, shows any background communication attempted by the Flickr app. That fact alone speaks volumes to me.

One final reason to keep at least one foot in the Flickr-verse is the very recent announcement that Mark Zuckerberg intends to tie his products more closely together under the hood. The details are vague, but the idea is to somehow integrate both Instagram and WhatsApp tightly with the Facebook app, so that they all share the same messaging platform. Ostensibly this is being done to heighten user security, but many tech-savvy people have pointed out that this may have serious repercussions for people who prefer to keep their online accounts separate for privacy. These changes will greatly benefit Facebook’s advertising model in that they can more readily assemble detailed profiles of users based on aggregating data from the now mostly separate products.

It seems probable that in making these changes, Facebook will create some type of unified login across all three apps. I have continued to use Instagram with a degree of reluctance, since they are owned by Facebook - a company that has proven itself to have little regard for the privacy of its users. (If you need a link as documentation, you’ve not been watching the news for the past few years.) It’s been more than two years since I deleted my personal Facebook account for good. Even before that, I refused to use the Facebook Messenger app based on privacy concerns. If my ongoing use of Instagram is contingent on the use of some incarnation of the Messenger app, I won’t hesitate to delete my account.

If you’re fine letting Facebook have even more unrestricted access to your contacts, data, and communications, this may not be a concern to you. As a techie with a slightly better than average understanding of what’s going on than the general public, I find this development deeply troubling. As I’ve said before on Twitter, it should give people serious pause that the biggest critics of the creeping loss of privacy today are not tinfoil hat conspiracy theorists or out-of-touch politicians; rather, they are people who work in the IT sector and who know whereof they speak.

Is Flickr the best platform (aside from a personal website you pay for), for hosting your photos online? I believe it is. Even if you disagree, I encourage you to think about why entrusting your data to any of Facebook’s apps is a poor solution.

My New Workflow: Alienskin Exposure and Affinity Photo

Disclaimer: Most images I’ve edited using this workflow are raw photos taken with Fujifilm X series (X-E2 and X-T2) cameras. Also, I have not had occasion to upgrade yet to the newest release of Alienskin’s X4, so there may be additional features (or fixes) in the new version that I’ve not covered here. There are other features that I rarely, if ever, use in any image editing software that may be critical to your image processing. Please do your homework before undertaking a major change in your own workflow. I have no connection to either company mentioned, nor have I received any kind of compensation for this review.

A little background to this article is in order. I’ve written several blog posts about my search for a viable alternative to using Adobe CC (and, ideally, Windows itself) for my photo editing workflow. For those interested, I’ve outlined many of my concerns about the recent direction taken by Adobe. My original hope was to migrate to a fully open source workflow, but as powerful and feature-rich as some FOSS options are, I didn’t find any of them efficient for working with large batches of images. I continue to experiment with new versions of darktable, GIMP and others, as I think there’s real potential among them. It’s likely I will revisit this option at some point down the road.

After ongoing experimentation with various software, I have settled primarily on two commercial programs to replace Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop (hereafter abbreviated LR and PS), respectively: Alienskin Exposure and Affinity Photo. These programs come from totally different companies, but I’ve found they complement one another nicely. You don’t have to worry about file format compatibility with your existing photos, either, because pretty much any and every image type you might want to use is supported between them. You have tremendous flexibility in this regard.

Used together, these two programs provide roughly equivalent functionality to the Adobe Photography Creative Cloud Plan. So much so, that I recently canceled my monthly subscription. Both have the advantage of being standalone applications that require no subscription. You pay for them up front, and they’re yours to use as long as you wish. It’s the standard model that nearly all commercial software used for decades. You’re not renting these programs, and they won’t be disabled at some future date because you didn’t pay up, or because they fail to “phone home” for one reason or another. You’ll never be pushed to store your private data in someone else’s cloud. In brief, you remain in control of your computer, your software and your photos.

A possible disadvantage for some is that major version upgrades will cost you additional money down the road. Both programs release minor incremental updates for free. Fortunately, both programs are fairly inexpensive, so upgrades aren’t going to take a huge bite out of your paycheck, as was the case with Adobe before they implemented their monthly subscription model. As of today, Exposure 4 will set you back $150 for a new license ($100 for an upgrade), and Affinity Photo costs a whopping $50. Both programs are available for Mac and Windows, and Exposure can be used in conjunction with PS as a plugin, if desired. You can download free trials of both programs to see if they will work for you.

Also worth noting is that you can readily find a number of free online tutorials and videos, or you can purchase books and other training materials, to assist you in learning both programs. Of course you’re not going to find anything near the wealth of resources available for Adobe products. The programs are popular enough, however, that you won’t be left high and dry if you do get stuck. Support is available for both, and I found the Alienskin Exposure folks to be very responsive when I emailed them with questions. (I’ve not yet had a reason to contact Serif regarding Affinity Photo.) There’s also a high probability in the case of Affinity Photo, that you will be able to easily adapt PS tutorials for your needs given their many similarities.

Exposure 3: There and Back Again

Exposure 3 import dialog box. It’s powerful and easy to use. You can rename images on import, as well as add additional meta data.

I use the programs in basically the same way I used their Adobe counterparts: I begin by importing photos into Exposure – an easy and customizable process. Once imported, I do the bulk (if not all) of my adjustments in Exposure using sliders just as I would in LR: exposure, contrast, white balance, clarity, sharpening, and everything else one might typically do.

People coming from LR will find the layout of the controls very familiar, so you can dive in immediately. The adjustments are grouped logically and intuitively. One really useful feature that Exposure offers that’s not found in LR is the ability to add multiple layers to your edits, along with an opacity slider for fine tuning them.

Exposure makes extensive use of film Presets. As a Fujifilm shooter, I find these enormously helpful since they include all the film simulations native to the camera. These are somewhat analogous to camera profiles in LR, which I have long used as the starting points for my edits, even back in my Nikon days. Of course you don’t have to use these Presets, but they are a great starting point towards achieving the look you want. Naturally, you can further adjust the sliders to tweak the Presets any way you want.

If you’re happy with the edits you’ve made, you can export the photos to JPG (or any number of file formats, such as TIFF), just as you would do from within LR. If you have more work to do on them that requires leaving Exposure, you can choose to send the edited (or original) copy to the editing program of your choice. Exposure detects some previously installed editors automatically, and lets you add additional External Editors in your preferences. There doesn’t appear to be a hard limit to the number you can add.

The main window of Exposure 3, showing some of the controls available. The layout is quite similar to Adobe’s Lightroom, but can be customized to your preference. With multiple displays, the current photo being edited will appear on a secondary display by default (not shown here).

Just like “round-tripping” your photos between LR and PS, once you complete your edits in the external editor (Affinity Photo, in my case), just click Save and close, and the edited file will then automatically appear as a thumbnail in X3 in the working directory view. As with LR, the intermediate file generated in this process is a lossless .tiff. You can make further tweaks if needed, and finally export in the format of your choosing. This round-trip process is a real time saver, since you don’t have to close and re-open images.

This technique works smoothly with Affinity Photo and Perfectly Clear. I’ve not tested it with other external editors, but it should work fine with any program that has a Save function. On a related note, Alienskin states that PS and LR plugin support is included in Exposure 4. They also sell several optional plugins of their own to use with Exposure. I’ve not yet tried installing any plugins for Exposure or Affinity Photo, but will likely do so at some point.

More About Affinity Photo

Just as Exposure shares many elements in common with LR, Affinity Photo should feel familiar to people coming from Photoshop. In fact, many of the familiar keyboard shortcuts, such as CTRL-J and CTRL-M, work exactly the same. The program window is laid out almost identically to PS. Pretty much anything you’d be looking to find in PS from a photography editing standpoint is there, right down to photo-stitching capabilities and layer effects. Layers and blend modes work exactly as you’d expect. Affinity Photo includes a number of common filters, and the various Auto adjustments available generally work well.

Affinity Photo with a sample jpg image loaded, and the curves dialog displayed. The right panel contains the histogram, layers and other adjustments. The toolbar on the left contains familiar tools for cropping, selecting, moving, adding text layers, etc.

I won’t attempt to describe all of the available features, since I don’t use 90% or more of them. Suffice it to say, I haven’t yet run into anything that created a significant speed bump for my workflow. One difference that you will notice when directly opening raw files is that Affinity Photo uses “Personas” to guide you through the process. A raw image will open in the Develop persona, which is functionally similar to Adobe Camera Raw (but contained in a single window). When you’re done with basic edits here, click the Develop button to commit the changes and move on to the next persona, where you’ll find the standard assortment of editing tools. It’s not as complicated as it sounds; the software guides you logically between these personas as you progress. (If you round-trip images from Exposure, as I normally do, you’ll not see the personas that appear when directly opening raw files.)

While I haven’t yet experimented with the feature, Affinity Photo has limited support for some PS plugins. There’s a new version of Affinity Photo in the works that may offer support for more plugin options, but that version (1.7) is currently in beta. I can’t find a single definitive list. but there’s an older discussion about which plugins are known to work now that you can read here. Again, if your workflow is dependent on a particular plugin, you’ll obviously want to test it for compatibility before you contemplate switching applications.

As a frequent film shooter, I also use Affinity Photo for touch-ups of negative scans. The Canon ScanGear program allows you configure it to automatically transfer new scans into Affinity Photo (just as I did previously with PS). This is one area in which Affinity Photo shines, as the Inpainting Brush Tool does a great job with content aware healing of dust spots and scratches. On the whole, it works at least as well as the healing tool in Photoshop. (There’s one minor caveat to this function, which I’ve noted in the cons below.) I also appreciate the fact that Affinity Photo organizes the High Pass filter logically under “Sharpen,” unlike PS which files it under “Other.”

Exposure 3 Summary

Pros:

  • Unlike LR, Exposure lets you work with multiple layers.

  • The healing brush works well (not painfully slow like LR can be).

  • Sharpening works much better for Fujifilm RAW files than it does in LR, without introducing the dreaded “worm” effect.

  • The vignette tool has some great options for creating an organic effect that’s hard to describe, but reminds me of old school film camera lenses. I use it often.

  • Exposure is a non-destructive editor like LR, so you can easily undo any edits you don’t like.

  • Exposure lets you make virtual copies like LR, allowing you to sample different looks for the same photo (without having to reset a bunch of edits you want to keep).

  • No massive catalogs to manage (tiny sidecar data files reflecting your edits are saved in a sub-folder titled Alien Skin, while the original images are left untouched).

  • Automatically uses a second monitor to extend workspace for the photo being edited (this can be disabled and otherwise customized if desired).

  • The white point eyedropper shows a “live” preview of what the entire image will look like as you move it around the image (not just the small navigator window in LR). No squinting required!

Cons:

  • The shadow slider is next to useless, lightening the entire image and decreasing overall contrast. You can work around this issue through the judicious use of other sliders and in Affinity Photo, but it really needs an overhaul to be useful.

  • Exposure 3 (not sure about X4 yet) does not automatically remove hot pixels, which necessitates manual touch-up if they appear in dark areas. I’ve been told this is a planned update.

  • Exposure 3 lacks a Transform function - even something as basic as was offered in older versions of LR. Exposure 4 does introduce a transform function, but has no Auto fix. Hopefully this will come in a future update. I’ve gotten spoiled by LR in being able to quickly straighten buildings and the like.

  • There is no Auto white balance feature, but you can use the dropper to pick a neutral color, or pick from among different white balance types. This isn’t really a major drawback, as Auto white balance in LR rarely gives me exactly the right results, anyway.

Affinity Photo Summary

Pros:

  • Nearly identical layout and functionality as Photoshop.

  • The Inpainting brush tool is superb.

  • Availability of adjustment layer presets in the side panel. You can do everything fully manually, of course, but the presets may save you time.

  • Maturity that comes from years of development experience on the part of Serif. (I owned some of their legacy programs, such as PagePlus and PhotoPlus, back in the mid-1990s.) They have now focused exclusively on a small handful of professional quality applications.

Cons:

  • The Inpainting brush tool doesn’t always work well on the extreme edges of scans. I haven’t figured out why, but running the brush along an edge may leave tiny white smudges. Merely brushing from inside to an edge usually works fine. Switching to the regular healing brush, and sampling from another area, will work around the issue.

  • Occasionally the brush tool will turn back to a pointer in appearance. It still functions normally, but in these instances you can no longer see how large the brush is. This may relate to my use of a cheap Huion graphics tablet, since it doesn’t occur when using the mouse. The last time I checked, the Huion’s driver hadn’t been updated, but that may have been addressed by now. (I had a similar, but slightly different issue in PS where the brush would occasionally disappear entirely, so this glitch could well be specific to my PC.)

  • Personas can be a little confusing to the uninitiated. I’d prefer if they had a separate raw editor like ACR, but it’s not overly complicated to figure out, and the end result is basically the same. Since I do my raw editing primarily in X3, it’s essentially a non-issue, anyway.

Further Reflections

I don’t claim that these are the best programs for everyone, but I have settled on a workflow that easily accomplishes most of what I’d like it to do as a photographer. If you’re an advanced photo retoucher, or do compositing and 3D design, these programs may or may not be your first choice.

If you’re happy using Adobe software, and it’s working for you, there’s clearly no reason to switch software. (Really, you don’t need to tell me!) If you are thinking about switching, however, this alternative workflow is the least disruptive option I have found. I’m aware of various other alternatives, some of which may be technically superior, but most have the disadvantage of needing to learn the ins and outs of an unfamiliar interface. Personally, I’d prefer to spend more time taking photos and less time mastering complex applications.

Both programs are stable on Windows (no crashes of any kind that I can recall), although that’s a given expectation for any mature software these days. The programs play well with others, and there are a variety of existing plugins that can be used in conjunction with each.

If you’re a Fujifilm shooter, I think you’ll be especially pleased with the presets in Alienskin Exposure – a feature that was a major draw for me, as this is the starting point for all of my edits. Even if you use a different camera system, the presets are not in the least bit gimmicky, and they provide a solid foundation for editing. AlienSkin has made these film simulations a key feature of their software. I highly recommend trying them out.

There are a few areas (noted in the cons above) where I think both programs need work. Probably the biggest two for me are: (1) the lack of a transform tool in X3, and (2) the poor performance of the shadow slider. The first concern is partially addressed in X4, and despite the lack of an auto transform function at present, I can live with making manual adjustments.

As for the shadow slider, a friend (also a Fujifilm X shooter) reports similarly unsatisfying results in X4. It’s possible this problem is unique to Fujifilm raw images. I’d be interested in getting feedback from users of other camera systems. While it’s possible to work around this issue to a large degree between the two programs (including round-tripping and using the filters in Affinity Photo), improving these main tools should be a priority for Alienskin in my opinion. Neither of these concerns are ultimately showstoppers for me, though. I’m happy with my software choices for now.





The 2018 Knoxville Goodwill Vintage Fashion Show

The Knoxville Goodwill recently hosted their annual vintage fashion show. For the past few years, this glamorous event has taken place at the World’s Fair Park Holiday Inn. This was my fifth time serving as the event photographer, and it was an enjoyable and exciting evening, as always - and for a worthy cause!

If you have an event coming up in the Knoxville area, and are in need of a professional photographer, we have experience photographing all kinds of gatherings - from fashion shows to performance arts, and class reunions to large family get-togethers! Contact us today to find out how we can help you capture those one-of-a-kind memories.

More Thoughts About Limitations

When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time at my grandparents' home, just down the road from ours. My grandmother had a half-sister named Sarah who lived with them. I never thought much about her being there, but the few times I had friends with me, they were always kind of freaked out by her.

A photo I shot this summer on expired film using my plastic "Debonair" toy camera.

Sarah didn't speak. She would sit in her chair by the living room bay window, gazing out at the field below. Sometimes she'd smile at us. Her hair was long and gray, and I guess to other people she gave off that crazy-old-aunt-in-the-attic vibe. If we got too noisy, she would retreat to her bedroom, and would push a framed window screen and her dresser in front of the doorway to block us little, would-be intruders. It was always that way, and since I grew up with her around, it never seemed strange to me.

After my grandfather died, Sarah's health declined rapidly and she had to go live in a nursing home. She died not long thereafter, but not before my mother discovered that she could actually speak (in a whisper) to communicate her needs. Aside from her quiet and mostly private existence, we learned that Sarah had an unusual hobby. In her bedroom, she spent years fashioning elaborate doilies from toilet paper. I never saw exactly how she did it, but she made impressive designs from simple tissue.

I've been thinking about her art lately, along with other people I've heard about who have used humble materials and tools to make amazing things. Human beings are remarkably resourceful, and our imaginations can make a lot from very little. In fact, we are the most creative when we have constraints. Several years ago, I read about a legally blind, 97 year old man, who made astonishing works of art using nothing but the lowly Windows Paint program in Windows 95.

We live in a day where we have an abundance of software that far outstrips the capabilities of the simple Microsoft Paint program. Even the cheapest commercial software (and most free graphics programs) can run circles around the rudimentary tools in Paint - layers, masking, millions of colors, and tons of filters all being common features. As mentioned in earlier blog posts, I've evaluated a number of programs in my search for an eventual replacement for Adobe CC (more about that ongoing process in a future post), and most are capable of producing professional, highly-polished results when used skillfully.

And therein, I believe, lies much of my own problem when it comes to creating photographs. I have too much gear, and too many programs, all vying for my attention. My computer desktop is cluttered with shortcuts to any number of powerful programs that share more common features than they have differences. I've got about a dozen camera bags, most with one or more cameras inside. My shelves are filled with extra lenses, lighting equipment, and various doodads. I have a small fridge packed with film, and more yet in the deep freezer. If I want to make a photograph, I struggle to consider which tools I'll limit myself to using for each job. Frankly, I have too much stuff to get truly proficient at using any of it - to say nothing of the mental paralysis that indecision can trigger.

In the pre-digital era, a photographer might keep his or her camera for a decade or more. The gear truly became an extension of oneself, and you learned every nuance, every dial and button, inside and out. Nowadays, most pros buy a new body every few years to keep up with the latest technological advancements. Of course, the same can be said about the software we use to process those images; if a program doesn't get updated to support the latest body or lens, its usefulness is severely curtailed.

It's not that these innovations are in themselves a bad thing. But I think it all moves too quickly. Moreover, we don't stop to appreciate and fully exploit the tools and means we have at our disposal today. My current camera is about to be made "obsolete" by the introduction of the latest model, while I've really never tapped into the full capabilities of what I own now. It's a hamster wheel of acquiring new stuff and learning new techniques. To what end, though? Are we really making better photos, or are we just generating more pixels and rushing to try the latest gimmick?

The ultimate goal, it seems to me, should be learning how to make better photographs, not chasing workshops and online training so we can simply master the latest tools of the trade. If Sarah could make art from toilet paper, is my 2 year old gear really inadequate?


 

 

 

 

 

Trying Out The "New" Lomo Purple

There have already been a number of reviews about Lomography's reformulated Lomochrome Purple XR 100-400 film. I thought I'd throw my hat in the ring and share a bit about my own recent experience with this unique, specialty film.

I've only shot one roll of this new formulation so far, so I'll refrain make any unwarranted claims that go beyond my personal experience. What I have observed is that the new film seems a bit more subtle, and less grainy, than the original version. In a word, Lomo Purple has matured as a product. That's a good thing, considering it's not exactly cheap. It still gives you that faux infrared look, though, which is truly unique among color print films.

The degree to which the purple effect came out in images varied according to subject, and the amount of light in a scene. Greens, most prominently, are rendered as rich shades of purple. Back-lit daffodils took on beautiful pink hues, regardless of whether the flowers were actually yellow or white. In shade, as one might expect, the purple tones were darker overall.

The following examples were all shot at EI 400, and home developed using a Unicolor C-41 kit. The camera used was a Canon EOS Elan IIe, with a Tamron SP 24-135 f/3.5-5.6 zoom. Unfortunately, this camera seems to have developed a light leak, which I corrected for by adding a little vignetting to some images. I applied all my usual edits: curves, dust spotting, some transform corrections.

UPCOMING CLASS: "I Got a Camera For Christmas: Now What?"

If you're in the Knoxville area, and would like to move beyond the "Auto" setting on your camera, mark your calendar for this great learning opportunity at the Knoxville Community Darkroom, on Saturday, January 27th. The cost is only $50 per person.

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In less than 2 weeks, I'll be teaching a 3 hour class that covers all the basics of using your camera. Among other topics, we'll cover: understanding how ISO, shutter speed and aperture work together to create an exposure, using natural light and flash, shooting RAW or JPEG, available film choices for older cameras*, differences among lens types, how to control depth-of-field to get the look you want, dealing with common photographic challenges, working with creative limitations, benefits of using a tripod, choices in editing software, and much more!

It doesn't matter if you're using a brand new DSLR or want to dust off Dad's old 35mm Canon. The principles we'll be discussing apply for most any type of camera. Bring your camera and your questions, and come join us!

Space is limited, so register your seat here today!

*If nobody present is planning to shoot film, we'll tailor the presentation accordingly.

Using a Vintage Konica Hexanon Lens on a Fujifilm X-T2

When I bought my Fujifilm X-E2 about four years ago, I took a big gamble. I didn't just dip my toes in the mirrorless waters; I plunged in head first. I'd never even picked up a mirrorless camera, much less tried out any of the Fujifilm offerings, but I'd heard plenty of good things about them from trusted podcasts and multiple product reviews. After lengthy research, I felt confident that I was buying into a system that fit my style of shooting - so confident, in fact, that I sold all of my Nikon gear beforehand in order to subsidize the switch.

As it turned out, my gamble paid off. While I initially missed some of my old lenses (especially my Tokina 11-16mm super-wide), I quickly fell in love with the whole Fujifilm environment. The physical dials, the look and feel of the gear, the beautiful film simulations, the generous firmware updates that expanded the functionality of my existing camera, and the distinctive Fujifilm photo "look."

One notable area where Fujifilm lagged behind the leading industry giants at the time was in their limited line of "XF" lenses. In 2017, there are now plenty of high quality primes and zooms available. Fujifilm even provides an updated road map of lenses yet to be released. When I was first introduced to Fujifilm, the only lens I had was the 18-55 kit lens. This wasn't a bad thing, to be honest; their kit lens is solidly built from metal and glass, and is faster than most kit lenses from the big names. On the APS-C sensor, that lens gave me an effective zoom range of about 28-80mm, which adequately covers most typical scenarios photographers encounter.

Moonrise from Clingman's Dome. The old Konica telephoto I used for this photo was (and still is) filled with a ridiculous amount of dust. Fortunately, the dust had little impact on the final image quality.

Since I already owned a number of vintage camera lenses, I was able to extend my optical reach by purchasing an inexpensive adapter that lets you attach a Konica Hexanon lens mount to the Fujifilm body. (You can purchase similar adapters for Minolta and other vintage lens mounts.) So when I took a trip to California in January 2014, I brought along the adapter and my trusty old Hexanon 135mm f/3.2 telephoto. With the APS-C sensor, this effectively gave me a reach of 216mm. The lens and adapter worked beautifully, giving me the reach I didn't have with my kit lens. When I wanted to capture a beautiful moonrise the next summer, I grabbed a Konica 200mm telephoto lens, which on my Fujifilm body became a 320mm monster.

There are some drawbacks to using old lenses on digital cameras, particularly for those accustomed to digital gear. For starters, there's no electronic communication between the lens and camera, which means there's no EXIF lens data recorded in the file. On Fujifilm cameras, you have to specifically enable using the camera without a lens attached, since that's exactly what the camera thinks is going on. 

It should go without saying that these vintage manual focus lenses remain manual focus when attached to a modern camera body. The same goes for setting the aperture - you must use the physical ring on the lens. While we've all gotten spoiled with the amazing image stabilization in modern lenses (and some camera bodies), these lenses have no such safety net, so keeping very still when taking the shot is critical to taking sharp photos. For the same reason, you also need to mind your shutter speed.

The upside to all this is that because of the way shooting modes work on Fujifilm cameras, you can let the camera make all of the remaining exposure decisions for you, or you can choose to adjust those manually as well. Even better, if you have an X-T2, when you switch the camera to manual focus, there are some digital tools that will enable you to nail the focus with greater precision than would have been possible when these lenses were new! Even if you have less than perfect eyesight, these tools should help considerably.

Two features that are particularly helpful are focus peaking (also available on the earlier X-E2), and a new "Dual" feature that shows two frames in the viewfinder: a larger one at full-size, and a smaller frame that displays a loupe view of the area around the focus point. Using focus peaking, you simply turn the lens until the edges "sparkle" in the loupe, and you've got tack sharp focus! I only learned about this feature in the past week, and it's going to be a game-changer in my macro work, where manual focus is the norm even for modern lenses that have autofocus.

Four years after making the switch, I'm still a Fujifilm fanboy. I've purchased a number of Fujinon (Fujifilm's lens mount) lenses, as well as a couple of inexpensive Rokinon lenses. I don't have any pressing need to "slum" around (as Ken Rockwell puts it), with lens adapters and vintage glass. Sometimes it's just fun to see what you can create with old gear.

Occasionally I'll pick up an old lens that I primarily intend to use on old cameras (as nature intended), and I'm curious to see how it works on a modern digital sensor. Such was the case when I bought my latest find: a Konica Hexanon 50mm f/1.4 - a fast and sharp prime released around 35-40 years ago.

The following comments and sample photos reflect my totally unscientific methodology: namely, attach lens to camera and go shoot stuff around the neighborhood. There are no control images for comparison, no detailed technical data, and I didn't even record what f-stop I used. All shots were handheld, so any softness in the photos is probably an artifact of my unsteady hand. Please keep in mind that this is more of cursory look at the kinds of results you might get than a proper review.

That being said, I was impressed with the overall performance of the 50mm on my Fujifilm X-T2 (which effectively covers the same field of view as an 80mm lens on a full-frame digital or 35mm camera). The colors looked good, sharpness was excellent. While I'm eager to try this lens for portraits, taking advantage of that wide aperture to make the subject pop, I haven't had a chance to try it with a human subject yet. I have no reason to think it won't work well for that purpose.

The only con I could see with this specific lens is that the lens coatings seem to be deficient from a modern standpoint. As you can see in these samples, the lens experienced some flares and streaks more typical of today's toy cameras. This might well have been mitigated by using a lens hood, however, and being the experimental type I found this technical shortcoming to be rather charming. Before the digital era, and the rise of the lomography movement, these flaws were to be avoided. For many shooters today, they merely add character.

I've applied my standard edits on these photos: camera profile, sharpening, straightening, exposure adjustments, and some cropping. All of the photos were shot in RAW.

Moderate close-up of some lingering foliage. This is about as close as the lens can focus.

A neighbor's pinwheel. 

Pretty pansies outside the library.

A closer crop from the photo above. The sharpness isn't bad for shooting handheld while kneeling on the ground.

Guardians of Bissell Park. I got hissed at, but not chased.

As I shot into the light through this tree, you can see the colored streaks descending through the center area of frame.

Nearby construction site. The flaring was especially prominent here.

Additional, Non-Sequential Notes:

(1) The X-T2 lets you specify a focal length for your "no-lens" lens. I didn't remember to set it, so it defaulted to 21mm. That may or may not have affected the images seen here.

(2) The 50mm lens came with a Skylight (1A) filter, which I chose to leave attached, and I've not tried shooting without it. It's possible the filter may have contributed to the light flare.

(3) While I have no experience using them, there are more sophisticated lens adapters that support autofocus and electronic communication on lenses that have those features. Expect to pay a lot more for that functionality.

(4) I don't mean to create the impression that lens adapters are a better choice, or even equal to, lenses made by your camera manufacturer. Especially with Fujifilm cameras, there's a lot of lens correcting and digital wizardry that happens inside the brains of the camera. Using adapters with old lenses is the sort of thing you do for creative enjoyment, and because it's an easy way to re-purpose old gear, not because you don't want to invest in the right glass for the job.

Recommended Photography Podcasts

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In no particular order, this is a summary of photo-related podcasts I enjoy listening to on a regular basis. (For those using Android devices, and who may be new to this whole podcast thing, I'm a longtime fan of DoggCatcher, currently priced at $2.99. There are, of course, many other choices available in the Google Play store - ranging in cost from free to cheap.)

Film Photography Podcast - all about film, film cameras, and film-related news. The FPP is a fun show with a core of regulars who bring a variety of knowledge and creative backgrounds to the table.

The Kodakery - as the name suggests, it's a podcast focused on Kodak film, featuring interviews from a broad range of creatives who use film in their work.

PPN - Photo Podcast Network - several different monthly shows featuring seasoned photographers, Scott Bourne and Marco Larousse. Weighted towards mirrorless cameras and inspirational shows, along with helpful listener Q&A.

The Candid Frame: A Photography Podcast - Hosted by Ibarionex Perello, features in-depth interviews with a wide range of photographers, with a view towards culture and social issues.

The TWiP Network - What began as a single podcast (This Week in Photography) with Frederick Van Johnson, has exploded into a whole family of photography-related podcasts with a variety of hosts. There's something here for nearly every genre of photography.

LensWork - Photography and the Creative Process - A long-running podcast, featuring photographer Brooks Jensen. Each episode is short (under 10 minutes), but features a salient thought or idea relating to the creative life.

On Taking Pictures - A photography podcast featuring discussions between hosts Bill Wadman and Jeffery Saddoris. Sometimes the discussion wanders off into any number of esoteric and seemingly unrelated topics, but somehow they manage to keep it interesting.

Vision is Better - This isn't technically a podcast, but a YouTube broadcast, featuring humanitarian photographer, David DuChemin. His passion for cultivating photographic vision is contagious. When I need a kick in the rear to jolt my creativity, his videos, articles and books are just the fix.

I'm interested in hearing what other podcasts keep you coming back for more. If you have any shows you'd like to recommend, please leave a comment below and let us know your thoughts!

 

 

Lens Tragedy in Vermont

As I prepare to shoot an event tomorrow without the benefit of my trusty Fujinon 18-135mm zoom, I thought this might be a good time to remind everyone to exercise caution when handling your gear in the field. This applies to professionals and amateur shutter bugs alike.

Back in May, my wife and I were vacationing up in New England. We stopped in a small Vermont town so we could walk around and take some photos. As I grabbed my camera bag - a smaller backpack I like to use for trips - and pulled it from the back seat of the car, I realized too late that something was wrong. The main compartment flipped open and my zoom lens tumbled down onto asphalt with the impact of a million suns exploding. (It's a slight exaggeration, but such was the effect on my nerves.)

Photo taken immediately after dropping my lens. The cosmetic damage was minor, but focusing problems began appearing soon after.

No glass elements were damaged, but I noticed immediately that the little plastic aperture switch on this otherwise metal lens was banged up. It would slide between positions, but with a lot of resistance. At first everything else seemed OK. But over the next few months I noticed that the focus point wouldn't move on command at random times. I put up with this quirk for a while, but after my last big event realized this could become a problem at a very inopportune moment. I can't afford to miss critical shots because faulty gear lets me down.

Several weeks ago, I packed my sick lens carefully and shipped it to a repair shop in New York. After a delay due to parts availability, I finally got a call this Monday that the lens was ready to ship. The total cost of repairs: $238, not including my initial shipping and insurance. As it's a $900 lens, getting it repaired was a no-brainer. I use this lens a great deal for travel and event photography. The repair shop is an authorized Fujifilm repair center, so I'm optimistic that it will return to me in good working order.

The point of this cautionary tale is simply this: Never leave an unzipped (or unlatched) camera bag closed. If you're at all like me, you'll forget that the bag is not secured in a moment of excitement, and the end result could make for a very costly accident. It may also mean that you find yourself without the lens you want at the worst possible time.

My Reluctant Upgrade to Windows 10

Back in April, I published a detailed post about why I intended to fully migrate to Linux and other open source software for editing photos before Windows 7 supports ends in 2020. The grounds for my stance are still valid, in my opinion, but I want to explain why my experiment was less than successful. I have since upgraded my two main systems to Windows 10, with one of them dual-booting Linux Mint.

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I still strongly prefer Linux (and the Linux Mint distribution, in particular) to Windows. My reasons all boil down to aesthetics, performance, privacy, security and freedom of choice. That's not to say that Windows 10 doesn't have some strong selling points. Overall it is a significant improvement, performance-wise, over earlier Microsoft operating systems. Linux, on the other hand, is at least equal to Windows 10 (or Apple's Mac OS) in terms of performance, and has the added advantage of letting you remain in control of your computer and everything it does. That freedom of choice may not matter to you, but it is important to me.

So why backtrack on my Linux migration plan? In short: stark pragmatism. Nothing more, nothing less.

Now that I am in business for myself, workflow efficiency has become a critical concern. I can no longer afford to dabble when I have work that needs to be processed and delivered to clients in a timely fashion. While it is possible to do almost everything in Linux with open source image editing software that one can do with Adobe's Lightroom and Photoshop, there is no competing open source software that lets me work as quickly and easily. There are a growing number of exciting paid alternatives, such as Luminar and ON1 Photo RAW, for Windows or Mac OS. But there's little or nothing of the same caliber for Linux currently being sold.

I had earnestly hoped that Darktable (which is finally available for Windows for those who would like to try it), would be a suitable Lightroom alternative for me. I commend the developers who have worked so hard to create such a powerful program. They have done a terrific job at adding new camera RAW profiles, so that even very new models have support. The software allows adjustments that even exceed the capabilities of Lightroom in certain respects. Aside from the lack of Fujifilm film simulations (which are important to me as a Fujifilm mirrorless shooter), there's not much I can't do in Darktable with some fiddling around. But that's the problem.

Open source software like Darktable or the equally powerful RawTherapee are designed for highly technical people who want granular control over settings that ordinary photographers don't necessarily want to muck around with. It's not that the software lacks sophistication; in fact, it's arguably too sophisticated for the average photographer who wants to make basic adjustments quickly and easily. There are really only a handful of adjustments that I make on images from a typical photo shoot. In Lightroom, I can apply automatic settings or stored presets that often get me most of the way to a final image, and then I tweak specific shots as needed.

The other major issue is that, with a few exceptions, there's a notable lack of quality training and support available for open source software tools. They do offer some helpful documentation in free manuals, which is a good start. However, if you want to see some real-life usage scenarios demonstrated, there's just not much of that out there. For users of Adobe products, there's no end to books, workshops and online training. There are a ton of online forums where users can interact and ask questions. Need to know how to resize a background in Photoshop without resizing the entire image? Just hop on Google (as I recently did), and have your answer in a matter of seconds. If you run into an obscure problem using a feature of Darktable, you may spend a lot more time looking for answers with little success.

Back in July, I attended a KelbyOne all-day Lightroom training event in Nashville. While the class did cover a few things I already knew, I was truly overwhelmed by a wealth of techniques and tips that have already saved me considerable time and frustration in my own editing. The training also touched on Photoshop for specific techniques, which is made possible by the fact that the two applications are designed to work seamlessly together. There are no similar training events for photographers using open source software. Having a large community of users, along with expert teachers, is an invaluable resource. After years of learning how to use Adobe products, I've concluded it would be foolish to jettison that hard-earned knowledge only to start all over again.

None of this is to say that I'm abandoning all use of Linux or open source software. I will continue to keep a watchful eye over new developments and test them out. I certainly don't mean to knock the dedicated people who work on these complex programs that have more capability than I'll probably ever understand. But for right now, as someone making a living via photography, the lack of mainstream support makes it tough to embrace other options. I really want to get away from the clutches of Microsoft, but it's an uphill battle at every step.

As for my concerns about Windows 10, I have done all I can to wrest control of my computer back into my own hands. In response to mounting pressure, Microsoft has given back a modicum of control by making it easier to select how much information is sent back to them about your computer and your data. While you can't disable it completely, you can set it to collect a minimal amount of data.

There are additional steps you can take to minimize how much information is gathered. After you've turned off all the nosiest features that you can live without, you may want to install the third party Spybot Anti-Beacon to further clamp down on Windows phoning home. How foolproof are these and other tools at guarding your privacy? Only Microsoft knows how much data gets sent back. But at least you'll have done all you can to maintain control of your personal information.

Now, if we could only persuade Adobe to port their flagship products over to one of the popular Linux distributions, all of my concerns would be addressed once and for all. Until a better option comes along, I'm stuck in bed with the Beast of Redmond.