Sunday, September 17, 2017

Making Books has made me a Better Photographer

It occurred to me yesterday, as I was obsessively ruminating about books and photobooks and so on, that making books has made me a better photographer. Obviously not in any technical sense, I still struggle with the vagaries of AIS lenses on an ancient consumer body (you have to set it OFF manual mode to focus, and back ON manual mode to shoot, and I am constantly getting lost on the dial and can't find M without looking).

It probably hasn't made my better at composition, although perhaps a little. More focused, certainly.

What it has done, obviously, is that it has caused me to shoot far fewer pointless pictures.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, at least as expressed by Colberg (but he is not alone) I do not start with a finished photographic project, and then do a book. Instead, I have ideas for projects floating around my head: A typology of alleys, Found texts, Bellingham Summer, and so on. I also have vague notions of design and structure floating around: Big, Small, Dos-à-dos binding, french door binding, A stapled zine, A magazine, etc.

These things bounce around my head. Sometimes I shoot a few pictures, sometimes I experiment with some paper, thread, and glue. Every now and then a design/structure idea collides with a photo project idea, and I begin something in earnest. You've seen a little of the Bellingham Summer project, which was just a gibberish handful of pictures until the design ideas started to arrive. The medium is probably an 8x10 blurb trade paperback.

With a mental sketch of the completed book in mind, the pictures begin to almost shoot themselves. Everything from preferred framing to specific themes is clarified. Actual pictures, of course, influence the structure of the book, and the whole thing organically distills itself into the right thing. Ideally. Not always.

What this process seems to do is to eliminate the horrible "open brief" problem that we amateurs are cursed with. We can shoot literally anything, and the more constraints we can get hold of, the better we're going to be most likely. The book, having far more structure than a gallery show (real or virtual), grants me far more constraints. I can shoot with real purpose, I can look for specific shots, specific subjects treated in specific ways. I still throw a lot away, but my hit rate goes up like crazy toward the end of a project as I nail down the last couple of things I need or want.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

iPhone X and Digital Lighting

There's a feature tucked away in the new iPhones that doesn't seem to be getting a lot of traction, but it represents a massive sea change in photography. It's the "Portrait Lighting" mode, and it's the second shot across the bows of traditional photography, from the world of computational photography.

The first shot was "fake bokeh" in which the 3D map generated by a dual (or multiple) camera is used to generate background blur, to simulate the look of contemporary fast lens portraiture. This was widely derided for a few minutes, and then improved, and now it's pretty much accepted. A few holdouts still mock it, but normal people can't really tell the difference.

This next shot is a much much bigger one. With the 3D map the only thing preventing doing photographic lighting in post is available compute power. This is exactly what Portrait Lighting mode does. In effect, it digitally alters the lighting of a portrait to make it closer to a professional lighting style. It's not perfect, and I am sure the internet will mock it roundly when it gets around to it, "looks so fake", "lame", "a professional would totally do it better", all of which may be true. This is not a technology that is going to get worse over time, though. It's going to get better.

When I wrote about this two years ago, I imagined a virtual studio for the professional photographer, with virtual lights placed and moved as needed, after the shot was taken, and the final results rendered as a standard 2D image for retouching. Apple has done me one better and worked out how to consumer-ize it. Rather than moving virtual lights around Apple simply offers a handful of styles, treating it like an Instagram filter. Pick the lighting style that makes you look best! Click click, "that one, yeah."

There's room for both, though, it's just software.

It's not even hard! This isn't even an iPhone, this is me and my rough knowledge of how my own ugly mug is shaped. Original, drop catchlights, shade in shadow, shade in highlights, and finally drop in new catchlights.


What does this mean for photographers? For the amateur it means more power, more flexibility, and potentially more fun. It's simply easier to take ever nicer looking pictures.

For the professional it means that your skill at positioning lights is gradually going to vanish as a differentiator -- if you can't direct your models well, learn how, because that's about to become the only skill that isn't being replaced by a robot.

For the photojournalist, and more importantly for the news editor, it means one more layer of potential falsehood inserted between reality and the printed page, the digital news feed. Think about what features you're going to want o disallow in future.

I can't even imagine what it means for Fine Art photographers.

It seems like a stupid little "selfie-mode stupidity" feature, but it's not. It's our second hint of a radically different future.

A Note

This is a post of mine from slightly less than 2 years ago: A Device.

In it I remarked that synthetic lighting was going to be a new feature enabled by computational photography.

Please note that the iPhone X introduces synthetic lighting features as a consequence of its computational photography package.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Colberg on Art

Jörg has another thoughtful piece up, a welcome relief from his reviews in my opinion. It contains a review, but it's secondary, without being a New Yorker style artifice upon which to hang a bunch of self-aggrandization.

I'm going to provide a handful of definitions, basically because I had to look all these words up. I mean, I knew roughly kinda what they meant, but not, you know, the details.
  • agitprop - A portmanteau of "agitation" and "propaganda", essentially propagandist art nominally intended to stir people up.
  • didactic - Intended to teach, specifically a moral lesson.

Jörg starts out well, making the point that Art with a capital A communicates, but often somewhat vaguely, in ways that may be hard to put your finger on. He asserts, correctly I think, that good art and agitprop, if not actually opposites, at any rate tend to be in opposition. Agitprop is clear, it communicates but one message, without much ambiguity (or depth). I suspect Jörg's complaints about didactic/agitprop "art"are more or less squarely directed at Lewis Bush's "It's Gonna Be Great" show, which was just a bunch of "hurr hurr I photoshopped Donald Trump to look like an idiot" material. Boring, stupid, simple repetition of simplistic leftist narratives. You don't have to look very far to find tons of this sort of thing, though, so maybe Jörg had something else in mind.

Then we move onwards to the assertion that the Bechers work was didactic, which I find interesting but am not sure I agree with. What moral lesson are we to learn here? To my eye, the Bechers were simply insisting that certain objects were interesting, without any particular judgement about what's interesting, about what lessons we are to find in these objects. We could project our own ideas, certainly, and I assume they had their own ideas, but ultimately it's just a bunch of pictures of buildings.

But hold on to that. Whether or not the word "didactic" applies is largely irrelevant here. The point is that, at least in my opinion, the Bechers are expressing a simple idea, namely, "these are interesting", without insisting on a specific reading, a specific moral point of view, or really anything of that sort.

Finally we get to the review. The book he reviews, by the way, is $45, which seems truly incredible for a book with this amount of hand work. I almost want it for that alone, except the content is completely uninteresting to me.

This book is didactic. In fact, it is agitprop, despite Colberg's notion that it is not. He is here betraying himself, allowing his weakness for overproduced photobooks to overrule his obviously good sense. He claims that the book functions because of "the surprise" that the pictures in it are not microorganisms, but instead bits of plastic floating in the ocean, which might be OK except that the publisher lacks the strength of character to make it a surprise. The reveal is right there in the blurb.

While the book itself may not insist on a specific moral lesson here, the fact is that it's being published today, now, when the only reasonably interpretation is that it's yet another piece of self-conscious art about how terrible it is that there's a bunch of plastic in the ocean. We may take it as given that the artist thinks we should legislate the use of plastic bags and so on.

There is in fact almost no disagreement about what is surely the central thesis of the book: "plastic bits filling up the ocean is bad." The points of disagreement are entirely about what should be done about it, with one side claiming that the invisible hand of the market will cure this problem as soon as it's done curing every other ill, and the other side saying that we need to legislate and regulate heavily. I side with the latter, but that does not make me love this book.

While I have not seen the book myself, it is transparently a rather twee concept wrapped around a simple repeat of one of the standard pages of leftist political narrative. I don't like Donald Trump, and I disapprove of plastic bits in the ocean, but simply repeating the same stories is just propaganda, and not very effective propaganda at that. Neither "It's Gonna Be Great" nor "Beyond Drifting" are going to create change. Neither are going to connect with their readers in interesting ways. Both are pure preaching to the choir, one with, I admit, production values that appeal far more to me than the other.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Another Nutty Theory

Hasselblad, as we all know, built this weird X1D thing, which is a medium format mirrorless camera, yadda yadda yadda. The lens lineup for this has received some criticism. They lenses are: 30mm, 45mm, and 90mm, which work out as a "moderately wide" a "kinda wide" and a "weird goddamned thing that's either too long or too short for every possible application"

But consider this: the 90mm lens is more or less a normal lens for 645 format, which is the size of the 100 megapixel sensor Hasselblad is using in their biggest and best uberkamera. On that sensor, the lenses are "quite wide", "moderately wide" and "normal" and the lens lineup actually makes a sort of sense.

My theory is that they were hoping to stick the big sensor into the X1D and pulled the trigger on lens designs before they realized that they were going to be using the smaller sensor.

And now they're sort of stuck.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Book Design Notes

I'm working on a book design, about Bellingham's Summer. The first thematic element is one of growth, fecundity, and for that I have a bunch of detail shots of morning glory and sweet pea. The conceit is that these pictures will crawl across the page, expanding like vines, for the first few pages. For "too long" really, encouraging a quickening pace as you leaf through, looking for the "real content" after you get the idea.

After that, these elements become background upon which other material is laid. They become graphical design elements rather than pictorial content, repeated on each page, and then there's some things that happen at the end about which more, perhaps, later.

The preliminary spreads look like this. Sepia-ish toning for an organic flavor.

Page 1:

Pages 2-3:

Pages 4-5:

Pages 6-7:

Pages 8-9:

Pages 10-11:


Note that the pattern recto is complete on page 7, so pages 9 and 11 are simply repeats. I think I want to leave 9 as-is, but begin to bring in the main theme, the primary "content" starting on page 11. These are photographs of things which I think embody certain aspects of the summer in Bellingham, something like this:



Well, bugger. That's obviously a mess. I knew there was going to be a separation problem, of course. I tried some borders and so on, but ugh. Nope, the background has to become quite a bit different. Let's make it much lighter.



That's a BIT better. Throw on a border too and fade that background a little more:



Later pages we'll give the verso the same treatment, and start putting primary content on both sides. The background material will evolve, with bits turning off, and probably an increasing fade, and eventually the whole thing vanishes bottom-upwards as we head into the final end-of-summer theme. In the end, the background is blank, and there's 1 or 2 more pictures to close out summer.

This probably isn't the final final design, but I am closing in on it, I think.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

A Couple of Things from Lewis Bush

First of all, he's doing a book. There's a kickstarter right here. It's not my cup of tea, it's not how I would have approached the material. It lacks any human element, and was pretty obviously put together entirely by screwing around in front of a computer.

On the other hand, it's it most certainly not another instance of My Sad Project. There is nothing in it of Lewis's strained and complex personal relationships, it is not a catalog of his suffering, it is not a journal is his disease. It's arguably a subject of actual weight and interest.

It's also just the right way to assemble this material. While I find a bunch of spectograms and satellite pictures to be remarkably uninteresting, that is certainly just my taste at play. Lewis appears to be assembling a lot of related material, and putting it together into a neat package. The "innovative web platform for the material" sounds a lot like a flashback to 1999, but what can one do, really?

The point is that he's got a subject he's interested in, and he's assembled various visuals, various data and information, and he's putting it together as a completed thing. I would not look down my nose at you if you chose to support his project. I will not be, but that's because it does not suit my taste, not because I think it's crummy.

Second item, Lewis can actually write a thoughtful piece, and proves it for us again over here. It's not earth shattering, but it is thoughtful and, notably, readable.

So, hat tip to Mr. Bush.