Thursday, September 30, 2010

Has the advent of Digital devalued Photography

A common question that pops up routinely is "has the ease and accessibility of digital photography ultimately devalued photography more generally?". A typical example (actually not typical, its a very good discussion) of the debate is this one in the Self Taught Photographers group on FLICKR.

I wont try and make a definitive answer today because I havent got the time or the tools but I would like to add to the debate with a little clarification and a slightly different perspective (though one in keeping with my general feelings on photography).

To begin, I think too many people confuse, are at least arent careful enough to distinguish between "craft" and "art".

Craft, the ability to master all elements of the process of photography to produce an image is definitely degraded and even devalued by digital. While it is true that digital hasnt completely destroyed the craft of photography (meters arent perfect and photoshopping itself requires a degree of perseverance and experimentation) I doubt many would argue that today the level of dedication to master the operation of a modern camera or editing software matched that required by manual film cameras and wet darkrooms.

Art, the ability to know what image is worth making, is however largely unaffected by the appearance of digital. Digital technology has made it easier to make a great image, but it has done little (if anything) to help the person putting it together to know what a great image is.

Personally I dont regret that situation. Personally, the craft of photography has always left me cold. I hated film and still resent having to stop and use a tripod. The mucky muck of getting the image in my head into the camera and onto the computer is something I just want to get over. So I love digital with a passion and revel in how it lets me get to the art quickly.

However, just as there are people that value the hand crafted boat, vase, chair or tapestry and I understand that for others, the loss (at least partially) of the craft of photography is a painful thing.

A film resurgence - or perhaps something else.

BJP talks with Scott DiSabato, US marketing manager for Professional film at Kodak, after the release of the new Portra 400 film where he is spruiking the resurgence of film. His view is that many, formally digital shooters, are finding film, enjoying the challenge and results and a new dawn of photographers will discover the benefits of film, leading to its growth and reclamation of at least part of its former glory.

I think, perhaps, that there is also another phenomenon going on based on my involvement in a number of groups. People like me that never got into photography because, frankly, it was a pain. Learning was slow, and frustrating, and oh so expensive. Sure some
punched through that phase but many of us shrugged, found something else and moved off to a new past time.

But then digital came and we could learn quickly and easily (and cheaply). Instead of toiling away, taking notes, toiling laboriously through film, processing it and printing it(or waiting for the lab) we were able to zip through the lessons. Grasping concepts that previously took days, or weeks, or months in minutes. Because it was there, immediately, you got to see the result while you still remembered what you did.

And then we understood exposure and composition and lighting, we had confidence. And film wasnt so scary, wasnt so difficult, it was just like 'normal' photography without using the review screen much. And this photography has 'street cred' its smart, and cool and somehow more real. We keep shooting digital but we see film as a viable choice and something we will really work to master. We start thinking of medium format. We buy old bronica's or pentax's or contax's.

But here's the bad news. One day, when wee are picking up the prints and paying the man 20-30 dollars for processing a single roll of MF film and there isnt a single shot on the roll that we really, truly, in our heart of hearts actually like we stop shooting film.

Well thats my story anyway.

I dont doubt that film use is stabilising, there will always be a core of people that love it, that romanticise it that make the rest of us keen to try it. But film hasnt changed and the reasons not many were really into film havent really gone away. So film wont die, it will linger on, inspiring some and teasing many more, but I cant see it ever being more than that.

A tease that very few actually grow to love.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Williamtown Airshow - a frustrating day

I recently attended an Airshow at RAAF Williamtown in NSW. The airshow was excellent with a lot of cool displays on the ground and some really wonderful air displays. The Super Hornet was so loud, so tight, really really exciting but really the star of the show was the F-111 (better known as the Pig).

The Super Hornet is louder, more maneuverable, and generally more spectacular, except the F-111 has a party trick no other aircraft out there can match - the dump and burn. The dump and burn is pretty simple, fuel is expelled out a fuel dump valve at the rear of the aircraft between the two engines, the pilot then hits the afterburners, lighting up the trailing fuel in a huge rooster tail of flame. I got a few images of it but these are probably my best two.

So why was this a frustrating day?

Well for many years I've read horror stories of Sigma quality problems, and in particular problems with the Sigma's handling the high torque lens drive motor fitted to the Sony A700, 850 and 900 (some discussion here on DPreview). I have avoided all these problems, secure in the belief that while the 'lower' Sigmas might has a problem, the top of the line EX series was immune. Well I was proved wrong.

On the first pass of the F111 the less was tracking well, locked focus and I was shooting nicely then suddenly as I re-composed and the lens locked up and I was greeted with a horrible grinding noise as the now stripped focus gears just spun against each other without engaging. Bugger, one pass in and I'm at at airshow with no lens longer than a 50mm prime.

Well thats not entirely true, I had no auto focusing lens longer than 50mm, I did still have a Sigma 100-300 f4 now manual focus lens. Well, I hadnt read the article on Luminous Landscape article on the importance of persisting in the face of frustration (Photography, Rain or Shine) but I decided to press on and see what I could get. Well you know, I didn't get a lot, trying the manually focus on aircraft is nightmarishly difficult so my hit rate was minute. But it was still a day out and I got a few. I think the ones I were the shots of the Roulettes, the RAAF aerobatic display team.

But thats a story for the next blog entry.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Sony SLTs and ghosting

The release of the new Sony SLT's has unleashed another torrent of web activity. This is divided into two very broad categories. The first is excited about the prospect of some really interesting new products bringing new abilities to the photographer. The other is upset that 'traditional' photographic values are being lost in the rush to introduce new gimmicks.

The epicentres (if you can have more than one epicentre) of this dispute are two technologies. The SLT and the EVF. I cant talk about the EVF now as I havent handled the camera and so cant comment except in very broad terms. However, there are thousands of samples of A33/55 images out there on the net now so I feel I can comment on the ghosting (non) issue.

My guess is this argument will just go round and round in circles for years. Someone in one of the hundred of threads on this issue raised the idea that question could be settled via independent quality testing from site like Alamy being the ultimate judge. I understand the logic of that argument, I’ve even used it myself, but its never got anywhere.

Despite submitting thousands of images and getting many fails, I have never, ever, had a single reject for excessive noise. Instead, I’ve been repeatedly rejected because a 12 Mp capture could not be uprezzed to meet the minimum size requirements. Yet, no matter how much this is repeated I am constantly told that Mp dont count and that all we need is lower noise.

Sony’s noise performance did (and I stress the past tense) lag the mainstream slightly but never as much as people claimed and never with the real impact people feared. Ghosting is an issue but on all the evidence I’ve seen its precisely the same scenario, no-where near the problem claimed and nothing like the impact feared.

But Sony is a hated brand (even, or perhaps especially, by its own users) so this alone will give the topic legs. Combined with an especially conservative current market I suspect people will continue doing 100, 200, even 300% inspections trying to find the most minute problems. That is what it is.

All I know is that the people actually working with the new cameras to get great images are almost certainly going to be doing better and enjoying their hobby/work far than those spending their energy just complaining about them.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Photokina and the Sony user response

A lot of us were hoping for just a little more from Sony at Photokina. Specifically I think we wanted a) some details on the A700 replacement and b) a lens - any lens - for the A mount. Instead we got some promises and poor mockups we've seen before. As a result there is a lot of angst on the Sony forums at the moment and I for one fully understand it. In fact, I've been so put off all the forums that I have, by and large dropped out of them (except for posting this at Dyxum today). This post isnt really intended to resolve much, rather just put out a perspective that might calm peoples ire and cool down the debate a little.

We see constant calls (and I have made them as well) for Sony to be more open with its users, give us a better road map, give us confidence that the system is going somewhere so that we can have faith in future investments in the system. Personally I feel caught between decisions in so many ways, a-mount vs e-mount, APS vs FF, existing screw lenses vs rumoured SSM variants, stay with Sony or shift to Nikon? I'm pretty ambivalent on the whole EVF vs OVF debate but I understand others are very invested in this and thats causing them considerable concern.

Given what can really only be described as the collapse of the 4/3s format
(well described by PT here) I'm not one of those people that advise others to simply ignore this and go out and take photos. This is a real issue and one that shouldnt be ignored.

But on the other hand I also understand Sony's dilemma. It has learnt a hard lesson, that in a head to head, fair fight it cant beat Nikon and Canon. Sony isnt Pentax, prepared to hover around the fringes, being a respected niche brand, it has bigger ambitions. Those systems have too much built up expertise, too much system infrastructure, too much brand power and too many rusted on users. To try and go to war with those guys in the current DSLR market will mean years of trench warfare with an uncertain result and the possibility of only winning a pyrrhic victory as there is a strong chance that in 10 years time the current DSLR market might not be one worth being in. If I were running Sony I would also be looking for the game changer too, the thing that makes the fight between Sony and Canon/Nikon unfair in a way that suits me.

So in this context the E-mount, the move to SLT's, the possible ditching of the OVF all together starts to make enormous sense. And lets quickly look at some of the market indications we are seeing. After years of struggle, getting no-where in the Japanese market with a traditional SLR strategy, within a month the NEX achieved what Sony never managed with the 'old' A-mount formula. After years of at best mediocre, at worst outright damning reviews, Sony cameras are being hailed and people like MR over at Luminous Landscape who has described the A55 as one of the most important cameras ever. Finally, it appears the market has spoken with stories that the 'traditional' A560 DSLR is being delayed because demand for the new mirrorless/SLT formats is so great its consuming all available sensors.

I think the market is also showing us that no one out there is capable of doing it all at once. The 4/3s consortium clearly couldnt manage that format and develop the M4/3s. Samsung appear to have given up any pretension to traditional DSLR formats. Nikon has been rumoured to have a mirrorless concept coming for ages but seems to be getting no where and every day they delay more people buy an NEX an enter the Sony universe (my estimate less than 40% of NEX users at flickr came from Sony), while Canon might just be playing a very stealthy game but on the surface it looks to be a complete non-player in the mirrorless world right now instead just soldiering on with an warm over of the G series compacts. If the predictions from Samsung are right (and they have proven to be pretty savvy commercially) then Canon and Nikon could find themselves kings of very small and insignificant kingdoms in not to long.

Considering all this doesnt make me happy, it doesnt help me figure out where I will go or what I will do next. But, for me, thinking through my problem undeerstanding the realities of the world lessens my emotional investment and helps me think more clearly.

None of this is intended to make people stay with Sony. If you need to go to another mount for professional or creative reasons my recommendation is to go. Sony is juggling a lot of balls right now and I for one have no confidence that they will deliver exactly what anyone wants when they want it. But my other piece of advice (or perhaps plea) is that people accept the Godfather principle; this is strictly business, not personal. If Sony's business and yours go in different directions for a while, thats business, no need to go to the mattresses.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A new beginning.

Yesterday I had over 1500 images on flickr. Today there are 6. That wasnt a mistake, I deleted them on purpose. PMacImagery is getting ready for a more considered relaunch - nothing dramatic but just a more deliberate approach to my photography.

New Fuji X100

Judging by the love being shown the newly announced Fuji X100, especially over at TOP, I'm obviously the odd man out as I'm distinctly unimpressed.

As an NEX convert I dont understand the X100 and think its lacking some key features essential in a modern camera. Ok, here are my issues:

1. Fixed 35mm (eq FOV) lens. I dont get that. I just shot an airshow on the weekend and some aircraft are 1 meter behind a rope, others 10 meters back so 'zooming with your feet' isnt an option. Its the same on a street, on too many occasions doing the 'one prime' exercises I've been caught where the shot I want requires me to stand in the middle of traffic, lean way out over bridge guard rails etc. Just let me change the bloody lens please, get the shot and not frighten my wife and kids.

2. Fixed, low res rear screen. The pivoting screen on the NEX has changed everything for me and I will never take photos the same way again. Looking at my photo's now I have so many new points of view that world is a different place. I find going back to the A700 a real wrench (obviously that form still rules for long tele work, sports, airshows, BIFs etc). I'd feel like I'd lost part of my vision if I had to go back to a simple eye level finder again in my wide/street shooter.

Dont get me wrong, I love the controls and layout and the look etc etc but really those are just nice to have's. After all, people seem to get by using film still, so clearly shutting a camera down and partially disassembling it every 24 frames and waiting 4 days for the preview to come up isnt a massive problem - so pressing the odd button is hardly a creative issue.


A fixed lens and fixed rear screen is far too creatively limiting and while I might love the feeling of the shots I get I simply wont get shots I should. And for me sacrificing photographic usefulness for mere design is unforgivable.

Curiously, while the marketing for this camera stresses that its designed for photographers I dont think thats right. After all a photographer is a person who takes photos, so a camera that limits the photos you can take isnt for photographers.

Instead, I think its designed for a very specific set of photographers. The X100 is for nostalgics, people that want to recapture some romantic past and that (like Leica users) will actually cherish its flaws as a kind of hairshirted puritanicalism. Its a Morgan of the photographic world - sure, you can build a car with a wooden chassis, but in 2010 should you?

(all that said it will probably sell in droves, because from an aesthetic POV its a beautiful bit of kit - just not very useful)