Thursday, January 16, 2014

Process or Providence

I was asked recently what I look for when I take photos. I thought that was a good question as I have thought a lot about 'what' to photograph and 'how' to photograph, but I haven't really verbalized a process. I suppose many photographers are 'inspired' and just snap the shutter and get wonderful art. They have 'an eye' for composition that allows them to take photos instinctively. I don't have that. I struggle to 'see' the beauty around me and photograph it in a way that conveys my vision. So when my friend asked this question I went to work to put down something about my process and when I was done, I thought "That sounds like it might be a good blog post that someone out in the void we call the blogosphere might like to read. So here it is.

Sometimes I go out with a subject in mind (I want to shoot something specific like a building or a puddle or a person). Sometimes I go out with a photograph in mind (I want to shoot something like Porch Shadows by Strand). Ansel Adams always visualized the print he was going to make when he took his camera somewhere. I don't really print, so I usually have a more general idea of what I want to shoot. Not that scanning is so different than printing, but I don't have my end product in mind the way I think AA did. I have gotten into the habit of taking a camera with me almost everywhere. I have decided that it is better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. This after many, many times saying to myself "That would make an interesting or beautiful photo... if only I had a camera." I don't count the thing in my phone as a camera, though when I would rather kill myself than miss the shot, I will use it. I have acquired a Yashica Electro 35 GSN that is small and light enough to not be a bother to carry everywhere, but I will still carry a medium format folder or even a TLR if I want to shoot those formats. If I am just carrying a camera around, I will be aware of the film (b/w, color, contrast properties, etc.) and usually pre-set the shutter speed and aperture to something reasonable for the brightest thing I might shoot (Sunny 16 is surprisingly accurate). Then I just wait and see if the light casts an interesting shadow or if there is some odd reflection in a window or even if a building I have passed a thousand times is actually interesting in some way or at some angle. I find myself kneeling, squatting, sitting, laying a lot and the low angle works for my aesthetic sensibility.

Looks like an orangeThis was taken outside the Target store in my neighborhood. I drive/walk past these concrete spheres all the time, but this day for whatever reason, I thought I would take a photo of one of them. Looking at the scene, there was nothing special, but once I sat down, got the viewfinder up to my eye and started composing I was able to see the shot. I took one frame and moved on. I got a few odd looks, but I am pretty impervious at this point. When I am framing/composing, I look for (obviously) my subject. If I am shooting a rectangular format like 35mm, I almost always use the Rule of Thirds to position the subject. Square formats will tolerate centered subjects better.

Purple MagicI like blurry backgrounds, so I open the aperture as much as the lighting conditions will allow. I try to find a contrasty angle so if the sun is out I put it to my right or left.Gloves I look for lines converging or intersecting To the Mothership and consider how that will direct or distract the viewer. Repetition is a great compositional tool that I like to use. Winter Greenery It reinforces the subject (look in the background) Rakes. I have to say, that I am of a different mind-set now than when I was shooting digital. As often as not, I look, compose and walk away. I don't feel obligated to actuate the shutter just because I took the time to point my camera at something. Rolls of film sit in my cameras for sometimes weeks. That is why I try to also carry a little Moleskine and jot down notes about the photos I take (date, subject, camera, film, exposure if I know it). That way I can add some data to the photos I share online. My best advice is to start looking at your everyday surroundings through your camera. Get close, get far, get low, get high, turn off the lights and let some faint or diffuse window light fall on things. Don't be afraid to hand hold on long exposures. Blur isn't the end of the world. Just ask Heinrich Kuehn. :)

Well, I hope there was something of value in there somewhere. I think I have 'developed' an intuition for what I think will look good, but it didn't/doesn't just come naturally. I can definitely tell when I am rushing and when I am thinking. I don't 'feel' the photo as much as I have a process that works when I apply it. I think that is how a lot of artists work. I am still refining the process and trying to slow down and think more frequently and my percentages of 'good' photos is creeping up slowly. If you are one of the lucky few who has 'an eye', then good for you. If not, you might want to start thinking about the 'process of seeing'. Dorothea Lange said, "The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera."

Friday, January 10, 2014

B-W Color Film

What is that supposed to mean? Film is either b/w or it is color, right? Well, yes and no. We normally think of film this way, but there are cases where color film is developed in such a way that renders greyscale negatives and there are cases where film is "color" emulsion, but the only color used is black. Let me explain a little. All films use silver to make blacks and greys. This is how we normally think of b/w film. You expose it to light, the silver salts are reduced to varying degrees according to how many photons hit the crystals, the developer then converts those reduced salts to elemental silver which looks black. Ba-da-bing an image is seen in negative. Color film does the very same thing, only it adds layers of color dyes that are developed in similar ways. However, if you don't use the right chemicals to develop the dyes... if you use say Rodinal, you just get a plain old b/w photo. The silver is still developed as normal, but the dyes all wash away, undeveloped. This is the unfortunate fate of anyone still holding on to rolls of Kodachrome. That process is dead and no one is bringing it back. The chemicals and machinery that developed that very special film are gone. So if you have any, it is going to have to be developed as b/w. Sorry Paul Simon.

The other case I mentioned is with what is called "chromogenic" films. These are films that came out in the 80's to take advantage of the explosion in popularity of color negative films. Small labs found it more economical to harmonize on one process and develop everything with it. That is why in the 80's and 90's it got hard to find a lab that would develop straight b/w film in-house. Most small labs would mail it off to Kodak or Ilford or one of the big vendors that was still offering the process. Chromogenic films use black dyes to create the image. The process is just like developing color negative film, just without the colors at the end. I recently acquired some Ilford XP2 Super 400 film that expired in 2007. I exposed it in my Yashica Mat 124G at iso 250 and developed it in Unicolor C-41. Here are a few of the shots I took around the building I work in. Enjoy.

Winter Greenery

Baby barrel

Cactus blossoms