Little Technique and Lots of Sinplicity

Photographers' clubs tend to give a lot of attention to technicalities: what is the camera with most pixels? Which lens has the highest resolution? Was that picture exposed perfectly? Should it have been photoshopped more? Sometimes they even look at what is in the picture: Did it follow the Rules of Composition? (The capitals are intentional: some people seem to believe that there is a golden set of rules for perfect pictures--my point of view is that rules may help avoid errors, but great pictures break The Rules in a creative manner. But that is stuff for another time.)

Of course this is an exaggeration, because there are also quite many amateur photographers who are interested in what the picture says. But most, I think, prefer to stay on the safe side, and techniques make up a more 'secure' area than artistic aspects.

From a technical point of view, the picture below is hardly acceptable. It was made with the camera of my mobile phone, with only 2 megapixels. And even in the phone cameras there are technical differences: my previous phone, a SonyEricsson, made much better pictures of 2 megapixel than my current one, an HTC. But the point I want to make is precisely that pixels are not all. Nor is it a problem, I think, that there is some glare from a lamp in the left bottom corner--on the contrary, it adds to the charm. To me, this picture of a staircase in a somewhat rundown hotel in Oslo (Norway) is charming because of the pattern, the spiraling lines of the staircase, the repeating pattern of open metal circles, and the contrast between the staircase itself which is rather modernist and the handrail with its flowers and frills. Also the pattern of light and shadow in the upper left corner adds to the picture, repeating the staircase pattern and breaking the monotony of the white wall.

By the way, the picture was not photoshopped (to answer the photographers' clubmember's question). All corrections were made in Lightroom: I cooled the too warm whites, desaturated the still predominant yellow tones and gave a little more vibrance to the colours to maintain the wooden character of the handrail.

Another thing: this is the second picture in this blog of a staircase. Yes, I admit I have something with stairs. I find them interesting symbolically, or socially: they connect levels, they are symbols of communication. But I also find them interesting photographically. I like anything with repeating patterns, I guess, but especially if the repetition is not quite perfect, as in pictures of staircases: steps vanish in the distance, getting perspectivally smaller or changing from sharply focused to vague. And spiral staircases are even more special, because they add the element of turning steps. Not simplicity but sinplicity (simplicity-with-a-twist), in the term that happened to enter my blog accidentally.


New slideshow

OK, it's not a major contribution, but I have changed the slideshow in the sidebar to another album. This month, it's travel photography you can see, made earlier in 2008 in Taiwan (cities of Taipeh, Tainan and Puli with the Sun-Moon Lake).

For major contributions, I need more time off from work. Stay tuned, it'll come...


Close-Up and (Im-)Personal

Getting close to my idea of what makes a picture worth showing, is picturing a (little) bit of reality, something you and I and everyone may walk past daily, but that you never looked at in this way. Close-up and macro photography of inanimate, impersonal objects holds this type of charm for me. 'This way' and 'charm' are meant to avoid the word 'beauty'. Of course, an object may be beautiful in obvious ways, but I think I often prefer the hidden beauty of decay, of past glory.

Take this close-up of some kind of agricultural machine, shot in the neighbourhood of an old shed in a rural part of Holland. You maybe never saw how it had 'lived' and worked, grown old, used, worn-down, and rusted. It may be paradoxical that this has to do with the passage of time: how can you show time in a still picture? The stillness and restfulness of this machine part is emphasised in the simple and quiet compostion: in a single plane, parallel to the plane of the picture and with diffuse natural light. Two bolt-like things form an imaginary, visual, practically horizontal line. To the right there then is a vertical line to break--and in that way at the same time stress--the horizontal main line in the composition. A little bit of Mondriaan in a real-world object.

Yet the rust and wear show clearly that this thing has been out and about for a long time. The bolts or axes or whatever they are, are completely rusted and can never be undone anymore. Moreover, in the composition, the imagined horizontal line between the bolts is not quite horizontal and that gives some movement to the picture; movement is time. So both object and composition tell about time, its passage, and what this has done to the object.

That, in turn, makes the inanimate object something personal to me, worth looking at, worth showing to you.


Birds on the wing

Who cares about rules of beauty if nature shows all its beauty? When shooting, all I worry about is: do I get those fast birds in the picture, and in focus? The rest is for post-processing: synchronising the colour temperature to daylight (I leave the camera on automatic white balance--it's in Raw anyway), taking a few tenths off the exposure to keep the white from being too white (in the case of the single wader) or increasing it a few tenths to show some detail in the dark parts (in the case of the geese), and cutting off the foreground and background (too much sea and air in both cases). For the rest: pure nature!



It had never entered my mind, so to speak, to sail in a balloon, but with luck, we had won a ticket for such an experience. To prepare myself, I had leafed through Yann Arthus-Bertrand's book 'La terre vue du ciel' again. I noticed that many of his pictures had dramatic lighting: the sun low in the sky made for long shadows and warm colours. Can't be too difficult, once you're in a balloon, I thought. How wrong I was! Not a single picture good enough to be compared with his! Not that the weather was not good enough. Beautiful setting sun, spring giving trees the freshest colours of green imaginable and blossom as well, nothing was lacking. But there simply was not enough light to take pictures at a low ISO-setting (to avoid noise), with a decent aperture to have enough depth of field ( around f/5.6 or f/8) and a shutter speed fast enough to avoid blurring. Yet I have a camera with built-in stabilizer (must make all those Nikon and Canon owners jealous ;-) ), which should add a few light values (EV) to what you can shoot without a tripod, still it did not work well enough! The two pictures that came closest to what I had expeced to make, you can see below. Some of the others are on display at my Picasa site. If you don't know how perfect they should have been (in my mind), perhaps they're not too bad... Of course, in the Picasa set there are also a number that were made for the others that shared the balloon flight rather than 'serious' pictures for the discerning few that read this blog.


Truth and Beauty

Should I have photoshopped the spiral stairway picture to get rid of the reflections in the glass? How much 'correction' is allowed in pictures? What is the balance between truth and beauty? Of course, this has been a discussion almost since the beginning of photography in the mid-19th century. But it has not been finally solved and the possibilities to manipulate pictures have become larger, more sophisticated and available to almost anyone with Photoshop, The Gimp and all the other software packages. It is another subject that will return in this blog every now and again, for I keep struggling with it.

The idea 'photo = truth' has been naive from the very outset. At best, a picture gives a little part of the truth: that which can be seen in a certain light, at a certain location in place and time and in a certain frame. It never is 'the whole truth': there is so much else that was not photographed at the same moment! Photo journalism and documentary photography rely on their telling bits of truth: JFK shot, the misery of the homeless, etc. But was Robert Capa's dying soldier in the Spanish Civil War real or was it a staged picture? Does it make a difference for the message Capa was trying to give? The picture functioned as if it were real and maybe that is enough. Yet it undermines the trust in pictures telling the truth if it were a staged picture; it would detract from the effectiveness of messages of photographs in the long run. So let us hope that evidence will be found that it was real in the famous briefcase full of Capa's negatives that was recently found.

But my pictures are not documentary, they are more about beauty than about truth. Still, to me photography has to do with 'reality out there'. Shaping 'alternate realities' on the computer screen with the aid of photographic images is not my thing. But a little embellishment is not a problem to me. At first I thought that I would draw the line at the tricks that I could do in the chemical dark room: leaving out the unnecessary foreground by enlarging just part of the picture, a little dodging and burning, or correcting the perspective. But the temptation of further corrections is so large: removing red eyes in flash pictures, retouching a few blemishes on the skin (makes the portrayed person much happier), and ... and there you go. Where is the end? Is it a matter of ethics, of communicative effectiveness, of phantasy?

Anyhow, in this picture--another one of the street snapshots from the Queen's Birthday--I did do some retouching, just to reduce a little bit the white glare of the sun on the woman's forehead. Now that is not too much beauty for truth, is it?


Almelo by night

Yesterday evening, three of the Fotoclub went to look for some architectural pictures agains the light sky in neighbouring town Almelo. We ended up, after looking at some other places witout feeling inspired, at one of the obvious spots: the headquarters of the 'Waterschap' (water district board). I was not very successful in finding something new to show. How much can you do with a building? The reflection of lamps and the sky just after sunset on the blueish building and in the water were good enough for one picture. The other one is a detail of the building: somehow I find stairways intriguing, and this spiral one looked just right with the added frame of the window. Should I have photoshopped the bluish reflection of the sky in the glass away?

Queen's Birthday

Today is the Queen's (official) Birthday. Spent the whole morning with my daughter, she trying to sell toys for which she grew too 'big', me looking at the people passing by. Just a few pics...