Essence of Holland

Days are getting shorter, up in the Northern hemisphere, and that also means I have little time left for blogging or for working on the pictures of today, after my walking tour of the day--35 kilometer in the area of Wieden and Weerribben, starting in the autumn mist. Kind of chilly to start your walk, but great for atmosphere in the photos. My favourite (at least when I made it) is this one of an old boat in an old canal (Arembergergracht, dug out in the 16th century, in the neighbourhood of Giethoorn, which is famous for its little canals). Parallel planes to suggest depth, the mist adds to the atmospheric perspective, and hardly any colour apart from the grass in the foreground. Essence of Holland!



Last weekend, we visited the 'Noorder' Zoo in Emmen, but the only photo that I found interesting was not of exotic beasts. The hippos, elephants, leopards and what not are simply too exotic to make an interesitng picture. It is as if you are seeking the effect of stupefying your audience if you show these pictures. To make a picture convincing, you have to downplay the "surprise" effect of the zoo animals and do something surprising with a "normal" subject: an anti-zoo picture, as it were. My candidate is shown here: an ordinary grey heron--a bird that is getting all too common in the Netherlands--but if you ask me, crisply sharp with good colours against the blue (patch of) sky and in an unusual perspective.


Zen and photography

If you try the key words of this post's title in a search machine, chances are you stumble upon a website that is pretty good at showing photos fitting to this theme. Too bad that it has not been updated for a year: www.zenandphotography.com. Whatever the reason for the photographer's stopping, there are some nice pictures for our enjoyment.


Hardware again: what you see is...what you criticize

In this blog I wanted to focus on photos and their content. Still, every now and again I threw in some remarks on hardware (my camera's and lenses' limitations) and software (my use of LR2, for instance). So this time I cannot refrain from remarking on the use of a good monitor. I had the pleasure this week of trying out an Eizo monitor--not a super-professional one, but a 'mid-range' CE-series wide screen of 21" (Eizo CE210W). Something a serious amateur might still afford. And was it an eye opener! It promises to show sRGB, not the biggest colour space, but at least they say what the monitor can do--you don't find that on the "normal" brand monitors.

And the combination of good colour representation and a fairly good size (21" as I said, 1600x1000 pixels (rounded down)) gives you a very crisp and detailed view of your photos. They never looked as bad as this--gee, does one get critical of sharpness, colours, and all other technicalities! So again, I am not writing about photo content, but a good monitor shows how many conditions have to be fulfilled before you can start thinking about a good photo. It gets ever more difficult--but I'll keep going! Stay tuned, once we'll get there. I hope...

Now this focus on sharpness, colour space and what not may be a typical photo-club amateur view: do you have to be technically perfect to make a photo that is saying something to your viewers? Does technical perfection not stand in the way of creativity, intuition, use of the 'decisive moment'? Is it not a problem of photo-club pictures that they are always striving for technical perfection only, forgetting about the artistic communication?

I suppose that there is a bit of a tension there, and that many amateurs (including me) should try to focus more on the content than on the form/technicalities. There is another side to it, of course: creativity is not a license to ignore technical high standards (I don't want to say 'perfection'). And that can be trained; technical correctness must become like second nature, something you do without taking your thoughts from trying tomake a meaningful photo. In turn, that means photography has to be trained like any craft or skill: do it often. Repeat, repeat and repeat till you know what your camera and other equipment without do even looking at it. 'A thousand repetitions and suddenly perfection emerges from one's true self' How comes I end with a zen-saying again?


Work and pleasure

Last week I was out of the country, presenting my (and my colleagues') work at two conferences. Not a minute for serious photography, only the joy of having morning coffee in a medieval Italian monastery, now the Faculty of Economics of the University of Pavia--in dire need of restauration (it's Italy, after all), but still: that is the original environment for European universities!

The joy of photogaphy came with the occasion to experiment with the A700's highest sensitivity settings: ISO 6400 and 3200, respectively (reduced jpegs of the otherwise unchanged RAW photo's). Especially ISO 6400 is close to useless; ISO 3200 is not bad for the purpose of documenting a late-evening tour of a vinyard.

And then there was the visit to the Certosa di Pavia. "ABC" in kids' jargon: Another Beautiful Church. Very beautiful, but not a place for very interesting photos. What can you add to all the beauty of the craftsmen of the 14th-16th centuries? I was reasonably satisfied with only two photos, and that for technical reasons mostly: I more or less mastered some challenges--next time I want to make some real nice pictures with that technical knowledge...

In the first, I wanted to make the craftsmen's beauty visible in a picture of a detail of a pillar plus the painted vault. To show both, I used the built-in flash of the camera with slow sync (otherwise the vault would have remained dark). The amount of light in the background satisfied me quite a lot. Of course, as a tourist on a conference, I did not come with a tripod, so the result is not quite sharp, but for a 0.7" picture it's not bad. And Lightroom 2 (great new options in this version--a must-have!) helped to sharpen it a little.
The other one, the church's facade, needed Photoshop to readjust the falling lines of the 16-mm perspective: I wanted to capture a lot of clouds above the church so in the fleeting moment when the light was right, I just had to shoot a bit upwards. When that was done, Lightroom 2 was used to make up for my lack of a gradual neutral-density filter; one of Lr2's new options is the 'graduated filter' and that helped to bring the picture back to the impression that the situation had made in reality.


Composition with balls?

Sometimes, I don't quite know what to do with a photo. Take this one. I was attracted by the bunch of balls lying on the training field--the sportsmen and -women were probably gone for a break, or the trainer was preparing for the next bunch of kids coming. It was a funny picure, I thought, with the uniform green (artificial 'grass'), straight lines and the random composition of balls. But due to practical limitations (I had to take my pictures from the outside of the terrain, from the sidewalk in the street), I could not get a shot without the messy surroundings of the border of the field, stuff lying around, etc. And now I'm stuck for good ideas: how to maintain the feel of the area, and yet make it better than this messy snapshot? Cropping does not work well, I think, and that is the only trick I can think of. But I want to keep that one ball in the background, which gives some feeling of depth, or continuity that helps to make it authentic rather than a purpose-made composition. Wish I could go back, but the summer season is over around here, and anyway another time the trainer will not have had the same luck with his random throwing around of the balls.
If I succeed in making a better picture out of it, I'll let you know! Just remind me if I forget...


Just pulling some strings: what cropping can do

I was just toying around with a photo from last weekend's basket makers. One had some handmade rope lying on the table, and I found the forms of it irresistible: the mix of order (nicely wound up, tied together, and the rope itself, made of twisted fibres) and irregularity (visibly hand-made) did it, I guess. And then the question is: what is a good format for showing that? The square one, with two bundles that seem to go away from one another as your eye moves from left to right (as Europeans tend to do), or more simply, focusing even more by 'pulling the strings' of the cropping tool so that you see only one bundel of it. Should I have cropped even more and take away all of the burgundy background? Naaah, I feel like having a glass of red wine anyway ;-)


A shot returned: Reaction from Kyuodokas

A very kind and enthusiastic reaction came from Jeanet Pot, the Sempai of the kyudo group that I photographed in Noordwolde. They were happy with the photos that I had sent them; they did not often get good pictures showing the concentration of the archers.

Looking at the Dutch kyudo association's website, I can understand her enthusiasm a little. The professional-looking picture at the home page apart, the pictures made to document different events were, well, amateurish. Alright--to everyone their own hobby and their own effort at excellence.


Zen among the willows

Saturday we visited the 'Vlechtdagen', the fair for basketmakers in Noordwolde, in the North of the Netherlands, where they have a museum devoted to this old craft. My wife loves to put her energy into folding, weaving and sometimes even beating the twigs into shape. My interest would be more in the surroundings, to see if some more abstract or architectural theme would offer itself. And it did! But there was more for my photography than expected.

The fair's theme this year was 'Japan', with a show of marvellous Japanese basketry--even interesting to people like me who are not into making willow baskets. Photography inside was not allowed, so I can show you only one little picture ;-) of a creation called Connection, made by one Takeo Tanabe. The original plan had been to invite the artists (rather than just artisans) from Japan to demonstrate their skill, but apparently the organisers' funds were not quite sufficient to make that possible. Too bad! I would have loved to see these people at work: would they be able to concentrate on the precise detail in the hum of a fair? Would they work fast as in a routine, or slowly as monks?
We had to make do with mainly Dutch and German basketmakers; an example from my wife's favourites at 'De Mythe' is shown here.

But we were also given the chance of some other Japanese arts and besides the ubiquitous bonsai tree pruning, they had something rather more special. Didn't I write about kyudo, the martial art of archery, before? A Dutch group gave a beautiful demonstration of what I might translate as the essence of photography: prepare your materials, yourself, and then wait for the right moment to let go. A lesson in Zen-plicity, which I involuntarily started to mimick with my camera while watching them go through their ceremony. With one little difference: they had one arrow, and I had 5 frames per second... Hopefully, they'll forgive this novice for cheating on the rules a little ;-)