Oscar van Alphen - Dutch photographer

Photo magazine 'Focus' in its December 2008 issue has an article on photographer Oscar van Alphen--a bit of an advertorial, since they are publishing a book about him. I did not find his documentary photos that remarkable, but was triggered by the remark that he was a pioneer because of his 'asking often fundamental questions about the medium that others found to be essential only much later'. How could I--thinking that I too am interested in the question of what does photography do?--be unaware of him?

After all, he is mentioned in the standard anthology 'Fotografen in Nederland' (not at Amazon, but sold by Proxis) and there I may find the clue why I was not triggered to his work: one of his major books is praised for being an 'associative whole' and that is the type of artistry that puts me off: I want a formal Auseinandersetzung with basic questions, even if I have to admit that photography works more directly through the senses than through formal logic and reasoning. At least you should know why it works the way it works, I'd think. Stil this Van Alphen seems an interesting guy to look into. Some of his photos from Amsterdam (oh, how 1968!) are found at the local council archive, and one of his apparently most famous installations is revived in an exhibition right now in the Rotterdam Fotomuesum.

If I find time [big if!], I'll check his basic questions (he wrote some books about photography) and then I'll come back to him in due course.


Calibration frustration

To be honest, one reason for concentrating on black-and-white prints (next to the artistic value of which I really am convinced!) was that I found my HP Photosmart Pro to make colour prints too yellowish. Yet at least the family's holiday pictures should come out in colour, right?

The camera club just bought a Colormunki, to ensure calibration of monitors as well as printers. The salesman all but promised us salvation: this was to be the ideal apparatus for the job. And X-Rite quite kindly allows you to register the Colormunki for the whole camera club, for all its computers! But first results are frustrating: far from perfect colour prints yet! Too much green now, if you'd ask me—there is change, but little improvement. And don't blame the HP printer—club-colleague Louis has similar problems with his Canon printer. We'll have to dive deeply into switches, manuals, colour spaces, etc. in the hope to find a solution...

Here's the photo I was testing with: subtle stone hues—the picture works well in black-and-white, in fact! ;-) To add to the frustration, this 2005 picture (taken in Bordeaux, France) I took to a digital demonstration day of the national photographers' association, BNAFV, a month or so later, and the guys demonstrating the Epson R1800[?] got a perfect print right from the memory card!

To be continued, I fear...


Black-and-white photographers, be free!

A simple trick I finally learned from Lightroom is how in black-and-white photography, we should feel free from the rules. Until recently, when making a black-and-white print, I started from a colour picture that was more or less optimised. Not completely finished for printing in colour, but with colours corrected, the right white balance, etc. With some (pedantic) disdain, I never used Lightroom's presets to convert that picture into black-and-white, but did so by and, fiddling carefully with the greyscale controls that work more or less like the channel mixer in Photoshop: you can control how light or dark eight parts of the spectrum (from red to yellow, to purple and magenta) will be represented. And then I'd adjust the overall contrast to get nice dark, yet sufficiently detailed shadows and good highlights. That was before LR2; since then I'd add some dashing and burning in parts of the picture.

Once I tried the LR presets though and found that they used different effects: no use of the grayscale mix at all, but simple desaturation and ruthless adjustment of exposure and white balance! I won't follow their route completely; I'll keep using the grayscale mix to have better control of how my blues (sky!), reds (skin!) and greens (plants!) are converted into tones of grey, but radically changing the white balance (usually to a low temperature setting, say 4000 K) was an eye-opener that helps to get strong effects that work well in black-and-white. For it is the effect that counts, and we are not accountable for the numbers of the colour temperature to be correct!

The photos are symbolic of 'working'--seemed fitting to today's theme. They were was taken in Hanoi, earlier this month.

Alea iacta… Another competition

Not sure if I'm testing myself or the juries, but I just sent in three photos to a national competition, the BNAFV's first-ever 'Foto Online'. At first I though I would not do it, expecting thousands of photographers to take part. But a few days ago we got a reminder saying that there were 180 participants. Well, then I could give it a go—basically with the same photos that I submitted for the regional contest less than a month ago. I redid the black-and-white one for which I got the comment that is at too grey and 'murky'; tried to strengthen the drama and contrast in the air. I still like the picture of this strange building in Almere, and am curious if I'll get similar comments from this national jury.

The other one from the regional contest that I submitted, was the allium (from our own garden, taken as a test-picture on the first evening that I had my Alpha700), again because I like it and also a little bit because someone in the audience found that it deserved a higher grade.

And you're welcome to comment too, of course!


Vaut le voyage: Berlin

No picture to stake my claim—sorry for that, folks! But my visit to Berlin this week was only for a meeting. The meeting was long, the stay was short, the weather was bad and the camera was at home. Yet even from the bus between the airport and the city centre it was more than obvious that this is a place for great photography of different types. Modern architecture on a grand scale, to begin with, of course! And many photographers know that, for in the regional competition, there were photos from the Sony office in Berlin by three contestants (one of them was awarded—too much competition for the others). The grey November day was a good backdrop for the buildings with the lights on everywhere, taking you just this step beyond standard architectural photography. Dreary days may make for good photo opportunities! And then of course the people in the streets and their ways to protect themselves from rain and cold, made up another bunch of objects for pictures.

Maybe I'll be more lucky when I go there next—or my camera club should make a trip there. Obviously, many others have done so already, but that still makes one's fingers itch: by pointing my camera a little different, by finding that great light, by releasing the shutter at exactly the right moment... We might shoot that wished-for winner!


Pioneers of Travel Photography – Vaut le détour

The Teylers Museum in Haarlem has an exhibition of 19th century travel photography, bringing together photos from the national Rijksmuseum (still in a state of mess due to over-long reconstruction works) and its own collection. The collection of tremendous, detailed, purely registering, photos is worth going to Haarlem for if you happen to be in Holland—'vaut le détour' in terms of the Guides Michelin. You have time to make the detour until the turn of the year; the exhibition lasts until 4 January 2009. As I happen to live in that country, I went to see the exhibition.

'Purely registering' I said, thinking back to the comments from Frank Boots. These pictures had no pretension to make an impression as artistic images, but only to show those back home the exotic world beyond one's own town and region. And we should remember that until the mid-20th century for most Europeans town and region made up the ambit of their geographical and cultural knowledge. Alright, the bourgeoisie, the intended audience of these photos, may have travelled a little further: I'm still impressed with the stories from late-19th century novelists who took up residence in Southern France or even Italy for the winter and coming home to northern Europe only when the weather was supportable there, in summer. Or who made their career in the colonies. Those people travelled, spoke their languages (at least French), and had a broad view on cultures and cultural differences. Those differences must have been much larger than now, with our globalised culture: whether they call it MacDo in French or MacDonald's in English, you find the same fast-food counters everywhere, the same fashion shops, etc. Alright, there are some variations in the fast food assortment per country, and size schedules for fashion differ a little depending on the usually wider shoulders and hips in e.g. Germany compared to Southern Europe. But those are details, compared to the wide variety of local food, local dress, etc. of the 19th century.

But even then: to see photos from other continents must have been a stunning experience in itself to the 19th century audience. No need to do anything artistic; these pictures brought Das Andere suddenly close to many people. 'Registering' that was more than enough. Everyone knew about the hardships of the audacious men (and a few women) who made expeditions to wild places—they could read that from the pictures just by seeing the exotic buildings, landscapes, ruins and—a little later—the 'types' of the peoples from those world regions in their typical state of (un)dress. So 'registering', 'documenting' was what they did in tremendous detail. What a richness of grey tones (of all shades from cold to warm/sepia)—no graphic blacks and whites! What a cornucopia of details in every picture—no cropped buildings or portraits for them, but full shots!

Do the photos show European superiority as it was believed in during the 19th century? It was the time of establishment of vast colonial empires by European countries, after all. In a way, the pictures cannot but be a show of European superiority: Europeans took those pictures—they had the technology, they looked through the viewfinders (or how do you call it with those big glass plate cameras?), they released the shutters. And yes, there were some indications of Western supremacy in some photos. Not that there were any hunting scenes, with the white man standing proudly with a foot on the killed tiger, elephant or hippopotamus. But it was revealing enough to see "our camp" as the caption of a photo of tents among the ancient ruins. Or to see the new railway bridge, with a steam train running over it, above the old and decrepit rope bridge deeper in the valley of the Padanger highlands on Java. Yet for the most part, it was not superiority, but astonishment at the diversity, the other-ness that struck me in those pictures. They were an effort, according to me, to show those back home how strangely beautiful the world was.

Forced by the technique, no doubt, but fitting in that idea of showing in as few hard-to-come-by photos as much as possible, they not only show a number of details that we now would divide up across half a dozen of pictures at least, but they also were sharp from front to horizon, a depth-of-field that we almost find overwhelming.

In short: have a look if you can, also at the amazing stereoscopic pictures in the Kaiserpanorama.

By the way: the picture in this entry of Gizeh in the late 19th or early 20th century was googled from the Internet, and I believe it to be not copyrighted.


Photographers, be free!

When we heard Frank Boots, spokesman of the jury and president of the national association BNAFV, explain his judgements on the photos in the regional contest, two remarks stood out for me.

The first was that amateur photographers are not accountable to anyone. We should feel free to make any photo we like. He did not go into that any further, but he must have meant something like our not being bound to be faithful to nature or facts, since we are not journalists or documentary photographers. Nor are we bound by the canons of art—Mr. Boots made this remark as something coming out of a public discussion he had had with a museum director. That part of his implication was not so clear to me: I thought that if any group were good at breaking canons and being free, it was artists.

His second remark was that there were typical camera club pictures: details of buildings, dilapidated window sills, and similar still-life pictures. Or portrait and model pictures that were neat, pretty-pretty. Mr. Boots wanted more than that, wanted something 'crazy', something personal, something (in the words of last year's jury in the same regional contest) 'authenticity'.

The photo that goes along with this blog, then must be an homage to camera club traditions, but after his remarks I did put it through Lightroom once more to make it something a little more personal. I'll spare you the details, but in the words of Dolly Parton, 'it takes a whole lotta money to look this cheap'—it took me a whole lot of fiddling around to make it look this cheap. By the way, the photo was made last week in Vietnam, just a wall on a street in Bat Trang, a village near Hanoi.


Gained in Translation – Award Gained and Hall of Fame

Not being a native English speaker, I make my share of errors in using that language. Only recently did I learn, for instance, that my expression ‘photo club’ is not the common one—it should have been ‘camera club’. To soem extent, that would have been the better translation too! For the Photo club I belong to, often is much more of a Camera club: the guys keep talking about new cameras, selling their old gear and buying new, etc. Much less talk is about making photos. Until recently! Last club evening was surprising in that we talked about taking pictures and about how to get the best prints from them. So for the first time it really was a ‘Photo club’ rather than a ‘Camera club’—something was gained in my wrong translation!

And it seems that this attention to photos instead of cameras and other gear paid off! Because even more recently, even more was gained. For the third year in a row our camera club (let’s use the official term) took part in the regional competition for best photos and best club. The first year, 2006, I was on my own as the others who had agreed to send in some photos withdrew at the last moment. Last year, in 2007, we still had one drop-out and instead of the ten pictures, we only sent in eight. Therefore we did not qualify for the club competition. But the good news was that one of the photos was selected for the exhibition of the thirty to forty best of the region; it was Eric’s English landscape with hay stacks. But this year we had a full contribution and although most of our club’s pictures were just average, according to the jury, Louis’s ‘Escalator’ gained the award for best individual picture! It got a ‘gold sticker’, meaning it was judged ‘excellent’.

In terms of competitions, that was the best performance ever of our (dare I say it?) Photo club. The only thing that came close was my gaining a ‘silver sticker’ in a national competition with a colour slide of a landscape in Zion National Park, Utah, USA. That was back in 1992 or 1993, when we all were so much younger. And when digital photography was still much beyond our horizon. And I’m still not happy with the scan I once made of it—nothing beats the translucent quality of good old colour slides!

So here’s our Photo[!] Club’s ‘Hall of Fame’! Funny that in both pictures, patterned lines play a major role.


Raindrops on a window--a window of opportunity

Filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami published a book with major publisher Gallimard, called Pluie et vent (Rain and wind), filled with photos of one night's rainstorm. The little note about the book in Air France's inflight magazine (Nov. '08) went accompanied by a photo much like one I saw from Mr. E. in my photoclub, of raindrops on a window pane--his was nicer because he had mini-mirrors of the brick pattern of a wall a few metres behind the wet window. And just for fun, I add some drops from this afternoon's rainshower on my home window...

It's just that we amateurs don't think of turning such pictures into a book. Is seeing such a commercial window of opportunity the difference between amateurs and (successful) artists? (Damien Hirst was mentioned on the same page of the inflight magazine--talking of commercial windows of opportunity...)


Pictures at conferences

Tomorrow I'll be a speaker in a conference, so it will not be my task to take pictures. But if it is your task or wish to do so, clicking here will lead you to some good tips--and nice examples as well of lively portraits and overviews.


Flooding around Hanoi

Heavy rains led to floodings in Northern Vietnam and Southern China, maybe you heard it in the news. In the Hanoi area, around 50-60 people lost their lives. When I landed at the Hanoi airport, just after the weekend, the rain had stopped (more or less), but along the road between the airport and the city, flooding was only too visible: rice fields were drowned, people were fishing where they ought to be tending the rice.

This is cause for documentary photography! The facts must be made known, esthetics should be second-place considerations.

Still, esthetic questions do turn up: the facts should be put into pictures that are remembered as pictures. One of mine is a clear failure--it is so bad I hardly dare show it, but since it is the only one of the occasion, still I leave the picture here where behind the motorbike two men are lowering a net into the water (the last photo in this entry).
Documentary photography is often black-and-white. Black-and-wite is associated with misery, apparently. I tried, quickly, to see if the following pictures were better in black-and-white, but to my mind the (subdued) colours do not detract from the message.
Since these were all made from the car driving by, I did not hesitate to use cropping to these pictures, and I even burned the sky in the first picture shown, one with the two guys wading through the water to their chest (great tool in Lightroom, this graduated filter!). It may be getting to the limit of keeping truth in documentary photography...

I'm glad I saw nothing worse than this. Wouldn't make a good journalist, would I?


Noise reduced: firmware update Sony A700

Good to have a photoclub, for I had not been paying attention to the Sony website lately: a new version of the firmware for the A700 was published already in September! Version 4 is meant to tackle my main issue with the A700: noise in high sensitivity settings. Or more completely (from Sony Europe):

* The choice to select auto exposure bracketing (single & continuous) with 3 shots in 2 EV steps has been added. [That is nice for HDR pictures! I'd like to start that discipline once.]
* The choice to turn [Off] the High ISO NR feature has been added. [Great! I want to be in control.]
* Improvement of the image quality in high ISO setting. [This is the main improvement for me]
* Improvement of the auto white balance and D-Range Optimizer performance. [One of my reasons for always shooting RAW is that the auto-white was not always to be trusted. I'll keep shooting RAW, though. I don't use the D-range optimiser; also a matter of wanting to control things myself.]
* Improvement of reliability for communication between camera body and vertical grip. [Don't have that thing.]

Of course I immediately made a quick try of higher ISO settings. My impression is that ISO 1600 is as good now as ISO 800 was: quite usable. There is a visible reduction in quality from ISO 1600 to 3200. See first set of compared photos. This (out-of-focus) detail from the top-left corner of a picture shows this effect.

The settings of the noise reduction do make a difference. My impression is that setting the noise reduction to 'high' is a big improvement for larger areas, but may make edges and shadows a bit too 'rough'. Look at the left side of the picture frame in the comparison of two photos below.

Thanks to Dieter for telling me about the firmware update!