“Taking Pictures” and the Death of “Photography” in the Digital Age

This article probably makes me sound more like a jaded, pretentious, and bitter old man who still remembers using glass negatives than a twenty year old college student, but the field of photography has changed dramatically over even the last 10 years, and I’m not sure I like where it’s going.

I say ten years because that’s about when the Nikon D1– the first “affordable” digital SLR– came out, and digital photography started its slow but exponential take-off. But we don’t even have to go that far back; let’s just go back 5 years to my freshman year in high school. At this point, when I started photography, we had a decent darkroom setup with about 30 enlargers, as well as rolling rooms, a developing room, and a color darkroom for the “advanced” students. There wasn’t even a computer in sight. Now jump ahead to my junior year, 3 years ago. The school bought a mac and an Epson 4800, and opened up a digital photography class. Most people were still working with film, but the change was happening.

Now jump ahead to the present. A few months ago, I went back and visited the school, only to find the photo department in the middle of some remodeling. They were taking out the darkroom, leaving only one enlarger for the truly hardcore, and replacing the enlargers in all of the other slots with computers. One of the few places new photographers still had the opportunity to get their hands dirty with real film and real, careful, developing processes was going out of business.

Some might argue the rise of digital photography has helped make “photography” more easily accessible to everyone, but I don’t think this is true. I think it has just given more people the ability to “take pictures.” You would be hard pressed to find someone coming out of my high school’s photography program now who even knows how to manually focus a camera, or who takes the time to carefully adjust the composition and exposure of his photograph in the field because he will be able to so easily just “photoshop it” later. In making this diluted, snapshot form of photography so easily accessible, I think the rise of digital has drastically lowered public appreciation for the work of truly talented photographers.

Back in the “good old days,” I think it was fairly common to think of Ansel Adams as a skilled and masterful artist. Now, when I go to a photo gallery with my friends, the contemporary photographer on display might have taken some nice photos, but most of my friends “could have taken that same photo if they were just there and had a better camera.” Things like Photoshop filters have enabled them to make even their poorly executed photos look neat. So now, rather than simply appreciating the time and effort the other photographer has put into his work, they sit around stroking their egos, trying to convince themselves that the photographer isn’t all that great and that they could have done better. If you don’t believe me, let’s take a look at some examples from flickr.

Here are two photos which I believe are really beautiful. At the time of this writing, one had 19 views, 5 comments, and 2 favorites. The other had 7 views and 3 comments, one of which was my own.

By efemerydy

Merveillous sunset at the sustenpass by Abderhalden Sandro

In short, that’s real photography that took time and effort, and might not actually be so easy to duplicate; i.e. my friends probably couldn’t have taken them. And people don’t like these.

Now here are some examples of, simply put, bad photography that people love.

Back Hill by n.s.c.

That is a ridiculously over-processed image with nothing of interest going on, so it is probably true that anyone could have taken this photo. It has 104 views, 19 comments, and 3 favorites.

Just enjoying the day by mystafied

Another uninteresting, easily reproducible photo. 44 views, 25 comments, 1 favorite.

It almost seems like photography has lost its status as an art (I would guarantee that “art” galleries outnumber photography galleries at least 5:1). Professionalism no longer seems to have any value. Rather, people seem to seek out amateur qualities in artwork so they can comment on how they could have done better. Sadly, true beauty means nothing when competing with self-interest and narcissism.

Photography is, without a doubt, changing right now. It’s just not clear whether it will become something new and amazing or merely a shadow of its former self.

Posted in Photography Technology, Rants and Raves | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Which HDR Software is Best? A Quick Review of (Almost?) All the Options Out There

You’ve all probably seen an HDR (High Dynamic Range) image, whether you recognized it or not. They’re those highly dramatic, often very stylized, photos that can be either beautiful or ugly as sin, and they’re all a result of software technology that came out about 3-4 years ago. I first read about (and subsequently started, then fell in love with) the process in a May 2007 article in Popular Science. The article listed a few options for HDR programs, and since then I’ve tried out all those options, and then some. So, is it worth giving all of the software out there a try, or will you just be wasting your time?

Qtpfsgui: Free

A really strange name for a really strange program. It is free, open source software, so of course I tried it first, but I found it’s not even worth the download. It can do a rudimentary job of merging images into an HDR, and you might even be able to do something that vaguely resembles tone-mapping them, but you simply are not going to get usable results. My first images with this program were just a very crude estimation of the examples I had seen in the article. In short, though it is free, it will probably just turn you off HDR entirely.

Adobe Photoshop CS2+

Photoshops CS2, 3, 4, and 5 all have some form of HDR generation in them. I only have CS2, so I can only speak for it, and unfortunately, CS2 is not very useful for HDR processing. It can generate an HDR that might be fine for all I know, but it doesn’t have any dedicated tone-mapping tools, so unless your monitor can display 64-bit images (chances are, it can’t) you won’t be able to see a final product using CS2. Additionally, it simply won’t allow you to merge an HDR from a single RAW file. This isn’t technically “true HDR,” but I find it works fine in most cases, and it is your only option with fast moving subjects. So again, the lesson is you need dedicated HDR software, not just Photoshop.

FDRTools Basic/Advanced (Free/$50)

I tried the “Advanced” (full) version of this software. This might not be a fair review, but even after spending some time with it, I was not able to produce an image. I’m not sure if it was just because the interface was too confusing and unclear, or if the program was actually lacking necessary functionality. Whether it had the processing tools I needed or not, I wasn’t able to find them, so I have to give it a thumbs down for being poorly designed and hard (impossible?) to use, at the least.

HDR Expose: $150

This one’s getting expensive, and its feature list is so pretty, it must be good, right? Not as far as I could tell. It’s relatively new software that seemed very promising, and the company (Unified Color) is releasing even newer software (32 Float) at the end of August. Rather than simply tone-mapping the image, like any other software, it tries to have you work directly with the HDR image using “32-bit floating point precision.” Yeah, I’m not really sure what that’s supposed to mean either, but what ends up happening is: the image looks really bad, like any HDR before tone-mapping, because you’re still trying to look at the HDR. Additionally, the software is incredibly slow, taking more than twice as long to create an HDR than my favorite software.

Dynamic Photo HDR: $55

There are only two HDR programs out there that actually work, and that I could recommend. This is one of them, though it comes in second place. The software works decently, you can make good HDR photos with it, and there are a lot of developing/tone-mapping options. Too many in fact. And that’s really my only complaint about this software: there are two or three times as many options and sliders to play with in Dynamic Photo HDR as there are in my favorite program, so you can easily spend a lot more time playing with the images. However, this extra time seems to end up becoming wasted time. I processed the same photo in both programs, and though I spent a lot more time on it in Dynamic Photo HDR, the final product was almost identical. This happened multiple times too (not just a fluke). So which program is my favorite?

This one -> Photomatix Pro: $100

One of the oldest programs out there is also the best. Though the $100 sticker might seem a little expensive, you can also probably find some good discounts on it (I got a student version for $40). The program merges HDRs just fine, and during tone-mapping, you have enough options to be able to do whatever you want, without having so many that they become excessive and distracting. The only real complaint I’ve had about it is that I haven’t been able to get batch processing to work (if I try to generate the HDRs first, save them, then come back and tone-map them, the process never works. When I open a saved HDR file, it’s always severely damaged.) Despite this, the program is perfectly functional, and the interface is also very intuitive without sacrificing features.

In short, Photomatix Pro is still the HDR software to beat, and, for the time being at least, you can’t go wrong with it.

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Shown at Stella’s Coffeehaus

Just a little update from the world of Robobodo, three of my photos are being shown at Stella’s Coffeehaus (1476 South Pearl St., Denver, CO 80210) from now until September 29th. These are the three photos:

I also do want to say thank you to the owners of Stella’s and their artwork curator, Susan Bell. It’s always nice to get an excuse to print and frame some of my images :) Additionally, if you do live in the Denver area, you should consider submitting your artwork to the coffee shop. They are very supportive of emerging and amateur artists (photographers, painters, etc.) and it is a nice venue. They also often have live performances by unsigned musical artists and small bands. If you are interested in displaying artwork there, you can pick up submission guidelines in the store (they are unfortunately not available on the website) or contact Susan Bell with questions.

http://www.stellascoffee.com/

http://www.susanbellfineart.com/

1476 S. Pearl St.
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Incredible Documentary Photography by James Nachtwey

James Nachtwey has been a documentary photographer since 1981, when he went on his first foreign assignment to cover the IRA hunger strike in Ireland. Since then, he has worked in Afghanistan, South Africa, Rwanda, and Bosnia, among many others. The severe cost of many of the wars and social issues he has covered is clearly reflected in his incredible– and shocking– images.

http://www.jamesnachtwey.com/

"Pakistan, 2001 - A rehab center for heroin addicts."

"Afghanistan, 1996 - Mourning a brother killed by a Taliban rocket."

"Guatemala, 1983 - Clergy traveled in military helicopters to the mass of Pope John Paul II in the war zone."

http://www.jamesnachtwey.com/

Posted in Examples and Ideas | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

77 Beautiful Examples of Photography

This is not new content from me today, but I saw this post over at InstantShift and really wanted to share it with all of you. They title it somewhat strangely as “Mix Collection of 77 Brilliant Photography to Refresh your Mind” but a lot of the photographs are truly beautiful and surprising, and they cover a wide variety of subjects. I think they would be worth a few minutes of your time. All the images link back to the artists’ pages. Take a look!

http://www.instantshift.com/2010/08/06/mix-collection-of-77-brilliant-photographs-to-refresh-your-mind/

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Phantoms of Ancient Times: Some Photos from my Latest Trip to Hungary

I realized that, for a photo blog, there weren’t many photos up here yet. So, without further ado, here are some of my images from my trip home to Hungary in July. Bear with me, the urban setting was a little different from my usual subject matter…

Posted in My Photography, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Buying a New Camera? Why Not to Wait for EVIL to Rule the World

This is another topic inspired by my friends thinking about getting into serious photography. When I say serious photography, I don’t mean getting a compact Coolpix or Powershot and taking snapshots of random events, people, and places in your life. I mean getting an SLR (Single Lens Reflex) or d(igital)SLR where you can control everything about the camera, and where it is up to you to take properly exposed and carefully composed images.

So let’s say you’re like my friend– thinking about seriously getting into photography. I’ll explain in an upcoming post why I (heavy-heartedly) recommend going digital over analog, but let’s say you are planning on getting a digital camera. You’re really just trying to decide between the EOS 50D and the D40 when you hear about a new kind of camera: EVIL. It’s kind of a silly acronym that stands for Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens. The Electronic Viewfinder part of that means it’s more like a compact camera, in that a prism and mirrors don’t reflect the light from the lens to the viewfinder (like in an SLR) but rather the sensor is constantly recording information and the scene is shown on a screen somewhere. And I don’t think I need to explain what interchangeable lens means.

Why should you worry about this kind of camera? Well, another blog thinks it is promising enough to provide 5 Reasons to Ditch your dSLR. No offense, but I would disagree with them. They’re five reasons are:

1. “They’re small.” This is really the only thing they have going for them. Yes, they’re closer to the size of a compact than a dSLR, so they are more portable. But put on a 200-400mm lens and suddenly the whole package is just as big as a dSLR, probably with worse weight balance.

2. “They take great pictures.” This is debatable. I have friend who think iPhones take “great pictures,” but I would still take my D2x over an iPhone any day. Furthermore, this point is based on the fact that they have larger sensors, similar to those in dSLRs, rather than the miniature kind in compacts. But if sensor size were the only contributing factor to image quality, why are there five cameras in the Nikon dSLR line with the same, DX size sensor? And why do their prices range from $500 to $1700?

3. “You can change lenses.” You can do this with a dSLR too. This is not a new benefit.

4. “They’re fast.” So are dSLRs. Again, nothing new.

5. “They don’t scream ‘Look at me!'” This is just another way of saying “they’re small.” Because they don’t have a mirror, they are admittedly quieter as well, but these two benefits don’t outweigh…

The Cons

As of right now, there are only two EVIL camera lines out there: Olympus Pen and Sony Nex. The first big con is that they are so new that there are relatively few lenses available for either. But more importantly, the cameras in these lines retail for about $600-1200. This is the price range for a decent dSLR, which is fine if you accept the EVIL camera as a product of comparable quality. But take a look at the Sony Nex 3 (images from this CrunchGear page on Nex-3 features:

The thing simply looks like someone jammed a lens on the front of a compact camera. In many features, it resembles a compact more closely than a dSLR as well. First of all, I notice that there’s not actually a viewfinder; you’re taking the photo through the screen, like a compact. Secondly, the only important controls on the camera are the shutter button and the wheel on the back, which means the only way you can control ISO, aperture, shutter speed, white balance, and other such things generally considered critical to serious photography is through screen menus and options. Most dSLRs have easily accessible wheels and controls dedicated to changing these settings on the fly.

In short, EVIL cameras, at their current stage, seem like a step up from compacts, but definitely not like dSLR competitors.

So why am I giving them any attention at all? Because this could all change if Canon or Nikon took a crack at them, and it just so happens that rumor has been circulating about a Nikon EVIL camera after one of their patents showed up on the internet a few days ago.

Unfortunately, all we have is that patent (which includes some more images and a low quality Google translation of the patent’s text, which seems to focus more on an internal, protective barrier that will close automatically to protect the sensor when the lens is removed). The patent seems to show an EVIL camera with a true viewfinder, in which optics reflect and magnify the image from a small internal screen. This is all we really know about the camera.

The expectation is that it will be officially announced at Photokina on September 21-26. However, it may not go into production until 2011.

So is it worth waiting until 2011 to get your first camera? Or, if you’re not a beginner, is it worth waiting until then to upgrade your body? Until the end of September, there’s no way to know what kind of features these cameras will have– whether they will more closely resemble dSLRs or just compacts like the current models– or whether they will be outrageously expensive or not. There’s not even any guarantee that they will be announced at Photokina; they might just be concept models planned for production in 2012 or later.

This makes me say no: it’s not worth the wait. Right now, we can’t know how long the wait will even be, and though EVIL cameras might end up “revolutionizing” the industry, they might also end up being an expensive way of doing nothing new. If you really want to get into photography, you should not hesitate to buy a dSLR. I don’t think you have to worry about them becoming obsolete any time soon, and most of your lenses and gear should eventually be usable on EVIL cameras, even if they do end up taking over the world.

What are your thoughts on EVIL cameras? Have you used the Sony Nex or Olympus Pen? What were your impressions? How did they compare to professional or pro-sumer dSLRs? I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions!

Posted in Photography News, Photography Technology, Suggestions for Beginners | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Photography and Lomography; 4 Reasons a Holga will Never Replace a Nikon, and a Nikon will Never Replace a Holga

This is probably a strange subject for a first article, but let’s go with it. Lomography. What the heck is it anyway? Honestly, I hadn’t even heard the term until one of my friends asked me for advice because they were interested in starting photography. They’d heard about this lomography thing and were “just minutes away from buying a Diana Mini.” These words meant nothing to me, so I went to the official lomography website to try to figure out what they were talking about. Turns out, it was just hipster code for “film photography with a really, really bad camera.” So why, based on the title of this article, do I think photography is a completely separate entity from lomography?

1. Lomography has been around for as long as photography has, people just don’t know it

The official lomography website says the whole field was discovered when some college students found an old, Russian, Lomo Kompakt Automat in 1990. Of course, the keyword here is old; my dad was playing around with another Lomo, the Smena 8, when he was a kid in the 60’s. He also remembers a similar Hungarian camera, the Pajtas. Back in the day, these machines were built as toy cameras with the defining feature that absolutely everything, including the lens, was made of plastic, making them incredibly cheap. Back then, their purpose was to put the crude estimation of photography into the hands of children and amateurs.

Then, maybe in 1990, maybe later, maybe earlier, these cameras were “rediscovered.” By this point in time, most disposable cameras were of better quality than the Lomos, and even amateurs could afford a functional camera by Pentax or Olympus. People had grown so accustomed to decent photo gear that the technical problems caused by plastic componentry were now seen as novel, experimental, and original. They had a unique feel to them that couldn’t really be recreated in a darkroom, or in the 2000’s, in Photoshop. So Lomos and the like were placed in the lomography subdivision of photography, and the toy cameras capable of such feats were re-labelled “iconic” and “groundbreaking.” Unfortunately, it seems the cheapest “iconic” plastic camera you can get now is the Chinese Holga 135, seen above, at $50.

So, the field of lomography was born. No longer were these toy cameras simply imitations of the real thing, now they were their own entity. But WHY would anyone actually own both a Holga and a professional camera like the Nikon D3?

2. Nikons simply don’t leak light

Although I, like most other people, have moved on to digital photography, the first and only film camera I ever owned was the Nikon F3, made in 1980. I used this camera through high school because I still had access to a darkroom there. It worked fine then, and it works great now. Another friend has an even older Ricoh KR-5, and still no light leaks. The (rather obvious) reason for this is that you get a metal body that seals tightly as soon as you spend over a hundred dollars on a camera.

The protection against light leaks is most easily seen as a benefit: your film is exposed evenly, and you don’t have to deal with unwanted vignettes or burned areas. You can have faith that your own skill as a photographer is enough to ensure the production of a quality photograph. Shoddy craftsmanship will never ruin your film, only you can do something stupid like open your back panel before rewinding your film (yes, I’ve done this. But only because the film fell off the spool and wouldn’t rewind. I swear!)

But there are also drawbacks to this. You can’t choose to loosen the camera’s seal and let in light leaks on purpose; the back panel is either closed tightly or completely open, ruining your film. And remember, light leaks are so rare now that they could actually be considered a neat and interesting effect, rather than simply an accident. So let’s say you want to add this nostalgic effect to a photo you captured of your kid playing with his Radio Flyer wagon instead of his XBox. There’s probably a Photoshop effect that’ll do it, but that’s almost hypoctrical, isn’t it? Your only real option is to go out and get that lomography camera and pray it is a POS in the right way.

3. F-stops are not measured in smiley faces and groups of trees

I already told you I had a Nikon F3 in high school. The lens I used most frequently with it was a 35-135mm f/3.5-22. I also played around with one of those Holga 135’s I was telling you about. It had a fixed 47mm lens with two aperture settings: smiley face and bunch of trees. Note that this is different from f/face-tree, because such a thing does not exist.

Now, the intended effect of the limited options on a Holga is probably to make it easier to use and understand. If someone hasn’t explained what f/5.6 means to you, then it might as well be some weird code. But pretty much anyone can decide “Am I shooting a nearby person right now, or a stand of trees in the distance?” and choose the right setting. So with a Holga, you won’t be able to learn proper photographic technique (you will never learn about aperture and proper exposure, for example). However, you will also never be able to go out with a Nikon and take usable photos while completely ignoring aperture and shutter speed.

But remember, plastic camera. I’m not sure changing between face and tree even did anything. The true effect of these options, and the one some people eventually learned to appreciate, is that it puts a lot of the control out of your reach. When you pick up a Holga, unless you want to end up “putting it down” by smashing it to the ground, you have to accept that it may not work the way you want it to, that it almost has a mind of its own, and it is largely out of your control. Using it is a crapshoot (…yeah, I went there).

But if you can embrace the wild, unruly nature of the Holga, then you’ll find not only photos you expect to be great turn out as unexpected failures, but that your successes can be just as surprising and unexpected. Which brings me to my final point…

4. Nikons are so boring. There is nothing unexpected about a Nikon

When you go out and take a photo at f/16, there’s probably a button on your SLR that lets you preview what your depth of field will be like. You know that you just had 3 cups of coffee, so you probably can’t hand hold an exposure slower than 1/200th of a second. Sure, you can use the Photoshop light leak filter, but you know exactly where you’re putting it and why, and you can take it out if you decide you don’t like it. With the advent of digital photography, shoot in RAW and you can even fix your photos if you over/underexposed or didn’t bother with getting the white balance right at all. Get CS4 and content aware processing and you can even take out that building/tree/person/piece of trash/national monument that you don’t like having in the middle of your photo.

What I’m saying is, with a real camera, you can tell as soon as you hit the shutter whether or not a photo will turn out. And if it doesn’t, you can control, alter, and fix just about every element of the image. There are times when I can’t help but feel this is all depressingly artificial.

Now consider the Holga. There is no real way to adjust aperture, and you never know what will be in focus. Did you hit the shutter button twice without remembering to advance the film? Double exposure! (You can do this on a Canon too, but it takes some more fancy footwork). There’s no way to predict where the light leak will show up today, and ultimately, there’s no way to predict which photos will be ruined and which will turn out amazing. And give me the best darkroom in the world, I’m still not sure I’ll be able to fix the ruined ones.

In short, the Holga could be compared to a force of nature: completely unpredictable, for better or for worse.

Whether this unpredictability is liberating or mind-numbingly frustrating depends on how you approach it. My advice: keep practicing photography, and keep taking those perfectly metered portraits with your Canon. But once in a while, consider setting your worries aside for a day and just having some fun.

I only played around with a Holga a very little bit in high school, so if you’ve spent any time with the machine (or any of its brothers and sisters), I’d love it if you shared your experiences or thoughts in the comments! Until then, enjoy these examples of lomography:

Image by lomoteddy

Image by meneke

Image by bravopires

Image by ligre

Posted in Photographic Styles | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Another New Blog…

It finally happened: I made myself a blog.

Now, I know all 2 of you are asking “What is Another Shot in the Dark about?”

Well, I’ll tell you: it’s about photography. Photography news big enough to catch my eye? I’ll probably put it up here. Random ramblings about various topics in photography (in list format, of course)? Definitely. A tip with the possibility of being useful once in a while? Sure. Links to interesting articles from other, more well-established blogs? Yup. And of course examples of, well, exemplary photography. As to how often it will be updated, I’ll really try to keep the BS and filler to a minimum, so for now I’m shooting for 1-2 posts per week.

My own photography is pretty exclusively focused on nature and landscapes, with frequent use of HDR (but not the bad, over-processed kind… more on that later), so I’ll probably be paying more attention to landscape, nature, and HDR photography than, say, portrait and urban photography. And I use Nikon equipment, so I probably won’t be as up to date on Canon developments. At the moment, though, just about anything is fair game. We’ll see how the blog evolves and what path it starts down.

Your input and feedback will clearly be extremely important in determining the blog’s future. Please, let me know what you liked and what you didn’t like; tell me what you are and aren’t interested in. I’m starting a blog, so I obviously have the time to listen, and I promise I have the desire as well.

That’s all from me for now. Thanks for your time, and take care.

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