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7 august 2016 » Old images, new thoughts

Recently I embarked on the task—or project, if you will—of sorting through all the negatives that I shot as a teenager in late eighties and early nineties (here we go, giving away my age). The process evoked a lot of memories and thoughts, photography related and otherwise. It has been a fascinating undertaking, and I thought I would share some of the thoughts with you.

 
Rural Russia, circa 1989
 

Rural Russia, circa 1989

At that time I was using a USSR–made SLR camera, Kiev–19, with a 50mm lens (I am not sure of the aperture, but it must have been the f/2 version pictured in the linked image). Even at that age I already had a fairly good understanding of the photographic techniques: I used a stand–alone light meter, I had a yellow and a red filter, I knew when and how to bracket exposure, and I developed black–and–white film by myself. I, however, was still unaware of the quagmire of lens and image quality: I did not dissect negatives with a 10X loupe, and nor did I go through countless cameras and lenses in search of perfection. If anything, I was camera– and, generally, equipment–indifferent: even though I was aware of the existence of better cameras and lenses, I was happy with what I had and simply photographed what spoke to me and what I loved. I have long lost that innocence.

I have not looked at the negatives in a couple of decades. I remembered some of the photographs, but the gap between the ones in my memory and the actual images at hand was immense. Some images that I remembered as beautiful and important now look trivial; other images I did not even recall suddenly stand out as surprisingly meaningful and artistic. Clearly, our perception and aesthetic preferences change drastically over time.

There was also a big gap between which photographs and for what reasons I thought would matter to me in the future and which images actually matter to me, and why, now. Essentially, the dividing line is true emotional response and connection: images you make out of true passion for the subject, no matter how mundane or technically imperfect, will always evoke affection in the future; where interest in the subject is contrived but sugarcoated by, say, "artistic aspirations", the future response to the images will likely be unmoving and that of irrelevance. We really should let go of pretence and only photograph what we are truly fond of.

I realise now that the only exception is photographing people, which we should do as often as possible. A Zambian university classmate of mine mentioned once that, in the broader scheme of things, we come from different places, and we go to different places, but we do meet at some places. Unfortunately, we often do not meet many times, or for long. Because life is shorter than it seems, and we are a lot more fragile than we think. This may sound trivial and obvious, but looking at the old photographs I am saddened by how many people I used to know are no longer in this world, many having departed way too prematurely, or unnaturally, or both.

We should also photograph things mundane more often, without pretending it to be art, even though it may end up being art—purely because the world around us is constantly changing and fragile, too. Your university dormitory, the apartment you are renting, your current lifestyle choices, you name it are not going to be with you forever. Document them—and in the longer run these images will be as valuable, or even more precious, than those that time will show to be contrived artistic aspirations that will end up in a virtual shoebox no one will bother to open. Now, I realise we all do it daily with our mobile phones, but what tends to be missing in the endless stream of images of meals and coffees is representativeness and relevance. Just keep that in mind.

I am fascinated how aesthetic perception in photography has changed from those days. When I showed the images to a group of friends, the first comments were that the contrast was low, and that the sky in one of the images looked similar to that in Beijing on one of the heavily–polluted days.

Back in the day there was no pollution in rural Russia—or, at least, no awareness of it—whatsoever, and anyone seeing the image would first think of a rainstorm, not smog. Nowadays, however, environmental conditions firmly occupy our minds and are the first thing that we think of. It is clear that our environment shapes our aesthetic perception to a far larger degree than we may suspect.

When black–and–white film ruled, tonality was one aspect we cared about a lot. In this respect, images from black–and–white film, even scans, have a unique look of the film era. Looking at the old photographs I was awestruck how beautiful the tones were, even though they were shot on what now would be considered low quality medium. We did not really care that much about absolute contrast, as we could never achieve 0–value blacks and 255–value whites given the nature and limitations of photographic papers. Nowadays, however, with digital capture and light–emitting LCD screens, people are used to all aspects of visual palette—contrast, brightness, saturation, etc.—to be cranked up to maximum. Most likely, not because we choose such aesthetics, but because we can have it, and once we indulge in it long enough it becomes prevalent, it becomes a necessity. And so, beautiful tonality is no longer appreciated. It is thus evident that technical capabilities—and limitations—of our photographic tools form our aesthetic perception to a large degree, even though we may think we pick our tools to suit our aesthetic choices.

Scanning the negatives with my lowly Epson 4990 scanner, processing the scans in Photoshop and printing them with the Epson P808 printer, I got results that are far better than what I could ever achieve in my darkroom (which, admittedly, was rather primitive). Whatever originals we have today, be it slides, negatives or RAW files, we shall be able to get better results out of them in the future as technology and our tools improve.

All of this also makes me think of the future images. What attributes will they have? What performance aspects will we care about most? Will we still lose sleep over sharpness, dynamic range, and high ISO performance? Whatever it will be, though, the images we create now invariably have the signature of today's technology and aesthetics, just as images of the film era have theirs. It is just that we cannot know what the key signature of today's images is. Such things can only be known in retrospect.


21 May 2016 » Recent favourite image

 
Girl feeding pigeons, Cambodia
 

Girl feeding pigeons, Phnom Penh

Recently I went to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on a business trip. Such visits are usually packed with meetings and you seldom have time to actually look at the place with any degree of attention. This time I was lucky, though: I had a few hours to walk around city centre with the Ricoh GR in my hand (albeit at a high cost: I had to take a tiring overnight flight back home).

Very unusually, I saw many visually poetic moments in the streets of Phnom Penh. You may think that this was due to the simple fact that I went to a new, exotic place, but this was not the case: I travel a lot and, in my experience, it does not happen often. I captured a number of images that reflect that state of mind, and the above photograph is one of them.

This image speaks to me on a number of levels, and in several dimensions. But of course, such things should not be elaborated verbally in photography—photographs should speak for themselves and evoke emotions and associations that they will, which is different for each viewer most of the time.

The shooting perspective may appear quite "typical", but in fact I was squatting on the pavement and holding the camera as close to the ground as I could while still being able to see the image on the LCD screen. As is often the case in photography, we have to really go out of our way to get what will be perceived as "normal".


7 May 2016 » Web site housekeeping

Just a quick note to say that I have done some housekeeping on the Web site.

First, you may have noticed that the font is different and line spacing is larger; I hope that the pages are now easier to read. Second, I have removed close to a hundred of broken links: over the time, pages get deleted, and even complete Web sites disappear; I now think twice before I add links to external sources. Third, I have updated the Oleg's 10 desert island CDs page: essentially, I have completely drifted into jazz. Lastly, I have put together a gallery of my favourite images that were taken in Shangri–La in October 2015.

These chores take a lot of time to complete and yet do not produce any new content. Still, as with so many things in life, you often have to run to just stay in the same place. You just have to do it.


23 April 2016 » Large format kit complete

I spent the last couple of months researching large format lenses and looking to round out my large format system. I am happy to report that I have finally managed to get a hold of a 135mm lens that I am happy with—the winner is a Fujinon CM–W 135mm f/5.6—and my large format kit is now complete. As of now, it consists of the following:

  • Ebony 45SU camera

  • Schneider Super–Angulon 90mm f/5.6

  • Fujinon CM–W 135mm f/5.6

  • Fujinon C 300mm f/8.5

  • Miscellaneous accessories

So far this combination of focal lengths has worked exceedingly well. I suspect, however, that I may want to add a lens in the 180–200mm range if or when I photograph subjects other than mountains and grand vistas. I will try to keep it as a three lens kit, though, which in my mind is best to keep things simple and maintain clarity of vision.

I have also put together a large format lens page with a brief summary of my findings on and experiences with large format lenses thus far—not to educate others, but rather to have a record of why I made the choices I did.


7 April 2016 » Epson SureColor P800 printer: part 2

 
Epson SureColor P800 and 4880
 

Size comparison: Epson 4880 (left) and P800 (right)

I took the snapshot above when we were exchanging the printers. As you can see, the P800 is notably smaller than the 4880: essentially, it is half the volume and half the weight. The 4880 is so large and heavy that you need two adults to handle it; although the P800 is still far from small, at least you can move it by yourself (but be careful with your back).

Of and by itself, the P800 seems adequately built. It extensively uses plastics of varying quality: while printer top and front cover are thicker and sturdier, paper support, for example, is decidedly flimsy. Whereas this is unlikely to be problematic in daily use, the P800 is nowhere nearly as heavy–duty as the 4880, which was clearly designed for more frequent, demanding use.

  Epson P800: installation in OS X El Capitan  

Epson P800: installation in OS X El Capitan

Installation of the printer on my Mac Pro was simple and straightforward, but with one caveat: if you simply click on the "Epson SC–P800 Series" in the dialogue above, the printer by default will be installed as "AirPrint" kind (roll the mouse over the image)—and you will lose various driver settings when printing from Photoshop. You need to click on "Add Printer or Scanner..." and install it as a different kind (I installed mine as a "USB" printer).

The P800 can be connected in three ways: via Hi–Speed USB 2.0, 100Base–T Ethernet or Wi–Fi. I will take the opportunity to get rid of a cable running across the room on any day, so I used wireless connection first. Wi–Fi connectivity seems to work, but only sort of. First several images printed well, but the next two got stuck in the middle: the printhead would briefly park, then print several lines, stall, park, print several lines, and finally cancel printing. Now, this may be a Wi–Fi network issue or some such unrelated to printer operation. Regardless, after wasting a couple of sheets of paper I connected the printer using a cable. Even with the cable, however, connectivity is not perfect: I have had a couple of instances when printing would stop in the middle. Again, I do not know what causes the problem and this will take some time to observe and, if the issue persists, resolve.

The P800 handles print media in three ways: via auto sheet feeder at the back of the printer, through front fine art media and poster board feeder, as well as with the use of optional roll paper holder. The first is meant for thinner (up to 0.3mm) and lighter papers only, so if you practice fine art photography chances are you will end up using the front feeder more often than not. It takes a bit of practice to get the hang of feeding paper through it as the process is quite fiddly: you have to pop the manual feed tray out, insert and align paper, pop the tray in, press the "Load" button on the touch screen and wait until the sheet is put in place for printing. Although it works fine once you get used to it, I can certainly see why my friend was unhappy about media handling of the P800, or how it can quickly get tiresome and inefficient if you print a lot.

 
Epson SureColor P800 with roll paper holder
 

Epson P800 with roll paper holder

One of the reasons why I chose the 4880 over the 3880 years ago was that the latter did not allow using roll paper. Inclusion of this option with the P800 is very welcome. The holder is very easy to attach and remove, which I find perfect for space saving. Compared to the inbuilt holder of the 4880, however, it feels a lot less robust and steadfast. Further, it is not powered, so roll paper is at first slowly drawn in and you need to manually rewind the roll after printing. Finally, the P800 does not have an inbuilt paper cutter, so you have to cut paper manually; fortunately, though, there is an option to print a guiding line that helps to cut paper with a high degree of accuracy. Again, the 4880 is generally a lot better at media handling. I, nonetheless, can live with what the P800 offers as I am not a power user and my priorities lay elsewhere.

My friend was kind enough to give me two sample packs of Hahnemuhle paper, one glossy and one matte. As photo black (PK) ink was already in use, I started printing with the former. The first prints looked gorgeous, but I quickly encountered two problems. First, with thicker and less–than–perfectly flat papers I get smudging around paper corners. This has occurred with both glossy and matte papers—and more often than I wish it did. This may indicate the necessity to clean the printhead—although Epson Print Utility shows no cleaning is necessary—or be related to peculiarities of the paper transport mechanism. This will also take some time to observe and establish the cause.

The second problem was that I saw "pizza wheel" marks when printing on Hahnemuhle Baryta FB paper. This reminded me of another reason why I chose the 4880 in the past: it uses a vacuum mechanism for holding paper flat against the platen and thus is not prone to this problem by design (on the flip side, however, the vacuum mechanism is quite noisy, so the P800 is a lot quieter when printing). Epson would naturally claim that "pizza wheel" marks occur with third–party papers only, so it remains to be seen if Epson's own papers are not susceptible to this issue. On a positive note, I have not seen "pizza wheel" marks after switching to matte black (MK) ink and then printing on various Hahnemuhle matte papers.

  Epson P800: the amount of ink wasted when switching from photo to matte black ink  

Epson P800: the amount of ink wasted when switching from photo to matte black ink

Speaking of switching inks, the necessity to swap between MK and PK ink depending on print media regrettably is still with us. Luckily, though, it is now much more elegantly implemented: both PK and MK ink cartridge are simultaneously installed in the printer, the swap takes just around three minutes, and the amount of wasted ink is much more acceptable than with the 4880 (roll the mouse over the above screenshot to compare the amount of ink and maintenance tank capacity before and after switching from PK to MK ink). The P800 features the ability to automatically swap inks depending on the print medium chosen in the printer driver, but I immediately switched it off: mistakenly selecting the wrong paper type would be costly in terms of ink and time.

This is all I have to report for the time being. Other aspects of P800's performance—particularly printer head clogging and comparing print quality to the output of the 4880—will take longer to assess. I will report on them, together with any updates on the issues I mentioned above, in due course.


26 March 2016 » Epson SureColor P800 printer: part 1

I have always been a proponent of printing one's photographic work. In my mind, it is only in printed form that an image comes to this world as a final statement and where all its aspects can be ultimately assessed and fully appreciated.

Printing may have another, more selfish, motive for photographers. If my memory serves me well, it was Brooks Jenses who mentioned in one of his brilliant podcasts that the best way for your photographic work to stay in the world as long as possible is to propagate as many prints as you can. I have been largely following this advice, selling prints below cost and generously giving them away to friends and relatives. Between the walls of other people's homes, shoeboxes under beds, and just piles of various stuff, your prints may very well outlive you. Just do not forget to sign them.

And then there is the learning aspect: printing can teach you so many things that are difficult, or even impossible, to master otherwise, both technically and aesthetically. How much sensor resolution do you need to produce prints of your favourite size? What are the visual differences between printing at 240dpi, 300dpi and 360dpi? How much sharpening to apply? What about perception of texture in prints produced from film scans and RAW files? Tonal gradations? Colour gamut? Appearance of shadows? Highlights? The list is very long.

But of course, modern world prefers digital distribution and immediate gratification. Unfortunately, though, your image is bound to look drastically differently on an older smartphone, various named and unnamed tablets, a latest calibrated 5K display, and numerous uncalibrated monitors of poor quality. Unless you show it to your girlfriend while having the last beer of the night on a poorly lit curb, there is a high chance that, on the average, a print is going to look truer to your artistic intentions.

A couple of years back I gave a few dozen prints to, let's say for the sake of convenience, distant relatives. I have not visited them until very recently, and nor have I seen the prints, most of which I no longer have. After all this time I totally forgot about them and, even if reminded of their existence, what they looked like in person. Looking at them again after all this time, with a fresh eye and mind, I was unexpectedly impressed—to the point I wished I made them—only of course I did make them. No matter how you look at it printing is definitely worthwhile, I thought to myself.

As longtime readers of this site may recall, I have been using—quite happily, I may add, despite a few drawbacks that I have learned to live with—an Epson 4880 printer. It had been working without a hiccup, but, when Epson announced the SureColor P800, which essentially replaces the venerable Epson 3880 model, my photographic hands became itchy. In particular, I was intrigued by the new generation of inks with a higher DMax (read blacker blacks) and wider colour gamut; unlike its predecessor, the printer could handle roll paper; smaller (80ml) cartridges seemed perfect for my needs (even though more economical, 220ml cartridges of the 4880 are too big for me in practice); finally, replacing the monster of the 4880 with something smaller could give me extra space in my crammed study room.

  Epson P800 printer  

Epson SureColor P800 printer (image courtesy of Epson)

I daydreamed about the P800 for a while but gave up on the idea recognising that replacing the 4880 was not entirely rational. A short while later, however, a fortunate stroke of serendipity occurred: a friend of mine who was unhappy with his newly bought P800 was looking to buy a 4880; long story short, we ended up merrily exchanging the printers*. Which is how I, totally unexpectedly, became an owner of a brand new, shiny Epson SureColor P800 printer.

To be continued...

*In case you wonder why my friend wanted to get a 4880, the simple answer is paper handling and built quality—but more on that later.


20 March 2016 » Fujifilm X–T10 user experience report

Today I am posting my user experience report—review, if you will—of the Fujifilm X–T10 camera. While few of you may be interested in the camera, I still invite you to go through the page to look at the images I posted together with the article. Also, you may be interested to see how great–on–paper features do not necessarily add up to a positive and rewarding user experience.

I do not mention this in the review directly, but the X–T10 and I just did not click, and it has already found a new owner. To be honest, I feel relieved to be past this camera. I will likely be looking into using a proper DSLR some time later this year, perhaps when the price of the Nikon D7200 comes further down.

On the lens side of the equation, I have once again reconfirmed to myself that zooms are just not my cup of tea, so I will be looking for a short telephoto lens to go with the DSLR for portraiture. On the wide–angle side I still have the Ricoh GR, which in the meantime is my only digital camera. And of course, I continue to use the camera in my phone; with the rumoured dual–lens camera of the iPhone 7, it will become even more accepted as a serious photographic tool.


8 March 2016 » Roaming Shangri–La, part 6

I realise that this series has dragged on a little longer than it probably should have, so this will be the last post on this subject. It is time to move on. The following couple of posts will be equipment–centric, for a change.

Meilixueshan Mountain, Yunnan Province, China

Meili Mountain (梅里雪山) at Sunrise, 2015

Ebony 45SU camera, Schneider APO–Symmar 5.6/135 lens lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F film

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Yila Grassland and grass-drying stands, Shangri-La, China
 

Yila Grassland (伊拉草原) and grass–drying stands

Ebony 45SU camera, Fujinon T 8/300 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F film

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Songzanlin Temple, Shangri-La, China
 

Songzanlin Temple (松赞林寺), 2015

Ebony 45SU camera, Fujinon T 8/300 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F film

As much as I love using large format cameras—and the superb image quality they deliver when you get everything right—there are times when they are just too unwieldy. Take, for example, the three images below: in all of these instances it was physically impossible to capture the images with a large format kit. In the first and the last case, light was changing so fast I barely had time to properly make exposures with the digital camera; in the second photo the wind was so strong I could hardly stand—a large format camera on a tripod would have been blown down. With this being said, it is only in such extreme cases that I resort to using lesser tools.

 
Tagong at sunset, 2015 #2; Shangri-La, China
 

Tagong at sunset, 2015 #2

Fujifilm X–T10 camera and 18–55mm f/2.8–4 lens

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On the way from Litang to Batang, Shangri-La, China
 

On the way from Litang to Batang

Fujifilm X–T10 camera and 18–55mm f/2.8–4 lens

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Yala Mountain, Sichuan, Shangri-La, China
 

Yala Mountain (雅拉雪山), 2015

Fujifilm X–T10 camera and 18–55mm f/2.8–4 lens


20 February 2016 » Recent favourite "quotation": how to make a photobook

As I was sorting through some files on my computer, I found the below. I do not remember when or where from I got it, nor do I know who this should be attributed to (if you do, please let me know). I, nonetheless, find it fascinating and thought I would share it with you. As I did not make it myself, I can only post it as a "quotation".


How to make a photobook

27 January 2016 » Roaming Shangri–La, part 5

As I continued going through Shanri–La, I did a great deal of thinking about the nature of travel photography. That seemed very fitting indeed, as I have been travelling with a camera very extensively: on business, with my family, and purely for photography. I found it fascinating how reasons why we photograph mingle regardless of the main purpose of each individual trip.

It is perfectly understandable why "civilians" photograph while travelling*. We tend to fail grasping the passage of time and perceive longer events as a series of moments, not as continuity. Further, we suffer from duration neglect and do not remember all moments equally: our memories are ruled by peaks and endings. For example, a longer uneventful holiday, no matter how relaxing, would usually be less memorable than a shorter one that involves some excruciating hiking but boasts exciting moments of seeing high altitude mountain lakes. Photography is the perfect means to register and share the peaks of our travels—and lives—thus serving the remembering self admirably. In this instance, its purpose is capturing the peaks to shape our memories and, ultimately, achieve approbation, both internal and external, of our lives.

 
Shangri-La, China
 

Somewhere in Shangri–La #1

Ebony 45SU camera, Fujinon T 8/300 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F film

Another key factor in photographing while traveling is intangible appropriation. In our travels we often encounter things and events that we do not see in daily life; they are unusual and exciting, and it is our natural reaction to want to have a piece of them. Nearly always, however, it is impossible: you just cannot take that mountain lake back home. Thus, photographing an object that elicits desire to posses and owning an image of it is a good compromise that brings us the mental satisfaction of intangibly keeping a part of it.

As photographers, however, we usually travel for an entirely different purpose, which is creation of images for the sake of expression; unlike the two motivations above, it is an act directed from inside to outside. While this purpose should dictate when, where to and how we organise our travels, things often get mixed up and the elements of creating memories and intangible appropriation creep in and cannot be completely eliminated.

 
Shangri-La, China
 

Somewhere in Shangri–La #2

Ebony 45SU camera, Schneider Super–Angulon 5.6/90 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F film

For example, I have travelled to photograph the Yellow Mountain six or seven times. I know the place exceedingly well and no longer need additional memories of being there; all I care about is capturing compelling images that create connections at multiple levels. This mindset is perhaps as close to the pure artistic travel photography as it gets. And yet, the location may be radically transformed if you witness it in unusual, majestic light, which essentially makes a totally new place out of the old, familiar, or even dull one you know. At that moment, the drive to remember and own may kick in. Besides, is it really possible to photograph completely cold–heartedly and with zero passion for the subject? I do not think so. And as long as you see something extraordinary and have passion for it, the desire to have a memory of and symbolically own it will invariably surface. Thus, while perhaps largely diminished, these two elements remain at play**.

Photographic travels such as my latest expedition to Shangri–La, however, clearly start to lack the "photographic purity" described above. Yes, the itinerary is based on several destinations that I specifically travel to for the sake of photography, perhaps for the second or even third time, but there are many locations along the way that I visit for the first time. They are new, they are exciting, and they may make your heart beat faster, so that true motivation of photographing them gets blurred. Further, the pace of such travels is seldom determined by the hour of the day that is best for photography of each individual location; instead, it is largely predetermined by the travel schedule***. All images in this post are of this nature.

So what happens when a serious photographer goes on a non–photographic family vacation? Then it is creation of memories and intangible appropriation at their finest. I, nonetheless, usually find myself operating in two entirely different modes. On the one hand, I do take family pictures to form memories; in this respect, having an in–depth understanding of photography is highly beneficial as it allows creating better images and, consequentially, better memories. On the other hand, however, out of the corner of my eye I always look out for things and moments that may evoke connections and lend themselves to expression of the found connections. When that happens, my mindset changes to that of a serious photographer swiftly and effortlessly, similar to how I switch from English to Chinese.

 
Shangri-La, China
 

Somewhere in Shangri–La #3

Ebony 45SU camera, Fujinon T 8/300 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F film

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of the motivations that may compel us to press the shutter release button during our travels; we should not avoid any of them. Rather, we should learn to identify what drives us each time we pick up the camera, and subsequent use of images should be guided by the recognition of our true motivations. When we photograph with the intention of creating art, we should be careful not to confuse it with the impulsive reaction to capture a peak occurrence or intangibly appropriate something we find mesmerising. We need to learn to recognise such impulses for what they are and shift focus from outer occurrences and intangible appropriation to our inner peak experiences and tangible creativity.

*It would be naive, not to mention incorrect, to think that "serious" photographers are never "civilians": while our intentions may be those of serious photographers, our true motivations are often those of "civilians".

**Our mindset, however, is totally different: we act in anticipation rather than in reaction.

***Unless, of course, you have all the time and money in the world.

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