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That Time of the Year (A September Rant)

Tahquamenon Falls Michigan Upper Peninsula Copyright   2004  Andy Richards

Tahquamenon Falls
Michigan Upper Peninsula
Copyright 2004 Andy Richards

I commonly write during September that it is “that time of the year, again.” I know I said I was going to feature some of my “favorite” Fall Foliage images over the next couple weeks, leading up to what – in the Northeast U.S. at least — is probably the climactic first week of October, when I will be out on the “left coast” trying to find a different kind of color.

Photographic images are personal property.

But it is a blog, and so there should probably be some writing around the images – shouldn’t there?

Glade Creek Gristmill Babcock State Park, WV Copyright 2011  Andy Richards

Glade Creek Gristmill
Babcock State Park, WV
Copyright 2011 Andy Richards

It seems like there is something in the air (maybe it’s “back to school,” the excitement of the football season, or some other related reason), and it is apparently “that” time of the year, also. After posting the first 6 of my “favorite” fall foliage images last week, one of my images (not yet posted as a favorite, but appearing in a foliage-based blog last year) was posted on 5 different websites, resulting in 5 DCMA Takedown notices this morning. One successful response is already in, but we will see how the others work. It is becoming more difficult, in my view, to seek and find the ISP hosting service and the correct person to send the notice to. This image hit home for me, as it is one that is “unique.” Not so much because of the subject matter or composition, but because unlike a lot of other Fall foliage images, especially in Vermont, I think I may have been the second person to photograph and publish this scene and the person who discovered it is a special friend and photographer in her own right. Seeing it on other people’s struck a nerve.

Jordan Pond Acadia NP, Maine Copyright 2009  Andy Richards

Jordan Pond
Acadia NP, Maine
Copyright 2009 Andy Richards

So, maybe (or not :-) ) It is timely to revisit this subject (for the 3rd or 4th time on my blog and probably the billionth time on photo blogs as a whole). :-)

Photographic images are personal property.

Photographic images are personal property. From an ownership standpoint, they are not really that different from your wallet, your car, or something you produce and sell. From a reality standpoint, they are galaxies apart. People view them differently. And they are physically different, which does lead to some technical ownership differences. Legally, we refer to images as “intellectual property.” As such, they are in the same category as artwork, books and other writing, and engineered designs and formulas. Photographic images are personal property.

Santa Fe Ski Basin Santa Fe, NM Copyright  2008  Andy Richards

Santa Fe Ski Basin
Santa Fe, NM
Copyright 2008 Andy Richards

Even legally, the “ownership” of intellectual property is not always crystal clear. We have possession of our wallet and title to our car. The photographic image on the other hand, (especially in the digital age) is ephemeral. But instead of “now you see it, now you don’t,” it is more like “now you see it, and then over there you see it again … And again. And again.”

We have developed a mentality that because it is really easy and really available, there must not be anything wrong with it

The digital process has made the movement of images, including copying, much more a reality than it was in prior days. That is not to say that there wasn’t some copying. You could photograph an image or copy it with a color photocopier. Back in the days of the Masters, hand re-painted copies of paintings were not at all unusual. But it generally took an awful lot of talent and effort to do it accurately.

Waterville Mountain Road Bakersfield, Vermont Copyright  2006  Andy Richards

Waterville Mountain Road
Bakersfield, Vermont
Copyright 2006 Andy Richards

Not today. Today, any owner of a decent smart phone, or any kind of computer or tablet, can copy a digitized photographic image with the click of a mouse or rocker button. But what I am amazed about is that we have developed a mentality that because it is really easy and really available, there must not be anything wrong with it.

I do have a philosophical problem with not asking.

One responder noted to me that the image was linked to my site. While I will agree that that is better than taking it and selling it, or taking credit for the image, it is still taking something that belongs to someone else without permission.

Fayette State Park Michigan Upper Peninsula Copyright 2007  Andy Richards

Fayette State Park
Michigan Upper Peninsula
Copyright 2007 Andy Richards

The funny thing about this is maybe I am just shooting myself in my own foot. The image in question, in a couple cases, was linked with a “Lightcentric Photography” hotlink. And I don’t even really have any philosophical problem with allowing others to showcase my work on their site in that manner (attribution and a link to the artist’s site). But I do have a philosophical problem with not asking.

Miner's Beach Munising, Michigan (U.P.) Copyright 2009  Andy Richards

Miner’s Beach
Munising, Michigan (U.P.)
Copyright 2009 Andy Richards

I am not naïve (really, I am not :-) ). I know that there are many other instances out there and neither this blog, nor my flurry of DCMA Takedown notices from time to time is even going to make a scratch mark in the overall situation. But I will – because I can — continue to tilt at windmills – for the time being.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Fall Color Abstract; Pete's Lake Hiawatha NF Copyright  2012  Andy Richards

Fall Color Abstract; Pete’s Lake
Hiawatha NF
Copyright 2012 Andy Richards

While this might be a shock, it’s not Christmas. At least not for photographers. In my (admittedly myopic) experience, it is the Fall color season. Everything comes together for landscape and nature photographers at this time of the year. The light is wonderful, and sunrises are later (which means we don’t have to get up in the middle of the night to be on location — just the more civilized hour around 5:00 a.m.), the light is low angled and gives us a longer “window” during the “golden” hours. The air is fresh and clear. Often, wildlife is in full “plumage,” and because it is mating season, often (ironically) less skittish around photographers.

National Forest Road; Hiawatha NF Copyright  2012  Andy Richards

National Forest Road; Hiawatha NF
Copyright 2012 Andy Richards

It’s not Christmas

In my ideal world, I would take a 2 month “sabbatical” from work and life each year, and would start in the far northern stretches of our continent and follow the color South. Unfortunately, though my world is great and I have no complaints, it is far from the ideal world described above. So I take “potluck,” and don’t always know for sure where I will be and what I will be able to photograph.

Red Jack Lake; Hiawatha NF Copyright  2012  Andy Richards

Red Jack Lake; Hiawatha NF
Copyright 2012 Andy Richards

There may be an opportunity to make a long-weekend shoot or two in Northern Lower Michigan this year, which will present some new opportunities for shooting.

Sunrise; Mocassin Lake Hiawatha NF Copyright  2012  Andy Richards

Sunrise; Mocassin Lake
Hiawatha NF
Copyright 2012 Andy Richards

I don’t always know where I will and what I will photograph

Over the past years, I have spent a lot of time in New England and Northern Michigan. I have had the great opportunity to spend some time in Virginia, West Virginia and in New Mexico during the Fall. I am looking forward to visiting the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Eastern Canada, and perhaps the Southwest in future years.

Barn on Pleasant Valley Road, Cambridge, Vermont Copyright 2010  Andy Richards

Barn on Pleasant Valley Road, Cambridge, Vermont
Copyright 2010 Andy Richards

This year, I will be in the San Francisco Bay area in early October this year and “Fall color” images are probably not in the outing for me. Reflecting on this, and how every year at this time I feel the compulsion to write about Fall color photography, I began looking through my more than 6000 “Fall Foliage” images in my Lightroom catalog. I created a “best of” category (which really is probably better defined as my favorites). My quick selection got me down to some 22 images. I will showcase them here for the next couple weeks (because I can).  :-)

Grandview Farm Stowe, Vermont Copyright  2010  Andy Richards

Grandview Farm
Stowe, Vermont
Copyright 2010 Andy Richards

Tablets, Smart Phones and “REAL” Photographers

Last week, I wrote about “photography as art.” My good friend, and mentor, Ray, commented about my blog in his own blog, and probably had the best answer to the question a photographer being an artist: “I don’t know. Do you want to be?” In other words, “does is really matter?” He just makes images – great ones. Go see his work! And thanks, Ray.

Ha'Penny Bridge River Liffey Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Ha’Penny Bridge
River Liffey
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

While I am dwelling on the topic of digital, this may or may not be a logical follow on. But you may want to grab onto the rails, as this blog is probably going to take some strange turns. :-) While surfing during the week, I ran across a thread of photographers complaining about the use of smart phones and tablets to make images. Some were just complaining in general. Others had legitimate “beefs.” But I found the subject and the train of thought fascinating.

No “real” photographer would shoot with a tablet or smartphone, right?

The article that captured my attention was by a wedding photographer who was objecting to attendees shooting photos with their iPads, and to a lesser extent, complaining also about cell phone shooters. There are some (what I think are) obvious issues there, but not really related to the medium of capture, in my view. More on that in a minute. One comment in the article by the photographer struck me: “I don’t have any ego about this, but I am certain that my shot would have been much better than that of the person shooting with her iPad.” Hmmn. Does anybody else see inconsistency in the statement? There were numerous comments about the “crappy” quality of table and cell phone cams, and asked why anybody would bother. I mean, no “real” photographer would shoot with a tablet or smart phone, right?

The ubiquitous black gondola (shown here with the also common blue cover) is a favorite subject of photographers Copyright 2013  Andy Richards

The ubiquitous black gondola (shown here with the also common blue cover) is a favorite subject of photographers
Copyright 2013 Andy Richards

It strikes me that all this teeth-gnashing really misses the point. I don’t know who originally said it, but I often see the quote: “the best camera is the one you have with you.” And, the reality is that I have seen some pretty impressive images made with smart phones, and a number of them posted by seasoned, talented pro photographers. Digital technology has, for an “old-school” photographer like me, taken mind-bending turns over the past 10 years. The cameras in phones, and though lagging behind a bit, tablets are becoming more and more impressive. But it really isn’t so much about technology. It is more, in my view, about the Henri Cartier Bresson – attributed, “decisive moment,” about creativity, and about using the tools available to you. Should we photographers really be “bashing” tablet and smart phone owners who use the cameras in those devices to capture images?

Should photographers be bashing Tablet and Smart Phone shooters?

Well ………. No. Inexpensive digital photographic technology, and especially with the ubiquitous mobile phone and the increasingly ubiquitous tablet, and all manners of hybrids in between, along with internet sites like FaceBook, Flickr, and their progeny, has simply made photography easily available to everyone. Hence, everyone is out there making images and posting them. Most, to be brutally honest (I will admit that I do have some “ego” about it J ). Aren’t very good. The fair majority of almost hackneyed “beach sunset” images would lead a view to believe that the earth is indeed flat and frighteningly, tilts precariously to the right. The “family and friends” shots are often sillouhettes. But again, that perhaps misses the point. These shooters are not trying to be Ansel Adams. They are simply capturing memories. And, relating back to the “tools” comment, a serious photographer tries to use the correct tools for the job. If we are going to capture a landscape image for use other than a Facebook posting, or are making wedding memories “for hire,” we are, of course, going to use “better” tools (for the time being – technology marches on). And yes, I hope the pro photographer will make a “better” image than the rank and file attendees – does that really need to be said?

Copyright 2013  Andy Richards

Copyright 2013 Andy Richards

On the other hand……….Yes. Why shouldn’t anybody who wants to and owns a phone or a tablet with a digital capture device be able to shoot images when and where s/he wants? And why should “we serious photographers” (hard to impart this in writing, but I am poking fun at myself with that comment) whine and complain about it? Is it the “competition”? Maybe. But that’s nothing new folks so adapt and get over it. It’s not going away (easy for me to say as I don’t make my living shooting; and I am not unsympathetic; just pointing out reality). To me, as one who has spent 30 years shooting through a viewfinder with a dedicated camera, all those folks holding the tablets and phones at arm’s length look kind of silly. But don’t knock it until you try it. I have actually found times when having the ability to hold the device at odd angles and at arm’s length works to my advantage. Just because everybody doesn’t do it my way, doesn’t mean they are wrong (really, it doesn’t, though sometimes I need to be reminded of that).

This isn’t really about Tablets and Phones at all … it’s about Manners

So why Yes? My wonderful, late, maternal grandmother (family and friends who knew her will agree that she is – perhaps the only member of the family – worthy of being referred to as a “saint”), once defined “manners” for me (see, I told you we would be taking a weird turn – that’s why my blog refers to “musings”). “Manners,” she said, are very simple to define and to carry out: “they are simply put, consideration for others.” So there is the answer to why I said “yes.”

But it’s not really about tablets and smart phones, is it? The wedding photographer was really complaining about the discourtesy, or at least oblivion of the wedding guests. And this is a “people” and “manners” issue. It is not a choice of technology, or even a “right to,” issue at all. As a professional photographer, charged with creating professional and creative memories of the event, the shooter found it very difficult to do the job, with guests stepping in front of her during the ceremony, or even monopolizing a shot by standing in the aisle. There is nothing that says “romance” like that shot of Uncle George snapping the groom kissing the bride. J. And there is nothing more frustrating to the professional than Mrs. Jones’s flash blowing out a nice, moody, natural light image. And during other parts of the wedding (including, incredibly in my view, during the formal shooting before and/or after the ceremony) guests shooting, and often disrupting the process and distracting the subjects. And, by the way, all of the above can be done just as well with a “pro-style” camera as with a tablet or smart phone. So that really is just a “red herring.”

Warning in the Fog Sony Nex-6; 16-50 Sony Zoom; f5.6 Copyright  2013  Andy Richards

Warning in the Fog
Sony Nex-6; 16-50 Sony Zoom; f5.6
Copyright 2013 Andy Richards

Should we blame these folks? Probably. We could all (I need the reminder daily) profit from my grandmother’s definition of “manners.” Because this post is really about manners and not about technology (though it’s hard not to conclude that technology has had some negative effect on manners). But it probably doesn’t rise to the justification for a rant. Maybe the photographers should take some responsibility for the fact that we do not live in a 2-dimensional world. Over the years, I have whined and complained about the inability to get a clear (i.e., people-free) shot of some of my sought-after landscape subjects. My wife has a way of bringing me back to a state of humility by reminding me that most of these places (like National Parks for example) were put there for everyone to enjoy – not just for me to get my award-winning shot (and, thank god for “content-aware” cloning in Photoshop). J

As for events like weddings, couldn’t a lot of this be solved by “management?” Shouldn’t the hosts of the event and the professional photographer take some responsibility. Why not educate and negotiate with your clients to prohibit, or at least “manage” guest photography at these events? It seems like there could be times that could be restricted, or designated areas and times for taking shots for all but the hired event photographer.

Tablets don’t kill people, people kill people (oh, wait …. That was guns ….but you get my point, I hope).

 

(Note: This is a photography blog, so I always feel compelled to insert a couple photos. I searched my archives – in vain – for some images taken on my phone or tablet. I don’t do that, so I don’t have any, though any one of them could have been taken with a tablet or phone)

 

 

Am I an Artist?

Copyright 2005 Andy Richards

Copyright 2005 Andy Richards

The title, to photographers and probably most “other medium” artists, should be pretty clearly “tongue-in-cheek.” After all, photography IS art. Isn’t it? The idea for this blog was partly fueled by comments by two of my friends, on last week’s topic about digital medium, Kerry and Stewart. It may just be a logical extension of that topic. But coincidentally, I saw, and clicked on Canadian outdoor photographer, Darwin Wiggett’s Oopoomoo blog, “Photographers – Artists in Denial?” I have heard a number of times, recently, from numerous observers, that the general public does not think photography is “art.” Yet, many of us as photographers take for granted that what we do is “art.”

Let’s look at an ostensibly authoritative source. The Oxford Dictionary defines “art” as: The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power. Photography is most certainly a visual expression and most certainly involves human skill. But does it involve “creative skill and imagination?” Sometimes. But is photography real art?

Many of us as photographers take for granted that what we do is “art.”

My take-away from Darwin’s blog (he is a “friend” on Facebook, so I will take the liberty of calling him by his first name, in the spirit of my own blog, which tends to be very informal – hope he won’t take offense) was that many photographers are attracted to the gear and technical aspects of the “craft” of photography, but that they often hide behind it, rendering their photography, eventually, ultimately unfulfilling. He suggests that what most photographers are really seeking (but may not admit or recognize it) is a creative outlet. I inferred from the blog that some men may think “art” is not “manly.” J I believe we observe, think, and write from our own experiences and that those experiences are probably paralleled by many of our contemporaries. So, I will follow that lead, and suggest a different view, based on my own experience over the last nearly 40 years (not to challenge Darwin’s thesis – I believe he is correct – but to suggest another view).

Leaves Floating on Water Copyright 2007  Andy Richards

Leaves Floating on Water
Copyright 2007 Andy Richards

Painting, drawing and sculpting all have things in common. They are visual representations. They take skills beyond just having a creative imagination. There is as much “craft” to these arts, as there is to photography, albeit perhaps less mechanical and scientific in most instances.

Darwin is, I am sure, right about many men (and maybe a few women, though I really don’t want to go down the “Mars vs. Venus” road here). J By my reading, the main point of his blog (and indeed perhaps of the Oopoomoo site), is that photography is really about creative art and that the technical stuff, once mastered, will not satisfy the “artist” in us. It’s hard not to agree with that.

It is one thing to call yourself an “artist.” It is another thing altogether to be an “artist.”

But one of his sub-themes was almost a generalization about how some of us come to photography from other serious (“professional”?) endeavors like science, medicine, technology and IT; are attracted by the science and technology of photography as a “craft;” and try to become photography “craftsmen.” He suggests that we shy away from being an “artist,” because our view of “artists” because of our perception their unique “personality.” Note that I emphasize “our perception.” I don’t think for a minute that Wiggett is suggesting that those “traits” he lists are accurate – just that many have the perception that they are (I won’t quote him here – instead, I highly recommend you read the well-written blog). I have no doubt that what he writes is true of many photographers – but not all.

I have no problem calling myself an “artist” – not for the reasons posited in the blog, anyway

I am a self-avowed “gearhead.” My dad, and his dad were engineers (electrical and civil) and both were skilled with the use of tools for mechanics and woodworking. I inherited some of their aptitude and certainly their love for the work and perhaps more to the point – fine tools and skills. But I was not attracted to photography by “gear” or scientific technique. I was attracted by fine photographs made by other photographers. I wanted to do that – but I wanted to do it by bringing my own vision to images. So, while I agree with his end conclusion – that we need to focus on the creative process of photography in order for it to be a sustaining thing for us, In my own case, I don’t think it is a lack of attention to, or any reticence about the “art” side of photography. I have no problem calling myself an “artist” – not for the reasons posited in the blog, anyway.

Zoomed Colored Lights Copyright Andy Richards 2009

Zoomed Colored Lights
Copyright Andy Richards 2009

It is one thing to call yourself an “artist.” It is another thing altogether to be an “artist.” I think many of us who came to photography rather than being attracted by the craft, were art appreciators. I played in the band and orchestra in high school, sang in the choir and chorale in college, and took piano lessons as a kid. I love music. But I was never talented enough to call myself an artist or musician. I could play, but I couldn’t “make music.” I have always been in awe of those who can sit down with a piano or a guitar and “make” a new song. Art it very similar and one of the deep-seated fears of many of us is that we can master the “craft” and we can mimic the best. But can we create our own art? That is an area where, in my view, resources like the Oopoomoo site (which is dedicated to the creative side of photography) can be invaluable.

I think many of us who came to photography rather than being attracted by the craft, were art appreciators.

I have images that I am pretty happy with. Some of them have been purchased by others. Some of them have “won” juried selections in art galleries. Some of them hang on walls in offices and living rooms (not just my own J ). Many of my images get lots of “oohs and ahs” from my friends and acquaintances and the occasional complete stranger. But I will probably always have the nagging thought that someone else has done it and mine is just mimicking what has already been done. That it is not creative and is not art. I’ll bet this resonates with some other photographers.

Fall Color Reflection Copyright 2012  Andy Richards

Fall Color Reflection
Copyright 2012 Andy Richards

I have no formal art or photographic training. I took an art appreciation course in college. I have read about art, and especially about classic composition. My brother has a college degree in art and he definitely “creates” imagery as a painter, drawing, and with computer graphics. They are unique and from within. We have both sold images and had our work “win” things (him perhaps substantially more than me – but that is what he does). Is he an artist? I think so. Am I an artist? A wise friend and talented and creative photographer recently said something like this to me (paraphrase), whether something is art is determined not by the creator, but by the appreciative viewer. In that case, I have made many a photographer an “artist.” I definitely can appreciate art. But can I create it? I guess that is up to the viewer.

Has the Digital Medium Changed Everything?

Shops in Jackson, Wyoming Copyright  2012  Rich Pomeroy (taken with my Canon G11)

Shops in Jackson, Wyoming
Copyright 2012 Rich Pomeroy (taken with my Canon G11)

38 years ago, I became fascinated with photography, as a hobby and art form. My inspiration at the time was a college professor who was an accomplished landscape and nature photographer. I lived in Vermont, which is pretty much a nature studio, so it seemed pretty natural that I pursued outdoor and nature subjects, and in particular, “landscape.”

The “medium” of photography back then would seem much like “alchemy” to the youth of today. We used strange, cellular strips of stuff called “film,” which had silver crystals which changed from light to dark when exposed to light, to create 2-dimensional “images.” After exposing them to light, we immersed them in a smelly, chemical bath and then after drying them out, we had images that could either be projected with a beam of light, or printed (with yet another silver crystal, light-exposure, chemical bath process).

“Not everybody trusts paintings, but people believe photographs”

Today, most of us have moved on to a digital capture, digital presentation, or printing process which is much more “behind-the-scenes” mathematical, but much easier for most of us to accomplish, because it uses computer technology that today, most of us take for granted and most of us own. The “math,” as I noted is behind the scenes for the most part, with relatively user-friendly, graphical user interfaces (like sliders, circles, brushes, and drawing tools).

Tug Boat in Caribbean Waters Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Tug Boat in Caribbean Waters
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

We are still making images and for the most part, as presented, they appear to be the same. But is it? “Old school” photography was “realistic.” The whole idea was to try to depict a photographic image that looked as “real” as the scene being “caputured.” Wasn’t it? As a relatively new medium, photography was very distinct from painting. One of our most famous American landscape photographers, Ansel Adams, was reputed to remark that: “not everybody trusts paintings but people believe photographs.”

Today’s reality is that observers simply do not trust most photographs any more

That may have been true during his era, but alas, I doubt that is true today. Indeed, I often hear the remark, “that has obviously been ‘photoshopped.'” And, I frequently have people ask me about my own images: do you “enhance” them? A couple years back, a New York Times photographer was fired for “enhancing” his photographs, by moving some of the subjects around. Today’s reality is that observers simply do not trust most photographs any more.  Edit:  I was corrected, this morning, by a source of the highest integrity.  No New York Times photographer has, to my (or my source) knowledge ever been fired for “manipulating” images.  I was recalling an event about a Los Angeles Times photographer during the Iraq War.  It was widely publicized at the time and he apparently cloned-in persons rather than moving anything around.  There is enough misinformation around without me unnecessarily adding to the mix.  My point is/was that photographs do get “manipulated” by different persons for different reasons.  I might be a “bad” thing in some instances.  It is not always “bad” and “manipulate” very often takes on an unneeded pejorative slant in this context.

The real truth is that the photographic art form has never really depicted “reality.” You cannot hear, smell, or feel a photograph or its surroundings. It is, at best, a fleeting instance of time—frozen. It is a momentary image “captured” by whatever medium is currently the best suited for such capture (and, perhaps, best suited for the photographer’s intended result). It is up to the photographer to create in the viewer the reaction and emotion to the image that creates a “being there” kind of result (whatever and wherever the photographer intends that to be).

Photographic art form has never really depicted “reality.”

The reportage “branch” of photography (as in the New York Times example above), and photography intended for evidentiary or scientific use must, almost by definition approach “reality” as best the photographer can present it (and even then, it can only be that photographer’s best interpretation of reality. The shooter must persuasively depict the subject in a manner that supports the proposition being illustrated. And, since in news, scientific illustration, and evidence, the proposition is factual reality, the image must accurately portray that proposition. In my view, in virtually every other kind of photographic imagery (or in other words, artistic imagery), there is no need to be so realistically accurate.

Fall Color Abstract; Pete's Lake Hiawatha NF Copyright  2012  Andy Richards

Fall Color Abstract; Pete’s Lake
Hiawatha NF
Copyright 2012 Andy Richards

I absolutely digitally enhance my images

So, in artistic photography, the photographer is free to create (or as Ansel Adams once also said, “make”) his imagery. I said above that I am frequently asked if I “enhance” my images before printing or displaying them. The answer is yes, absolutely! Why wouldn’t I? I generally have one of two (sometimes the result is a blend of both) objectives in my landscape imagery. I want to recreate on screen or print what I “saw” at the scene; and/or I want to enhance a scene that fits within my imagination of what could have been. Of course, sometimes, in post shooting review (and – rarely – during a shoot), I will envision something more surreal or unrealistic and think it may still be a cool art form. But mostly, I am looking for “realism.”

I keep using the word, “realism,” and perhaps it appears, somewhat inconsistently. Realism is one of the funny words that (in the words of a famous U.S. President), “depends on your definition of the word.” My definition is set out above (what I saw, or what could have been). I am not shooting evidentiary or reportage shots. In that genre, it seems important that we depict, as closely as possible, what “was.” But even then, it is not really possible to have a uniform, concrete definition of “real.” If 3 people come upon a scene and are asked to describe it afterward in their “minds-eye,” I guarantee you will get 3 different descriptions. We see arrangement of elements differently. We remember things that struck us and they are likely different than others saw and remembered. We perceive color, light and contrast differently. So, it’s very difficult to photographically represent factual realism – because that is a moving target.

Chili Ristra, New Mexico   copyright 2008  Andy Richards

Chili Ristra, New Mexico copyright 2008 Andy Richards

Realism depends on your definition of realism

Yes, I believe digital photography has “changed the world,” and is very different from film photography. But I don’t think the fundamental idea of what images represent have really changed at all. It may be easier for more of us to “manipulate” images. By and large that is at least a neutral thing, and in my view, a positive thing. And, “manipulation” of imagery is not a “new” result of the digital age. Alchemic photographers spent hours and hours in the darkroom, “manipulating” images. What digital has done is opened up a whole new world of manipulability, to a much larger set of users. In terms of my comment above about nowaday observers not “believing” images, I have no problem with having a healthy skepticism about what a photographer says the image depicts. But that doesn’t mean disbelief. And, as shooters and observers, we have – perhaps – a responsibility to view imagery in context. Art is art. I am not sure what real is or what is real. J

Sony α7R; a Second Look

In May, I did a brief “review” of my new, Sony α7R camera, after some limited use during my recent Ireland Trip. I noted there, that I have made a rather complete changeover from Nikon DSLR gear to the Sony mirrorless system. This is a bit like jumping off a cliff and I am still in “free fall, at the moment.” There were really two components to this change. I have, for years, carried at least 2 camera bodies, for different reasons. In the film days, it was common for me to carry both bodies, each loaded with a different film for different uses. I would also often have different lenses mounted on each so I could “react” to situations.

I am still in “Free Fall”

As my photography got more streamlined and deliberate, and as I moved into digital, I was less likely to carry the two “locked and loaded,” so-to-speak, and usually just had a “backup” along in case of an emergency. Because of the considerable cost of owning more than one DSLR body, I often had a “mix and match” of a DSLR and a Point and Shoot, or a FF DSLR and an APS backup, or something similar. And, I often found that the backup became a dust-gathering door stop (i.e., when I carried the D800 and a D7000 backup – the D7000 was a wonderful camera that, unfortunately, didn’t get much use). So part of the changeover involved the first step of acquiring (in lieu of the D7000) a Sony mirrorless camera that was nearly Point and Shoot size, but would – in a pinch – accommodate my Nikkor lenses (albeit without their AF capability). With that change, I was right at the edge of the cliff. I used it and loved it and before long, I was jumping.

I used it and loved it and before long, I was jumping

But back to the “free fall.” I sold the D800 and “pro” zoom lenses and “traded” for the Sony α7R “full frame” mirrorless, and a pair of “pro-quality” zooms to nearly match the Nikkor lenses. I don’t use “nearly” qualitatively – it is simply that there is no way to make the proverbial “apples—to—apples” comparison. I would expect the Zeiss designed 24-70 to be at least the equivalent of the Nikkor in terms of image quality.  I don’t have enough experience with the Sony “pro” quality lenses to know, but one would hope that they have gained from their experience working with Zeiss.  My comparison was more the “range” of these lenses.  And, of courses, it is difficult to favorably compare f4 lenses with f2.8 lenses.

At the time of this writing, I still haven’t really had a chance to give the α7R an intensive “workout.” That happens, more often than not, when I make a dedicated trip to one of my favorite, and familiar photo destinations and have a little “alone time,” with the gear. But in the meantime, I continue to study and experiment with the camera. One of the things I really miss in our “digital” world is the ability to go to a bookstore camera section and browse the “about” books. I really miss the Magic Lantern Series. There are now 3 books on the α7/α7R series written in English (and 2 more – one each in German and Japanese). But they don’t really measure up to the old Magic Lantern books, which were kind of like an annotated and clarified “manual.” Of the current books, 2 are more of a photography “how to” series with the A7 model kind of “grafted” into the series. The detail about the camera is generally superficial – “same old, same old.” I recently reviewed the third one here. But from it, I did learn some new things, and have some of the unique advantages of the Sony mirrorless bodies underscored. I will also be reviewing the Sony 70-200 f4 zoom soon, so stay tuned for both of those future blogs.

I would love to have a “raw” only version of this camera, without a lot of the menu and processor “bloat” that comes with these “gee-whiz” features

I wanted to touch on a few things I am really growing to like about the α7 body here, however.

All of the new digital cameras are amazingly customizable. And most of them have added a lot of “computer” functions internally. They can be set to do traditional “post-processing” in-camera and do HDR, panoramic stitching, and many other impressive technological things. But there is a rub: This is, for the most part, only available if you choose to shoot in a format other than raw (even if you shoot raw+jpg, most of these “processing-like” features are disabled). I am sure it is as much my curmudgeonly personality as anything, but I have resolutely refused to capture anything other than raw images on my camera (unless by accident or by specific, limited design). So I don’t get much from them. While I am sure that incremental cost of adding in these features is small, and the demand for them is fairly high, I would love to have a “raw” only version of this camera, without a lot of the menu and processor “bloat” that comes with these “gee-whiz” features. But there are some new tech features I really love.

The EVF on the A7 series is impressive

EVF

The first is its rather remarkable Electronic Viewfinder (“EVF”). My first serious point and shoot digital camera was the Canon G-series. I owned 2 of them over time, with the last being the G-12. They had optical viewfinders, much like the rangefinder cameras of old, replete with parallax issues and frame coverage calculations. I did have an opportunity to play around with a couple of the early-issue electronic viewfinders, however. They were often black and white, sluggish to respond and just not really receptive to my style of photography. I have always been an SLR/DSLR user, and my innate shooting style involves an eye-level viewfinder. It may be a “rut” that I need to get myself out of (my friend, mentor and consummate pro photographer, James Moore, commented to me once that a large percentage – perhaps majority – of great landscape images were taken from a waist-level point of view. Based on that observation, before I sold my DSLR gear, I had begun working with a waist-level finder. But it still was attached to the optical viewfinder on the camera). These days I have been to experiment more with the rear LCD as a compositional tool.

On this model, I actually prefer it to my old, bright, DSLR optical finder

The EVF on these modern cameras (and particularly on the A7) are pretty impressive. On this model, I actually prefer it to my old, bright, optical finder on the D800. The technology has advanced to the point that I am unable to discern a difference between the optical and electronic view finder, in terms of its “real time” presentation of the scene in front of me.

One of the most impressive features is the viewfinder’s ability to tell me what the lens is “seeing.” By setting the camera to its “Aperture Priority” setting, as I open and close the aperture, the viewfinder brightens and darkens as the lens will see. But maybe more importantly, it also gives you a very accurate approximation of the depth of field of a given aperture. It is – in effect – a “real time” DOF preview! If you don’t like that, it is possible to override that and the A7 cameras’ have a traditional DOF preview button. The same behavior gives you a great indication of the brightness of the resulting capture. It is – in my view – an intuitive way of shooting—especially in a more active, handheld shooting situation.

It is – in effect – a “real time” DOF preview

Another thing the “digital” nature of the EVF does, is allows you to customize what you see in that viewfinder. Unlike the Optical view finder, which can have certain fixed items (such as the aperture, etc.), you can have a superimposed item, such as a real-time histogram, or the electronic level indicator in the EFV. I use the level indicator all the time (and, like the bubble levels I use when tripod mounted—it is a constant reminder that I have a “cockeyed” natural view of things :-) ).

Finally, these viewfinders make 100% viewfinder coverage possible with a much smaller footprint and cost. The α7R is 100%, which makes composition easier, in my view.

The A7r viewfinder is 100%

Sony 36mp Sensor

An update on the Sensor. Although I had read some “rumors” about the sensor, it has been widely speculated that (since Sony manufactures the sensors for many Nikon cameras, including the D800/800e) that the 36 megapixel, sans low pass filter, sensor in this camera was the identical sensor Nikon puts in the D800e. I have recently read that although there can be some expected similarities, this sensor was actually newly developed by Sony for the A7r and is purported to be slightly newer and therefore “better.” I am not sure anyone other than a very specialized user, or an extreme “pixel peeper,” is really going to be able to tell the difference in real life usage. I can only say that I have been pretty impressed with the IQ (particularly in low light and higher ISO examples) of all of the Sony Sensors in my recent experience (Nikon D700, D800 and D7000 and both the Sony NEX-6 and the α7R).

Customizable Settings

Third, there are some really thoughtful digital feature settings on these cameras. These digital wonders are amazingly customizable. One feature I use all the time is the electronic level (which I have set to show on both the rear LCD and the viewfinder). It is also possible to set a real-time histogram on either the viewfinder or the LCD or both (as customizable as they are, some of these features will be set to the exclusion of others – for example, I do not believe it is possible to have both the level and the histogram on at the same time). I find the histogram distracting, so I have it set as a “go to” feature that I can turn on and off as desired. But it is a matter of making some useful tools available for easy reference and making how you use them a matter of how you wish to shoot.

These digital wonders are amazingly customizable

Another really cool feature (which I have admittedly yet to use in the field – but have experimented with around the house), is the camera’s “shot-result preview” feature. This feature is a “preview” feature that will give you a preview of what blurring will look like in a slower exposure (remember, it is a digital approximation, and therefore cannot give you discerning results between say, a ½ second and a 2 second exposure). It is, admittedly, a bit of a gimmick, but it might give you the idea of whether intentional blurring is even a viable option.

α7R “shutter shake”

I cannot leave out this somewhat controversial issue. I haven’t had opportunity to test and observe yet. I do know that I was aware of it while using the α7R/Sony-Zeiss 24-70 f4 combo while in Ireland. I had not done any in-depth research and so, was trying to be careful to shoot with a relative fast shutter speed. I don’t like that because it puts a limit on my creativity in terms of my own style of shooting and seeing. I later learned that most do not perceive it to be a serious problem for that focal range, particularly when shooting hand-held. It apparently is not a serious problem with that focal range when the camera body itself is mounted on a tripod (though there are some differing opinions).

Where the problem apparently arises is with longer focal length (telephoto and telephoto zooms) lenses, mounted on a tripod, with a dedicated tripod-foot mount. I need to experiment with this.

The problem seems to be that the front curtain of the camera’s focal plane shutter is so “aggressive” when opening that it creates a vibration. At fast speeds (apparently faster than 1/125 second is safe) it is not noticeable, and very slow speeds (slower than 1/15), there is enough time for the vibration to dissipate.

The fixes seem to vary. Some shooters say just “hand-bracing” the lens works. While I have shot using that technique, it seems counter intuitive that the human body which moves constantly (it is biology 101) cannot translate movement into the setup. Another view is to hang something heavy on the tripod. However, the shutter shake phenomena is an internal issue, so some say that isn’t sufficient.

One fix that seems to have gotten some traction is to hang a counterweight on the camera. I am in the process of designing and building one that will clamp onto my L-bracket. More on that later.

It’s a Moving Target

As many readers know, I started seriously shooting in 1976. In those days, a camera was a “light-fast box” which had a film wind and transport mechanism, a shutter, and a lens. The SLR allowed for interchangeable lenses and an optical, “what you see is what you get,” (sort of – in all but the most expensive “pro” bodies, the coverage was less than 100% and you had to take that into consideration in composing the image – a phenomena that has continued with the DSLR bodies) viewfinder. The primary media was the film, and you could really affect the look and feel of your imagery by simply changing film. The 35mm roll film was standardized to virtually all SLR bodies, so you could use any number of “boxes” to obtain similar results. Of course we can argue that the glass was a huge influence – but that hasn’t really changed and is not really my point here. So where am I going with this?

film camera bodies tended to be enduring; digital cameras no longer endure

Because of the nature of things, the SLR mechanical camera bodies did not change as often. And, while innovation was estimable and often “sexy,” you could still shoot (particularly as a landscape and still shooter) with a very old body, but with newer film emulsions. So, film camera bodies tended to be enduring. I once carried a “whiz bang” electronically sophisticated (for its time) Nikon N6006 and an old Nikon F-2 as a primary backup. For the most part, in my style of shooting, either worked the same. When I sold it the F-2, I got exactly what I paid for it. Today, it would be a “doorstop.” But unfortunately, the same holds true for the newest digital body. Digital cameras no longer endure. They are now computers. They still work for a long time for the user, but the market demonstrates the difference. For fun, I looked on two popular places to buy and sell gear today (KEH and eBay). KEH will give me about 1/3 of what I paid for the α7R less than a year ago! Ebay looks to be a bit better, but it’s not a sure thing until “Pez-Boy” clicks the buy button.

At the same time, I find the choices made by the major manufacturers sometimes bewildering. The α7 series now has 3 U.S. iterations: The 24mp α7; the 36MP α7R; and the newest 12mp α7S. The α7S is the most expensive of the three!  Huh, Sony??? Personally, I would like to see Sony address some of the shortcomings of the α7R (like the shutter issue) before moving on to yet another offering.

It’s a moving target

Another bewildering choice: The newest “APS” offering from Sony is a “refresh” of my NEX-6, the new α6000 . There seem to be few differences. The primary ones are a larger, 24mp sensor, a new processor, and many more AF sites, and much faster AF and capture speeds. Presumably, as new sensors are developed they incorporate the advances Sony has made and I would expect it to do a better job of low light/high ISO capture (though the NEX-6’s 16mp sensor is pretty incredible already – in my view). All indicators are that this is a major improvement on the NEX-6.   But then, inexplicably, they decided to leave out the electronic level (how much can they have saved on this already proven technology; and go with a much lower-end viewfinder.  Again, huh, Sony?

Time will tell where we go with this stuff, and I’ll be sure to be here, reporting and ranting :-)

Book Review – “The Sony a7 and a7R; The Unofficial Quintessential Guide”

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I miss the Magic Lantern Series! I know that’s not a ringing endorsement from out of the blocks; but just sayin‘. There was something reassuring about their consistent format, with a lot of information about the particular camera and its features and just enough “how to” photography information without it being a “how to” book. In the nearly 40 years that I have been buying and using photographic gear, I have yet to see a “manual” shipped with the item that was detailed and understandable. So, third party writers had to step in, work with the gear, speak with manufacturers and users, and then give us that detailed, clear “manual” explanation. The best in the business were – in my opinion – the Magic Lantern Series. As print books have largely gone away, so have these useful books :-( .  The closest thing to this series that I have been able to find for the Sony α7 series cameras is “The Sony α7 and α7R,”  published by rockynook publishers and co-written by authors Brian Matsumoto and Carol Roullard.

I miss the Magic Lantern Series

There are still some print books out there that purport and attempt to do this job. Unfortunately, in my view, they are not as consistent, or as good. They tend to be a hodgepodge. They are often written by different authors and therefore reflect their style of writing and perhaps more than they should, sometimes their particular prejudices based on their own photography.

There are two “series” out there today that seem ubiquitous and I had hopes, would be something like the Magic Lantern Guides. But alas, they were not. The “From Snapshots to Great Shots” series is one. I have purchased a couple of them and they are frankly, disappointing – at least as they relate to the reason I bought them (see above). Their coverage of the equipment is superficial, and they all have the same, beginner “how to” stuff in every chapter. Many, if not most of us who buy the more sophisticated cameras, like the Sony α7 series, really do not need the “how to” stuff that is in every one of these books. The other series is the series by David Busch. There is no doubt that David is a knowledgeable, talented and accomplished photographer. But I can pick up any one of his series and 80% of content is virtually identical. It is “how to” photography (usually beginning to intermediate) stuff. The books are several hundred pages and $40 dollars. I just want the 20% about the camera. That is what the title and marketing says after all. Both of these series seem to me to be a set script in which the editors just go in and put in the 20% part about the cameras. And then, altogether too often, that coverage is superficial and nothing more than what is found in the not so good online pdf files available from the manufacturer.  Did I mention that I miss the Magic Lantern Series? :-)

I want to see a book that is about the camera – like the titles imply

I really don’t mean to be hypercritical (maybe just critical :-) ). I appreciate that the writers of all these series are talented, qualified photographers, and are trying, in many cases, to make a living. I am not saying there is not a place out there for these combination “how to” / “missing manual” books. There are certainly many shooters out there who have not read generic “how to” books and who have the camera and could benefit from the books. But if it is a “how to book,” tell it is a “how to “book and if it’s marketed as a book about the particular camera, then I want to see a book that is mainly about the camera – like the titles imply.

As best I can tell, at the time of writing this, there are 5 published books dedicated to the Sony α7 series. One is in German (Sony Alpha 7/7R) and one is in Japanese (Sony Alfa 7R & Alfa 7 Super Book). Until I brush up on those two languages, I won’t find much utility in them. I would be interested in comments from any readers out there who are conversant in these languages. The other 3 are the David Busch Guide, the Snapshots to Great Shots book, and the book reviewed here, published by rockynook photographic publishers.

The authors are pretty consistent throughout, using a logical “how you would shoot this” approach to how the A7/A7r settings and options handle the situation, and often some unique options that make shooting with the A7 even better or easier

I have several of the rockynook books. I like them. I like the fact that they dedicate their publications to photography. There are some really good volumes of work in the rockynook library and I heartily endorse them. I gave this book my “suggested” rating. I did pick up some good stuff from the book and it will remain on my bookshelves. And, at the moment it is the only one among the English books that comes close to my criteria above. While I would not call it indispensable, it is a nice addition to my library.

The book delivers what its title implies, mostly. It is much more like the old Magic Lantern Guides and is about the α7 series of cameras, how they work, and what they can produce. It is clear from the book that they have both spent significant time shooting with both the α7 and α7R cameras. The authors definitely bring their own shooting style to the book. The book is laid out consistently, with each chapter having an introduction and a “recommendations” section. The authors are pretty consistent throughout, using a logical “how you would shoot this” approach to how the α7/α7R settings and options handle the situation, and often some unique options that make shooting with the α7 even better or easier.

But the authors do tie the general photography concept approach to the specific settings, menus and options on the camera

Chapter 1, “Getting Started,” discusses the camera and its layout and highlights the differences between the α7 and the α7r models. It also gives you enough information about how digital cameras work, in general, so if you were contemplating purchasing the α7, you can see the relative benefits and costs. There are nice photos and diagrams of the camera from front, back, and top, to show the control layout in the introductory section, and then a “walk” through the menu layout in Chapter 1.

If you were looking at the book either in a bookstore or online, based on the Chapter titles, you might be tempted to dismiss the book as just another “how to” book in the guise of a book about a specific model. But the authors do tie the general photography concept approach to the specific settings, menus and options on the camera.

So, even though Chapter 2 is titled, “Basics of Digital Photography,” the subheadings are all camera-specific and relate to the concepts. Chapters on using the camera in its different shooting modes (automatic, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual) follow, along with specific examples of where the authors (an perhaps you) would use different features. Finally, there are chapters on additional customization, downloadable apps, flash, and lens (both Sony mount lenses, and adapted “legacy” lenses).  I thought the chapter on using flash was particularly good, in that it described the various Sony – branded flash units that work with the camera, and under what circumstances a user might purchase the different units.  I appreciate that the book is a “Sony” book.  However, I would like to have heard (and perhaps the authors just haven’t explored this) about third party branded flash units that might work with the camera.

Of course, a lot of the “features” are in-camera processing that can only be done if the user chooses to shoot in the camera’s jpg mode. They generally do not work if you choose to capture images in Sony’s native raw format, and most do not work if you choose the dual option of raw + jpeg. So, for you jpeg shooters, there is a lot of in-depth information.

have some personal “nits” about the book. A few specific examples:

In a couple of places in the text, the authors discuss mounting the camera on a tripod and being required to turn Sony’s OSS (“Optical Steady Shot”) off and to turn it back on when you take the camera off the tripod. But there is no place in the book that discusses OSS, how it works, and when and when not to use it. The Sony 70-200 f4 zoom lens for this camera has a button on the lens to turn OSS on and off. Are we to turn it off in both places or just one of them? To address the issue obliquely, but not directly, seem like a significant omission.

At times the recommendations sections almost imply that the authors’ recommendations are the only way to do things. In one point in the book, for example, they discuss the AF/MF button on the back of the camera. I have used an old John Gerlach technique for many years, programming the AF/MF button to activate AF and turning of AF activation on the shutter button. When you have the camera mounted on a tripod and have framed up a still shot and have focused on the point you want in sharpest focus, the last thing you want is for the lens to “hunt” when you activate the shutter button. This prevents that. The authors do not note this, but the α7/α7r can be programmed to do this. Instead, the authors note that it can be programmed so that it toggles between AF and MF. This is useful in instances like the microscopic images that the author shoots. I would like to have seen them drill down into these options a bit and mention the other potentially useful settings of these buttons.

There are times when I think the rockynook editing process could be better. There are occasions in the book where the authors use a slightly inconsistent approach which to a casual reader, could be confusing. In one place they may speak in terms of minimum and maximum aperture values, and in another they refer to the “smallest value” of the aperture ring, but mean the largest aperture.

“Raw” does not stand for anything other than raw! As in “uncooked”

And, there is on “nails on the blackboard,” pet peeve for me. I know, it is ridiculously nit-picky, but it annoys me. Throughout the text whenever the authors refer to raw capture, they use “RAW” in capital letters. Another prominent rockynook author, in his book, went to some trouble to point out that this is incorrect. When we see TIFF, or JPEG (or JPG), it is because they stand for a phrase (TIFF = Tagged Image File Format, and JPEG = “Joint Photographic Experts Group”). “Raw” does not stand for anything other than raw! As in “uncooked.” So it annoys me when people capitalize it. Why do I continue to bitch about it? Because this is my blog and because I CAN :-).  But funny thing ….. (“Pot, meet kettle”) ….. I have been consistently referring to the subject camera model as the “A7r” (capital “A” and lower case “R”).  As I was again pitching a fit about the capitalization of “raw,” I noted that the authors here (correctly) use the denomination a7R (just the reverse of my incorrect usage).  The “a” of course, is really the greek “alpha” symbol, and this exercise also forced me to figure out how to reproduce it here.  But I now stand corrected (and I have that going for me, and that’s a good thing :-) ).

The detailed, multi-page appendices section at the back of the book is a very nice feature with nicely explained, detailed menu settings and commands. It will be a valuable troubleshooting aid and quick reference.

The book delivers what it implies …. mostly

On balance, this is a good book and a good addition to the α7/α7R owner’s arsenal. At this stage, it is the only book I can suggest, as it is the only one that is really, in my view, an “about the α7 series book.” I have not read the David Busch book, and I will probably at least peruse it when I finally see it in a bookstore. I already own a couple of his books, so unless there is a lot of hidden secrets, I probably won’t buy it. But if I do, for the sake of fairness and consistency, I’ll review it.

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