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Is Digital Capture Too Easy?

Do We Take Digital Capture For Granted?

In the “My Story” page on this Blog, I suggest that it would be a wonderful exercise for “new” photographers to begin with a truly all-manual camera and color transparency (“slide”) film.  Perhaps there are readers here who don’t even know what that is (or was).

For many photographers – particularly nature and outdoor photographers – a process called color transparency film, became the medium of choice

The “brave new world that digital “capture” has given us has also done a pretty good job of hiding the technical aspects behind the curtain (no pun intended).  To understand that statement probably requires a little trip down memory lane.  The original idea, of course was chemical reaction caused by exposure to light (hence, “exposure”) light on a medium. The reaction caused the chemical to change color (or at least contrast).  While there were some prior experiments, the first “permanent” photographic image was probably the Daguerrotype, in the 18th Century.  Over time, the chemical medium of choice became silver nitrate crystals, suspended in an gel-type emulsion which we called “film.”  A series of red, green and blue layers were later added to the process, to create “color” images.  Compared to the vivid color we see on our computer screens today, early color film was rather subdued.

Black and white, and later, “color reversal” films were designed to create a “negative” image.  The negative image was developed in a chemical bath process in the darkroom.  Then, a second process was used to expose photographic paper (coated with a silver crystal emulsion of its own) to yield a “positive” image.

I believe there is a learning “take-away” from the color transparency film story

For many photographers – particularly nature and outdoor photographers – a process called color transparency film, became the medium of choice.  The color transparency was designed primarily to be projected onto a screen by shining a light through it.  It was also possible to create prints for personal use and for publishing with these images.  In its early stages, this process was confined to a very complex development process, that required very expensive equipment.  Perhaps the first and most famous was the vaunted “Kodachrome.”  Later, processes were created that would allow a less expensive, more routine form of development of the film.  The draw of the color transparency was its detail and realism.

Color transparency film is rarely used anymore, primarily because of the modern digital sensor.  Film had certain limitations, including relatively low ISO ratings (particularly in relationship to grain).  While the film industry made wonderful advances – particularly during the 1990’s, the arrival of digital sensors turned the photographic industry on its “ear.”  Suddenly, we could have a variable ISO “film” in our cameras.  And the quality of digital sensors has continued to get better and better, allowing for a relatively grain-free image at previously unheard of ISO ratings in the tens of thousands (compared to perhaps 200 ISO in a color transparency film).

If digital is so good, why do we care about all this?  Aside from the fact that history is interesting to some of us, I believe there is a learning “take-away” from the color transparency film story.

Our eyes are amazing biotechnical wonders.  Those familiar with cameras that allow user input, are perhaps familiar with the established system used to characterize the amount of light allowed to “expose” the medium (whether film or digital sensor), known as “f stops.”  Scientists say that the eye is altogether capable of seeing a range of up to 30 stops (though, at any given time, depending on lighting conditions, the useful range is perhaps closer to 10 stops).  Neither film nor digital sensors are capable of that much range (though digital technology will probably get there one day).  Because of this limited range, what we are able to record and present is much more limited that what our eye can actually see.  The magnitude of this range is known as “exposure latitude.”

Our eyes are amazing biotechnical wonders

Without getting into a detailed analysis of the various and relative exposure latitudes of different films and digital sensors, knowing these limitations is instructive.  As a general rule, B&W film had greater latitude than color negative film (perhaps comparable to the best digital sensors).  But color transparency film had nearly zero practical latitude.  When shooting slides, I would often under or over expose by 1/3 stop.  Any more than that and the image exposure just began to deteriorate.  So how is that useful?  It forces us to be thoughtful and careful about our exposure techniques.  I learned early on that I could be a bit sloppy when using negative film and still get acceptable exposure.  With slide film there is no margin for error.

But if other media is more “forgiving,” why does this all matter?  Well, what you can see in the darkroom is that there is a lot more you can coax out of a well exposed negative than a poorly exposed one.  And sometimes that is the difference between “acceptable” and “desired” results.  Using color transparency film was an in-your-face demonstration of how critical correct exposure is.  I have always thought of my digital sensor recordings as “digital negatives.”  And, much like the physical film “negatives” the quality of the “digital negative” critically impacts what you are able to do with it in post processing.  Getting correct exposure will yield desired results!

This image, made on Fuji Velvia; the most colorful and saturated film of the day, even with digital “enhancement” shows the more subdued colors and contrast ranges of transparencies

Of course, the comparison between film and digital is not exact.  There is a “science” to correct exposure with a digital image, and the response to exposure latitude is mathematically different.  Enough so that different and new techniques evolved for exposure judgement.  This technique, know as ETTR (or “Expose To The Right”), recognizes use of the graphic, “Histogram” for judging exposure.  I explain this exposure theory and technique in The Perfect Histogram, posted here in 2010.  While again, not an “apples-to-apples” comparison, there are many parallels to shooting with transparency film and optimal use of the digital sensor.

So, to my original question, do we take digital sensors for granted?  I believe many of us do, by not doing the “homework” involved to understand how these marvelous tools do their work.  The “cover” image was taken with my Smart Phone (the ill-conceived Blackberry Priv – Blackberry’s last ditch stand and attempt to compete in the Android world).  My first digital camera had a sub-2 megapixel sensor and produced, small, rather low-quality images.  Today’s smart phone cameras rival nearly any other small-sensor camera out there.  Most of them do not have the ability for significant user technical input, but the ability of the software to “do it for us” yields some impressive and often acceptable results.  But I will stick to my more sophisticated equipment and my knowledge of it, to obtain desired results.  And if you want a “tough lesson” learning experience, grab an old manual SLR camera and a roll of Kodachrome 25 and make some images!

I am experimenting with a beta version of WordPress’ new “Gutenberg” editor, which uses “blocks” of information.  Like anything new, there is a learning curve.  And bugs.  I like the ability to customize backgrounds, and to insert multiple images as “galleries” instead of just a single image at a time.  I am not sure I like the captioning,  I like that they have added drop caps (my prior solution was to make just the first letter in a bolder, larger font).  I do not like the in-your-face, hugeness of the drop caps.  I hope the final version gives us some more adjustability.  Likewise, I would like the ability to use font colors in the blockquotes, and vary the fonts within the text boxes.  Time will tell, but I apologize for any “wonkyness” here.


Kodachrome and my Nikon Camera – 1996

They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day
I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph
So mama don’t take my Kodachrome away

Paul Simon; 1973

Pink Rose Nikon N6006 Kodachrome 25 Copyright Andy Richards 1996

Kodachrome 25
Nikon N6006
Copyright Andy Richards 1996

I started shooting again in 1996.  In earlier years, I fell in love with the realism produced by color slide films, and Kodachrome 25 quickly became my film of choice.  When I started serious shooting in the late 70’s, there were really only two or three choices: Kodachrome 25, Kodachrome 64, some Kodak Ektachromes and a couple of Agfa emulsions (I am sure there were others, but these were what I seemed to find in the camera stores).  There was something about K25 that just hooked me.  Ektachrome was a slide film that could be “home” developed and often local shops had the processing equipment to do so.  But to me it seemed washed out and kind of “bluish.”  The Kodachrome films involved a complex development process that required expensive equipment.  It ensured that rolls of film were going to be sent in and you were going to generally wait a week or so for the results.  It took me a while to work up to the Nikon camera :-), but by the time we reached the ’90’s I was a confirmed “Black Hatter.”  And in my closet, I had an old, cracked, brown leatherette bag stashed with 2 Nikkormat bodies and an assortment of “eh” third party glass.  My only Nikkor lens was the 50mm lens.

By 1996, a lot had changed in the industry.  And yet nothing had really changed

Nikon N6006 Kodak Elitechrome II (50) Copyright 1996 f4.5; 1/60 sec Flowers Vol. 1, #3

Nikon N6006
Kodak Elitechrome II (50)
Copyright 1996
f4.5; 1/60 sec
Flowers Vol. 1, #3

By 1996, a lot had changed in the industry.  And yet nothing had really changed (the real change came in the late 1990s – early 2000s with the advent of the consumer-affordable digital capture DSLR).  My first Asahiflex SLR camera had a focal plane, horizontal, fabric shutter.  The lenses screwed into the body and there were no mechanical linkages.  “Stopping the lens down” to the selected aperture (in all but one case — wide-open) was done manually with a ring on the lens barrel.  Focusing and composing was done by using a waist-level viewfinder.  My second SLR, a Canon TX, incorporated radical changes :-).  It had a pentaprism viewfinder, bayonet mounting lenses, and on the mount, a little lever that “automatically” stopped down the lens, when the shutter was tripped (that was first meaning of “automatic” with reference to SLR cameras).  While those were hugely convenient new touches for me, I was mildly surprised to realize they did not improve the quality of my images :-).  This was my first inkling of the idea that “its all just gear.”  My third SLR was my first Nikon.  There were really only minor differences and I quickly assimilated to it.  All of those cameras had to be fed film and mine were nurtured with virtually 100% Kodachrome 25 when shooting for myself (the Nikon ran through a fair amount of B&W Tri-X as a college student staff shooter).  But in the end, the cameras were all functionally identical; a light-tight box that accepted various lenses and allowed us to adjust shutter speed and aperture, and to variably focus the lenses.

The one constant was the most important one; film

Nikon N6006 Kodachrome 25 f5.6; 1/8 sec. Flowers, Vol. 1, #34

Nikon N6006
Kodachrome 25
f5.6; 1/8 sec.
Flowers, Vol. 1, #34

There was also a “new automatic.”  While I was “sleeping” during the 1980’s, Nikon, Pentax led the charge, first with integrated motor drives and then with “autofocus.”  In 1985, along came Minolta and put what was perhaps the first programming function into their Maxxum line of cameras.  I remember keeping up and reading from time to time and was very enamored with the idea.  I have always been a “gadget-guy” and I think that intrigued me.  Today, I yearn for a simpler body that has just the features I find useful.  Every camera I have owned since I moved up to modern SLR cameras have had “program” functions.  I have never used one of them and consider them bloatware on the cameras.  Anyway, the newer bodies all had auto-focus, integrated motor-drives, and in Nikon’s case, some pretty impressive flash technology.  But as I said.  Nothing had really changed.  Don’t get me wrong.  These were often fun and convenient features.  But they really did nothing to change the essence of the camera (again, a light-tight, interchangeable lens camera).  Getting caught up in the “gear” thing, I traded that cracked brown bag, and the gear in it, for my first “all-automatic” Nikon; a N6006.  I eventually acquired an old manual F2 as a backup and moved my main body up to an N90s.  The N90s was probably my favorite camera body if all time and was the last SLR I owned before moving to digital.

Rose Copyright Andy Richards 1996

Copyright Andy Richards 1996

But the one constant was the most important one; film.  And because of its nature, you either had to shoot the entire roll, figure out how to wind it up into the canister and then fish it back out again, or use multiple camera bodies (something many of us ultimately did do).  I carried 2 bodies in the field most of the time, usually loaded with different films.  Film really changed a lot during that periodFuji began making its Velvia emulsion which was vibrant and contrasty and especially favored by nature photographers.  Kodak eventually caught up with some of its Elite Chrome (Ektachrome) emulsions and it was a time for experimentation on my part.  As the Fuji and Kodak (all new development for them was in Ektachrome films) films got better and better, I essentially would leave K25 behind.  Newer films were rated at much higher ISO ratings (Kodak Elite Chrome II for example, was 100 compared to Kodachrome’s 25 or 64 — isn’t there a Chicago song in there somewhere 🙂 ?–and could be push processed to 200).

Nikon N6006 Kodak Elite chrome II 50 Copyright Andy Richards 1996

Nikon N6006
Kodak Elite chrome II 50
Copyright Andy Richards 1996

My primary interest in those days was so-called “nature photography.”  By this time I was a little older and a little smarter, and realized that what I did not know about photography was an awful lot more than what I did know.  I began to read.  The best book I have ever read on the subject was (still available) a book by pro, Bryan Peterson, called “Understanding Exposure.”  It was, for me, an eye opener.  I followed up by reading other books he has written.  His were the best resources I had (and still have).   I also read wildlife shooters Moose Peterson, John Shaw,  and the late Larry West (a premiere birding photographer, whose “How To Photograph Birds” remains, in my view, the best succinct handbook on this subject), and many others as well.

Day Lily Copyright Andy Richards 1996

Day Lily
Copyright Andy Richards 1996

Flower shots are often one of the first love’s of new shooters.  They are cooperative.  They are colorful.  They are easy to find and can be shot in a variety of conditions and setups (natural and man-made).  I was no exception and began photographing flowers.  Lots of them.  Too many of them.  But I did learn a lot about lighting and depth of field.  As you can see from some of the images here, soft lighting and harsh lighting can have very different effects on a subject.  I also began experimenting with flash to control the image background and/or to fill shadows in contrasty image conditions.  These images are also illustrative of the need for critical focus.   They are often shot with very shallow depth of field and critical focus on some part of the image is pretty important.  It is ok (even desirable in many cases) to have parts of an image out of focus, but the shooter needs to be able to see and control that (unfortunately there is sometimes a certain softness introduced by the film to digital scanning process).

Nikon N6006 Tokina 80-400 (400); 1.7x converter Fuji Sensia 100 (200) f5.6; Copyright Andy Richards 1996

Nikon N6006
Tokina 80-400 (400); 1.7x converter
Fuji Sensia 100 (200)
Copyright Andy Richards 1996

I also began shooting wildlife shots.  I immediately learned that there really are some areas where “gear” matters.  And this is especially true with birds.  Unless your name is Grizzly Adams, it is pretty unlikely that you will get close enough to make wildlife portraits with a 50mm (or even a 135mm) lens.  Many of the “consumer” zoom lenses of that day has some serious shortcomings.  In addition to the fact that the best light occurs most often in early morning or evening, those also tend to be the times when certain wildlife are most active.  Most consumer zooms were variable aperture, with f5.6 often being the best you could hope for at the long end.  This makes capturing wildlife, who are rarely still, a challenge.  I purchased a Tokina “prosumer” 80-400 zoom lens.  While Tokina produced some very fine glass at prices roughly 1/2 the cost of good Nikon or Canon glass, this particular model was a bit on the soft side, as the wildlife images here demonstrate.  In later years, for a time, I owned a 300mm f2.8 prime lens, which was great for wildlife and sports, but also required a virtual caisson to move around and to mount.  The image of the deer was one my most frustrating and disappointing moments.  It highlights the limits of f5.6and really not very good quality glass, as well as the further negative of a teleconverter (only in the late 2000’s did Nikon finally produce a sharp teleconverter – up to that time, all the commentators agreed that all teleconverters were going to produce some image degradation on long glass).  At a distance, a significant crop with those variables was — as can be seen — hopeless.  Yet the setting and the pose was really nice.  I wasn’t going to get any closer to this guy who was all the way across a cornfield.  While slightly better, you can also see that the Great Blue Heron shot lacks the nice detail (partly due to harsh lighting) we would like to see on bird feathers, and lacks the “razor-sharpness” bird photographers demand from their best work.  But heck, I was shooting.  And I was having fun!

Nikon N6006 Tokina 80-400 (400); 1.7x converter Fuji Sensia 100 (200) Copyright Andy Richards 1996

Nikon N6006
Tokina 80-400 (400); 1.7x converter
Fuji Sensia 100 (200)
Copyright Andy Richards 1996

Color My World

I have been fascinated with cameras since I can remember. My first camera was a Kodak Baby Brownie, shooting 120 roll, Black and White film. I remember carrying it during my first ever visit to my relatives in Vermont. I was probably about 9 or 10 years old. It was the 1960’s and color was not really an option for me then. Somewhere along the line, I graduated to an “Instamatic” camera. But I really wasn’t a photographer, as I define it today, back then. I was a snapshooter. I didn’t really get the “bug” until 10 years later, as a college student in Randolph Center, Vermont, where I was inspired by my professor, John Knox’s Vermont Life work. Vermont Life was about vibrant color! And not surprisingly, my own “vision” tends toward color.

Horseshoe Lake, Huron NF, MI copyright 1997 Andy Richards

Ironically, history honors some of the best known names, who spent their careers becoming known for their Black and White images, Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier Bresson, Dorothea Lange and Alfred Steiglitz, to name but a few. But for me it has always been about color. Color is everywhere. It is in Nature. It is in many man-made things. There are books devoted to color and color theory. With the advent of digital, much of the software we work with involves color management.

Color can be anywhere from “in-your-face,” to subtle. One of my most successful images is the image of Horseshoe Lake, shot early one late Summer morning in the Huron National Forest in Northern Lower Michigan. The image’s near-monochromatic blue is partly a function of the reaction of the Fuji Velvia film I used in those particular light conditions. But in print, there are subtle greens in the reeds and purples and reds in the sky.

The soft pinks, rusts and turquoise in the Madrid, New Mexico shopping strip adobe buildings are telltale colors of the American Southwest.

When I was walking around San Francisco the pastel colored umbrellas and easels in the artist exhibit in Union Square drew my eye immediately.

So often, a plain, cobalt-blue sky is an image killer. But it makes the perfect background to the hundreds of hot air balloons launched at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta each year in early October in Albuquerque, New Mexico. These, bright, colored balloons make wonderful subjects and create great composition opportunities for the color photographer.

Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta Copyright 2008 Andy Richards

R ecently, I was in the Caribbean.  In Grand Turk, this colorful scene caught my eye.

Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos Islands Copyright 2012 Andy Richards