Friday, February 28, 2014

Why take a photograph?

A few days ago, a friend of mine, Russ Lewis, posted a photograph on Luminous Landscape, a forum that I frequent for criticism, stimulation, and conversation about photography. I asked Russ if I could blog about the discussion thread that resulted and he graciously agreed. If you're interested, the thread can be found here (you need to be a member to see images), but the following will present what I consider the important and interesting essence of the discussion.

The Tracks
The image can be seen here and I find it very strong for many reasons, but the interesting part was the discourse it engendered amongst the forum denizens, amateurs and professionals. Some shrugged their shoulders. Some focused on the terrific post processing and technical details regarding rendering, composition, and subject. Some had very strong negative feelings about the image: What exactly is the subject? Why would you take a picture of an empty train track? It's lonely. I don't like it, but it's a strong image. It's a cliché. Others felt very positive about it: Strong image. A photo that would stimulate much speculation if it were an assignment in English class. It's mysterious. It's a metaphor for universal experience. It's an ongoing thread, so there will be further responses, no doubt!

But what struck me so vividly I wanted to write about it, was that this image seemed to divide my photographer colleagues into two camps, if I may over-simplify intentionally. Some felt the photograph unappealing because there was no "formal" subject or point to the image other than the cliché of tracks running off into the distance and therefore, if it was about nothing, then why take it? I take a different view and while the photograph elicits very negative feelings in me, therein lies the "Aha!" Below is essentially a direct quote of my comments on the forum, which I wrote because I am training myself not to simply like or dislike a photograph, but to work on the discipline of trying to evaluate the "what" and the "why" of that judgment. I tried to address the question of whether something is valueless because others have done it before. In photography speak, is an image a cliché if someone else has already captured it?

I argue that a photograph, which makes us feel anything beyond indifference is worthwhile whether it elicits a sense of loss, an appreciation of beauty, or interest in a particular subject or product. Russ calls  it a "transcendental experience" and it is precisely this that makes photography it's own language. "A picture is worth a thousand words." There's a reason for that! But is there value in trying to restate or retell a story and does it lose its "magic" if it's part of a "same old song?" I say it is important and for good reasons; my belief (for it is that) is based on the following logic.

Photography is a medium (maybe a currency?) like everything else we use to try and connect with one another. Words, paintings, sculpture, theater, science, etc (some of these are mixed media no?) are forms of expression and organization that we use to communicate subjective and necessarily approximate realities. We say we have heard that song before about unrequited love and tragedy (Tristan and Isolde, Hero and Leander, almost any country western song, etc), but each re-telling of the "cliché" can be appreciated for variations on a common theme that we all have had or will experience, for the richness of the embellishment by the story teller, for the sheer size of a tapestry depicting the events re-told, or for the technical execution of the attempt to communicate even what is an old, old story. For example, revealing my childish predilection Wink, I love the female form; all the time, every way, size, shape, real or "fake" it doesn't matter. My 89 yo father still loves the female form, too! Sure, I would love Platonically ideal females, but I sure like going through the discovery process and examination to find the most perfect approximation or should I say approximations Wink? Please pardon my being cute, but it makes my point: In this case, familiarity does not breed contempt! Media can be used to create everything from the profound, to the mundane, to the vulgar, but I would argue that to be successful, the ones that succeed must in some sense represent a "cliché" at least a cliché to someone, somewhere, probably someone highly educated. An important caveat that professionals sometimes forget: A cliché to one skilled in the art may not be a cliche to a neophyte, which does not negate the fact that a rendition (think photograph) is appreciated or found irritating and overused, precisely because it communicates something of our common experience; beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I guess, but then, ironically, I had to try and say it my own way.

When I saw Russ' photograph, I could appreciate it for it's technical excellence (composition, exposure, post processing, etc). I could also appreciate it aesthetically, feel the sense of emptiness that exists in a million different venues and within all of us. But I loved most of all the empty tracks, which to me signify the inevitability of loneliness and I found Russ' rendition beautiful and terrible, at the same time. I keep hearing Soul Asylum's "Runaway Train" in the background as I write this, which is probably mixing metaphors Wink, but I also love the performances by Rosanne Cash and every other artist that sings this song even though I've heard it a million times (that's hyperbole) Wink!
Just because Shakespeare writes another story about a mad king or a cuckolded husband, doesn't mean we don't appreciate, enjoy, even revere how he uses common (vulgar?) words to tell the tale. Now, I'm no Shakespeare with a camera, but I sure enjoy all of the renditions I see in LuLa land and elsewhere, some are successful, some are not. I enjoy the repartee and thought provoking discussions in LuLa, and while I have yet to produce my own "masterpiece," I also love the gathering of kindred souls around a warm fire on a cold evening, even if we are re-telling "old stories."
I submit that this is why we take photographs... to perfect the story and thereby connect with another human being.


Saturday, October 5, 2013

Blocked! NYIP Unit 5

Stymied. Frustrated. Exasperated. Discouraged. Hopeful.

I am completely blocked on the New York Institute of Photography Unit 5 and I cannot seem to come unstuck. I am writing about it in the hope that somehow I may become inspired and get through this next to last step. The assignment is fairly straightforward:

1) Photograph a newsworthy event.
2) Photograph a sports event.
3) Make a fashion photograph by copying something from a magazine.
4) Create a photo essay.

Not particularly difficult, but this assignment has become a serious roadblock for me.

Where do I go to find a "newsworthy" event? Photojournalism. Right place, right time, right equipment, luck. No car accidents out on the front lawn, no trains derailed at the Amtrak station, no aliens landing on Ensign Peak and stealing Brigham Young's monument. Sports? I could go down to the local soccer field. Heck, I could even buy a ticket to watch the Utah Jazz or the Utes. Fashion photography? Copying a magazine ad? Yuk. As for a photo essay, I do have a bunch of shots from when the ceiling collapsed in my laboratory last Spring and had to be cleaned up. Disgusting; toilet overflowed in the rehab lab above us. I thought THAT was newsworthy, but nobody else did.

Why? I can only think that part of the reason for my photographic constipation is that this assignment is very, very, VERY structured. I find I am very resistant to structure, schedules, restrictions, programmed venues. Ironic, since I was the Sports Editor of my high school yearbook and I enjoyed that.

Thanks for letting me bitch. Only time will tell if I can get off this position and finish the course I started.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Vision, Courage, Persistence

Photographs in the
show can be seen
on my website by
clicking here.
For those of you unable to attend the reception at the Spencer Eccles Health Sciences Library yesterday (Thu 9/26/13), I was asked to give a short talk about my photographic journey. The text of my remarks follows if you're interested:

Vision, Courage, Persistence

Many years ago, I became enthralled with photography. Perhaps it was the encouragement of my father. Perhaps it was transmitted to me from my mother who was an artist. Perhaps it was fascination with the work of Ansel Adams. Maybe, and more likely, it was a matrix of all of these factors and many, many others that combined to feed my fascination with photography. And so, I began to learn: First in a high school photography course where I learned the basics of darkroom chemistry. Then in my own darkroom under the stairs of our rented house with equipment that I could only beg, borrow, or steal, though my father gave me my first camera, a Mamiya 500TL SLR, and my first enlarger, a Durst M300. Funny how I remember these things from 50 or so years ago. I reached the apex of my “professional” photographic career as Sports Editor for our high school yearbook and during which time I could indulge myself with endless supplies of film, chemicals, and paper. At one point, my vision of my future, some might call it a dream, was as a professional photographer. Sadly, part of growing up is considered by many to involve the inexorable realization that our dreams, our vision, can be extraordinarily elusive. Ephemeral. Even unrealizable. The prophet Isaiah has written, "Without a vision, the people perish." Vision is essential to life.

Reality intervenes, sometimes uncomfortably. Late in high school, I got to the point where I could not go into the darkroom and avoid severe bouts of allergic unpleasantness. There was nothing to be done but to give up the darkroom and even photography as I couldn't afford to send film to a lab for development and printing. Besides this would have removed half the fun! Fortunately, I was facing the prospects of college and what to do with the rest of my life, so I spent 40 plus years developing my career in biomedical science and transplantation. My vision changed. Many times along the way, I pondered whether I had made a good decision, whether I was having an impact, whether I was performing at my best. There were many "Dark nights of the soul" along the way. But I persisted and, looking back, it was a good decision having sustained me and my family, put four kids through college (at least part-way!), paid the mortgage, and provided for retirement.

But I never forgot photography. Of course, over that time, photography changed. Film was eventually replaced almost completely by digital sensors. The darkroom evolved into a computer program, Photoshop. And the enlarger and photographic paper have been replaced by inkjet printers that can produce incredible images on paper, glass, and even metal. My dad had continued to develop his own photographic talent and I followed his growth intently over the years. I forget the reason, maybe I'd finally reached the point where my career failed to consume every waking moment of my time and interest, but he suggested I look at a digital camera, "Things have come a long way," he said. And the rest is, as they say, history. First, you cannot have a digital camera without also getting software capable of decoding the image, that is, unless you only want to take your memory card out and have it printed at Costco. In for a penny, in for a pound, I began to rediscover photography in the digital world. I began to grapple with the complexity of the digital darkroom. And along the way, I fell in love again with photography. Rather, I should say I rediscovered a long-lost love. Shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and composition to be sure, but there was also this huge technology to understand and conquer. The artist in me embraced photography, the scientist in me embraced the technology and therein, my vision began to change again.

When I am "taken" by a photograph, as Ernst Haas and Vincent Versace would say, in order to record it, two processes inexorably follow: First, it has to be captured competently. Second, it must be rendered aesthetically pleasing, or at least it must satisfy my sense of aesthetic. I have come to appreciate that aesthetic senses are like noses, everyone has one! One man's garbage is another man's treasure. No one person sees anything exactly the same as another. The color red, for example, is a convention; none of us perceives the color red exactly the same. None of us sees a sunset with exactly the same subjective sense as another. None of us perceives a situation with exactly the same appreciation of facts, relationship, nuance, conclusion. To me, this is the beginning of trying to understand vision. Vision is part of that unique something that each see-er, listen-er, smell-er, tast-er, feel-er experiences, processes, and interprets, whether they choose to share it, or not. Whether they are aware of it, or not. For me, photographic vision involves trying to see and understand fascination with what and why a particular set of colors, contrasts, geometric form and a host of other characteristics grab my attention enough to press the shutter release. It is a journey, and even though subjective, it is real. And simply because it is unique, it is precious and it should be shared. Vision is, perhaps, a "language" through which we can achieve some common sense of experience.

But what if you don't like my vision? What if I don't like your vision? In the marketplace of convention, different visions are sorted and weighed. Those most universal are said to be "good" and the rest merely interesting, common, vulgar, or even "bad." So, what would happen if nobody shared their vision due to the risk of being relegated to these other categories? Worse, ignored? What if they don't like me? What if I'm no good? What if they laugh at me? What if they run me out of town? Courage. What if, what if, what if. Without the courage to share your vision, it can never enter the marketplace of incredible talent that exists; it can never "touch" your neighbor. It can never be shared. What would the world be like if nobody had the courage to share their vision? What is your vision? Do you have the courage to share it?

I can guarantee, that the first time you share your vision, it will be rejected. Your first attempts at creating art, will be crude, your ideas roughly formulated. There is a technology for sharing: reading, writing, arithmetic, art, music, performance, etc; most of all, practice. It could be argued that art, crudley done (ie, with poor technology), bad grammar, faulty logic, sloppy attention to detail, laziness, lack of focus, etcetera, will be quickly relegated to the dust bin. It behooves the artist to understand and use his technology with sophistication and aplomb to be sure, but despite vision and the courage to share, rejection is likely, success never comes easily. What's worth doing is worth doing well. What's worth doing is worth persisting to get it right. Overnight successes are extremely rare and even rarer that they stand the test of time. Even with the best of visions and unfailing courage, without persistence, success is merely a fantasy. Never, never, never, give up.

Vision. Courage. Persistence. You may not like my images shared here in the Spencer Eccles Health Sciences Library. I can tell you that I face that fear daily and, even so, I will continue to perfect my craft, my seeing, my expression, my articulation of my vision. Why am I telling you this? As you've probably guessed, this is not only about art, not only about a senescing professor striving for an alternative vision of his own future. It is about life; your life. Your career. Your profession. Your love. Your family. Your art. Whatever it may be, pursue it with passion and courage. Strive to master the technology that surrounds you, not to is to settle for mediocrity. But most of all, bring your vision to bear and leave the world a little better place for your having shared.

I will leave you with a thought from someone who has taught me much, though I have never met him. He has had a very successful career as a professional photographer (you can find some of his work at and now engages in very enlightening discussions on a website I started frequenting earlier this year: It is stimulating and challenging to dialogue with this bunch of curmudgeonly gentlemen about wide ranging subjects from technique to creativity to critiques of specific photographs. Check it out. This is from Rob Campbell who waxes quite elegantly philosophical and whom I quote with permission: Where the problem lies is in the concept that photographic art can be taught. Unfortunately, all that can be taught is technique and how-to. You can't teach people vision nor can you teach them how to think in a creative manner: that is spiritual - your spirituality.

I think he’s hit the nail on the head. And it’s not just about photography; insert medicine, teaching, science, research, whatever; but realize that art comes from inside you, the rest is merely technology.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

New Exhibit

Showing new work at the Spencer Eccles Health Sciences Library here at the University of Utah (no relation). The show lasts August through the end of October. Along with prints on glass, I have experimented with large format (20x20 and 20x30) aluminum prints. Larger versions can be seen here.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Art of Photography Show 2013

Just a quick post: I heard back from the Art of Photography Show 2013, sponsored by the San Diego Art Institute and others, and one of my photos was selected! There were almost 13,000 entries of which 200 were selected. Approximately 100 of the 200 will actually be hung at SDAI and of these, 24 can be found at the show's website here. My photo is one of the 24 and eligible for a number of prizes in this curated show. All the info is available at the link provided above.

Storm Approaching Moab Utah
This was shot as we were leaving Moab Utah and I pulled over to capture the fantastic white clouds against the dark storm background. Red sand road in the foreground was a bonus! Taken with my Nikon D800E, Nikkor 24-120 at 24 mm, ISO 200, f/8, and 1/500 sec.

Also, I was invited to show at the Spencer Eccles Health Sciences Library at the University of Utah School of Medicine. Large format prints on aluminum along with prints on glass will be on display from August through October. Come see!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

My weekend with Nikon Mentor Mark Alberhasky

Thanks to persistent urgings by my friend Hal Wallace, in April I had the opportunity to spend a precious B&B weekend with Nikon Mentor, Mark Alberhasky. Mark is one of a very few photographer-instructors, sponsored by Nikon, with whom you can travel to exotic locales for photographic opportunities along with rich, lucid, and inspired teaching; for example, you'll see some of his Nikon-sponsored treks in PopPhoto and other photo magazines. You can see his website here; and don't overlook checking out his blog. For a small fee and a plane ticket, I was able to enjoy Mark's undivided attention, completely immersed in things photographic at his Atlanta home and studio.

I must say that to take such a step elicited all sorts of insecure feelings about whether I was good enough, what if Mark didn't like my work? Fear often turns out to be unfounded and he immediately put me at ease. Pretty soon, we were chatting away like old friends. Our session started about 4 PM Friday afternoon and before I knew it, four hours had passed; it was like a Vulcan mind meld! After dinner, we went for another couple hours! And so it went throughout the weekend, pausing only to sleep and eat, Mark poured out his insights into composition, artistic vision, and technical execution. We did not do any shooting, the time was focused upon the digital "darkroom." Incidentally, Canon shooters are welcome, too! Mark prefers Nikon equipment, but what he has to share is generic. By the way, he has to purchase his equipment, just like us, from Nikon!

The weekend with Mark was significant for me in several ways. First, if I was serious about my photography, then I was going to have to invest in it: Time and money were only part of the commitment, however, as it also required exposing my own vulnerabilities and fears to a true master photographer. Another insight was the fact, often cited by others that have reached the pinnacle of their disciplines, that 99% of the effort goes into achieving the last 1% of finesse. I thought I was very good at using my camera, Lightroom, and Photoshop; Mark taught me even more and gave me some insight into what the journey towards that "last 1%" might entail. It's not a destination, it is a voyage and I feel like I have indeed embarked upon a new way of seeing and thinking. At the end of it all, I felt like I had feasted at the king's table! Yet I was not completely sated and with some sadness the weekend came to an end. I would definitely go again.

One of the tidbits I learned concerned manufacturers' software used to convert RAW images. Mark told me that there was proprietary information embedded in the Nikon NEF raw file, but I must confess I was a bit skeptical. My workflow, up until now, had been to shoot in 14-bit raw (NEF) and convert to the DNG format using Adobe's software. The NEF files were kept as a backup and all post-processing was done on DNG raw files. Being the scientist I am, when I got home, I did a little experiment to see what kind of extra information might be present in NEF that could not be teased out of a DNG file or its equivalent when Adobe did the raw conversion. For the D800E and the D7100, I started with the original raw NEF and opened it in Lightroom 4.4 (LR converts the NEF on the fly and it is the same whether using Adobe Camera Raw or the Adobe DNG Converter software; I know, I've compared them). Alternatively, I opened the NEF in Nikon ViewNX 2 and converted to 16-bit TIFF format before opening in LR4.4, thus any proprietary information would have the advantage of the Nikon raw conversion. For each comparison, I made comparable 100% crops.

Adobe Lightroom 4.4 converted: D7100
Nikon ViewNX 2 converted: D7100

With the D7100, the above shot was taken under fluorescent lighting following a flood in my laboratory (f/8, 1/100 sec, ISO 1600, Auto WB). There are definite differences in white balance, sharpness and noise between the two, with the Nikon ViewNX 2 providing a superior conversion in my opinion. Click on each to see larger images and see if you don't agree. I was amazed, frankly.

Nikon ViewNX 2 converted: D800E
Adove Lightroom 4.4 converted: D800E

With the D800E shot above of a Sedona sunset (f/8, 1/200, ISO 200, Auto WB), I thought maybe this phenomenon would be less intrusive using a higher end, higher resolution camera. Not so! The Nikon conversion again produced significantly better sharpness and the chromatic aberration was much less apparent. Note the odd red halo bordering the top of the mountain silhouettes along with noise and WB differences in the Adobe LR conversion. Mark informed me Canon software may behave similarly. Take home message: Raw may not be raw and the results depend on the converter used. This astounding result has caused me to change my workflow. Now, I convert the raw NEF to TIFF via ViewNX 2 and open the 16-bit TIFF for post-processing. Incidentally, the TIFF files are about double the size of NEF or DNG files, even with LZW (lossless) compression; I don't know why. Some may see the above differences as rather subtle features of digital photography, but I see such enhancements as important improvements in quality that as Mark said, layered one on top of another, soon add up to distinctive images.

One final note: Mark retired from his Pathology partnership a few years ago to work full time on his photographic passion and with Nikon. I envy his ability and the opportunity he has exploited to pursue his dream. He is truly a master photographer and I am indeed fortunate to have been able to spend some time learning from him. If you are serious about photography, bring your A-game, and consider taking advantage of the numerous opportunities available through Nikon, and even more significantly, Dr Mark Alberhasky.

UPDATE 30 MAY 2013: So, life turns out to be a little more complicated upon further reflection. Following a discussion on Luminous Landscapes, particularly with Jeff Schewe, who is a frequent contributor and the author of The Digital Negative, I tested the hypothesis that proprietary raw information in the NEF can only be accessed by Nikon software. The images shown above are indeed correct, but not because of any proprietary data or decoding algorithm. I created a Lightroom preset that copes quite nicely with the noise reduction, capture sharpening, lens correction, and white balance issues I discuss above. There's no need to show how this works, because the Lightroom converted images look exactly like the ViewNX-2 converted images above, whether from the D7100 or D800E. In effect, Nikon creates a similar preset in camera so, raw is indeed raw. There is perhaps one important caveat, which is that Automatic D-Lighting (ADL) information cannot be read by the Adobe software as shown in the four images below. ADL attempts to raise more detail in shadow areas while preserving highlights and thus essentially expanding the dynamic range of the camera. The differences are subtle, yet readily apparent, as seen below in the ViewNX 2 conversions; I have yet to make up my mind as to their importance.

ADL on(normal) converted with ViewNX2
ADL off converted with ViewNX 2

ADL off converted with LR4.4
ADL on(normal) converted with LR4.4

As you can see, while there are clear differences between ADL on or off with ViewNX 2 conversion, but ADL settings have little or no influence on the way Lightroom 4.4 converts NEF to DNG files (at least as far as I can see especially on a calibrated monitor). To compensate, you'd have to boost the shadows in LR, but this could increase noise and I have not looked at whether this would be comparable to what is done in camera. With the manual exposure above (1/350s, f/8, WB auto) the highlights do not appear affected by ADL, but other metering modes may change this. For me, this was an interesting little exercise. I have turned ADL to OFF and will use it only on very high contrast scenes. Note that images were converted with no other adjustments other than to save as jpeg files. So, raw is raw and there is proprietary information in the Nikon NEF, but you will have to decide whether it is worth introducing the step of using Nikon software to convert to a TIFF format that also takes up to three times more storage space compared to DNG.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Nikon D7100 images

42 mm equivalent, 1/50, f/8, ISO 220
I received my Nikon D7100 yesterday afternoon and shot some pictures that are posted on my website. They are not great shots (900 pixel jpegs), but I wanted to post them for my Amazon review and for a Facebook group I belong to; thought I would share comments here as well. I had the Nikkor 28-300 mounted so I was getting a 35 mm equivalent of 42-600 mm with the D7100's 1.3 crop factor feature. Note this is an FX lens. I have never encountered this before, but as of 3/23/13, Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom have not caught up with being able to process the D7100 RAW files, so all my images posted here were converted in Nikon NX2. Using NX2, you can do some crude editing (adequate for some, perhaps) and can convert to jpegs or 8/16 bit tiffs. All were shot handheld at f/8, ISO 200 (except for the tulips, ISO 1600) at shutter speeds ranging from 1/500 to 1/1000 (sunset was shot at 1/60, tripod mounted). Original raw files are 24 megapixels and were quickly transferred via USB 3.0 reader from Kensington. Operation of the D7100 is essentially identical to the D7000, which I gave to my daughter. A few minor differences, but nothing significant. Using the "i" button on the back of the camera makes switching between DX and 1.3 crop mode VERY simple; this would be great for bird stalking if you need a little more reach or sports where the 51 focus points would essentially cover the FOV. In DX mode, you get 24mp, in 1.3 crop mode, something less than 16mp. I think the best aspect of this is the way the focus points cover the entire width of the image area.

After shooting the quick "one offs" posted here, I would have to pronounce this camera "sweet." I like the DX format and the 1.3 crop factor. Expeed 3 processor seems comparable to my 800E. IQ seems terrific. Dynamic range is superb, but hard to completely tell at this point without proper software. Bottom line, while some may scoff at this model as merely evolutionary, to me, it continues the very strong reputation of the D7000, and "son of D7000" is not too shabby a moniker ;) I have encountered no QC issues with the images, sensor, or other bits, but I have only had the camera for less than a day. I will update this if things change. I loved my D7000; I can tell I am going to love the D7100 as well. I will use this camera primarily for bird and animal stalking, but may also take it when I don't want to risk my D800E (the D7100 IQ is terrific enough and the camera is weather sealed as well).

PS A note about moire. The D7100 doesn't have an anti-aliasing filter, the 800E neutralizes the AA filter's effects. With my 800E, I have NEVER seen problems with moire (after a few thousand images) and I don't see why the D7100 would be a concern in this regard. Yes, I am aware of all the technical caveats.

Processed in ACR and PS after hack
UPDATE: I found a way to hack the EXIF information so that D7100 NEF files can be processed in Adobe Camera Raw using EXIFTOOL. Pretty spectacular, I think. Compare above and to the right.

UPDATE 4/3/13: Adobe DNG Converter 7.4 and Lightroom 4.4 support the D7100.