What's New 2012

31 December 2012 » Year–end ramblings

Another year is coming to an end and, having spent most of it between Spain, China and Russia, I have to say that I have had a heck of an international one. I reached the apotheosis of internationalisation when I was reading the latest novel of Murakami Haruki: as one of my best mates rightfully noted, what could be more international than a Russian bloke reading a novel of a Japanese author in English language after coming to Madrid from Shanghai? Tough to beat that, if you ask me.

In 2012 I photographed in several very diverse and truly incredible locations and am very happy with some of the images that I have brought back. This being said and while I have always strived to produce the best work possible, I feel that my photographic efforts have been greatly throttled by the notion that we must produce art and nothing less is worth a try, that we have to work in projects and nothing less than finished bodies of work will suffice, and that photography generally is a higher academic quest that cannot be purposeless fun. If anything, I feel I have driven myself into a corner where it is nearly impossible to be spontaneous and experiment freely. I need to unwind.

This goes hand in hand with the fact that once you reach the level of sufficient technical proficiency, which I think I have, progressing further in photography boils down to visual literacy and sensitivity. These aspects are much more difficult to nurture than the technical side, and it can only be done through looking at and studying a lot of visual art, as well as experimenting with images without being afraid of producing work that is less than art, or even garbage. Thus, my New Year's photographic resolution is letting go of the preconceived idea as to what photography should be, as well as concentrating on its aesthetic side.

There can be a number of ways to do it, but I am going to start with adjusting how I consume and produce photographic work. On the one hand, I am going to stop visiting some of the Web sites that specialise in the technical side of photography; at the same time, I intend to pay a lot more attention to the sites that primarily discuss aesthetics of the medium. On the other hand, I am going to try doing a lot more visual exploration and fuss much less over the results as long as they are of exploratory nature.

As far as visual exploration goes, while I will continue travelling for photography as much as I can, I think I also need to try different approaches and have another presentation platform other than this Web site. In particular, I am going to go as far as embracing iPhonegraphy and photo sharing social media (here, while I partially agree that, on some level, using photo sharing sites is a collective act of self–delusion, what I seek is not so much social networking as an exploratory platform that offers a less rigid presentation format than this site). I have now revived my Flickr account, so from now on you can follow my work there, too.

At any rate, we shall see how all this will unfold and where it will lead; meanwhile, I wish you and your families to have a healthy, happy and prosperous New Year!

23 December 2012 » Upgrading my computer

As I mentioned a few times in the past, my main computer is an early 2008 eight–core Apple Mac Pro. It is a beautiful machine and, even after nearly five years of use, yet to become morally obsolete. This being said, recently it has been feeling a bit sluggish, both compared with the MacBook Air that I use at work and when massaging large files in Photoshop. Clearly, the time to upgrade has come.

One of the great things about Mac Pro computers is their expandability and upgradability. I upgraded my computer a few times in the past, mostly swapping hard drives for larger models and adding a bit of memory. In hope to breath new life into my aging Mac Pro, I decided to do both again and change the start–up drive to an SSD.


Apple Mac Pro computer
(image courtesy Apple; this is the current model, not the one that I have)

As far as hard drives go, up to four can be installed inside the Mac Pro—and I need exactly four. As you might have read elsewhere, using an SSD drive significantly improves computer performance where reading data is involved (e.g., OS start–up, opening applications and files, etc.). Wisdom also suggests that you should keep all data (email, music, movies, photographs, etc.) on a separate large–capacity drive. And of course, you must religiously backup all the data that you have, which in my case takes two internal drives: first, a Time Machine backup that allows to go back in time and have access to previous versions of files (turns out to be much more useful than I thought!); second, a clone copy of the start–up drive (if the start–up drive crashes, you only need to swap the clone copy in, which takes all of two minutes; recovering the start–up drive from the Time Machine backup would be a rather tedious process). With all this in mind, here is what I have now in terms of storage:

  • A 128GB SSD start–up drive. Your first reaction might be that 128GB is a bit on the low side, but keep in mind that this drive only holds Mac OS and various software applications. With this arrangement, it is still half empty, which also means having enough space for scratch operations (i.e., to be used in lieu of memory when you run out of it).

  • A 2TB 7200rpm old–fashioned hard drive holding all data; at the moment only half is filled with various stuff that I have accumulated over the years, which includes high–resolution scans of my slides and their corresponding working PSD versions, all original files shot with digital cameras, Lightroom libraries, etc.

  • A 2TB 7200rpm old–fashioned hard drive dedicated to Time Machine backup; it only backs up the two drives above and skips the one below.

  • A 1TB 7200rpm old–fashioned hard drive that is a clone copy of the start–up drive; I use the Carbon Clone Copy software that updates the copy once a day in the background, so that I always have an up–to–date copy of the start–up drive.

The above arrangement fully takes care of my storage needs, in terms of both capacity and safety. I should note that the capacity of affordable storage goes up much faster than my needs for it could ever increase. Also, it is great to have it all installed inside your computer: having three external drives with all the wires that they would require would be a visual mess (we are visual artists, after all!).

As far as memory goes, prior to this upgrade I had only 6GB installed and, looking at the data from the Activity Monitor application, very often it was not enough. Basically, it was sufficient to simultaneously run about ten applications excluding Photoshop and Lightroom. Once I opened several large files in Photoshop, though, all memory was instantly devoured, the old (and noisy) start–up drive started being used for scratch operations, and the computer noticeably slowed down.

Although technically I could install 32GB of memory, after careful consideration I decided to upgrade to "only" 16GB. On the one hand, all indications were that it would be sufficient for how I use my Mac Pro and the kind of tasks I need it to perform. On the other hand, installing more memory would mean a significantly larger monetary outlay that would be quite a bit beyond what I was prepared to spend on upgrading a five–year–old computer, beautiful as it may be.

Having now used 16GB of memory while closely watching Activity Monitor for some time, this amount seems to be the sweet spot with regard to value for the money. Running a dozen applications that I use on the daily basis (Mail, Safari, iTunes, Dictionary, Pages, Numbers and so on) seldom uses more than 6GB of memory. If I additionally use Lightroom and open a couple of large PSD files (500MB – 1.5GB each) in Photoshop, I still have around 3GB of memory unused. Of course, if I continue opening such large files in Photoshop I can max memory out easily, but in practice this happens very seldom. To reiterate, as of now 16GB is the sweet spot for my work*.

Having done this upgrade, the performance of my Mac Pro has improved drastically. Seriously—as if I have bought the latest–and–greatest miracle. Mac Pro computers are far from cheap, but over a longer period of time they actually represent a tremendous value for the money. Mine is now ready to serve for at least another couple of years, and, indeed, the only development that is likely to permanently obsolete it is if the next Mac OS stops supporting the hardware.

*Some power users out there will likely disagree with my assertion: for example, Lloyd Chambers needs 96GB of memory!

20 December 2012 » Sony RX100 camera: final comments

I realise that you are probably getting a bit bored with the posts about the camera, so this will be the last one (I hope!). I have posted two last parts, other snippets and final thoughts, in the now–final review of the camera; if interested, click on the link and scroll down the page. If you think there is anything I have not covered, just let me know.

6 December 2012 » Sony RX100 camera: high ISO performance

Continuing with my review of the Sony RX100 camera, I have now had a close look at its high ISO performance. Here, I examined test images on–screen at 100% magnification and closely studied both test and real–life prints (RAW images were processed in Lightroom 4 and printed without downsizing at 360dpi, which produced fairly large prints, 39cm by 26cm).

Generally, high ISO performance of the RX100 is in line with what one would expect from a state–of–the–art 20MP one–inch sensor. Noise is visible at 100% magnification right at the base ISO setting, but it is far from objectionable, easy to deal with and, if anything, has the appearance of texture rather than noise. As expected, it becomes increasingly noticeable as you go up the ISO ladder, and at ISO800 noise begins to be visible in prints at close examination (or, depending on your noise reduction preferences, subtle detail starts being smeared). Nonetheless, large prints still look mightily good and you would not notice any problems with noise or subtle detail unless you juxtapose them with prints of identical images shot at ISO125. At ISO1600 noise becomes very pronounced at 100% magnification, and one has to carefully balance noise reduction and retaining fine detail to get images that are both relatively clean and detailed. Although this is obvious in large test prints, if carefully processed, real–life prints show plentiful detail and look perfectly fine. It is at ISO3200 where things start to fall apart, both at 100% magnification and in prints; nonetheless, this ISO setting can still work for smaller prints where fine detail is of secondary importance. Lastly, ISO6400 is quite a bit of a stretch in my book, but, with mindful post–processing, it can be used when what you have in mind is small prints and the Web.

Executive summary? I set the higher ISO limit of the Auto ISO function of my RX100 at 1600*. Unfortunately, ISO of the camera can be set in full stops only, otherwise I would likely push it a third of a stop further. With the Canon S95, the upper Auto ISO limit that I used was 640; now the RX100 allows to comfortably raise the bar to ISO1600 and get better results. Not too bad at all, if you ask me!

P.S. I mentioned in the previous post on the RX100 that image sharpness is a "mixed bag". A reader has asked just how good it is in general and how bad it can get, so I have posted a couple of real–life examples in the ongoing review of the camera.

*Beware that my friends think I am quite picky, so you should try shooting at ISO3200 to see for yourself if you are happy with the results.

2 December 2012 » The CameraHobby Newsletter, Issue #3

My friend Edwin Leong has just sent out the third issue of The CameraHobby Newsletter. I have uploaded it to this site before even reading it, because, knowing Edwin, I know it will be a fascinating read. You can download the Newsletter after this link. Enjoy!

24 November 2012 » Sony RX100 camera: image sharpness

As I discussed in the previous post, vignetting, chromatic aberration and distortion are apparently corrected for in–camera even when you shoot in RAW format. As a result, we have no way to ascertain sharpness of the lens itself and are left to evaluate resulting image sharpness instead.

As Sony's marketing pitch suggests, the RX100 boasts a lens with a fast aperture of f/1.8. Overall, however, the lens is not nearly as fast as the marketing hype would have you believe. Consider the maximum aperture at each crucial focal length and keep it in mind as we continue discussing image sharpness:

  Focal length (approximate 35mm equivalent)

10 (28)

14 (35)

19 (50)

25 (70)

37 (100)

  Maximum aperture






As you can see, the lens is realistically fast only at the wide end.

As has been reported elsewhere, image sharpness of the Sony RX100 is a very mixed bag—it varies greatly depending on the focal length and aperture used. The good news, however, is that the pattern of the lens' performance allows having a fairly clear–cut rule of thumb to get the best results possible without too much fuss. Image sharpness particularities at each crucial focal length at infinity are as follows:

28mm. In the centre, there is a bit of softness at f/1.8; sharpness improves a little as you stop the lens down and peaks at f/5.6; diffraction becomes visible at f/8.0 and is very noticeable at f/11. The same story repeats in the corners, with the difference that there is more softness than in the centre. Overall optimal aperture: f/5.6.

35mm. In the centre, images are noticeably soft at f/2.8; sharpness improves considerably and peaks at f/4; diffraction is slightly noticeable at f/5.6 and becomes increasingly pronounced as the lens is being stopped down. The same story repeats in the corners (but there is more softness). Overall optimal aperture: f/4.

50mm. In the centre, sharpness is very good right from f/3.2 and peaks at f/5.6; diffraction becomes noticeable at f/8 and is obvious at f/11. Corners are very soft at f/3.2, and corner sharpness noticeably improves by f/5.6; sharpness peaks at f/8 and diffraction becomes visible at f/11. Overall optimal aperture: f/8.

70mm. In the centre, sharpness is quite good right from f/4, peaks at f/5.6, and diffraction becomes noticeable at f/8. Corners are very soft wide open, sharpness improves at f/5.6 (but is still weak) and peaks at f/8. Overall optimal aperture: f/8.

100mm. In the centre, sharpness peaks right at f/4.9, and diffraction becomes noticeable at f/8. Corners are very soft wide–open; sharpness gradually improves as the lens is being stopped down and peaks at f/11. Overall optimal aperture: f/8.

All things considered, the camera can deliver very intricate detail that is plentiful for large prints—if you use the ideal settings, that is. If you deviate from the optimal apertures, though, the high megapixel count of the camera will be wasted. To summarise the above, here is the executive summary for getting the best results in terms of image sharpness at the base ISO setting: in low light, shoot at 28mm (equivalent) and f/1.8—and do not be shy to get closer to your subject! Otherwise, f/5.6 is the optimal aperture at the wide end and f/8 is the best option at the longer end. In all instances, avoid using f/11.

22 November 2012 » Sony RX100 camera: RAW files are not raw?

As the next step of evaluating the Sony RX100 camera I have been examining performance of its lens. As usual, I made a series of tests and have been looking at the RAW files in Lightroom 4 with Lens corrections panel switched off. It struck me right from the beginning that the files showed almost no vignetting or chromatic aberration—to the extent that it seemed a bit too good to be true. It was when I examined the test shots designed to reveal distortion signature of the lens that my BS alarm went off: straight lines running along the entire length of the frame close to its edge looked perfectly straight at all focal lengths I made the tests at (equivalent to 28mm, 35mm 50mm, 70mm and 100mm). Anyone who has been in photography for more than two days knows that, with a zoom lens on a compact camera, this is a practical impossibility. The only conclusion I can come to is that the camera silently cooks RAW files to correct for vignetting, chromatic aberration and distortion. (Of course, there is a possibility that I have done something wrong, so I would love to hear from anyone who can show evidence to the contrary.)

This raises the philosophical question of whether this is a good thing. On the one hand, we want to get raw data from the sensor to optimise it as we see fit and achieve the results that reflect our artistic vision best. From this perspective, the lack of true RAW is a disaster. On the other hand, however, vignetting, chromatic aberration and distortion are abnormalities that seldom serve as a means of creative expression (with the exception of vignetting, perhaps). We usually remove these aberrations in RAW converter software of our choice, and, given that Sony fully understand properties of the lens, one could argue that third party software would deal with the aberrations less perfectly than the camera. From this standpoint, the in–camera corrections are a blessing. I reckon that those who prefer having the utmost control over the data collected by the sensor will find this disheartening, and those who only concern themselves with the aspects of RAW conversion that have direct implications for creative expression will consider this issue inconsequential.

At any rate, what is done is done, and I personally find that seeing almost no vignetting, chromatic aberration or distortion is quite relieving; not having to deal with the aberrations in post processing saves time, too. With this being said, though, can it be a free lunch? I doubt so. The consequences of automatic corrections have to surface somewhere—and that somewhere most likely is image sharpness, which is more than likely to be impacted negatively. I will explore this aspect in the next post.

14 November 2012 » Images from Yading Nature Reserve

I have finally finished working on the images from Yading Nature Reserve: all slides have been sorted, chosen ones have been scanned, and a select few have been printed.

On second thought, the process has been sort of finished: to me, the final version of an image always tends to recede into the future as I continue to tweak and fine–tune the artistic decisions made in post processing. But anyway, today I am posting my favourite photographs from the expedition (abiding by the new self–imposed rule, no more than a dozen images). Before you look at them, though, I would like to put things into context a bit, so here is a brief introduction to the reserve:

Named after a nearby Tibetan village, Yading is a national–level reserve in Daocheng County, southwest Sichuan Province, China. It is a mountain sanctuary and a major Tibetan pilgrimage site that comprises three peaks sanctified in the eighth century by the fifth Dalai Lama. The peaks are seen as emanations of the three boddhisatvas Chenrezig, Jambeyang and Chana Dorje. It is said that if a Tibetan undertakes pilgrimage to the shrine three times in his lifetime, all his desires will be fulfilled, due to which pilgrimage to this holy range is a cherished wish of each Tibetan. In 1928, the range was visited by Joseph Rock, who essentially revealed this treasure to the Western World (he took this today–fascinating photograph of Mount Jambeyang). Here is a view of Yading Nature Reserve from Google Earth with marks on the main sites of interest:

(A very big) Bird's view of Yading Nature Reserve

The three sacred mountains are the reserve's raison d'âtre, and all shooting naturally tends to revolve around them. Of course, you might deviate to photograph things of lesser significance such as mountain forests and streams, but the photography dance in the valley is inevitably centred on the majestic peaks; autumn colours, mountain streams and blue sky are only a decoration for the show hosted by the peaks. No matter what you look at and what angles of view you explore, all you really do is attempt to depict the three magnificent mountains in the most convincing and encompassing manner. From this perspective, the portfolio that I am posting today could be titled Mountain Portraits—it includes three best studies of each of the peaks. That, and a couple of things less momentous—autumn forest and a picturesque Tibetan village.

Without further ado, here are the photographs. I hope you will find that spending six days on the road was worth my while.

8 November 2012 » Twelve hundred slides

I bought my Hasselblad 503CW camera in the summer of 2005, which marked the departure from 35mm film photography for me. From the very first day I laid my hands on it, the camera and I just clicked. Of course, I continued to use smaller format cameras, film at the time and now digital, but they all were—and still are—just flings. Although the 503CW is not a camera for everyone (is there a camera for everyone?), as far as I am concerned the Hasselblad V system remains the indisputable king of the hill.


Hasselblad 503CW camera (image courtesy Hasselblad)

At around the same time I bought a package of PrintFile archival slide preservers to store film. The package contained one hundred sleeve pages with each page holding 12 individual frames of 120 film. That translated into 1200 images, which at the time seemed extremely excessive. Was I ever going to make and keep 1200 big, fat medium format exposures? A package of, say, 25 pages would have been much more reasonable, even though still somewhat overindulgent. Alas, they did not have any smaller packages, so 100 sleeve pages it was.

The package of slide preservers seemed like a bottomless well, so each time I came back from a photographic expedition I simply dived my hand into it and took pages as needed without even looking. After all, I did believe it was endless. As I was sorting through the slides recently shot in Yading Nature Reserve, though, I was astonished to realise that I had fished out one last page and the well had run dry. Which is the subject of this post: since June 2005, I have retained 1200 slides shot with the Hasselblad.

You might have noticed that I wrote retained. This is to say that those are the slides that I considered worthwhile keeping and have kept, even though not necessarily all of them are true keepers. Naturally, this raises the question of how much I actually shot. Well, let's see. The recent Altai expedition? 17 rolls shot, 68 slides retained. The latest trip to Yading Nature Reserve? 17 rolls shot, 65 slides retained. As these two trips are fairly representative of how I photograph, a rough extrapolation would suggest that by now I must have exposed around 4000 frames, or 330 rolls of 120 film. And with this in mind, an even more interesting statistic is... 120, which is the number of photographs you can find in the Gallery.

So what about digital capture, you will ask. My Lightroom catalog shows that I have about 17,000 digital images. How many of them are in the Gallery? Around 17. No matter how you slice it, my affair with digital capture that comes in the form of smaller formats has been nothing but, well, coquetterie.

6 November 2012 » Then and now

I think at some point every photographer comes across the then and now images—you know, where you take a picture of someone or something in the past and juxtapose it with a picture of the same subject today. You can simply google "then and now" and see hundreds of such juxtapositions, but the most elaborate work in this genre that I have seen so far is by Irina Werning. I have always been fascinated by the determination needed to produce this kind of work, as well as by the train of thought that the results invariably evoke. I can almost see life flashing before my eyes at a lightning speed.

My friend Lana Ilchenko and her husband are avid travellers and photography is an inseparable part of their adventures. Recently they travelled to Sri Lanka, where Lana happened to live with her parents for four years in the mid–eighties. Looking at some of the old photographs they decided to replicate the images today, which inadvertently turned into a fully–blown photographic project. The outcome of such undertakings tend to be personally significant and aesthetically pleasing. Here are a couple of examples:

Then and now #1
Image © 2012 Lana Ilchenko


Then and now #2
Image © 2012 Lana Ilchenko


Then and now #3
Image © 2012 Lana Ilchenko

It is interesting how by the sheer abundance of practical evidence one can expect nearly everything to change over time, and yet some things, usually subtle, nearly unnoticeable yet crucial, silently resist this prevailing tide. The place has changed, the music is different, the photographs have faded, but the underlying tendencies remain the same.

30 October 2012 » Further comments on the Sony RX100 camera

As promised, here are my further comments on the Sony RX100 camera. Before you read them, though, I should emphasise that they were written after using the camera in the field and before looking at image quality or performance of the lens. They are not meant to make a final judgment on the RX100; instead, they only describe what works for me and what does not when using the camera for real–life shooting. The final assessment of the RX100 will have to wait until image quality and lens performance are evaluated and the camera is assessed as a whole package.


Sony RX100 camera (image courtesy Sony)

Continuing on the subject of ergonomics and handling, the RX100 boasts a control ring around the lens barrel that can perform a number of functions. Unlike most other cameras that have the same feature, the ring of the RX100 does not have click detents and rotates continuously. Whether this is a blessing or a curse will depend on what functions you want the ring to perform: if you are working slowly, continuous rotating works well for manual focusing and zoom fine–tuning; if, however, you use the ring to set such parameters as aperture, shutter speed or ISO, then you will find operation of the ring quite fiddly. All things considered, I would certainly prefer it had stop–clicks.

On a camera without a viewfinder, LCD screen is of a fundamental importance. As far as the RX100 goes, we have good news and bad news. On the upside, the screen boasts VGA resolution and images look sharp and crispy. On the downside, however, the screen, just like the camera itself, is hungry for fingerprints and smudges; furthermore, it is quite difficult to clean. This may not be a problem in dim light, but in bright sunlight contrast of the screen is significantly reduced despite the use of the "WhiteMagic" technology. And sadly, this is not the end of bad news: the screen is made of a material that scratches very easily. I made it a point not to put the camera together with other objects, and yet the screen of my RX100 already shows numerous tiny scratches. The combination of smudges and scratches in bright sunlight instantly kills the magic—to the point that you cannot see anything on the screen unless you shade it with your hand. I expect my cameras to follow my rhythm, not the other way around, and I am not going to fiddle with protective covers or tiptoe around the camera to avoid scratching the screen, so to me this is a major drawback. In my view, this is a fundamental blunder on part of Sony.

Live histogram is too small in my book and its only saving grace is that resolution of the screen is high and so it looks crispy; further, live histogram is in the shape of luminance histogram only. Will we ever get large, transparent, RGB live histograms on all our cameras?

Battery life is very good and in line with what one would expect from a compact camera: without too much chimping and flash use, on the average I get about 250 images with a fully charged battery; quite impressively, you can still take a dozen shots when battery life indication turns to red. What I really like is that battery life indication appears very consistent with the actual charge left: unlike so many compact cameras, the battery is not nearly dead after the first bar disappears. I have bought two spare batteries and feel comfortably covered for a full day of intensive shooting.

Speaking of charging batteries, it has been mentioned a thousand times and Sony have clearly goofed here: the camera comes without a battery charger and batteries can be charged in–camera only. In–camera charging simply does not work for me (and, I reckon, most serious photographers): you cannot use the camera while a battery is being charged, and I do not like the idea of sticking a cable into the camera each and every time I need to charge a battery. I solved the problem by buying an unnamed third–party charger that costs only seven dollars and works like a charm.

Autofocus is surprisingly fast for a compact camera and after several weeks of use I have no complaints about it whatsoever. This seems to have been achieved partly by making the camera constantly "zone pre–focus" whenever it is turned on: for instance, if you turn the camera from an object at infinity to a close subject, the camera will pre–focus on the close subject without you pressing any buttons; when you press the shutter release button to focus the lens only needs to fine–tune focus in the already pre–focused zone. This does not seem to impede camera operation in any way, so this method is very much welcome.

Exposure seems spot on most of the time: whereas with the Canon S95 I constantly fiddled with exposure compensation to preserve highlight detail, with the RX100 I have to adjust exposure much more seldom. This certainly feels like a relief.

Menus are very well sorted and easy to navigate. I particularly like that, unlike other cameras that I have used, there is no vertical scrolling. The RX100 passed my use–without–a–manual test, albeit not exactly with flying colours: there are several items in the menus that will require reading the manual. It should also be mentioned that the camera is very customisable and implementation of the Function button is well thought out; as a result, once you set the camera the way you intend to usually use it you will not need to delve into menus all that often.

As far as field use goes, the RX100 has some notable pluses and significant minuses. Overall, it feels more fiddly and less fun than the Canon S95. Nonetheless, faster autofocus, more accurate exposure and the higher resolution screen in part make up for the extra efforts one has to put into using the camera. Next I am going to evaluate image quality and performance of the lens and will post my findings in due course.

25 October 2012 » Brief notes from the trip to Daocheng Yading, part three

Yesterday and today I continued photographing in Yading Nature Reserve. Again, the scenery was breath–taking, the weather played along, and stirring photographic opportunities were abound. Unlike the first day that was filled with thrill and excitement, though, I photographed in a much more calm and contemplative manner, carefully considering light, perspective and composition. I also took the time to sit down and absorb the views of the majestic snow mountains of the reserve while listening to my favourite tunes. Looking back at the excitement of the first day, though, I am really happy about it: if you can get so exhilarated about photography after having practiced it for a dozen years, it most certainly is a good sign.

Travelling in China alone, you will never travel without a company. Generally, Chinese people are very friendly and often unabashedly—yet genuinely and harmlessly—curious, and one would find it rather hard not to meet anyone during his travels. Although you might get a bit tired of telling the story of your life over and over again, the experience of talking to well–wishing strangers is usually positive and enjoyable. The companionships of temporary acquaintances may be fairly long, as when travelling for long hours on a bus, quite brief, as when happening to have a meal together, or very short, as when photographing at sunrise. And the great thing about them is that they never last longer than they should: such companionships carry on as long as they make sense to everyone involved. You can take as much of it as you wish.

Speaking of sunrise photography companionship, yesterday I met a Chinese photographer with whom we briefly discussed a few photography related topics while waiting for light to hit the spot. When I half–jokingly mentioned that the place was so stunning that I had only six rolls of film left, he took it seriously and gave me a roll of Kodak 100VS that he was carrying as backup (he was shooting with a digital back on an Alpa camera). Come to think of it, in the past I too gave film to Chinese photographers when they happened to be in similar situations. As they say, what goes around, comes around.

I left Yading Nature Reserve today in the afternoon and am writing this post in the county town of Daocheng, where I am staying overnight to catch a bus to Kangding tomorrow morning. I am looking forward to getting back to Chengdu and having a proper meal, as I have been surviving mostly on Snickers bars, spicy dried beef, instant noodles and green tea. A pint of Guinness and a juicy burger in Shamrock bar have a helluva lot of appeal now! Meanwhile, let me leave you with the below image that I took this morning.


Mount Chenrezig and autumn colours
Sony RX100 camera (straight unadjusted JPG capture)

P.S. As I still have a couple of days to spend on the road, the promised comments on the Sony RX100 will be posted a bit later.

23 October 2012 » Brief notes from the trip to Daocheng Yading, part two

Last night I finally arrived in Daocheng Yading. As it turned out, the ride from Chengdu to Kangding was nothing but a minor rehearsal for junior students: the trip from Kangding to Daocheng Yading was a lot longer and rougher. Although the distance was "only" 507 kilometres, it took a whopping 17 hours to cover. If you do the math, our average speed was 30 kilometres per hour.

From Chengdu to Kangding and further to Daocheng Yading

The road from Kangding (point D on the map above) to Litang (理塘; point E) is being repaired and at the moment in totally dreadful condition. It is bumpy and dusty to the extent that it was nearly impossible to sleep on the bus or keep the windows open. To make things worse, there were numerous jams and queues where opposing traffic had to take turns going through only one available lane.

Nonetheless, it was not all grief. While on the way from Chengdu to Kangding the landscape was dominated by deep, wide gorges filled with heavy haze, muddy rivers and washed out greenery, once we left Kangding and passed over Zheduoshan Mountain (折多山) the scenery changed quite drastically: clear frosty air, autumn colours, totally different types of mountains and fortress–like Tibetan architecture started to prevail. I could not listen to music on the bus because the driver kept blasting the horn to keep us out of danger, but music played in my head alright, mostly Thelonious Monk and Wayne Shorter.

The altitude above sea level changed from about 600 metres in Chengdu to 2560 metres in Kangding to 4014 metres in Litang; it peaked at approximately 4800 metres somewhere on the way from Litang to Daocheng Yading and is about 4100 metres where I am now. At first my head felt a bit weird, but a tablet of aspirin solved the problem and I do not have any symptoms that would hint at high altitude sickness.

I arrived in my hostel at 11:30 p.m. It is always unpleasant to come to a totally unfamiliar—and dimly lit—place in the middle of the night, which was further exacerbated by a few surprises. I had to be smuggled into Yading Nature Reserve where the hostel is located (long story!), there was a misunderstanding regarding the fees, and the conditions of the hostel turned out to be rather dire (I do not even have a lock or a doorknob on the door!). I, however, was too tired, cold and hungry to bother too much with any of it. All I could think of was diving into my sleeping bag, which I did promptly. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it was only a matter of properly managing expectations, and I have been through much worse surprises in my travels.

You will rightfully ask if the long hours on the road and all the hassle are worth my while. First of all, I believe it was necessary to come here by land (it was the only option anyway), because it gives you a much better idea of the geographic context and a true understanding of just how far you have gone. I also immensely enjoyed watching the scenery and how it was changing. In short, if given another chance I would do it all over again. Indeed, I would prefer it to being dropped off a helicopter right at the entrance of my hostel for free!

But even more importantly, you are bound to ask if the photographic opportunities are worth the trouble. And the answer is a resounding yes. I spent the whole day today photographing in Yading Nature Reserve, and it is a stunningly gorgeous place. Just to give you an idea, I hiked about 15 kilometres and shot nine rolls of film—in one day! By comparison, I exposed 17 rolls of film during the entire Altai expedition. Now I only have seven rolls of Velvia left for two days of shooting, so I obviously will have to slow down.

Before I sign off, a note regarding my comments on the Sony RX100. If you have the impression that I am trying to bash the camera or piss on Sony's parade, that is not so at all. It would be easy to say only positive things or create a controversy. My purpose, however, is to first point out any and all issues that may be of consequence to other photographers (praise or controversy are not). Eventually I will say positive things about the RX100—after all, I bought the camera with my own money and it is a solid tool. With this in mind, I have added a comparison photograph in the point regarding the buttons of the RX100 in the previous post, as well as edited some of the wording. I hope to post more comments on the camera tomorrow, both negative and positive.

21 October 2012 » Brief notes from the trip to Daocheng Yading, part one

I thought I would post a quick update on the progress of the trip to Daocheng Yading. After flying to Chengdu yesterday, today I spent the whole day on a bus. I am writing this in Kangding (康定), which is 492 kilometres and 10 hours away from Chengdu. It is a midway destination on the way to Daocheng, and I have to stay here overnight before I continue the trip tomorrow.

From Chengdu to Kangding

The ride was long, on a fully packed bus. We travelled along perfect highways in the first half of the day and on winding, dangerous mountain roads in the afternoon. I did not exactly expect my neighbour to value the notion of personal space, but I suppose sardines in a can should not complain about such inconsequential issues under the circumstances. It is all about managing expectations, and I was fully prepared in this respect.

Today I realised that I have become exceedingly efficient at dealing with various issues that you invariably encounter on such trips. For example, when we stopped in the middle of nowhere to have a quick lunch, I was already eating when most of the people from the bus were still figuring out where to seat. Or, when one of the passengers and the driver told me that the luggage that I put in the trunk of the bus would stay there for the night (which seems to be the rule, ridiculous as it may be, on these long rides), I managed to convince the driver that I really had to get it back (by this precedent the other passengers got theirs, too). And I quickly found a great–value–for–the–money hostel here in Kangding without booking anything in advance. You really have to remain on top of things to prevent such adventures from unfolding in the wrong direction.

I photographed a little from the bus and during the lunch stop, but of course you cannot be serious about producing any profound photographic work in such an offhand fashion. Instead, I did it mostly to further familiarise myself with the Sony RX100 camera. Speaking of which, it is a clear step backwards vis–à–vis the Canon S95 in terms of ergonomics and handling. First, the lens is huge in relation to the size of the body and watching it appearing and disappearing feels quite momentous, or even dramatic. While it is perfectly understandable why the lens has to be so large—consider the size of the sensor—the unwelcome consequence is that start–up and shut–down time is impedingly long. (Witnessing such an imposing action each time I switch the camera on and off leads me to ask how reliable mechanics of the lens will be in the longer run). This being said, once the lens has made an entrance operation of the camera is very snappy.


Buttons: Sony RX100 (left) vs. Canon S95 (right)

Second, the buttons of the RX100 are significantly smaller than those of the S95 (the ones on the side of the camera actually seem to be falling off the edge), and their hesitant tactile feedback makes you pay much more attention to the camera than you should. Third, although the RX100 is reported to be only a wee bit larger than the S95, in person it actually is noticeably bigger and heavier than you would guess after looking at the comparison pictures. Fourth, the camera body is metal and does not have any coating: while it might appear beautiful in the pictures, in reality it is quite slippery and awfully hungry for fingerprints and smudges. Again, I hope that image quality will make these compromises worthwhile.

At any rate, let me sign off for now as tomorrow I have to get up at 5 a.m. to continue the ride to Daocheng (I would not want to miss the bus!). I do not know if I will post more updates while in the mountains, but I hope to be letting you know how it all goes as the trip unfolds. Stay tuned!

18 October 2012 » Images from the Altai expedition and misc. news

I have finally had a chance to work on the images shot in Altai Mountains, Russia in August and would like to invite you to look at my favourite photographs. No, there is not need to get panicky—this is not one of those let's–see–two–thousands–of–unedited–pictures–from–our–vacation kind of invitation. After carefully considering how many images to include, from now on I will be sticking to a maximum of 10–12 photographs from any given expedition. Considering the pervasive short attention span of today, I reckon that this is a reasonable bet. It will be interesting to look at the statistics and see how many Altai images will actually be looked at.

As I was pondering what a reasonable number of photographs to show would be, I also realised that the Gallery has gradually grown immodestly large, so I spent some time trimming and reorganising it (such efforts are never obvious to detached viewers, of course). Letting go of some of one's favourite photographs is bound to be a painful process, but he who advised to kill one's darlings was certainly a wise person. Although I have deleted several dozen images, the Gallery still contains around 120 images, which still is an awkwardly indecent number in my book. I intend to refine it further, but this will likely take quite a bit of strength, inspiration and, consequently, time.

Location of Daocheng Yading, Sichuan Province, China

As regular readers might recall, I photographed in Italy in the beginning of the year and then in Russia in August. If you wonder whether the geography of my photographic focus has shifted and I have lost interest in photographing in China, that is not the case at all: later this week I will be travelling to Daocheng Yading (稻城亚丁) in Western Sichuan Province. It is said to be one of the most fascinating locations for landscape photography in China, but the key is to be there at the right time, which is notoriously short. And to make things worse—or, depending on your perspective, more intriguing—Daocheng Yading is far from easily accessible: travelling from Shanghai, I will altogether spend six days on the road to photograph for only three days. I realise that this may sound lavishly insane, but I have always wanted to go there. And besides, being on the road in Western Sichuan is an experience unto itself. In all honesty, I am not quite sure which part I am looking forward to more, staring into space while on the road in this particular part of the world, or the photographic opportunities that I hope to find there.

In preparation for this trip I have finally bought the Sony RX100 camera to replace my aging and malfunctioning Canon S95. My first impression prior to looking at image quality is that, as always, there is no free lunch: accommodating a relatively large sensor in such a small body was bound to bring about a number of compromises, and a couple of them stand out as soon as one starts using the camera. Hopefully, they will be justified by superlative image quality. I expect to extensively use the RX100 on the upcoming trip and will be sharing my findings when I have sufficient experience with it.

1 October 2012 » Going in the backwards direction

Whenever a new camera is announced one of the aspects most photographers are concerned with is whether high ISO performance has been upped a notch. We have now gone by six–digit ISO settings, and, predictably or even boringly so, the trend will undoubtedly continue. I, however, do not photograph black cats in unlit coalmines and mostly lost interest in this aspect when we reached decent performance at ISO1600. If anything, I have been longing to break away from this madness of endlessly asking for more. Luckily, my friend Lovrenc has a few more tricks up his sleeve to give me yet another opportunity to temporarily escape the tedium of currently prevailing technologies and go in a different—this time backwards—direction.

I have always been fond of the old photographs where exposures were so long that people would not register and, as a result, what must have been busy cityscapes ended up looking perfectly deserted—not a single soul is in sight. They remind me of the feeling I often get in big cities: I know I am there, among that immense buzz, but it has got nothing to do with me and the buzz blows by as a distant echo while I remain alone in silence. Just as the hum does not register while totally encompassing me, I can intensely sense the very same buzz in the old photographs of perfectly empty cityscapes. Is there a better way to render the buzz other than with emptiness?


ADOX CMS 20 film (image courtesy ADOX)

This time around Lovrenc has sent me two rolls of ADOX CMS 20 in 120 format, which is an ASA20 super–fine–grain–super–sharp black–and–white film. Before Lovrenc suggested giving it a try I was not even aware of its existence, and I reckon neither are most of you. What the duck, you say, ASA20, in this day and age? Yep, that is right, it is only a fifth of the base sensitivity of a typical digital camera. And dig this: the native sensitivity of the film is actually ASA8, but it must be processed in a special developer that was designed to push the film to ASA20—I suppose using an ASA8 film would be going a bit too far. When I first heard of this emulsion I was immediately thrilled by the idea of trying to depict the buzz of modern cities using perfect emptiness.

As a side note, I often receive the question from readers whether in my opinion film is going to survive. My answer is always the same: just as we still have newspapers, AM radio and LP records, film is not going to die off. True, some of the manufacturers—most notably Kodak—have been discontinuing certain types of film, but that is a problem of the manufacturers, not film. If producing something as idiosyncratic as an ASA20 black–and–white film can be a viable business in this digital age, you can count on more mainstream film products to thrive infinitely. Although their prices are more than likely to keep increasing and processing will gradually become less accessible, they will remain available to the most faithful. Film will (already has?) become a niche medium, but it will continue being a viable option.

A roll of 120 film loaded in a Hasselblad film back gives you 12 shots, which means that I have 24 exposures to make, no more, no less. I know that many of you will find this rather restrictive, especially considering the spray–and–pray nature of digital capture we are now so used to (those of you who still shoot sheet film will find this quite indulgent, of course—it is all relative). I, however, very much welcome this constraint as it is conductive to the meticulous, contemplative shooting I generally favour. If you really think about it, 24 exposures is plenty.

So here is my plan. I want to shoot the two rolls in two different directions. First, I want to see how sharp and grainless this film is, as well as how seriously it is going to kick the megapixel arse. I am going to shoot one roll with the Hasselblad CFE 2.8/80 lens at f/5.6 without any filters—the lens is a true gem despite being a "standard" lens (for some reason, photographers tend to look down upon "standard" lenses). I expect this combination to show some truly intricate detail and easily rival very high megapixel counts. As to the other roll, I am going to try capturing the cityscape emptiness. As the film has ASA of 20, on a clear autumn afternoon I should roughly use the exposure of 1/15 seconds at f/11. Once I add a red filter to make the blue sky play along, stop down to f/22 to get more depth of field, put on a neutral density filter to further increase exposure, and take into consideration the reciprocity failure factor, then the exposure shall be longer than 30 seconds. Now we are talking—bring that buzz on!

Once last note. This undertaking will likely take a while: I will have to send the exposed film to Lovrenc for processing (he lives in Slovenia), and, once the film is processed, he will send it back to wherever I will be at the time (Spain, China or Russia). And, oh, this is not a project: Lovrenc and I are just having a ball; all I am going to do is savour making 24 individual exposures and see where the process might possibly lead.

25 September 2012 » Rambling thoughts in defence of the single image

I have been noticing for a while that discussion of photography on the Internet increasingly tends to be in terms of books, exhibitions or, at the very least, portfolios. Their common denominator and the approach towards producing them is project. At the same time, we hear about single images less and less often. Indeed, our photographic focus has imperceptibly yet undeniably drifted from single photograph towards project: project is now our starting and ending point, and single image is usually a link in the chain rather than an independent statement. Nowadays we hear of single images mostly when discussing iconic photographs of yesteryear, and showing one single image, no matter how compelling it might be, seems no longer fashionable or even adequate.

Of course, the notion of exhibitions, photography books or portfolios was not invented recently. Many great masters of the past did ultimately work towards finished bodies of work. However, I would venture to say that they generally started out with and worked towards single image—it received their full attention and was a thing unto itself; at the same time, finished bodies of work were subsequent constructs. I doubt that Ansel Adams persistently photographed Yosemite with the primary purpose of producing enough images to have an exhibition, or that Henri Cartier–Bresson came up with the concept of the decisive moment while thinking of a particular portfolio. Later, when enough strong single images were produced and showed consistency, then they were compiled into coherent collections. Come to think of it, it is not surprising that single images did ultimately constitute finished bodies of work: if a photographer is true to himself in his artistic pursuits, his final work will always be consistent. And one can be true to himself only within the domain of single image: if project supersedes single image, there is bound to be a compromise at the level of the latter.

A shift, however, has clearly occurred, and today we are supposed to start out with the idea of a project, and single images are expected to follow a preconceived framework. Indeed, the concept of project has come to dominate, or nearly swallowed, the power of single image. While it is true that project is a better platform to explore and depict a subject in depth, images in a coherent project greatly depend on the established framework and one another; thus, as individual photographs, they have far less space and possibility to be fully fleshed out individual artistic statements. Of course, there must be at least a few truly outstanding individual images to make a finished project work, but we should be reminded that a series is only as good as the worst image in it. Or perhaps, have our standards slipped to the point whereby we no longer require each individual image to be an independent artistic statement? If so, projects clearly thrive on the sacrifice on the part of single images.

I work on projects in my daytime job, and, to me, the notion of project has always been associated with the businesslike, cold–blooded approach whereby something is carefully planned and meticulously executed. It works brilliantly in areas where something can be clearly defined and measured, but something as elusive and intricate as art does not fall into this category. You can have an intention to create art, but can you plan and execute art? Heck, you are lucky if you happen to create unplanned art, and dreaming of creating art according to a plan is delusional. That, or you are a genius.

As an example, have a look at the four images in the post of 27 July below. They work quite well together to illustrate the point that I wanted to make. However, they were taken at different times as independent photographs, and the idea of putting them together came to my mind later. Could I start out with the idea of a mini–project to illustrate the point and then purposefully make four images to create this mini–folio? Yes, but I most likely would have ended up with several contrived images that would not work together so well.

It seems to me that the pendulum swinging back and forth between single image and project has gone a bit too far in the direction of the latter, and I think it is time to rebalance things a little. Despite the currently pervasive focus on projects I still strongly believe in the power of single image; in my opinion, our focus should primarily remain on it. Instead of completely dictating creation of single images, at the outset the idea of a project should remain loose, or even vague, to allow enough space and imagination for strong single images to be created. The concept of a project should gradually take shape as individual images appear, accumulate and indicate the direction in which the project can unfold. In other words, single images should mould projects to a greater degree than they tend to do now. In the end, projects themselves shall benefit from this rebalancing, because final bodies of work will consist of stronger individual images, as well as have more consistency and overall aesthetic appeal.

UPDATE: my attention has just been brought to a related article: The Single Photograph. Enjoy!

5 September 2012 » What's in my camera backpack

A reader has asked me to go a bit further into detail regarding what equipment I brought on the Altai expedition. I thought it would be easier and more graphic to make an illustration instead of providing a list, so here is a snapshot of my camera backpack:


My camera bag 2012

I am a minimalist by nature and have cut unnecessary things as much as I could. This kit is a distillation of totally essential items and a result of a few years of travelling for photography. On this expedition every single piece of gear was used and, at the same time, I did not regret not bringing any other cameras, lenses or accessories.

Some of you will probably think that using four lenses is uncool—although I am not sure where this notion came from, it is said that groovy photographers do not use more than three prime lenses. Well, in my defence, I was a three–lens man for a number of years, but I missed a long telephoto lens too many times (250mm is quite long in medium format). Were I to give up one lens today, it most likely would be the CFi 4/50—it is an absolutely spectacular lens in terms of image quality, but I happen to be the telephoto kind of a minimalist.

In my view, the key to compiling a kit of prime lenses is that their focal lengths should be properly spaced: on the one hand, they should not be too close and stepping on each other's toes, because this confuses the photographer's choice and forwards his attention in the wrong direction; on the other hand, the gaps should not be too large and make you feel as if you are trying to cover a double–bed with a single–bed bed–sheet. In this respect, the Hasselblad lens kit that I have is perfect.

I should note that it is important to carefully consider where and how you place each item in your camera bag and then always put it in the same place and way. You should be able to find all items quickly and without looking into the bag (think about photographing star trails, for instance). For example, I know which lens is which despite two of them looking identical from the top; moreover, front lens caps of the two lenses are facing down for a reason. And even the filters are placed in a certain order—I can pick the filter I need without taking them all out or even looking at them.

Keeping my fingers crossed, I will undertake the next photographic expedition in October and I am planning to use exactly the same kit yet again. The only difference will be in which compact camera will accompany me from now on. As mentioned before, the Sony RX–100 seems to be just the ticket, but I am still researching my options as the quality of the RX–100's lens is reported to be disappointedly subpar. This being said, Edwin has just sent out the second CameraHobby Newsletter (you can download it after this link) where he mentions that his initial impression from reading pay–for reviews of Lloyd Chambers is that Lloyd's concerns might be a wee bit exaggerated. At any rate, we will see.

31 August 2012 » The CameraHobby Newsletter

My friend Edwin Leong, the ex–owner of NikonLinks.com and the man behind the now closed hopefully–only–temporarily–retired CameraHobby.com site, has produced a first Newsletter in which he discusses several interesting pieces of equipment, his recent photographic undertakings and other photography topics. I found it a fascinating read and thought I would share it with you. I have uploaded the Newsletter to this site—if interested, you can download it after this link. Enjoy!

29 August 2012 » Ten days in the wilderness of Altai

Two weeks ago I returned from the adventure in the wilderness of Altai Mountains, Russia. In case you wonder where exactly we went, the area that we roamed is just to the north of where the borders of Kazakhstan, Russia, China and Mongolia come together. It was an absolutely fascinating journey, and when I say "wilderness" I mean it in the literal sense and to the utmost degree. During the entire trip there was no electricity or mobile network signal, and we did not encounter one single person. Although in some places there were trails left by hunters, most of the time we totally relied on the intimate knowledge of the place of our guides. We had to be completely self–sufficient throughout the expedition, and there was no way to quit midways or call for help. As they say, in for a penny, in for a pound.


Our guide Vitaliy checking out the surroundings with his binoculars.
Any white bears in sight, Captain?

As I mentioned before, it was a horse–riding photographic expedition. Riding horses was the only realistic way to visit all the places we wanted to see in the given number of days. The only alternative was hiking, but it would have taken much longer to cover the same area; also, carrying enough food most likely would have been problematic, not to mention that I would not have been able to bring my Hasselblad system. And hey—would not you want to ride a horse in total wilderness?

As it turned out, riding a horse is a lot of fun in the beginning, but at the end of the first day it literally becomes a pain in the arse, your knees start to hurt, and you realise that you have muscles you did not suspect existed. Indeed, riding a horse for extended periods of time is a considerable physical effort and exercise. Nonetheless, in about three days the pain mostly goes away (your knees still hurt during long descents, though), you start to understand and enjoy the dynamics of riding a horse, and even begin to feel that the horse and you are on the same wavelength.


Beware the trees!
Note the arrangement of logistics: clothes, sleeping bag and food are in the red bags, tent is tied to the front of the seat, tripod is fastened to the back of the seat, and camera backpack is always on your back.
Now imagine getting on and off the horse. And then imagine doing it a few dozen times.

Riding a horse in taiga six hours every day for ten days is quite a bit different from a twenty minute horse ride in a park on Sunday morning. Indeed, it was rough most of the time. More often than not we had to go through thick mess of bushes, tree roots, stones, mud and fallen tree trunks—all of which was mostly on mountain slopes. At the same time, we frequently had to ride through dense forests and vigorously dodge tree brunches; usually it was not too much of a problem, but once I was nearly dragged off the horse and returned from the trip with a couple of bumps and scratches on my forehead. And as if this was not tough enough, in some instances we had no choice but to dismount the horses and lead them by the reins, because riding was too dangerous (steep and/or slippery mountain slopes) or simply impossible (large rock formations). Overall, though, it was an exhilarating experience.


Riding a horse in this area would have been suicidal. Heck, even walking around was challenging.
Facial expression of my horse,
Chalka, quietly suggested I was out of my mind.
I, however, was totally ecstatic about the landscape and oblivious of the danger.

As one should expect, it is impossible to visit Russia without encountering a few surprises. On the fifth day a government helicopter flew over to drop us a note—and I mean that literally (our location must have been tracked using satellites). The note said not to travel eastwards because of the space rocket launch scheduled for the night and the risk of us getting into the area where rocket remnants were expected to fall. As we could not really move far in the remaining hours of the day and already were fairly close to our next camping site, we continued our journey as planned. When we went exploring possible sunset photography locations near the campsite, however, we found a large metal structure that appeared to be a part of a space rocket. We came across a few more rocket remnants in the following days, too, so we obviously were in the area where parts of the rocket could fall. We heard the launch around 3 a.m., but, luckily, no rocket parts came raining upon us.


The weather was generally nice, but we experienced a serious downpour towards the end of the trip. Gore–Tex? It sure will keep you dry if you go shopping in a drizzle, but in a pouring rain in taiga?
We got drenched to our underpants.

Every day we found a new campsite as we forged ahead. Each camp was pitched near a source of water, sometimes close to fast mountain rivers, at other times in the vicinity of tiny brooks where it took a couple of minutes to collect a kettle of water. We tried our best to put tents in relatively flat areas, but it was not always in the cards, which meant waking up four or five times in the night to crawl back to where you started sleeping. This was not a big deal, though—I did not exactly expect to stay in five–star hotels in taiga.


To survive, we had to tear wild animals with our bare hands and dry the meat in the sun on some ancient machinery... Just kidding, of course—we had plenty of food; with the help of my friends' culinary imagination we ate the same things only two or three times.

Each day started with washing up in a biting mountain creek, preparing and eating simple breakfast, re–packing everything, harnessing the horses and setting out. In the evening, the sequence of events was the opposite: gather firewood, make a campfire, put up the tents, wash up in a chilly mountain stream, and cook dinner. In the night, we sat around campfire chatting and telling stories while drinking vodka straight (until we ran out of it, that is, which sadly happened on the sixth day). And of course, laughing—in ten days we got at least a year's dose of laughter; we laughed so much that I was not entirely sure why my muscles hurt, due to riding horses or because of laughter.


Our faithful guard at midday rest. No matter how knackered,
his weapon is well taken care of and his bed is properly made.

As we wandered through taiga I thought a great deal about the beauty of nature—and the nature of beauty. We often went through nothing but visual chaos for hours at a time, either in dull or harsh light. At certain moments I saw elements of beauty, but they almost never came together to create a coherent and meaningful scene that we would perceive of as "beautiful nature". In ten days I came to the conclusion that, generally, nature is far from beautiful—it is too busy with more down–to–earth concerns and could not care less about beauty. To put it differently, the notion of the beauty of nature is a purely human construct: we seek out certain elements in nature in certain light and put them together in an attempt to create a visual arrangement, an image, that pertains to our inner cravings. On the average, however, such arrangements are few and far between. From this perspective, landscape photography has got nothing to do with reality as we usually define it.

We appreciate and treasure gold, but we know that it has value only in terms of the social constructs that we have happened to create and now inhibit. Saying that nature is generally beautiful would be equal to claiming that the Earth by and large is made of gold. This being said, we also know that some places on Earth are much richer in gold than others; using this metaphor, Altai is a tremendous gold mine of the beauty of nature. Which is to say that it is a remarkably beautiful place.


Sometimes the landscape changed quite drastically, and, philosophical considerations aside,
some of the vistas were truly jaw–dropping

All my equipment was packed in a ThinkTank Airport Antidote camera backpack that I have been using for several years. While not a large backpack, it accommodates my complete Hasselblad system (two camera bodies with four lenses) and miscellaneous accessories; fully packed, it weighs in at about 10kg (plus the tripod). In my experience, it is the largest camera backpack that you can realistically use in the field for extended periods of time. Although we are always tempted to bring as much equipment as we can to cater for all possible situations, any bigger backpack with more gear would only get you bogged down, both physically and in terms of having an overabundance of confusing choices.

As always, I photographed landscapes with my Hasselblads and used the Canon S95 to visually document the expedition. This time I paid a lot more attention than in the past to the latter: I increasingly realise that, at the end of the day, creating photographic memories of our lives, no matter how inconsequential they may be in the grand scheme of things, is as important as creating art. And as far as film goes, I used a slightly different approach than before: while Fujifilm Velvia 50 was my primary film, I turned to Fujifilm Provia 400X when I envisioned more neutral colours or needed a great depth of field together with relatively fast shutter speeds.


After returning to the "base camp" we changed horses to this miraculous vehicle. I was certain it had a time machine installed somewhere in it; I also wondered if it could fly, but it only performed the basic task of getting us back to civilisation.

While in the field, I experienced several unfortunate equipment failures. First, one of my Hasselblad film backs broke down on me again (thankfully, I always carry two backs). Second, I lost the primary cable release (thankfully again, I always bring a spare one). Third, although in one of the previous posts I called the S95 "rusty–but–trusty", it turned out to be rusty–and–no–so–trusty: in the middle of the trip the camera started acting up showing "Change the battery pack" warning every third or fourth time I turned it on. This happened even when a fully charged battery was inserted, and re–inserting the battery a few times temporarily solved the problem. It caused quite a bit of fiddling but, luckily, the camera held out until the end of the trip. I have used the S95 for two years now, and the time has come to upgrade to the Sony RX–100 (I will do so only after I see its RAW image quality produced by Adobe Camera RAW, though—image quality of JPGs seems rather underwhelming: to my eye, they look like 10MP files upresed to 20MP).

I could go on talking about the expedition, but the post is getting a little long and I think you get the idea as to what it was like. All photographs above were taken with the Canon S95—although I have already processed the slides, I am going to scan and work on the images later. On the one hand, I want the emotional charge of the adventure to simmer down a bit to be able to judge the photographic work more calmly and objectively. On the other hand, my travelling schedule has been totally frenetic: while I am writing this in Madrid, in a few days I will be going to Moscow again. I still do not know when and where to I will be travelling from there, but I hope to write a couple of posts while en route. Stay tuned!

27 July 2012 » Sketches of Madrid, part four


Just before I head to Russia I thought I would share with you what can be photographed with the simplest camera that you have without going anywhere—the images above were taken with the Canon S95 point–and–shoot from my Madrid apartment. You truly know that deep down inside you are a photographer when in the morning you look out the window to check out today's improvisation on the theme of sunrise and instinctively reach out for your camera even before you remember to go to the loo.

20 July 2012 » Sketches of Madrid (and beyond), part three


Sketches of Madrid, #9
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFE 2.8/80 lens and Fujifilm Provia 100F film

I have finally managed to bring my complete Hasselblad V–series camera system to Spain and started shooting with it. As you might recall, I previously photographed in Madrid with the Olympus EP–3 camera (see the post of 17 March below), and, in comparison, the experience of shooting with the Hasselblad could not be more contrastive—and pleasant. Although I have come up with a number of colourful figures of speech to describe the difference, this metaphor will suffice: shooting with the EP–3 vs. the Hasselblad is akin to gulping a cold McDonald's meal instead of savouring fine Spanish cuisine.


Sketches of Madrid, #10 (Casa de Campo)
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 4/150 lens and Fujifilm Provia 100F film

Although on the surface cameras are nothing but inanimate tools, I believe we greatly underestimate how much influence the cameras that we choose wield over what and how we try to achieve photographically. Using a given camera can influence us as greatly as being in the company of one particular person or another. Although it is said that we are what we wear and use, and that by the same token our cameras reflect our intentions, I find that the cause–and–effect relationship is seldom so straightforward. Understanding the true character of a camera is not a simple matter—it is easy to be mislead by marketing hype, and it usually takes a while for the nagging feeling that something is off to grow into the realisation that you are wearing a shirt of the wrong size, colour and style. Which is how I now feel about the period of shooting with the EP–3.


Sketches of Madrid, #11
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFE 2.8/80 lens and Fujifilm Provia 100F film

Generally, I expect cameras to do two things—and I am talking about their metaphysical purpose beyond technical functionality. At the outset, I need my camera to pat me on the shoulder and remind me in a hushed voice, "Hey, stop fooling around, concentrate, and look more intently; remember, it is all about connecting." And when I do find a connection, I need the camera to smile, nod, and... completely get out of my way, leaving it up to me, the subject, and the connection (the camera, of course, will continue participating in the process, but only as a supporting observer). To me—and, I reckon, many other photographers—the Hasselblad somehow does just exactly that, which is one of the reasons why it has been such a respected camera for such a long time.


Sketches of Madrid, #12
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFE 2.8/80 lens and Fujifilm Provia 100F film

Speaking of respect, I am not sure if I mentioned this before, but cameras command respect—or fail to do so—just as people do. Take, for example, the Nikon D700 (I have not used the D800, but I am sure it has the same genes). The camera most certainly commands respect, even though in a cold, distant and impersonal manner: you know immediately that it means serious business, and it delivers on its promise profusely and in a highly professional manner. The Hasselblad commands respect for the reasons mentioned above (and very many other things that I will not go into in this post). And even the Canon S95, which is just a point–a–shoot camera, commands respect, too: it does not pretend to be anything other than what it is and, although the camera keeps your expectations close to the ground, it occasionally surprises you by delivering much more than what you expect of it.


Cuenca, summer
Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/150 lens and Fujifilm Provia 100F film

And the EP–3? Let's see. The camera proposes serious Business with a capital B�perhaps not as serious as that promised and reliably delivered by the D700, but serious enough to make you pause and genuinely consider the possibilities. Then, however, it also tells you that serious business can be done in an offhand, point–and–shoot fashion. Of course, we want to believe in the miracle of free lunch, and the camera effortlessly lures you into what it paints as a promised land where great returns can be gained without much investment. You realise quickly, however, that, as always, there is no free lunch, and that spray–and–pray with a large sensor is what is actually on offer. While there is nothing wrong with such an offer if it is explicit, it smacks of pretence when its essence is revealed only implicitly. And pretence seldom deserves respect.


Segovia #1
Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/150 lens and Fujifilm Provia 100F film

At any rate, all I wanted to say with this post is that I have been having a real blast shooting with the Hasselblad again, and that, luckily, I have passed through the "promised land" of small cameras with large sensors at the cost of only two cameras (I know I could have gotten stuck there for much longer). The only camera that has been tickling my interest lately is the Sony RX100: it is a known quantity (not in terms of technicalities, but with respect to the nature of the beast) and apparently a truly worthwhile successor to my Canon S95. I, however, am not in a hurry to upgrade. In ten days I will be going on a ten–day horse–riding photographic expedition in Russia's Altai Mountains, and my rusty–but–trusty S95 will be coming along.


Segovia #2
Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/150 lens and Fujifilm Provia 100F film

5 July 2012 » Recent favourite quotation

If you pack a camera in your pocket in order to be ready for the unexpected you are, on some level, like the guy who carries a condom around in his wallet on the off chance he might get lucky.

—Kirk Tuck of The Visual Science Lab

27 June 2012 » Savouring palladium prints

I do not know about you, but I have always been intrigued by the so–called "alternative processes" in photography. In essence, they include the printing methods that are no longer mainstream and practiced by a very small number of photographers. They are usually based upon fairly complex chemical processes and, as a result, tend to have esoteric names that invariably exude magic: the kallitype process, the platinotype process, the palladiotype process, you name it. The magic, however, is not only in the names: each process produces results that stand out in a number of ways and cannot be fully replicated by any other process; moreover, the photographs produced by an alternative printing process usually have their own unique visual aesthetics. So when my friend Lovrenc Gašparin of Palladium Photography offered me to make a palladium print of an image of my choice, I seized the opportunity without thinking twice—or even once!

Palladium prints usually have three significant advantages over prints produced with other printing processes (gelatine silver prints in particular). First, there is archival longevity: a palladium print essentially consists of palladium metal bonded to cotton fibres, and palladium is one of the most stable metals; a palladium print will last as long as the paper it is printed on will, which can easily be in the high hundreds of years. Second, there is high dynamic range. Finally, there is inherent aesthetics. Although the first two points have arguably become moot with the development of modern technologies, the issue of aesthetics remains as pertinent as it has ever been. It is this last point that I was mostly interested in and that this post is mainly about.

In an ideal world, a palladium print should be produced as a contact print from a large format negative. This implies that you have to use a view camera with 8X10 film, which in this day and age is quite a bit of an "alternative process" in itself. We do not live in an ideal world, though, and a hybrid solution is usually used: produce a digital negative, print it on clear film, and use the printed negative for contact printing. This approach allows producing palladium prints of images captured on virtually any medium including digital; it also gives a greater degree of control of the printing process, because the digital negative can be fine–tuned towards producing a palladium print as desired.


Watertowns of Jiangnan, China, #2
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFE 2.8/80 lens and Kodak T–MAX 100 film

I chose the above image for Lovrenc to make a palladium print of—for two reasons. First and foremost, I simply love the photograph, which is enough reason in itself. Second, its aesthetic value primarily lies in image content and tonality (I did not want to use an image where sharpness and detail play an important role). I prepared a 16–bit TIFF file that would allow printing a 40cm by 40cm negative at 360dpi and sent it to Lovrenc. At the same time, I produced a 40cm by 40cm inkjet print of the same image using my Epson 4880 printer. Although comparing the two prints produced with such radically different technologies was my main purpose, I also had the selfish motive of decorating my Madrid dwelling with what promised to be an echoing couple of superb artefacts.

Palladium printing is a true craft: it takes a lot of time, expense and experimentation to become proficient at and be able to produce relatively consistent results. No two prints, even the ones made consecutively, will look identical; in other words, each individual print is a subtly unique interpretation of a given image. To give you a glimpse of what is involved in producing a palladium print, let us have a look at the main steps that Lovrenc had to take to produce the print for me.


As mentioned above, we first need to produce a negative to use for contact printing. I only have a rough idea as to what goes into preparing a digital negative and printing it, but it certainly is a very complex process. The snapshot above shows the negative of my image after it was just printed. Lovrenc also uses the Epson 4880, which is a 17–inch printer—as you can see, it is a pretty large negative!

Next, we need to prepare the paper for coating by keeping it in a humidity chamber for two hours (Lovrenc used Bergger COT–320 paper to produce the print). The paper needs to absorb a certain amount of moisture so that the necessary chemical reactions can take place in it. The degree of humidity will influence the final colour rendition: 75% humidity will result in sepia tones, 80% humidity will produce dark brown tones, and to achieve neutral grey tonality one needs 85%–90% humidity (the danger here, however, is that when humidity approaches 90% the contact negative starts to stick to the paper). At the same time, we need to prepare the sensitising coating: for a 40cm by 40cm print, it consists of 2.0ml of ferric ammonium oxalate and 2.0ml of lithium chloropalladite (do not ask me what these chemicals are!).


Once the paper and the sensitising coating are ready, we pour the sensitising coating onto the paper and spread it evenly over the image area with a brush. Between four and six passes in each direction produce a nice, even coating.


Once that is done, the coating needs to dry for 15 minutes, upon which the coated paper goes back into the humidity chamber for another hour.


Next, we carefully put the negative over the coated area...


...and hold it firmly in place with the use of a contact print frame. Upon that, the "sandwich" is put under a UV light source and exposed for six minutes. Because the exposure is done with UV light, you do not need to work in a "dark" room (some daylight can be present, but direct exposure to sunlight must be avoided).


The above image shows what the print looks like after it comes from the contact print frame after exposure. The process does not require any post–exposure development, because the print self–develops during exposure.

As you can see above, right after exposure the print has a strong yellow cast, which is because of the chemicals that remain in the print. To remove the remains of the chemicals and finalise processing, the print needs to be thoroughly rinsed and washed.


First, the print is washed in water.


Next, it is washed in a bath of citric acid and a bath of sodium sulphide. The print spends five minutes in each bath and, once that is done, is washed in water for another sixty minutes before drying.


Finally, it dries in ambient environment and voilà—we have a perfect palladium print! Note that the strong yellow cast is now gone; also, because palladium prints do not contain any gelatine, unlike gelatine silver prints they do not have the tendency to curl.

I eagerly anticipated the print to arrive, and finally it has reached me. The above snapshot shows the two prints side by side—Lovrenc's palladium print is on the left and my inkjet print is on the right; I have also included a music CD to give you a sense of scale. My impressions and thoughts essentially took place at two different levels: at the level of first reaction and emotional response, and, later, at the level of calm analysis and close examination.

At the level of first reaction, two things immediately filled my mind to the brim. First, the print is simply gorgeous. There is no reasoning or explaining involved in this assertion—I simply stared at it in awe with one exclamation completely occupying my emotions: whoa, man, just look at this! Second, looking at the two prints side by side for the first time, I could not help but be astounded by how drastically different Lovrenc's interpretation of the image is from mine. The famous quote of Ansel Adams, "The negative is the score, and the print the performance," immediately came to my mind. Essentially, Lovrenc and I started from the same (digital) negative, envisioned the final print differently and used distinct technologies; as a result, our interpretations of the image could not be more different (more on this below).

At the level of calm analysis, my print seems more assertive and uncompromising; Lovrenc's print, on the other hand, appears more inviting and relaxed. Whereas in my interpretation the background is clearly of secondary importance and serves only as material to fill in the gaps and provide a general sense of the environment, in Lovrenc's rendition it is an almost equally important part of the image that suggests a far stronger interaction between the main subject and the surroundings. Also, the brown toning of Lovrenc's print produces a more moody, nostalgic atmosphere.

Aside from the print of my image, Lovrenc also kindly sent me two palladium prints of his own images. Although they are smaller in size, they are equally impressive—and stunning artistic statements of and by themselves regardless of what medium they are reproduced on. At close examination, all three prints boast exquisitely smooth tonality. As mentioned above, I cannot comment on sharpness when looking at the print of my image, but one of the Lovrenc's prints clearly shows that, printed right, a palladium print can reproduce intricate detail superbly. Dynamic range is noticeably greater in Lovrenc's print, but this rather reflects my aesthetic choices, not a limitation of inkjet printing.


One aspect that I would also like to mention is that in this age of mass production and digital distribution we are gradually forgetting the notion of artefact and the pleasure of appreciating beautiful handmade objects, which the palladium prints undeniably are. The texture of the paper is wonderful, the edges were clearly not cut by a machine, the black token of coating surrounding the image looks artistic, and the signature in pencil together with the seal imprinted in the margin cement the impression that this is a result of labour of love. In comparison, as an artefact my inkjet print looks somewhat plastic and characterless. Of course, it is possible to simulate all the traits of the palladium prints in inkjet photographs, but there will always be a perceptible and inescapable difference between the traits that are a natural result of the production process and the traits that are an afterthought or a simulation.

As you might have gathered from my impressions, palladium prints are truly a wonder to behold. If you are pondering whether they are better than inkjet or silver gelatine or any other kind of prints, though, I am afraid the question is not pertinent: palladium prints occupy their own niche and are not better or worse in the absolute sense. Their aesthetics might or might not suit certain images and one's preferences at a given moment, and I imagine there are times when palladium printing is not the best choice for reproduction. When one's aesthetic intentions and the image both favour palladium printing, though, then the medium can be a truly marvellous choice. And as to the image of Watertowns of Jiangnan, I equally love both prints and particularly savour viewing them side by side, for they remind me of the possibility of drastically different yet equally compelling interpretations of the very same work, both in terms of aesthetic choices and reproduction medium.

Recommended resources:

15 June 2012 » Pipe dreams: what a modern light meter should be like

Recently I corresponded with a reader of this Web site regarding exposure metering with film. We both agreed that, if you shoot slide film and use cameras that do not have sophisticated metering that can take care of 99% of lighting situations, exposure metering can be a very tricky undertaking. Although there are situation where using a spot metering is fairly straightforward, such situations are rather exceptions than rules. Sometimes you do not have the so called "middle grey" in the scene (and I am not going into the debate of whether "middle grey" is 13% or 18% grey), ambient light can be so complex that you do not even know where to begin, or light can be changing so quickly that you simply do not have enough time to figure out the right exposure with the use of a spot meter. And to make things worse, the margin of error is really thin: if you shoot slide film, an error of half a stop often ruins the whole works.

Let me be even more honest: I am not as good at exposure metering as I should be, and I am not entirely sure of what I am doing more often than when I can take one exposure reading with my spot meter, make one exposure using that reading and be sure that I nailed the shot. So if you find that exposure metering is tough, breathe out and relax—you are far from alone.

Because of this complexity and to achieve the best possible results, I utilise all means that I have at my disposal. In particular, aside from the spot meter I also use my digital point–and–shoot camera (currently the Canon S95) for the purpose of checking exposure. I start out with determining exposure with my spot meter, and then double check the determined exposure with the S95: I set the suggested exposure in Manual Mode and the same ISO setting as that of the film I am using, make an exposure and check on the LCD screen of the camera where things fall.

You will likely question how reliable, or even usable, this approach can be, because exposure response of a digital camera is not the same as that of the film of your choice, and quality of the image shown on the LCD screen will massively depend on the brightness of the ambient light. Well, the key is not to look at what the image looks like on the LCD screen; instead, you should be looking at where and how the histogram falls: if you roughly establish the left–hand position of the histogram that corresponds to the right exposure for the film, as well as note the right–side point on the histogram where highlights start to get blown out on the film, then the exposure correlation is fairly reliable. I realise that this might sound overly complex, but in practice this is much easier than it seems at first: for example, I have determined that, as long as the histogram of my S95 follows the "expose to the left" approach (yes, to the left—remember, we are talking about slide film) and shows that highlights are not blown, then the exposure should be more or less fine for Fujifilm Provia 100F.

You will probably also ask what the benefits of this approach are; after all, is not it easier to master using a spot meter and be done with it? (Perhaps, but see the first paragraph.) First, if for some reason I happen to screw up using my spot meter, the digital camera will instantly show it. Second, when ambient light is changing too quickly to analyse exposure using my spot meter, I simply use the exposure determined by the S95 in Manual Mode that places the histogram in the right position for exposing film (I might also bracket exposure to be on the safe side—film by far is the cheapest part of any serious photographic expedition; time and timing are the most expensive ones).

Now, I know that after reading this many of you will cringe, as well as that I will be pelted and crucified for using this heretical method. Guess what, though: the approach actually works unbelievably well in practice, and, if you have seen the movie of the same title, whatever works! And just before you start thinking that I do not know how to use a light meter, let me tell you that I actually do. I used it before buying my first digital camera without problems, and on one trip when my digital point–and–shoot camera gave up its ghost on me on the very first day, I nailed exposure in all instances using nothing but my spot meter, which included some very complex lighting situations. All I am saying is that a digital camera can be a very good supplementary tool for determining exposure.


How de we integrate a digital camera into this?
(Image courtesy Sekonic Co.)

Our correspondence made me think of what a modern, user friendly light meter should be like, and here is what I have come up with. First, it should function as both a usual meter and a point–and–shoot camera (in the sense that it should take exposures and show them on an LCD screen). Second, it should have a zoom lens so that you can choose the area that you meter. Third, it should have two metering modes: evaluative a la Nikon's multi–pixel RGB metering and spot metering (variable from 1 to 5 degrees, thank you). Fourth, we should be able to set the dynamic range so that it corresponds to that of the chosen film (or, better yet, the meter should come with profiles of most current films that reflect each particular film's characteristic curve). Fifth, it should show histogram, underexposed areas in blue and overexposed areas in red; for under– and over–exposed areas, it should show by how many stops the areas are under– or over–exposed. Sixth, exposure compensation function is a must. Finally, it should have all the usual functions that a serious meter such as the Sekonic L–758 boasts (but the functions should be enhanced and optimised now that we have the digital camera component).

Here is how it would work in practice: first, you input the type of film that you are using, so that the meter brings up its ISO, dynamic range and characteristic curve. Next, you take a reading/shot of the area corresponding to the composition, after which the LCD screen shall show what the shot will look like on film together with the corresponding histogram. If the dynamic range of a scene is within the dynamic range of the film, you can dial in exposure compensation to move the histogram a little to the left or a little to the right depending on your artistic intentions. If the dynamic range of the scene exceeds the dynamic range of the film, the meter will show under– and over–exposed areas in blue and red colour respectively together with the values of under– and over–exposure; in this case, you dial in a "+" exposure compensation equivalent to the amount of underexposure, which will preserve shadows, and then add a Graduated Neutral Density filter with the density equivalent to the amount of under–exposure plus the amount of over–exposure. This would take care of most outdoor situations—as well as let you know when you should not bother with exposing film at all!

I realise, of course, that this is just a pipe dream, and that no sane manufacturer is going to produce such a light meter. Nonetheless, dreaming never hurts, and, who knows, maybe some kind soul will come up with an app for the iPhone that does what I described above. After all, we already have light meter apps for the iPhone, and we only need to take them up a notch!

18 May 2012 » Recommended articles

If you have been reading photography related Web sites for a few years, you are likely to have been noticing a subtle yet obvious and ongoing shift in the photography webscape. Yesterday I was sorting through various links that I have accumulated over the past couple of years, and two things stood out to me.

On the one hand, I was dismayed at how many Web pages or even complete Web sites I thought of as fascinating when I added the links have now disappeared; notably, I was once I again reminded that my friend Edwin Leong has permanently shut CameraHobby.com down. This in turn made me think of several currently popular—and truly engaging—photography blogs and Web sites I read often that are run by individual photographers. Our interests change and we are inescapably mortal, so you can count on the photography webscape to keep on changing. This is not a bad thing per se, perhaps, but I am always awfully saddened when I see something genuinely valuable stop being, just like that, seemingly out of the blue.

On the other hand, however, I was relieved to see that the other articles and photographic collections that I enjoyed in the past were still around. I reread a few essays that struck cord with me when I came across them first, and they made me pause and go into the staring–into–space mode while savouring them again. In particular, if you question why I still use manual Hasselblad cameras and shoot film, have a look at "The Revenge of the Intuitive"; if you want to know which ten photographers' work you should absolutely avoid looking at, read 10 Oeuvres Aspiring Photographers Should Ignore; and if you wonder how photography can simultaneously be effortless and laborious, peruse "Photography is Easy, Photography is Difficult" (scroll down the page; after that, read the article at the top, too).

I thought I would share these pearls with you before they silently disappear into the faceless "page not found" cemetery of the Web. Enjoy!

5 May 2012 » Quick comment on megapixels

As you most likely know, the camera that is being most talked about at the moment is the new megapixel champion in 35mm format, the Nikon D800(E). At 36MP, it provides enough resolution to produce very high quality prints; indeed, as some preliminary reports seem to indicate, it might even challenge some of the medium format cameras. Nonetheless, one has to question how many photographers realistically need such resolution. Take, for example, the following image that was recently published in Readme Magazine at full page size (approximately A4):


I took the photograph with the Nikon D70s, a 6MP camera that has been history for a few years now. Further, the image was cropped, so that the publication was done from a file that in effect has only just over 3 megapixels. And yet, the photograph in the magazine looks perfectly fine. This once again reminds me that one would need to often produce really large prints to claim that he "needs" 36 megapixels.

Nevertheless, the resolution coin has a flip side that gravitates in the opposite direction. With high resolution displays gradually taking hold and spreading (e.g., retina displays of the iPhone 4S and the iPad 3), it is realistic to expect that in a not too distant future low resolution screens with the typical resolution of 72 ppi will disappear, and that 240-320 ppi screens will become dominant even on large displays. The images I post on this Web site are usually 500 by 500 pixels, which translates into 0.25 megapixels and an apparent size of 7 by 7 inches on a 72 ppi display. If I want to keep the same apparent image size on a high resolution display, I will have to increase image size to 2100 by 2100 pixels (4.4 megapixels). Furthermore, for critical viewing and post processing one ideally would want to view images at the full screen size: for example, you will roughly need 14 megapixels and 22 megapixels if you use a 24–inch display with resolution of 240 ppi or 300 ppi respectively. This is equivalent to saying that we all will start routinely producing 24–inch prints at the same resolution. While this does not mean that everyone will need 36 megapixel cameras, we need to keep this trend in mind.

As a side note, this in turn once again raises the issue of image copyright use on the Internet. While a 0.25 megapixel image is pretty much useless for anything other than the Internet, as shown above even a 3 megapixel photograph can be used for publication. If we start posting high resolution images on the Internet the possibility of copyright abuse will significantly increase.

What I really wanted to illustrate with this post is that... nothing has changed, really. One could always construct an indisputable argument for the need of very high resolution, and the recent technological advances only add a new flavour to the same old pudding. At the same time, strong images always could—and always will—speak out on their own regardless of whether they come from a camera with high megapixel count.

18 April 2012 » Olympus EP–3 camera review

My brief review of the Olympus EP–3 camera has now been posted.

For those of you who are not going to read the review but still interested if I am going to keep the camera for the long–term use, the answer is no. Instead, I am going to return to the combination that has worked for me so well—my Hasselblad V series system (film!) with the Canon S95 point–and–shoot. Does this mean that I am completely giving up on compact cameras with large sensors? Sort of, but not exactly. I am still interested to see what and how the Sony NEX–7 and the Fujifilm X–Pro1 can do, but I am not going to buy the cameras with the sole purpose of satisfying my curiosity. If I happen to borrow them for evaluation, then I will be happy to share my impressions; otherwise, I will simply keep shooting film.

28 March 2012 » Recent fascinations (quotation, clouds and music)

We should never deny the power of intuition or hesitate to follow its revelations. I have found that when I have to labor over a composition I seldom achieve anything worthwhile. I accept, of course, the minute refinements of distance and position, and the essential adjustments of image management.

It seems as if the mind is constantly churning facts, moments, relationships, and concepts, and reverberating to the input of information and the flowering of emotion. It is essential that the artist trust the mechanisms of both intellect and creative vision. The conscious introspective critical attitude has no place in the luminous moments of creative expression, but should be reserved for later, when the work is complete.

—Ansel Adams, "The Making of 40 Photographs"


Toledo clouds
Olympus EP–3 camera and Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens

  • "Four in six" from "The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery" by Wes Montgomery

  • "Dance Cadaverous" (Alternate take) from "Speak No Evil" by Wayne Shorter

23 March 2012 » More sketches of Madrid (and comments on reinvention of street photography)

Here are several more sketches of Madrid from last weekend's exploration:


Sketches of Madrid #5
Olympus EP–3 camera and Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens


Sketches of Madrid #6
Olympus EP–3 camera and Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens


Sketches of Madrid #7
Olympus EP–3 camera and Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens


Sketches of Madrid #8
Olympus EP–3 camera and Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens

Speaking of street photography, you might be aware that recently there has been an attempt to reinvent it. It is a very bold and interesting development; while I applaud the effort at innovation, something troubles me about this particular approach, even though I do not yet entirely understand what it is exactly. Here are a few thoughts that come to mind first.

To begin with, Paul Graham's new work seems to suggest that the good old decisive moment has become an old–fashioned, worn, frozen "shard". Or perhaps, it indicates that the decisive moment has been too difficult to capture with one single image for too long, and thus we can try doing it with a couple of pictures instead: although each individual image mostly fails to capture it directly, the diptych creates a continuum where the decisive moment—or rather, an inkling of the decisive moment—is sort of lurking. Either way, there seems to be a touch of frustration, impatience or even scorn towards the decisive moment, and I am not convinced that this is a good basis for reinventing street photography.

As far as I am concerned, the decisive moment is perfectly alive and as elusive as it has ever been; if anything, with propagation of digital photography it has become an even more important cornerstone of photography—something that is able to keep things sane as the number of images taken every day increases exponentially. All one needs to do to understand the importance of the decisive moment is imagine what will be left if it is taken away from photography—you are likely to be shocked by the prospect. Letting the decisive moment irrevocably slip into some continuum where it can no longer be clearly seen or easily found might be the first step of letting it go for good. Given the significance of the decisive moment, I am not sure we want to go down this path.

What also troubles me is the direction in which street photography is being taken. Presuming that there is an inherent aesthetic value in the new approach, which I am not entirely certain of, this direction reminds me of the one jazz music went in in the fifties and the sixties, when it was becoming increasingly complex and less comprehensible for the general public. Now, I love some of the very complex jazz compositions, but do we really want street photography to become a niche art form and a thing unto itself? Do we want our reaction to photographic work to change from an earnest "wow, what a moment!" to the hesitant, distant, or even high–sounding "well, that is a fairly conceptual interpretation of the imagined idea"? Do we want street photography to be reinvented into a remote corner designated for a select few who supposedly have higher aesthetic perception that most folk will never have?

Yet another aspect that worries me is the possible implications for other types of photography. Although the notion of the decisive moment first came from street photography, it is perfectly applicable to and equally important in most other types of photography. Are we going to see a reinvention of landscape photography and be flooded with conceptual diptych prints where one image depicts a mediocre scene in dreary light now, and the other image captures more or less the same scene a few days later in slightly less (or maybe, more) dreary light? Thanks, but no thanks.

All this being said, it is seldom that new approaches in art are accepted immediately—there is always a counter–reaction of some sorts, and perhaps my concerns are nothing but exactly that—a retrograde counter–reaction. Given this possibility, I am willing to give this attempt at reinventing street photography the benefit of the doubt, and time will put everything in its right place as it inevitably does. But until then I remain troubled.

17 March 2012 » Broadcasting from between worlds

In an unfathomably lucky twist of fate my life is now divided between Shanghai, China and Madrid, Spain, mostly tilting towards the latter at the moment. I have always had the tendency to follow a peripatetic lifestyle (I reckon many landscape photographers do), and now this inclination has reached a new high.


Sketches of Madrid #1
Olympus EP–3 camera and Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens

I have always loved being between worlds, because it offers the invaluable experience of examining one world through the value prism of the other, as well as affords freshness of perception. (I know I wrote before that I am not in favour of being neither here nor there, but between worlds is a very concrete place). This is not my first time being in between worlds, but it most certainly is one of the most mind stretching and thought provoking.

Throughout our lives we come to places, and we leave places (here, "places" are meant in a conceptual, abstract way: literal places, relationships, employment, cameras, cars and, ultimately, life itself). Each place has its beginning, its meaning and its end. Each place influences, sometimes subtly and sometimes massively, where we want to go next and our perception of the places we will visit in the future. The experience of being in each place adds to and increasingly cements the foundation of what we perceive of as "ourselves".


Sketches of Madrid #2
Olympus EP–3 camera and Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens

The process of visiting places tends to have the same general pattern. First, we go through basic familiarisation. We observe, tread lightly and get increasingly bold in what and how we try to achieve. Second, we establish habits and rituals—while the former increase efficiency, the latter afford small daily pleasures. Next, the rut becomes long and deep enough to be driven on autopilot without paying much attention to what the dashboard says. Finally, when the end emerges on the horizon and if the visit was overall pleasant, nostalgia starts to set in. The third stage is the one I always try not to make too long, and the last one always serves as an indication of the worthiness of a visit. Having been in Madrid for close to two months now, I am still trying to balance my act somewhere between the first and the second phase.


Sketches of Madrid #3
Olympus EP–3 camera and Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens

At first my mind went into some kind of a suspension mode—although I have been fascinated with what has been unfolding before my eyes right from the start, at the beginning I did not seem to be able to think, write or photograph. Perhaps most of the energy was simply spent coping with the myriad of new things that were (and still are) thrown at me on a daily basis; or maybe, the energy was spent eagerly absorbing what this new, incredible world has to offer. Or perhaps it was both and, either way, it was not helped by the fact that most of my important stuff is not with me at the moment (namely, my cameras, main computer and hi–fi). Reflection and creativity more often than not need the support of established routines, too.

Now, however, my mind is starting to gradually resurface and respond to what it has been absorbing—and there is quite a bit to respond to! There is so much colour, both subtle and bold, and every sunrise and sunset is an event in itself; there is so much visual poetry, and I see great images in my mind's eye around each and every corner (successfully capturing them is a different matter, of course); and generally, there is so much art to look at and get inspired by that I swear the air is filled with it. Maybe it is just a temporary first timer euphoria, or a reaction to some place where I might have unintentionally overstayed (again, "place" is not necessarily meant literally). So far, though, it has been very motivating.


Sketches of Madrid #4
Olympus EP–3 camera and Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens

Last weekend I finally started photographing and I thought I would share some of the first images with you. As noted in the captions I have been shooting with the Olympus EP–3 camera, and if you wonder whether I have finally bonded with it, well, all I can say for the time being is that it is the only tool that I have at hand and I just use it (I also have my aging iPhone 3Gs, but I digress). My comments on the camera will be posted later.

11 February 2012 » Photographic art: purposeful creation or pure happenstance?

Recently I have been thinking about whether photographic art is "created" or if it "happens". The precursor of this train of thought is that sometimes I envision something photographically and realise it with such precision that the likeness of the envisioned and the result is uncanny; at other times—and such times, admittedly, tend to prevail—I go by intuition or play it by ear and get great results that I cannot say I entirely imagined beforehand, or, on occasion, expected at all. Does this imply that in the first instance art is created, while in case of the latter it just happens?

Extending the same notion to other arts, if you think of a painter standing in front of a canvas with nothing to rely upon but his previous training, current state of mind and imagination, you would be inclined to think that art is created from the inner vision of the artist. This is an epitome of pure artistic creation. At the same time, if you think of such photographers as Galen Rowell, who literally chased light (I am referring to his famous photograph "Rainbow over the Potala Palace" and the story behind it), or Henri Cartier–Bresson, who chased decisive moments, you are likely to conclude that art (photographic, at least) largely just happens. Indeed, one could argue that the work of these photographers is a typical example of art as pure happenstance.

Despite the seemingly boundless gap between art as purposeful creation and art as pure happenstance, all art is art, and we need to consider what the common ground between the two is. If you ponder long enough you will realise that in both instances art stems from inner response to a certain stimulus, something that deeply touches us. Sometimes, however, we can have an inner response to what we anticipate to happen, even though we cannot be sure that it will occur. In such instances we invariably leap into action, because what we anticipate to occur has already happened in our mind, and the only remaining question is whether we can capture it with the tool of our choice (i.e., the camera), and, if so, how close the captured image will be to what we visualised in our mind. When Galen saw the rainbow in the vicinity of the Potala Palace he ran a considerable distance to capture the moment that had already happened in his mind, i.e., the rainbow appearing as if emanating from the palace. Was it possible that the rainbow would disappear before he got to the right shooting position? Quite. Yet, he leapt in an attempt to capture on film what was already imprinted in his mind. And, despite the chances, he succeeded.

If you further think of the internal workings of painters or poets, they do not just fish out what they have in store and put it on canvas or paper. They also experience inner responses to certain stimuli, and each response is just a subtle inkling, not something that has a concrete form ready to be transformed into a work of art. They anticipate the inkling to take shape and hope to capture it with the tools of their choice, i.e., paint and words. But the right strokes and rhymes seldom come when you need them, and even though you might think you saw that inkling with absolute clarity, it might easily vanish into thin air.

Despite the outward dissimilarity, on a more fundamental level the creative process in photography and painting or poetry is not all that different. Presuming that the internal response is equally important to both photographers and painters or poets, and that the drive of translating what has already occurred in one's mind into tangible work is equally compulsive, the difference lies only in whether the attempt of realisation is embodied in a physically observable act: while the photographer starts to literally chase light or a decisive moment, the poet begins to mentally hunt rhymes. Both can fail or succeed, and I would venture to say that light and rhymes are equally elusive. In the end of the day, all artists are essentially in the same conceptual boat of creativity, it is just their individual boats happen to have different appearances.

How, then, do we address the instances of when what we come up with was not anticipated even the slightest bit? In my view, in such extreme cases the process of capturing what has happened in our mind is drastically corrected by additional internal responses that occur in the midst of the process, which happens in close collaboration with our aesthetic perception. If the process goes into a territory that we perceive as having no aesthetic value, we simply let go of it; if, however, it continues in a direction that we deem aesthetically fascinating, even though totally unexpected and unpredictable, we play along and see where it leads. Although the creative process might seem to have taken on a life of its own, the artist in us is still very closely controlling and participating in it.

Having established that all art is essentially created in the same manner regardless of the appearances of the outward processes, we still have the question of whether it is intentional creation or pure happenstance. Well, it is neither. Instead, it is a complex, unfolding dance that consists of the initial inner response, subsequent search for its realisation, further inner response(s) to what changes while the initial search for realisation is taking place, subsequently adjusted search for realisation of the previous cumulative inner responses, ad infinitum. On a personal level, the beauty of art and creativity lies in this unpredictable predictability: you can rest assured that the result will be consistent with your inner artistic stance, but you can have no idea where you will be lead and how that stance will be embodied.

(Phew, now I can stop the dance, crack open a beer and digest what I have just written!)

6 February 2012 » Skiing with a Hasselblad—part 2

I have now returned from Italy, and here is the executive summary: it is possible to ski with a Hasselblad system—or, indeed, any system of comparable size and weight—and a tripod! Let me not get ahead of myself, though.


Arabba, dawn
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFE 2.8/80 lens and Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film

On the first day I booked two hours of skiing lessons and, to my surprise, got the basics of skiing quite quickly. Even before the lessons were over I started skiing on "blue" slopes, which are said to be "easy" to ski ("red" slopes are for experts and "black" slopes are for those who have a complete mastery of skiing and severely lack adrenaline). Having never skied before and only after an hour of lessons, blue slopes were most certainly exciting, but they were a far cry from "easy". I learned quickly that the key was not to get too thrilled and keep the speed within one's personal comfort zone, as well as to be able to stop at any time. Skiing is a ball of fun as long as you are in control.


Abandoned hut #1
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 5.6/250 lens and Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film

In the afternoon I was sanguine enough to go back to the hotel to get the camera backpack and try skiing with it. Again to my surprise, it worked out perfectly well—I almost felt no difference skiing with or without the backpack. I was ecstatic: I could ski and photograph at the same time!

On the second day I felt confident—or, perhaps, restless to explore the scenery beyond the town of Arabba—to leave the route where we practiced and go on a full day of skiing. Although we skied on routes that were comprised of blue slopes only, some slopes were still quite challenging or even unnerving. Nonetheless, skiing quickly came to feel very natural, and I could not believe one could have so much fun doing it.


A view from Marmolada
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 4/150 lens and Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film

Although I photographed a few times while stopping in the middle of a slope, most of the photography was done from the tops of hills or mountains. Quite strangely, apart from my friends who are also keen photographers and used a couple of Nikon D700 cameras, I did not encounter one single person carrying a DSLR, let alone a film camera; moreover, I reckon I was the only person in the entire area skiing with a tripod! As always, whenever I felt there was an artistic potential in what unfolded before my eyes I used the Hasselblad system, which was perfectly complemented by the Canon S95. As mentioned in the previous post, I brought my Olympus EP–3 on the trip, too, but it remained in the suitcase without seeing the light of day even once. Nonetheless, I am still willing to give the EP–3 the benefit of the doubt: I am actually writing this update in Spain, and I have only brought the EP–3 to see if I can bond with it. Time will tell.


Abandoned hut #2
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFE 2.8/80 lens and Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film

The key to skiing with a camera backpack is that it should be fastened to your back as tightly as possible. Skiing with a tripod attached to the backpack is perfectly feasible, too, but requires being more careful as it might cause injury when you fall over (which inevitably happens). One of the times when I collapsed on a fairly steep slope I hit my arm against the tripod, which left a big bruise. I did not mind that, though, because, to me, it was a small price to pay to photograph in locations that are accessible by means of skiing only. Life sometimes leaves much bigger and longer lasting bruises.


Dolomiti sunset
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 4/150 lens and Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film

As I expected, the scenery was breathtaking. It was accompanied by a high blue sky, with the exception of one day when it snowed in the morning and then the weather was changing rapidly throughout the day, which brought dramatic clouds and light. Although my original intention was to explore new photographic possibilities and horizons without too many expectations, on many occasions photography was as exciting as it gets. Add to that great company, delicious food and superb outdoor exercise, and what you get is an experience that is hard to beat. Once again goes to say that he who does not risk never gets to drink champagne!

19 January 2012 » Skiing with a Hasselblad—part 1

Chinese New Year holiday is just around the corner and, instead of travelling to some remote destination in China as I have been doing for years, later this week I will be going skiing in Dolomiti, Italy. You will probably ask why the sudden change, especially given the fact that I am as good at skiing as at, say, ballet (the list of things I am not good at is too embarrassingly long, so we might as well skip this part). Generally, late January is not the best time for photography in China; more crucially, whatever photographic opportunities there might be at this time of the year, the fun is always ruthlessly tarnished by hideously strained transportation and accommodation options during the period when no one in the Middle Kingdom thinks of work and half of the country is on the move. Instead of experiencing the torture again, I decided to take a break and spend the time elsewhere. When one of my best mates mentioned skiing in Italy, it seemed far from the worst possible option.

Location of Arabba, Dolomiti, Italy

The plans have actually been in the making for over two months. My initial intention was to spend some time with close friends in an environment that does not distract you with the usual daily noise of our established routines. As I looked closely at where we were going, though, I realised that the place is very engaging visually, and the photographer in me quickly became in charge of the preparations. In my mind, the trip for the most part became a photographic expedition, and skiing became a means to the photographic ends.

Photographically, the main question was which camera to use on the trip, because I knew I would not be able to bring my complete Hasselblad V series system as I always do on dedicated photographic expeditions. A mirrorless camera such as the Fujifilm X100 that I was using two months ago, or the Olympus EP–3 that I have now, seemed like a perfect choice for a trip of this nature: on the one hand, it is small and light and thus would not impede sporting activities; on the other hand, image quality is good enough to produce high quality photographs. Indeed, mirrorless cameras are intended for such situations, and I bought both the X100 and the EP–3 with such trips in mind.

As I continued visualising how I would use the EP–3 on the trip, a nagging feeling that something was amiss about this approach started eating me up. After pondering the issue for a while I realised that I am just not a middle ground photographer. In my opinion—and I realise that this is a very idiosyncratic view—anything truly worthwhile photographing deserves to be photographed with the best camera that you have, which is the Hasselblad in my case; for anything else a compact camera such as the Canon S95 is plentiful. Middle ground cameras do not seem to work for me, and I am still figuring out if, or how, the EP–3 has a place in my photographic work.

Now, this notion is not about what cameras can be used or are sufficient for what purposes—if used with care, even the Canon S95 can produce images of very high quality; for one thing, a couple of images I took with the S95 have been published. Rather, this is about intent: if I intend to primarily photograph, I am going to do my best with the best camera that I have; otherwise, I will just carry the S95 and be a happy camper. I am not in favour of being neither here nor there, and it is not my habit to have middle ground intentions.

One can argue that you never know what photographic opportunities you might encounter, and that, if possible, one should have various cameras to be able to capture any and all compelling shots he comes across. I, however, do not believe in preparation for anything that might possibly happen by having overabundant technical means. Being prepared to encounter photographic opportunities is a state of mind, not a matter of what kind of camera, or how many cameras, you carry with you. Just as I can do without zoom lenses, I can do without a dozen cameras that fill every existing category of cameras. It really comes down to my ability and preparedness to see, not just look.

Once this realisation hit home, and when my friends told me that I should ideally bring a small to mid–sized backpack anyway, I decided to use the Hasselblad with the S95 again, albeit the former will be in the shape of a rather basic kit: one camera, one film back and "only" three lenses: 80mm, 150mm and 250mm. To make skiing with the kit feasible, I had to buy yet another camera bag—you know, the type where the lower part serves as a camera bag and the upper part serves as a regular backpack. Very strangely, camera backpacks of this kind offered by the major brands that I checked are designed to carry DSLRs only; they are not internally configurable to accommodate a Hasselblad V series system. I ended up buying a cheapo Benro camera backpack, which was the only suitable option—I hope it will not fall apart on me!

The next question was that of camera support. I normally use a Gitzo GT3530LSV tripod with a Kirk BH–1 ball head, but it clearly would be way too much for skiing. At first I thought I would use Fujifilm Provia 400X slide film and shoot handheld, which is how I have been photographing the old Shanghai series, but the notion of intent reminded me that I also happen to have a Gitzo G1197 tripod with a KangRinpoche NB3–A ball head, which is much smaller and can be attached to the side of the Benro backpack without causing too much inconvenience. Below is a snapshot of the Hasselblad mounted on the big Gitzo, and the S95 mounted on its smaller sibling—you can see why I do not want to dance ballet—sorry, ski—with the big tripod.


Size, indeed, matters

Mounting the Hasselblad on the small Gitzo tripod is quite a bit of a stretch, but I tried it a few times in the past and the combination is actually perfectly usable provided you tiptoe and whisper around it.


Far from ideal, but workable

As a side note, you might have noticed that the big tripod does not have a central column, and that I changed the central column of its small brother to a short one (unfortunately, it cannot be completely removed). Over the years I have learned that using a central column is amateurish and, well, just plain detrimental. It adds instability, weight, and inconvenience of tripod handling; it also does not allow putting your camera close to the ground. And this high price is paid for the very questionable benefit of raising your camera a bit higher (which, if necessary, should be done by extending tripod legs). Ever since I bought the GT3530LSV I do not remember missing central columns even once; in fact, I only recollect thinking how wise it was to get rid of them.

Aside from the comment on central columns, the above reflections and assertions are mostly theoretical, of course. I have no idea how it all will work in the field, and it is possible that I will have to eat my words later. Given that this is a real possibility, I am taking a few rolls of Provia 400X in case skiing with a tripod turns out to be dangerous or impossible; I am also bringing the EP–3 in case the whole idea of skiing with the Hasselblad turns out to be cockamamie. I will let you know how it all goes after I return—stay tuned!

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