Sunday, July 31, 2011

Weeds Redux, XV

Torrington, Connecticut

So, what made me decide yesterday to write about the decision-making process to buy, or not to buy, a new digital camera? Well, because I just bought a new digital camera.

Before dealing with that, I want to give a little background on how I approach this decision process. I began to work with digital imaging just about twenty years ago—Photoshop 3.1, as I recall. This was long before digital capture, and the digital work I was doing was more as freelance graphic designer than as freelance photographer. Before long though, desktop scanning had reached a level where it was appropriate for some commercial publications. I began to do projects where I spent a lot more time working in Photoshop and Quark than out on location shooting the pictures. However, when digital capture at reproduction quality did come on the scene, I was not an early adopter. I was doing a lot of self-assigned “documentary landscape” projects in large and ultra-large format, some design work, and not a large volume of assignment photography. Given the cost of the early professional quality dSLR cameras, I reasoned that I’d never amortize one of the damn things. I’d be using it not to earn a living, but to pay for the camera.

So I didn’t dive in, but I did get my toes wet using a succession of little Fuji digicams. I found that a small digital camera made a very useful accessory for a large format photographer. For one example, if you spend a week on the road working with view cameras in four different formats, it’s a big job to track and identify subjects and match them to all those individual pieces of film coming out of the darkroom in the weeks after you return. Using the digicam as a visual notebook to augment my written notes was a big help. After making a shot with one of the view cameras, step back and snap the scene, including a corner of the camera (to know which format’s being used), picking up an automatic time/date stamp to correlate to the written shooting log. Is there a park sign with information about the subject of the picture or its surroundings? Snap it. Spot a historical information plaque at the edge of town as you’re leaving? Stop and snap it.

Then early in 2004 I had to make a decision to which the answer was yes, but which yes? A long-time client landed a big production, a large-format book of do-it-yourself bathroom remodeling projects. Not exactly exciting, but a great deal of work, mine for the taking, except the publisher insisted that everything except the twelve full page chapter lede illustrations had to be done with digital capture. There would be no budget for film/processing/separations, except for the oversize full page shots to be done on two-and-a-quarter chrome film. By now, the price of dSLRs had come down a lot, and it wouldn’t even take one of the most expensive models to produce files entirely appropriate for the job. There was also time for me to research which camera to buy, replace my antique copy of Photoshop with the newly released Creative Suite I, replace my PowerBook with one that could run CS, and come up to speed on Raw file workflow, before we’d go into production in the summer.

The first surprise I found was that despite a cabinet full of Nikon gear, there was really almost no legacy advantage to be had. Meanwhile, I was totally intrigued by the new 4/3s format with its “designed from the ground up for digital capture” concept. I also found the Olympus E1 to be a delightful camera, and the 14-54 and 11-22 lenses were excellent. On top of that, Olympus was ahead of everyone on weather sealing and sensor self-cleaning, which were huge issues given that I’d be doing most of the work in environments filled with everything from sawdust to wallboard mud. So those were the factors that led me to decide on the E1. The files were only 5 megapixels, but we decided to double-shoot those large lede pictures using my Hasselblad and then the E1—we ended up producing almost all of the chapter openers from the E1 files.

I managed to go nearly three years before having to make the next new camera decision, which I’ll get to in another post.

Summer Haze, III

Roxbury, Connecticut

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Weeds Redux, XIV

Waterbury, Connecticut

Should I buy a new camera?

This is a question I'm asked quite often. The answer varies depending on who’s asking, but there’s a consistent pattern, which is to say, “probably not.”

Is your camera broken? OK, digital camera obsolescence is so fast that it’s probably stupid to repair a camera that isn’t the latest model. But if your current camera still works, then the question is whether a replacement is “worth it.” The answer to that, I think, is to ask whether the new camera will directly improve your pictures.

So, let's say you are constantly frustrated because you want to make larger prints than you can successfully with your current files. You’d dearly love to make 17x22 prints but can’t stand what happens to the files when you interpolate them over 11x17. If the new camera has 50% more pixels, without sacrificing related factors like dynamic range or high ISO performance, then it will likely address your problem directly.

If what you dearly want to do is make pictures of birds in flight, and all the reviews say the latest model has vastly improved AF follow-focus tracking, then buying it will likely make a direct improvement in your pictures. It wouldn’t have the slightest impact on my pictures.

Let’s say the new model has a whopping two steps more usable high speed ISO. But, if you hardly ever find your current camera’s high ISO capability to be a problem, that feature really isn’t worth anything to you, it’s not going to improve your pictures.

So the simple thing that’s needed is to take a hard-headed, clear-eyed look at whether something about the new camera will really make a direct improvement in your pictures. If not, then my simple suggestion is to take that money and spend it on making pictures.

Use the money for a series of weekend shooting expeditions. Maybe take a workshop. Or if you don’t have a high-end printer, get one, along with lots of ink and paper, and start learning how to make really fine prints from your work.

There are two things that will do more than anything else to make you a better photographer: make lots of pictures, and make lots of prints from them.

There Will Be Words

When I began this blog back in September of 2006, it followed a format of showing a picture or two, preceded by a blog post title and followed by a place-identifier caption. Then, frequently, a bit of discursive text that might or might not have had something to do with the pictures.

Somewhere along the line the text dropped away and the blog evolved into something that might owe a debt to the recurring “quote without comment” feature in The New Yorker magazine, with the picture standing in for the quote.

At least for a little while, I’m going to move back toward the original concept and include some writing with posts here. Partly this is a response to “popular demand”—from a minority of my handful of regular viewers—but also simply because there are some photography-related things I have a notion to write about.

So watch out, in the next post, well, in this one already, there will be words.

Summer Haze, II

Washington, Connecticut

Friday, July 29, 2011

Weeds Redux, XIII

Union City, Connecticut

Summer Haze

Woodbury, Connecticut

Another recent hot, humid morning with temperatures destined for the high 90s later in the day. Even in July this is unusual around here.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Weeds Redux, XII

Waterbury, Connecticut

Mirrored Window

Waterbury, Connecticut

This black-mirror window treatment seems to be getting more common on older buildings undergoing renovation. In some cases the old window seems to have been bricked up and someone has decided that this looks better than the filled-in fenestration. In others a former shop window, whose purpose was to give passers-by a view of the interior, gets the mirror treatment when something like a restaurant takes over the space and visibility from outside is no longer wanted. The visual effect of course is very different from the combination of look-through and reflection you see with typical untreated plate glass shop windows.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Weeds Redux, XI

Brattleboro, Vermont


Brattleboro, Vermont

We didn't do a lot of walking around in the 96° heat so I only saw the main shopping streets downtown, but the occupancy seemed very good. In fact, unlike so many places around Connecticut and Massachusetts, the only storefronts that weren't currently doing business all seemed to be undergoing renovation.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Weeds Redux, X

Waterbury, Connecticut

Weeds go better with Coke?


Winchester Township, Connecticut

We're stuck with extreme, unusual heat and humidity here in New England. The heat has broken today though it's so humid it feels muggy at 70°, but over the past several days the afternoons repeatedly reached the 100° point. Saturday we encountered 100° temperatures up in south-central Vermont. So I've been trying to get some pictures that manage actually to show how oppressive the weather is. I think this one gets some of the feeling.

As always, you can see a larger version of the picture by clicking inside the image area. Use your browser back button to return.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Weeds Redux, V

Burrville, Connecticut


Naugatuck, Connecticut

It's blazing hot this week, and the humidity is so high that there's haze that looks like you could cut it with a knife. So I ventured down to the Naugatuck River valley this afternoon to see if I could make some pictures about the heat, humidity, and haze. I don't know how well that went yet, but thought this shot was worth posting. 99° is equal to 37° C.


Torrington, Connecticut

Monday, July 11, 2011


Bristol, Connecticut

This is getting ridiculous. Is it possible that this is some sort of slow motion performance art project? Bristol is small city about twenty miles southwest of the state capital, with a population of 61,353. Is it conceivable that any single one of those people is in the market for a pre-fab concrete restroom?

OK, no, it's a real company with a real website, real products, not performance art. Plus, I recognize the design of the restroom as one that they've had some success with, since I've seen it in quite a few places in Connecticut. Are they trying to do "image recognition advertising"? As in, you've seen our lovely restroom on the top of Thomaston Dam, so don't you think you'd want us to do *your* next industrial-strength concrete fabrication project? But I can't quite see how any of their other products are of any more interest to commuters looking at billboards than the restrooms are. Just as when I was actively involved in the advertising business, Outdoor Advertising was a whole 'nother world.


Bristol, Connecticut