Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

New Scanner/Big Sky Drive-in Theater

Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin

For almost six years I've been using a Microtek 9800XL tabloid-size scanner for my large format negatives. It has good dynamic range, adequate to deal with my pyro-developed negatives though it had some trouble with crushed highlights from negatives developed in ordinary HQ formulas with enough contrast for Pt/Pd printing. It didn't really have the claimed top resolution of 1600, but had a valid 1200 ppi which is ample if you're scanning 8x10 and 7x17 inch negatives. Not so much if you want to scan medium format film.

A few weeks ago, I found that the horrid weather we've been having had gotten to the scanner—it had a mold attack. A technician at an office supply dealer about an hour from here wasted my time and money making the scanner clean but useless. He screwed up the lenses or mirrors so the scans are all striped with uneven density. Might be OK for scanning documents on white paper, but for scanning large format negatives to make exhibition prints? Toast. I have no confidence that he can improve the situation.

Tabloid size scanners have always been rare, and at this point the only one out there (other than $20K production models) is an Epson with 2400 claimed ppi, at $2500 from B&H. After careful study, I realized that the Epson 700/750 scanners are built in a way that, from a purely physical standpoint, will let you insert a 7x17" negative into the 8x10" transmission scan live area without crimping the neg when you lower the lid. The 750 "Pro" model has better, coated, lenses than the 700, comes with a kit to do "wet scanning," and includes Xrite calibration software with IT8 targets. The claimed resolution is 6400 ppi which could make sense of fluid immersion scanning for 35mm or medium format negatives.

So, it's here. My preliminary use of it exceeds all expectations. First, this is the first scanner I've had (beginning this adventure in 1992) that I don't have to lie to in order to scan B&W negatives. Every scanner I've had before, even if it could do quite well with color transparencies or negatives, was a disaster if you tried to scan a B&W negative as indicated. My impression was that the software people had never seen an actual B&W negative (this is Epson, Polaroid, Minolta, Microtek—I've had scanners by all of them, and SilverFast software had the same problem as it was supplied with the big Mirotek) and thought it was sort of like a color neg with the color stripped away. Of course it's nothing of the sort. A good B&W negative, not to mention one meant for platinum printing, has vastly more dynamic range than a color neg. If the software doesn't understand this, it will clip the hell out of the highlights and shadows. And they all did. So with all these scanners I had to scan as positive, which easily held the negative's dynamic range (color transparencies have even more dynamic range than B&W negatives, so telling the scanner you're scanning a slide lets it handle the density range of the neg), then manipulate the files afterwards in Photoshop.

But not this one. Using the Epson scanning program, I let the software do a prescan as negative with auto-adjust, from the first negative I tested. I nearly fell out of my chair. The prescan looked great! I called up a histogram, and it was nearly a perfect acquisition. No clipping of data at top or bottom, a little bit on the soft and pale side, which is just what you want from a scan. You put a little punch on that with a simple S-curve in Photoshop after you've got the scan. The key thing with a scan is to get everything the machine can pull out of the negative, without bothering to make it "ready to print." This is clearly a vast improvement in the software over my last Epson scanner and its drivers, so I don't know whether it's just the Epson driver that has come up to speed on B&W or whether the included SilverFast software is on board as well. Actually, I don't care because the Epson software appears totally competent to scan b&w negs and I can't stand the SF interface, so I'll just use the Epson software. When I need to scan color I'll have to go full tilt with calibration and testing SilverFast because I found it was wildly superior to the manufacturer's software—for scanning color transparencies—on the big Microtek. This might or might not be true with the 750 Pro.

So, I tried a 7x17 negative from my recent midwest drive-in theater expedition, scanning in two sections. The scanner has a "film guide" that lets you align a negative by contact, rather than visually (and asks whether it should scan at the glass or at the raised film holder level, thank you) and I find that I can run the whole procedure of scanning in two halves, secured by good ol' tape, and then use PSCS5 Photomerge in the mode that leaves the geometry alone but does Align and Blend, in about 15 minutes or so. I hate scanning. But since a large file scan takes at least fifteen minutes, more likely longer, simply to  clean up, this isn't a terrible come-down from the the old 9800, which took about ten minutes to do a scan at similar resolution, and only got 16 inches of my 17-inch negative.

6400 ppi. Not really. It's a hardware supported, rather than interpolated, resolution, but the hardware isn't up to it. Big jaggies and multiple stripes and strong dark light transitions in the 1974 strip of Tri-X negatives I asked it to scan. I almost fell out of my chair again though, when the prescan of the film holder with the strip of 35mm film returned four thumbnails that looked just wonderful, and, when I hit the Scan button, worked away for a quarter of an hour or so and delivered four scans to the hard drive. 

Then there were the jaggies at alledged 6400, so I just threw that stuff out and told it to scan again, no new prescan, at 4800 ppi. These four files are incredibly clean. And 4800 ppi, even with a film holder that cuts off the edges of the negative, delivers a file that's 22 inches wide, larger than any traditional darkroom print I ever made from 35mm. If I want to make the master file from my most significant 35mm work, I just have to learn how to use the fluid-mount gadgets, retaining the black edge if wanted.

Baja Hoodie

Parksville, New York

Monday, November 28, 2011


Winchester, Connecticut

"Jesus did"

Waterbury, Connecticut

More outdoor advertising. I've noticed that when a billboard isn't finding customers who'll pay, the owners will often put up a Public Service Announcement rather than one of their own "your ad could be here" pieces. I've also noticed that advocacy ads, especially fundamentalist ones, often appear in the same stressed venues. Makes me wonder if the billboard companies offer special rates to get something up on the board when, say, McDonalds isn't lovin' it, and the advocacy groups are set up to pounce on these opportunities.

Sunday, November 27, 2011


Great Barrington, Massachusetts


A bit wordy for a protest sign, that doesn't have quite the ring of "We are the 99%," but the enthusiastic group in front of town hall at Great Barrington this afternoon was making their point. "Tax the rich" is brief and to the point though. The town, which not that long ago was quite blighted, has recently undergone a lot of gentrification, which mixes somewhat uneasily with a long tradition of old-fashioned Hippie culture in the area. The group got a lot of affirmation from passing motorists, including quite a few of the upscale shoppers driving distinctly 1%-ish cars.

Winter Light, IV: Carmel Hill

Woodbury, Connecticut

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Monday, November 21, 2011

May Peace Prevail

State Route 52, Ellenville, New York.

Outdoor advertising—roadside billboards—is a relatively inexpensive way to reach fairly large numbers of eyeballs and so is quite popular here with advocacy groups. Mostly groups promoting an extremist fundamentalist-religious agenda. So I was surprised to see a series of billboards along a highway in eastern upstate New York advocating instead for world peace. So later I checked [] and found that it's The World Peace Prayer Society, founded in Japan, with a number of international offices. A brief look at the site indicates that, far from fundamentalist, the Society appears to be mystical in orientation. But they've discovered the bargain of outdoor advertising.

Kingston Point

Kingston, New York

Thursday, November 17, 2011

How Much Should We "Pre-Visualize"?

Liberty, New York (9:38:36 AM)

Liberty, New York (9:38:39 AM)

In a comment on a recent post, RyanW wrote:

“For me, I'm at a stage where I notice many things AFTER I shoot the photo, so I think I need to slow down...beforehand and visualize what it is I want to capture.”

This idea struck me as worth responding to in a new post rather than a comment reply. The thing is, I think a certain amount of visualization is necessary, but anything resembling full pre-visualization amounts to a false goal.

Photographs are not transcriptions of what was in front of the camera, but conversions of a view of the real world into a piece of two-dimensional graphics. So learning to visualize what’s in front of you as it will look stripped of binocular vision is a necessary skill if you’re going to have any advance notion of what the final result will be. Also, if you are working in b&w, you have to learn to anticipate what the scene will look like without color. Just as important, when working in color, is that the final presentation in print or on screen will not be a literal reflection of the real world’s color as your mind/eye interprets it at the scene. Not until you’ve trained your mind/eye to interpret the color in terms of the capture/processing/presentation you will use.

Another factor is that the picture consists of every square inch of the print (I’m not going to keep saying “or screen”). The picture isn’t a subject with stuff around it. The stuff is the picture just as much as the “subject” is. Understanding this helps keep you from finding a utility pole sprouting out of Aunt Martha’s head in the family snapshot. It also helps avoid having objects or patterns in the background draw attention away from what you thought was your subject. The whole thing has to work overall, all at once. But, methodical, linear planning may not be the best way to achieve this.

Gary Winogrand famously liked to say that he made pictures to see what something would look like as a picture. Sounds like just about the diametric opposite of pre-visualization.

The problem is, linear thinking is much too slow to deal with many of the situations that make for wonderful photographs. By the time you’ve pre-visualized everything about a possible picture in a step by step way, what you want to photograph may disappear. This is as true of a view camera landscape as street shooting with a hand-camera. My sense is that complete visualization, if we could do it at all, would encourage the repetition of established cliches. Complete lack of disciplined vision before shooting will result in a lot of random junk (1,000 monkeys tapping on their iPads will not produce “Macbeth”). Successful work has to come from somewhere in between those extremes and everyone may have a different spot, or comfort zone, along the continuum.

Making good pictures without visualizing every last detail of the final print probably involves a combination of practice and learning to rely partly on intuitive reactions to subject matter. Intuition is a lot faster than linear thinking, and not necessarily less accurate or powerful. Finding felicitous aspects of a picture that you weren’t consciously aware of at the time of exposure may simply mean that you are developing a good sense of photographic intuition. Finding that a picture fails because you were so busy concentrating on “the subject” that you missed all the distractions in “the background” means that you need to step up your photographic intuition training program—which just means go out and make more pictures, then study the results.

Winter Light, New Series

Woodbury, Connecticut

Late last week, on my morning walk, I realized that the seasons had clicked over enough that I was looking at familiar territory illuminated by what I think of as the distinct effect of winter light. Southern New England is far enough north to have a significant season of winter light, but I've never made much of an effort to try to work with it and study its effect on pictures of the landscape around here. So I'm planning to pay attention to this over the coming months and see what I find.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

I'm Here Legally

Wisconsin Dells


Torrington, Connecticut

This is the same parking lot as in Friday morning's post. Considering the condition of the paving, someone is taking pretty good care of the evergreen hedge, despite a few weeds.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Washington Depot, Connecticut

Lots of art gallery openings around here today, which will likely feature in upcoming blog posts. The sentiment commercially expressed at this gallery gives me a mixed reaction. It's 100% correct if you buy a work of art because you love it, respond to it, want to live with it in your home, and can afford it. In that case there is only the risk that you were too hasty in your judgement and bought something that has lots of impact but no staying power for you, in which case you can probably resell it before everybody else also figures out it's vapid.

But the comparison to the stock market is troubling. In financial terms, contemporary art—by which I don't mean any school or style but simply work by people alive and doing their work today—is about as secure an investment as penny stocks, or Enron, whether it's a hundred bucks or a hundred thousand. When it gets into the stratosphere of millions pricing it becomes self-fulfilling for a while, but that too shall pass. Especially when paid for a chromogenic print that will fade away. Fools abound.


Saxton's River, Vermont

This is a charming New England town, but when we went through last July there were a lot of empty store fronts along the main street.


Naugatuck, Connecticut

I've always been interested in official non-graffiti. Here the avant-garde (those who precede the asphalt truck) have marked out the really deep fissures in the pavement for filling in, ignoring lesser, though long, cracks. Thus the American infrastructure deteriorates inexorably, one little hardly significant bit at a time. The town crew tagger has kind of a nice hand, though.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Free Food!

Woodbury, Connecticut

The local health food (and very fancy organic food, etc.) store had a free wine and cheese party at The Old Town Hall yesterday evening. Surprise, surprise, a whole lot of people turned out for exotic cheese and crackers, tastings of wine from the couple of local vineyards, and samples from a couple eateries and caterers.