Tech notes – photo

The practical approach described below is guided by my background in craft, which gave me an abiding appreciation for the tactile and the tangible.

Two teachers who profoundly influenced my aesthetic and technical approaches to visual art, from since I met them ~40 years ago: George Greenamyer, and David Cohen.

Analog (film) camera gear

Cameras and lenses I have used include a now defunct, Rollei SL35 with a prized Zeiss Distagon 25/2.8 lens (and others) for virtually all the shots in the 1974-1991 section; a barely functional Mamiyaflex TLR (2-1/4" negatives; represented here by a single shot); and, more recently, an Asahi Pentax Spotmatic with 50/1.4 Takumar, 85/2 Jupiter 9 preset, no-name 28/2.8, 75-205/3.8 Vivitar close-focusing zoom, 24/2.8 Tamron Adaptall, and a Canon EOS Rebel-Ti body with 28-85 Tamron kit zoom. The Canon has fallen out of my favour in the past year or so it seems, the kit zoom lens being about two stops too slow, and the body 40-years too new to work well with my collection of relatively fast M42 screw mount lenses.

The Rollei had working TTL-metering until I dropped it in the ocean in '78, but I managed to get the camera working again after drying it out in the oven and blindly tinkering around with some of the more easily-accessible gears (the Rollei folks assured me it was a write-off). I continued using it for nearly 20 more years with a hand-held meter. The Spotmatic which I bought used for a hundred bucks in 2003 also had busted TTL metering. A hand-held light meter makes me think a little bit harder about the exposure; not so with the Canon EOS and the Stylus, both of which have working AE, and are always 'correctly' exposed.

My walking-around camera, the one I always have with me and therefore accounts for a disproportionate percentage of shots, is an Olympus Stylus Epic, with fixed 35/2.8 lens. I like this camera so much – though I wish it were quieter, and had manual controls – that I recently bought a replacement after slowly thrashing the first to death over the 6-years I kept it in a side pocket of my backpack.

It is very rugged, reliable, lightweight and compact, and has very good, fast optics; certainly adequate for the grainy 400-speed colour film I use. I can whip it out from its now padded 'holster' (on my backpack), and start snapping pics in a few seconds. It doesn't give me a pain in the neck. I also like its built-in flash, though I seldom use it.

Subjects and shooting style

I've essayed and had some success with most photographic subjects excluding sports and wildlife, which require specialized gear and, in the former case interest and the latter, patience that I entirely lack (gear, interest and patience).

I seem more drawn to urban street, architectural and industrial subjects on the one hand, and (more or less) natural landscapes on the other. I'm fascinated by the collisions between human endeavor and the 'natural' world that occur everywhere, right in front of us or under our noses.

When I started out in the 70's shooting very slow (ASA 25 and 64) slide film, I used a tripod. This taught me a great deal about composition and evaluating subjects, by virtue of being so laborious. Since then all my shots have been hand-held, using fast, grainy film. I like film grain. I don't add fake film grain to my digitally-processed images, but I do add noise to blown shadows and highlights, which look worse in digital images than darkroom enlargements. Though digital capture and post-processing techniques have greatly improved, fast colour film still has relatively good dynamic range, I think.

Many of my street pictures of people are taken without framing the subject through the viewfinder, by holding the camera at strap level and snapping as unobtrusively as possible while walking towards and past the subject.

I am instinctively conservative with film (mindful of the laborious digital workflow I use), rarely shooting more than one frame per subject, though I will often make a series of closely-spaced and related shots. At my usual shooting pace I might go through a 24-exposure film in an hour, and call it a day after 60-70 shots. A disproportionate number chosen for scanning are random one-offs taken with the Stylus (well, 35mm is said to be an 'ideal', all-purpose focal length), and it may take a couple of months to shoot a roll on it.

Digital work flow

Photos in the 1974-1991 section were scanned from colour slides, professional enlargements, or darkroom prints I made at the Nova Scotia Photo Co-op in Halifax.

All the rest were scanned from C-41 colour negatives (mostly Fujicolor 400) developed at supermarket and department store labs, on an Epson Perfection 1660 flatbed scanner with transparency adaptor at 3200-ppi (interpolated). The scans are then processed in Photoshop using multiple adjustment layers with masks to seperately adjust shadow and highlight luminance, and colour.

Photoshop BE™ (Bloatware Edition) is now at version 12. I like the last non-bloatware version (6) – the newer versions have few features that interest me, and many more that don't: notably including draconian DRM, onerous resource requirements (memory, cpu and storage), and a host of 'stupid computer tricks' that apparently require the extra horsepower.

Recently I discovered the "Channel mixer" which when used in monochrome mode as a luminance adjustment layer (or "overlay", for added punch), has enabled me to recover more dynamic range from otherwise muddy scans.

The entire process consumes nearly an hour per shot (including scanning), and it forces me to be very, very selective about which negatives I choose to work with. Typically I will scan and process 5-10 shots per 24-exposure roll, and of those scans, I might (eventually) use ~10% on my web site. Time from my taking a picture to its making an appearance can be up to a year or even longer.

Many of the images from this process exhibit some scan 'artifacts', including noise, horizontal streaking, and banding along both ends of the negative strips (cut into 5-frame lengths by the lab).

Unlike a good darkroom negative carrier milled from heavy aluminum plates, the scanner film holder, injection-molded from cheap plastic, does virtually nothing to flatten the negative, and the cut-edge banding can be exacerbated by humidity, and heat from the scanner. Morever, color negative emulsion is considerably thicker than black and white, and more prone to buckling.

In some cases I have cropped out or worked to ameliorate these artifacts, in others I have accepted them as 'tool marks' of the process, that add something to the overall desired effect. Blame my background in fine art and crafts, where I learned to be open to the expressive potential of accidents and mistakes.

Up until 2007-8, I used Photoshop exclusively to also prepare the processed images for web presentation. I have increasingly turned to Gnu Image Manipulation Program ("GIMP"), as Linux has become my preferred development platform.

Open source and free GIMP is less capable than proprietary and very expensive Photoshop (though cost doesn't factor into this), yet GIMP has some interesting idiosyncracies that I made use of in Urban Green, Impressions of Toronto and other sections.

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