Early Days with a Digital Camera

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I bought my first digital SLR camera in 2005. It was a Canon Rebel XT a.k.a the 350D, with a modest 8 megapixel sensor. Modest by today’s standards – at the time it seemed like a wondrous thing. That hooked me into digital photography, and it wasn’t long before I added a slightly better camera with similar specifications, the Canon 30D, to my collection. This photograph of a boreal lake in Ontario was taken with the 30D in the summer of 2007.

It’s one of no less than 181 almost identical photographs that I took of the scene. 181! Why did I take 181 photographs of a pretty but entirely average landscape view?

Partly it was because I could. That was a trap – still is, in many ways – of digital photography. No longer limited by film and its parsimonious allocation of frames, you can go hog wild with a digital camera. I did – and not just here. It wasn’t until I returned to film photography in 2014 that I seriously began to reconsider my photographic overload and to comprehend that tens or hundreds of photographs of the same scene added nothing to the artistry of the shot. In contrast, it often obscured it. You become pinned to a particular view and rather than wait for the best light or consider changing your position, you just click away, telling yourself that one of these shots will be a masterpiece. Even though they are all pretty much the same and when you come to view the collection on your computer, they take on a dreary homogeneity that dilutes even the best images.

In photography, less is more. If instead of the 30D, I had a large format field camera, I would have spent a lot more time seeking out the best viewing point for a strong composition and I would have waited for good light and if I didn’t get it, I wouldn’t take the photograph. In other words, a lot more considered thought would have gone into the image and the ‘spray and pray’ mentality that is so strongly encouraged by digital cameras would have been absent.

I don’t have a large format camera. But I do have 35mm and medium format film cameras and I use them frequently now. I take far, far fewer photographs. But more of them are worthwhile. The discipline gained using those film cameras has transferred to my digital photography as well. I am very much happier with the results.

 

 

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On Being Publicly Exhibited

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I have a photography exhibition at Washington University.

Fifteen photographs, all chosen by me. No competition, no outside selection. All stuff I like.

They will be there for another two months.

I didn’t have to hustle for this show, nor put out any money beyond the prints themselves. It came my way based solely on appreciation of my work as displayed in earlier art shows. All I had to do was to make sure the work was available to hang and display.

I’ve never considered myself as an artist. Photography has been a simple pleasure, a method of recording my life, and a way to get me to get out the house and look at things anew. It’s a hobby. But now? Even if I’m not calling myself an artist, others are. I already feel that weird sense of being looked at differently. “He has a show, he must be good” – and similar sentiments. Perceptions altered, even if little else seems to have been.

None of this has changed my own view of my work. I take a lot of photographs. A few I really like. Even the ones that I like less are still meaningful. It’s all personal – wrapped around my own life. I’ve never given any real thought to making art for others. Perhaps that explains my persistent lack of sympathy for most popular photography; somehow much of that does seem tailored to appeal to others and, in doing so, loses any character or individuality.

This show may well be the pinnacle of my public photographic career. A career that is no career at all. If it is, I will be perfectly satisfied. One thing I will not do is change to fit any alteration of perception of me or my work.

I guess this means I’m some sort of accidental artist. If I am, well, that’s just fine.

 

The camera doesn’t matter

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Aztec Statue by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

I, like many others, eat up new technology like candy. I read the reviews, follow the product releases, and frequently end up buying if not exactly the latest and greatest, certainly the one-step-behind latest and greatest, most often on sale.

In this way I’ve accumulated a lot of cameras and lenses. I like having them and I use them. But one thing has become ever increasingly clear to me over the course of time. The quality of the camera adds maybe 5% to the quality of the result. No more. And that’s a big maybe. In most cases it makes no difference whatsoever.

You would think knowing this would stop me dead in my upgrade quest. It doesn’t though. I still care about that 5% improvement, at least a bit. But I would save myself a lot of money if I stopped.

Perhaps the only recent time when there was a real sense of technological change was during the 2000s as digital sensor technology went through a series of rapid improvements in sensitivity, resolution and self-cleaning technologies. But by the end of that decade, even though improvements continued, they became more marginal in impact as usefully effective limits were reached. These days, continuing improvements in resolution and dynamic range are helpful for those operating at the edges of camera technology. Not for the vast bulk of normal uses.

Much the same argument can be made for lens technology. Overall sharper lenses, lenses sharper over a wider range of the field of view and more flare and distortion resistant are undoubtedly being made today. Yet unless you are obsessed with looking in far corners at pixel level, holding a ruler to a horizon line, or desperate to have the sun full-on in your image without a picture full – or even partially full – of artifacts, there’s nothing today’s lenses will give you that wasn’t available fifty years ago – or longer for some lens technologies.

The real point of all of this is simple – cameras that are ‘good enough’ have existed for a very long time. Way back into the 19th century. What we have today are cheap, easy to use, and readily available but all they have done in democratize the ability to make a good photograph. They have done nothing to guarantee that good photograph.

Every time I find myself being lured by whatever neat technological trick is being marketed to sell the latest iteration of camera equipment, I need to remind myself of these truths. Mostly, I don’t. Then, after I’ve used my latest wonder camera for a while and found no real improvement in my results, I remember. And promise not to make the same mistake again.

But, so far, I always do.

 

Drifting Along

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Farm Landscape, Mappen, Il. by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

I haven’t written anything here for a long time.

Three months.

Well, that’s OK – not many read this (but if you are one of those, I shall tell you right now how much I appreciate it). Plus sometimes I really don’t have anything to say. Or, at least, anything to say here. Other records, such as my expanding collection of written notebooks, step in instead.

I should make a point of that. Over the past months I’ve rediscovered the pleasure of writing. As with a pen and paper. Writing without any intent to broadcast my thoughts.

This has been liberating. Even though I regard myself as a lesser addict, I am nonetheless addicted to social media. I have placed limits. I do not own and do not plan to own a smartphone. I deliberately place myself in situations where I cannot use this computer for social interaction. I have renewed my embrace of solitude.

The result has been interesting. I find myself feeling less competitive, less caught up in desire or envy. Concurrent with this is a lessening of anxiety.

Of course, being retired helps enormously. My time is my own and I am making good use of it.

Next month I have an exhibition at Washington University. Fifteen of my photographs – although not the one you see here. No, these are rather more what I might call exhibition friendly, a little closer to what you might see in a gallery. They will up for three months; a good length of time and hopefully will be seen by a lot of people.

Is is the culmination of my photographic endeavors, at least the social ones? Possibly. This may be the high water mark and if it is, that’s fine. It’s not going to change my outlook or why I photograph. If anything, I might retreat. I’m certainly pulling back from local photography competitions, for all photo competitions ultimately seem to boil down to being a money making enterprise for those behind them. A bit like gambling; the house always wins. And, to be honest, I really don’t like the sort of photographs that win photography exhibitions even though I’ve made some myself. Hard to describe why, except maybe they tend to fall into a certain preconceived notion of a ‘wow’ factor photograph and these are so clichéd as to be pretty much unbearable. Give me an ordinary snapshot that has real meaning for someone anytime over these.

The triumph of the ordinary. That’s really what I want see. The photograph here is exactly what I mean by that.  A simple landscape on a cloudy uneventful day.  Nothing demonstrative. A small moment in an uneventful day; this, to me, speaks more vibrantly about real life than anything extraordinary. We spend so much time chasing high drama – why not simply realise the drama in our daily existence? I think we would be much more content if we did. I certainly find I am.

In A Different Place

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Hillside near Slapton by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

 

Wandering an unfamiliar countryside encourages all sorts of thoughts. There’s the familiar and the unfamiliar; landscape much like that found elsewhere yet populated with vegetation that’s sometimes the same, sometimes a little different and sometimes a lot different.

This entrancing blend of the familiar and the unfamiliar is unsettling, but not in an unpleasant way. As I wrote, it encourages a lot of thinking. Particularly about place and what it means to be in place. To different places I bring the same mind and the same curiosity, but how they work together is subtly altered by the environment. In other words, although I might think I am the same person in Devon as I am in Missouri, I really am not.

This porous relationship with the world around me is one of the more interesting aspects of travel and is perhaps the main reason why I like to do it. To find yourself a different person simply because of what surrounds you might seem like a frightening relinquishing of self, but the reality is that it is an expansion rather than a retrenchment.

Perhaps this is one reason why I find myself unable to deeply empathize with the untraveled. I understand the fear – and it is a fear – of placing yourself in a situation that lacks familiarity, but I lament the resulting small mindedness. This is unfair I know, for an insular approach to living works for some people and I’m not yet arrogant enough to feel I know all the answers. Let’s hope I never am.

But that said, I feel a delicious clarity of thought that grows stronger each day I move further into retirement. Part of this is due, as I wrote recently on Facebook to feeling like acres and acres of thought-landscape have been freshly ploughed and left fertile for new growth of all kinds. This analogy to the land is no accident and reinforces much of what I have been writing about here – only in this case, my mind is recalibrating its own assessment of its surroundings and is open to fresh interpretations.

But what has any of this to do with photography?

Everything.

I am finally coming to the understanding that my photography has nothing to do with any of the concerns and preoccupations that I read about in the vast majority of articles and books on the subject. Only when I come across writings about art – and the art doesn’t even have to be photography – do I get closer to what interests me. But only closer; not there, for much of the philosophy of aesthetics is somewhat tangential to my own, deeply personal, rationale.

I photograph to create an image that represents my state of mind at the time of taking the photograph. Whether this image is good art or ostensibly uninteresting is irrelevant. What matters is how closely what I photograph acts as a key or cipher to what I was at the time.  Knowing this, I now understand why I have been drawn to film so emphatically over the past three years – the film negative represents a solid key, an artifact as important as a Rosetta stone, to my consciousness at the time and place where I took the photograph. Digital images, ephemeral by nature unless captured by the printer, lack that sense of substance, although they still can do the job fairly well.

Is this, then, the end of my attempts to become a ‘good’ photographer? Perhaps. Almost everything that I thought was important about photography has become – and, truthfully, has been becoming so for a long time – irrelevant. But I have identified what’s meaningful to me, and that’s a greater prize. I certainly won’t be stopping.

Last View from the Old Path

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Forest Park by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

I’m retired now. No longer do I get up in the morning and come home in the evening to go to and come from work.

It’s far too early to say whether retirement will suit me well or not so well, but one aspect that is changed forever is the cycle ride home through Forest Park. These photographs are from my final days and represent scenes I’ve followed through the seasons over many years.

Forest Park by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

It’s not like I’ll never see these views again – I’m sure I’ll be back in Forest Park over and over again. What’s changed is the association. Before, this journey represented the escape after the restrictions of the day, and even though the escape was short lived before the cycle repeated itself, it still offered a sense of relief.

Forest Park by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

As such, these pictures represent the essence of meaningful photography. They may be meaningful only to me, but that’s enough.

Forest Park by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

I constantly find myself torn between expectations of what a ‘good’ photograph should be and the reality of what really matters. Given that almost everything we photograph represents something that has already been portrayed, either with earlier photographs, or older still paintings, it becomes practically impossible to create something wholly original. So why bother? On other words, why try to scrabble out an image that fits some preconception of what a photograph should be? Why not simply use the camera as a record of time, place and the accompanying emotion?

Forest Park by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

That’s what I’ve done here. I will be unable to regard any of these six photographs without summoning the emotions associated with a huge change in life circumstances, one of the most significant waypoints in one’s journey from birth to death.

Forest Park by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

So that’s how they lie. Fresh for now, but destined to be encrusted with time’s barnacles and the opaque distortion that follows. Emotion will overlay emotion, memory will metamorphose into nostalgia. This is how it always is; it’s impossible to truly recapture the feelings of any time passed. However, as markers of a particular moment, they will anchor more of the past that might otherwise be saved. As such, they are more worthwhile than many a more celebrated set of images.

 

Last day

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Hot Day at the Boathouse by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

It’s my final day of work tomorrow. Not the last day of my current job, the last day period. I’m retiring and I’ve been ready for a year or so. It’s been a long slog getting here, but here I am and I can be thankful that I put a lot of financial preparation over several decades into being where I am today.

That preparation can be boiled down to one maxim; save early and save as much as you can. Thirty years ago that was the take home lesson I gleaned from a local seminar on retirement savings and I’m happy to say it worked.

But that’s not the real point of this post. What I’m more concerned with is the transition from an active worker to someone who no longer needs to work. For my identity, like many others I suspect, is to some extent bound up in what I do. I need to let go of this, and re-seat my identity in who I am. Ideally, of course, I should have accepted this years ago but it’s hard to overcome social conventions that prize occupation – and salary – as measures of worth above almost all else.

But now I have to. That, I’m sure, is going to preoccupy my early days in retirement above almost all else. I’m pleased this is happening; I resent evaluations that are based on what you do. It would be so much nicer if we could all focus on what we are, but, as I said, convention works against this.

That said, I have to say I have probably have spent less time caring about what I do than many others. At my retirement party, my boss said I was ‘One of a kind’ in his speech, and I found that both accurate and satisfying. I’ve never chased big bucks nor have I sought promotions or what one might call career advancement. Instead, I pushed for maximum autonomy in what I do and, on the whole, achieved that. As a biochemist, that option is perhaps more obtainable than in other jobs. I’ve also prized working with good people very highly, regarding a personable working companion as worth far more than some salary boost. By the end of my career, I was largely exactly where I wanted to be. It makes leaving a lot easier.

So what am I going to do now? Photograph, obviously, and finally with the time and freedom to seek out a wider range of opportunities. Hopefully, I’ll improve further but any improvement is really only going to be meaningful to me. Even less than before, I photograph for myself now.

Just as I did with the picture of Post-Dispatch Lake in Forest Park that you see above. (‘Post-Dispatch Lake’, what a name!). It’s one of series of photographs documenting my last days of returning home through the park and, by extension, the constraints of time and place that existed at that time. They form a record of my last days at work, and as such carry a potent emotional charge. And they are on film – somehow gaining weight through this, leaving as it does a tangible, material record of a moment caught.

 

 

 

An Unfashionable Lens

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Newly constructed stage by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

For every lens that gets rave reviews from the photographic community and intimate examination by the pixel peepers, there are many others that get shunted aside or ignored. Not because they are intrinsically awful, at least in most cases, but simply because they don’t rival the greatest. Most often they fail in the sharpness category, but other factors such a distortion, color fringing, vignetting and basic build quality also play a part.

Sharpness, however, is the main differentiating factor, and, judging by the amount of space devoted both to articles about lens sharpness and to the comments that tag onto these articles, an issue that is uppermost in many (maybe most) photographer’s minds.

Because sharpness is so highly valued, lenses that fall short in that department are swiftly rejected by many. One of these is the recently discontinued Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 IS DO USM lens.

I, too, reading negative reviews such as Bryan Carnathan’s in the The Digital Picture dismissed this lens as a potential purchase and bought instead a number of large, heavy but beautifully built and sharp Canon ‘L’ lenses that covered the long telephoto range.

But I’m getting older and prefer to slim down my equipment for travel. I also like less ostentatious equipment that does not draw attention to itself. Those large white ‘L’ lenses always stand out, intimidating subjects and raising my fears of camera theft.

So when an opportunity arose to buy a used 70-300mm DO lens for about one fourth of the retail price arose, I decided to get it for travel purposes.

I didn’t have a lot of high hopes for this lens. I was intrigued by its Fresnel lens elements that help reduce size and weight, but as long as it was serviceable it would do.

Well, now that I have it, I find it to be a lot more than simply serviceable. Firstly, the image quality, so widely disparaged, is more than adequate. True, wide open and at 300mm, there is some softness and loss of contrast but stopping down no more than a single stop improves the image considerably. It may not rival in absolute pixel peeping sharpness the latest generation of ‘L’ lenses but it compares well with the prior (2000-2010 era) lenses. Not better but not significantly inferior. And I have felt no need to replace those older ‘L’s with newer models; the upgrade in quality wasn’t worth the extra cost in my opinion.

This is salutatory lesson. I spent a lot of time researching and way too much money in the past chasing and buying the latest and greatest lenses when, in reality, they did little to improve my photography and have often found themselves underused. I would have been better off spending more time using what I had, such as consumer grade kit lenses, making actual photographs rather than dreaming about making better photographs.

So I fell slap into the trap, carefully cultivated by camera manufacturers, that better equipment means better photography. It’s taken much longer than it should to get out.

At last, though, I find myself able to look beyond what is fashionable or critically popular highly rated and look for myself at what I really need. The Canon DO zoom is relatively small and compact, unobtrusive and lightweight in comparison to many of its competitors and will do me very well as my long telephoto zoom for future trips.

(Photograph take with the DO lens)

Three years of film

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Back garden, May 2014 by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

Back garden, May 2014

Back garden, March 2017 by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

Back garden, March 2017.

Well, almost three years. But close enough to make a few points.

Firstly, I’m shooting much the same scenes then as I am now. And I could go back a lot further too if I admitted my digital photographs into this comparison.

Secondly, my technique – as far as photographing, developing and scanning black and white film – hasn’t advanced much in terms of absolute image quality. This was a surprise at first. I fully expected my early photographs to be full of imperfections from the developing process, and, to be fair, many of my early attempts are less clean and more scratched (through impatience with the washing and drying process). A few, maybe three or four, rolls were ruined by misloading the camera or by developing mistakes. This has not happened recently.  But overall, those early negatives look just as good as my latest ones.

In the early days of my digital photography, I produced many under or overexposed images, lost images through careless handling of storage media, and noticed a marked improvement over time as I upgraded my cameras – as well as improving my personal technical skills. As this period spanned from about 2000 to today, the technological advances were considerable. Film, on the other hand, is pretty much an end-developed medium. And when I took it up three years ago, my camera skills were about as advanced then as they are today.

So perhaps it is not that surprising that three years worth of negatives show nothing of the changes and advances of the digital years. I have learned many more techniques, from the use of color filters for black and white, many developing methods for both black and white and color film, to wet printing gelatin silver prints. I’ve also absurdly expanded my camera and lens collections, largely because older film equipment is largely unwanted and consequently inexpensive and a lot of fun to use. But as to making photographs – not so much.

Perhaps that’s a good thing. When you are no longer chasing technical advances – on whatever level – it becomes easier to step back and simply think about what you are photographing. Certainly I’ve seen a change in emphasis. I’m no longer that interested in producing ‘Wow’ pictures. Instead I’m looking for subtleties. As I indicated above, I’ve found myself photographing the same places and objects over and over again. At different times and in different light. This trend is likely to accelerate as I retire and can devote more hours to any particular scene.

The results may end up interesting only me. But that’s OK. What I do have now – and what I did not have three years ago – is a massively expanded battery of potential photographic treatments that extend far beyond any popular Photoshop effect. It’s a path I would recommend to any photographer looking to further his or her abilities and imagination.

Diffraction and the real world

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Columbine by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

Photography is full of myths and conventional wisdom. Astonishingly, they occupy the attention of far too many for far too long.

Not a new phenomenon by any means, reams and reams of verbiage were devoted to the intricacies of film photography, it, nonetheless, seems to have exploded in the age of digital cameras and the internet. Anyone with a computer and an image processing program can examine an image right down to the pixel level and share his or her opinions with the online community. Never has it been a better time for the technically obsessed.

One of the common pieces of accepted wisdom in this digital age is the destructive influence of diffraction on your photograph. As long as there have been lenses, the physics of very small apertures leading to highly diffracted and thus soft images has been understood. These days, the pixel density of sensors also plays into this softness; as pixel density increases and pixel area decreases, the ability of each pixel to differentiate – and thus resolve – the light from a lens falls relative to the diffraction level produced by the lens. Images from high density sensors will, given the same lens and f-stop position, be softer.

Thus has been born the diffraction limited aperture (DLA) specification that indicates the minimum aperture size that any given sensor can resolve – a typical set of values can be found in this review of the Canon 5D Mark IV.

Once upon a time I paid attention to this. I even convinced myself the images from my old Canon 40D were somehow softer at an equivalent f-stop setting than those from my older 30D with its larger pixel size.

That was nonsense as far as the real world is concerned.

The simple truth is that any softness in an image due to diffraction issues of either the lens or the sensor or both is insignificant compared to the softness brought about by lack of focus, camera shake, subject shake, other limitations in the lens and falling outside the depth of field.

And of all those factors, camera and subject shake are by far the most important. Focus too, although most modern autofocus systems work well provided the correct focal point is selected. Depth of field – well, that works in opposition to the effect of diffraction within a lens. A smaller f-stop (more diffraction) provides a deeper depth of field (more elements before and behind the point of focus that can resolve as being distinct and not blurred).

This was brought home to me today by the above image of a columbine plant. The aperture used on the Nikkor 55m macro lens is incredibly small for a 35mm camera lens – f/32. It was necessary to get the depth of field you see. But the diffraction involved is largely imperceptible. The image is sharp and crisp. I didn’t expect this – everything I understood about both the lens and high density sensor on the Nikon D750 camera convinced me that I should be getting an image that looked as if it had passed through a softening filter.

Once again I was reminded that the only true element in photography is the photograph you actually end up with. The more time spent experimenting the better. That is how you really learn.