Friday, January 4, 2013

An interview with W.Eugene Smith

W. Eugene Smith is one of the most highly regarded photojournalists of all time. Here's a transcript of an interview with him conducted in New York during an American Society of Media Photographers meeting in 1956. During the short interview, Smith's answers were sharp and straight-forward, giving readers interesting insight on his thoughts about photography...

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Phone Camera Photography



In the documentary “Annie Leibovitz: Life through a lens”, there was a quote "really good photographers never stop taking pictures". Since it's unlikely we carry a dedicated camera everywhere we go, our phone cameras become our constant companion – ready to capture any photo opportunity we encounter on any day.

Phone cameras have improved in leaps and bounds in the past decade, with improving resolution and better screens developed for the humble phone camera. Although it may pack only a miniscule sensor size that is dwarfed by even a digital compact camera, the phone camera still has several advantages over any other digital cameras.
          - Apps for “creative imaging” (eg. Instagram) 
          - Instant image sharing via social networks (eg. Facebook)
          - It is always with you

There are a couple of disadvantages for phone cameras when it comes to capturing great images:
          - Tiny sensor (higher image noise and narrower exposure latitude) 
          - Less than optimal control (over exposure and depth of field)
          - Wide-angle lens only (for typical phone cameras)

But despite these drawbacks, there are many times when the only camera we have with us is the one built into our phones. And since "really good photographers never stop taking pictures", it will be great if one can recognize and overcome the limitations of a phone camera to take acceptable (if not wonderful) images with your phone!

Recognize that the focal length of your phone camera is fixed, and you can train your eye to look out for images that suit the nature of the phone camera’s lens. Once you can start visualizing how a phone camera will render a scene, it becomes easier to spot scenes that work well with your camera.

There are third-party apps out there that allow more control over your exposure, focusing or “shutter lag”, and they are probably worth the small investment if you are serious about your phone photography. On the other hand, apps such as Instagram will instantly give your images a visual makeover via special effects, such as color shift, increase in grain or focal plane shift effects. They are a great way to instill instant pizazz into your images, but critics feel that too many shutterbugs depend on such apps as a clutch to turn an otherwise mundane image into something snazzy, eroding the incentive to create images that stand on its own. That is to say – will your images still be interesting without the visual clutch that such apps bestow upon them? 

Personally I think that there’s a time and place for everything. Apps such as Instagram let viewers see the world through rose-colored glasses – making it look more glamorous and interesting. As a photographer though, it is up to you to maintain enough self-discipline to ensure that your image can stand up on its own merit. You can make the same argument about Photoshop and its myriad plug-ins, so there is really nothing to stop you from being lazy and depending on such software enhancements, or going out on a limb to capture the best images possible on your camera phone. 

Here are three simple tips to help you get better images from your phone camera:

          - Get in close (wide-angle lens make your subject look small)
          - Control focus point and exposure by selecting subjects on screen
          - Avoid contrasty scenes (details in deep shadows and bright lights are lost)

Don’t let the limitations of a phone camera stop you from whipping it out at every opportune moment and capturing great images. Experiment with your phone camera often and learn how you can overcome its weaknesses and limitations, and you will discover why "really good photographers never stop taking pictures"!

* All the photos in this article were captured on iPhone 4 by the author. 
* All images and text are copyright property of Nelson Tan

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Why I (still) love shooting film


 In the beginning, there was only film. And it was good.

And on the second day (actually the year 2000), digital cameras started appearing in the consumer market and film was virtually left for dead in less than a decade, a stunning turn of events considering that film was the dominant photography media for eighty years.

Today, the dwindling demand for film has killed off many emulsions, leaving the selection of film stock limited and ever shrinking. However, there is a small renaissance of film by photography enthusiasts who appreciate the experience of shooting with film.

Digital offers a lot of advantages for the photographer, and like most I do shoot digital on many occasions and assignments. However in my spare time and capacity, I enjoy shooting film for my own pleasure, and here are some reasons why film continue to appeal to me…

Feelings of permanence
In that fraction of a second when an image is exposed on film, I know that the moment is captured eternally on emulsion, forever etched in silver. When the image is immutable and unchangeable, encased in a strip of celluloid, it gives me the feeling of permanence and importance accorded to a single unchanging moment.

Feeling of being there
I came across an article that resonated with my experience with film. The author came across some old film taken by his dad during the Vietnam War. The awareness that the piece of film in his hand actually came from the battlefield and passed through his dad’s hand as he loaded it into his camera connected him to his dad and the war. Likewise, holding the film I shot when I was much younger brings back much nostalgia.

Deliberate consideration during shooting
Each 35mm roll holds a maximum of 36 images, with medium format yielding much less. The realization of limited opportunities, coupled with the rising prices of film, makes one more conscious and selective about composition, lighting and subjects before the finger hits the shutter button.

Instills discipline to get it right
Of course one can digitize film images through scanning and edit the images digitally, but the tonal range is much more restricted by the scanner quality compared to shooting digitally out right. That makes digital editing more tedious, and instills a little more discipline in getting it right during exposure. It’s not such a RAW deal after all (pun intended).

Second-guessing is not an option
Incessantly reviewing digital images after every shot is so common that there is a name for such behavior. “Chimping” is named after the “ooh” and “aah” sounds that photographers make when reviewing their images, remarkably similar to the calls of excited chimpanzees. Film photographers are forced by the lack of instant review to be surer of their techniques over time, forces you to be better technically after every roll. To be fair, they “chimp” when they get their film or photos back from the lab.

Delayed gratification
Many film photographers accumulate a few rolls of film before heading to the lab, which means we usually do not get to see them till a week or a month later. According to famed street photographer Gary Winogrand (who had 9000 rolls of unseen images when he passed away), waiting to see your images makes one more objective when you do go around editing them, and I kind of agree with him.

Zen clarity of a blank slate
This is a difficult point to discuss with photographers who have never shot film. When you load in a fresh roll of film into a camera, there is a certain focus and “quietness of the mind”, like a fresh canvas placed in front of an artist. Some might rubbish such a notion, but like I said – you got to try it to feel it.

The dark art of film
It is possible to process film and print photos by oneself, and with monochrome it is actually pretty simple for the basics. Some do not like the smell and duration in a darkroom, but the moment of seeing your images appear in front of your eyes is magical. Digital retouching might be more powerful and consistent, but the satisfaction of creating a great image in the darkroom is immense and beyond words.

Mechanical cameras
A big reason why I love film photography is because I get to use mechanical cameras and manual lenses. You know, the solid chunks of metal that operates with buttery precision, offering tactile feedback that makes film photography all the more enjoyable. Philosophers had always said that life is about the journey and not the destination. It is equally true for photographers then – enjoy the experience and not just the final image.

At the end of the day…
I love digital photography, and I am relatively competent in digital editing. But at the end of the day, photography should remain a passion for me, and that is stroked by the archaic art of film, mechanical camera and wet processing. Not everyone who tries film photography will love it, but not giving yourself the opportunity to try it is to deny yourself the chance to the poetic and beautiful craft of silver halide imaging that generations of photographers had experienced and loved.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Here’s to the crazy ones…


Every other quarter, we hold our breath in anticipation of the next hot new model from market leaders such as Nikon and Canon. More megapixel, more focusing points, more noise reduction – in other words, more of the same thing. DSLRs have gotten higher in resolution and faster in focusing through the years, with better high-ISO noise control to match, but they are essentially reinventing the wheel over and over again. Just like how cars are getting better and better with every generation, with more powerful engines and more efficient fuel management, stiffer chassis and more electronic driving aids.

That’s a good thing, but it’s still a car with four wheels. In truth, reading every press release for a new DSLR is beginning to feel like Groundhog Day.

But isn’t every brand doing the same thing? Improving on the same tried and tested formula with every generation? It’s easy to be blinded by the bells and whistles of the brands with the most powerful marketing budgets, and we tune out the other brands along the sideline that have been innovating in their own ways. And for the past three decades, nobody in my opinion has been more active in pushing the envelope of innovation than Fujifilm. 

© Copyright of D.C Watch
If you had only taken up photography in the past five years, you’d probably only remember Fujifilm for the X100 compact camera and X-Pro 1 interchangeable lens compact camera. These are but the latest examples of the innovative and entrepreneurial mindset of the leadership at Fujifilm. The company has been instrumental in keeping the passion alive for niche photography and introducing very interesting products for photographers where photography means something more than just DSLRs and M4/3 cameras…

In a world dominated by digital cameras, in particular digital SLRs and fixed lens small sensors compacts, Fujifilm had been remarkably successful in addressing the niche market and turning in commercial successes even in the face of evident failures. How was it that Fujifilm could transform and adapt itself to a digital world when Kodak floundered and failed? How was it possible that a company could continue to introduce new film-based cameras (some of which are medium format) when they were considered as dead as dodos? Why is Fuji doing so well in instant film photography when Polaroid had bitten the dust long ago?

The answer perhaps lies in the words of the late Steve Jobs - thinking differently.

The game-changing Fuji X100

Unlike many of the camera companies, Fujifilm was never really big in the marketing department. Most of their energy seemed to be focused in understanding the photographers’ mindset and in research and development. Kodak lost a big lawsuit against Polaroid in instant film technology, and they were unable to leverage on their film R&D to expand their portfolio. In contrast, Fujifilm had a trade-agreement in exchanging Polaroid’s instant film technology with Fuji’s magnetic media technology (they made floppy disks), and Fuji managed to use their knowledge of collagen found in their film making R&D to successfully spin off collagen-based anti-aging cosmetic line called Astalift!

Let’s look at some of the key innovative products introduced by Fujifilm in the last three decades:

Fuji medium format rangefinders (1967 onwards)
Back in the 40s to the 70s, many manufacturers offered medium format rangefinders, but they died out with the popularity of SLR cameras.  Not only did Fuji obstinately continue manufacturing medium format rangefinders, they offered an amazingly complete range of sizes, from 6x4.5 to 6x9 formats! They were not the last word in build quality, but they delivered spades of optical quality and are still sought after by film photographers today

Fuji GX680 (1989)
Most people would wince at the size of a Mamiya RZ67, until they witness the existence of a hulking medium format camera called the Fuji GX680. The Fuji weighs 4.5kg even with the lightest lens, making the RZ with lens look like a featherweight at 2.4kg. The monster medium format is amazing versatile, being able to shoot in 6x8, 6x7, 6x6, or 645 formats. Its claim to fame must be the Fuji GX680’s ability to handle tilt, rise/fall, swing and shift from the front standard!

Fuji Velvia 50 (1990)
When you needed punchy colours and high resolution, there is only one name in the game – Kodachrome. But the venerable Kodak film had to be specially processed, which leads to long turn-around time. Along came Fuji Velvia in 1990, and that completely changed the game. Using the standard E6 slide processing, you could get amazing Technicolor and astounding grain/details like never before. Photographers, especially landscape shooters, migrated in hordes to the new King of Saturation & Details. 

Fuji TX/XPAN (1998)
Many manufacturers have difficulty maintaining image quality at the edge of a 35mm image circle, so it was a shock when Fuji announced the Fuji TX panoramic camera which covered an image circle double that of a 35mm frame! The same camera was marketed outside Japan as the Hasselblad XPAN, and received critical acclaim for its incredible optical performance, and its audacious attempt to create a 35mm panoramic camera in rangefinder format. No other competitors today have even matched this feat.

Fuji SuperCCD sensor (since 2000)
Along with Fovean, Fuji looked at sensor design differently from other manufacturers. Instead of using the Bayer pattern traditionally, Fuji engineers angled the Bayer pattern at 45 degrees to increase the horizontal and vertical resolution up to 1.4x with the SuperCCD design. Although this “increase” in resolution is debatable and the success of the SuperCCD sensor has not been spectacular, the courage of Fuji to swim against the current in offering new and proprietary CCD technology can possibly swing sensor development in a new direction in the future.

Medium format film camera in 2009? That's insanity!

Fuji GF670 (2008)
When Canon and Nikon were busy launching their EOS 50D and D300 in 2008, Fuji executives were rolling out a medium format folding rangefinder. In the face of plunging film sales, this seemingly insane exploit was the result of collaboration with niche manufacturer Cosina/Voigtländer, who shares the same zest as Fuji in introducing amazing film-based products. The good sales results and positive reaction of photographers gave the pair enough courage to introduce a wide-angle version in another act of madness in 2010 – the Fuji GF670W.

Fuji FinePix X100 (2010)
Both Sigma and Leica had attempted incorporating APS-C sized sensors in a compact camera, but the cameras were not well received due to high prices, buggy interface, poor handling and various issues. Fuji stunned the market with the FinePix X100 – a premium APS-C sensor compact with retro-styling and traditional dials for aperture and shutter speed controls. The X100’s party trick is its unique hybrid viewfinder that combines a conventional optical viewfinder with a high-resolution electronic viewfinder, and even offering advanced digital overlay over its optical viewfinder, making the X100 a truly innovative and groundbreaking camera.

Fuji X-Pro 1 (2012)
Emboldened by the success of the Fuji X100, Fuji launched an interchangeable lens digital compact system based on the X100. An all-new camera system with a brand new mount and lenses, the Fuji X-Pro1 replicates the winning formula of analogue control dials and retro styling. The X-Pro 1 is launched with a set of 3 autofocus prime lenses offering 28mm, 50mm and 90mm equivalents, with Fuji promising more lenses along the way. It retains the innovative optical/electronic 'hybrid' viewfinder from the X100, and along with its APS-C sized sensor, makes the X-Pro 1 a very compelling argument against other M4/3 cameras and even Leica’s digital M system.

I’d say it’s time to give a Lifetime Achievement Award for Fujifilm.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Keep shooting...

There are few ways to improve your photography than to keep shooting. Need evidence? Just look at the cameras belonging to legendary photographers Jim Marshall and Elliot Erwitt. Worn down to the brass, it shows just how much great photographers shoot to achieve their craft. It was almost as if the cameras never left their hands for a single moment...

 Jim Marshall's Leica M4

Elliot Erwitt's Leica M3

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Making of a leather half-case

A fair amount of handwork goes into making a leather half-case for your camera. Makes you appreciate good craftsmanship!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Classic film cameras collection


Photography has evolved so much through the decades, making tremendous strides in the digital era. In the medium-format era of the 1930s-1940s, photographers were often seen wielding their "compact" medium format cameras such as the Rolleiflex or Hasselblad, compact compared to the gigantic Graflex cameras they used to carry! Along came the Leica M3 which introduced a brand new 35mm film format, and radically changing what a portable camera system meant. 

The 35mm film format was popular for more than 60 years, from the 1940s to the turn of the century. It witnessed the rise and fall of rangefinder cameras, to the dominance of the single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras. Legends such as the Nikon F series and Canon F-1 came into the scene and defined professional photography, although some marques like Olympus and Pentax did create some unique alternatives such as the Olympus OM4 and Pentax LX) to the huge and cumbersome professional SLRs. Around the year 2000, digital SLRs became more affordable and film never regained its former glory, although die-hard enthusiasts maintained that film delivers a special kind of magic that digital can never replicate!

This photo shows some of the film (and usually mechanical) cameras that I've collected over the years. I love the iconic camera designs and build quality - they just don't make things like these anymore!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

My favourite quote on originality

Nothing is original.

Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows.

Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery - celebrate it if you feel like it.

In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to."

Jim Armusch
American independent film director, screenwriter, actor, producer, editor and composer