Why digital photography is frustrating to me

I had gotten a new lens and was on vacation. That meant that photographs would be taken! It was a really overcast day and I was wandering around in front of mom’s house when I saw a bush. I liked what I saw so I snapped a picture.

"Straight" out of camera

Original image

Doesn’t look like much I know but what attracted me to it was the shapes, the contrast inside each leaf, and how visually dense the picture would end up being. If I would have shot this with film, it probably would have been on 4×5 TXP shot at an EI of 200, developed in D-76 1:1 at n+2, printed on my favorite cold tone paper (zone 6 Brilliant) with a highish filter, and then toned with selenium. For those of you not familiar with darkroom talk, all that essentially means I would have shot and processed it to add some contrast. The toning means that I would take the image from a straight B&W to having the image (as opposed to the paper) turn a very slight eggplant color. Anyway, it would have looked something like this:

Like it would be from the darkroom

Old school processing

Truth be told, this is how I “saw” the bush when I brought the camera up. In my mind, this is the essence of modernist “art” photography. The process is there to bring out what the photographer sees in their mind. It is a unique window into how the artist sees the world. With practice, the photographer “sees” the world through his materials and understands what it will look like at the end. For me, this was the appeal of photography. Being able to see things a certain way and bring them into the world was very satisfying.

OK, fine, you were comfortable with the darkroom materials Isaac but it’s a brave new world. And yes, I fully admit that I’m not nearly as comfortable with modern photography processes. Photoshop is a world that I don’t plan on getting into. I find it to be complete overkill for most photo uses and better suited to graphic artists. I stumbled across Topaz Labs and they make a series of tools that I find more approachable. Mind you, I am still a bit bewildered over the sheer number of options it presents but I at least feel comfortable noodling around with it.

One of the more basic tools in digital photography processing is layers. Essentially, you are able to have different versions of the picture and you can blend them to various degrees. I had an idea of how I could combine the first two versions and get a third that I think would look good. With a little practice I might be able to anticipate this and use it in my previsualization while shooting. Here’s how it turned out:

digital process woohoo!

2 layers combined

It’s a little subtle, but there is a bleached out green undertone to it. There are also some interesting contrast implications to when you combine a lower and higher contrast image like that as well.

So OK, mission accomplished, right? Well… Like I said, I’m still trying to get my head around what is possible with a digital workflow. The Topaz Labs programs (all 13 of them!) have a button that is labeled “I feel lucky.” It is a pot luck button, giving you a random batch of settings in their program. Either that or it gives you a random pick from their presets. Either way, it’s pretty random. I clicked it a few times in their B&W app and the third time I got this:

Random settings #1

Random settings #1

This is a pretty straight conversion to B&W but it has really reduced the detail seen in the smallest features while possibly increasing the contrast for the larger details. I think there are also some interesting things going on with the contrast of the middle tones. It is simultaneously flatter and more dynamic (IMO) which is something I didn’t think was possible. I saved these settings and may try to use these with future pictures.

OK, so that is broadening my possible tools in my tool kit. I find these things manageable and reasonable to remember. But what about color? I loaded up the original into the color program and hit the “I feel lucky” button. Whoa:

SAM_0056 (4)

 

OK, this is nuts, and beautiful. It’s darker, higher in contrast and was made two tone somehow. The highlights have gone a sepia color and really stand out from the background. I think there have been things done to the various levels of contrast in the micro and medium levels of detail. I could never have guessed this beforehand, there are just too many moving parts. I saved the settings but I have no idea how I’ll be able to imagine this beforehand. Just for kicks, I hit the lucky button again.

Wow, but really?

Wow, but really?

This is just getting silly now. I really like how this looks, it’s very graphic and it retains the density I was attracted to in the first place. It is also completely unrecognizable as the scene I first shot. Yes, I saved these settings as well.

So what’s the problem? Isn’t making cool and beautiful images the whole point? Isn’t it great that buttons can transform your picture so completely? Um, no and no thank you. Once again, the “point” of my serious photography wasn’t to make pretty images (though that happens sometimes) but to bring out the way I was seeing that that scene or maybe even to explore and try to make visual sense of what I was seeing. There was intention to my pictures. Any monkey can punch buttons until they get something they think is cool looking. What I find bewildering is the ability to totally transform your image in every way. Back in the darkroom days there were significant restrictions to what could be done. I’d argue that was good for photographers like myself but bad for graphic artists. Working with constraints of some sort made you channel how you see. Without the constraints, it is much more difficult to “see” what you’re working towards when you snap the shutter.

And yes, it is possible to constrain yourself in theory. I think I could even manage to do it in practice for B&W. And yes, some kinds of pictures like people pictures don’t lend themselves to crazy adjustments. I continue to find color landscape and general scene photography difficult to do with any sort of forethought and intention. I will also admit to being a little put out by a button completely changing my original picture and doing things that are simultaneously completely unlike what I was originally thinking and cool at the same time. As nice as I think those versions look, they aren’t my pictures. Yes, I pressed the shutter button but I had nothing to do with how it ended up looking. Pictures that are unintentionally may be fun to look at but they are unsatisfying to make.

Maybe I should start all over again. Shoot with B&W in mind only for a while and eventually move into color again. I dunno. I do feel as though I’m starting all over again. Maybe that’s what is really bothering me…

 

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Life as I see it #19 MTV and Vevo

Anyone else remember this?

mtv-spaceman

MTV blew me away when I first saw it in 1982. It blew me away again when I heard it attached to a stereo system. I wasn’t always able to watch it growing up because we went a long time without cable. I remember staying up late to watch Friday Night Videos on one of the major networks. Started watching it again in high school and tried to catch the show called 120 minutes for newer music. MTV eventually became less and less relevant and now doesn’t bother showing videos at all anymore. Youtube is the new MTV but I miss the ability to turn on a channel and have music videos just play. I stumbled across Vevo streaming on my mother’s Samsung Blue Ray player. Wow, it’s MTV all over again! One video after another. But get this, I can skip videos! It really made me nostalgic. Alas and alack, I do not have access to Vevo streaming on my Apple TV or my iPad. Sigh. Just as well, there’s no telling how much time I’d waste sitting in front of it.

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Moving today? Probably not…

Was originally scheduled to move today. Sure glad I postponed that. Also glad I’m not going to try tomorrow. Even if all the snow miraculously went away, it’s supposed to be in the single digits (Fahrenheit of course) tomorrow. No, I’ll wait it out. Hopefully by the end of the week the streets will be clear enough and the temperature will be bearable. Then it’ll be time to move…

 

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Life as I see it podcast #17. I’m moving… eventually

 

Yeah, I gotta move. Took longer than I thought it would to get the place, but I really like it. Took the first week off of work to get the move done. Hired movers, reserved the truck, etc. Mother nature has different plans though. Now I’m not sure when I’ll get this done. Grrr….

 

UPDATE 3/2/14 I have cancelled the move for this week. Will try to do it on my next day off, the 9th. As it turns out, there is some ongoing weirdness and late fees due to the previous occupants. I’m not on the lease yet so it isn’t my problem. Hoping to sign the lease on the 5th and move in that weekend. Sucks that I’ve taken vacation time to sit around but I’d probably not be able to go to work in any case.


Yeah, I’m straight out of Compton

I haven’t been keeping track of the late night talk shows and I certainly haven’t kept up with The Tonight Show since Leno came back. I heard he left and that Jimmy Fallon took over. My problem is that I kept confusing Jimmy Fallon with Jimmy Kimmel. Hopefully I’ll be forgiven for not wanting to watch a talk show with Kimmel hosting… Turns out Fallon is  likable guy and seems to be funny enough to hold down the spot. The only reason I’ve seen any of the show is because of the popularity of the history of rap segments he’s been doing with Justin Timberlake. Haven’t seen those? Here’s the 5th installment:

 

 

I’ll start with the negatives. OK, yeah, it’s two white guys going over the history of a musical genre that was not only predominately written and performed by black folks but often spoke of a uniquely black experience. On top of that, outside of the band I don’t know if there were any black people in the building at all. If you wanted to be uncharitable you’d say that it’s another example of rich white people riding not only the efforts but the actual culture of black America for their own ends.

There was a little bit of that for me in this performance but I’m willing to forgive them mostly on the basis that they clearly love the music. They weren’t making fun of it, they were attempting as genuine a performance as possible, down to the dance moves and vocal mannerisms of the original acts. They were clearly having fun. Most of the songs they picked in this episode were top 40 hits. The exception is when they did a trio of “Gangster Rap” songs culminating in an aborted start of Straight Out of Compton. If you don’t watch any other part of that video, make sure to watch the few seconds starting at 1:50. 

That was gold. It’s a bit that everyone can laugh at. The idea that Jimmy Fallon could even attempt that song without descending into parody and/or become a laughingstock is just silly. As it was, he was able to pull it off for 4 seconds with only Timberlake seemingly pulling him back from the brink. Fallon went all in and took it as far as someone like him could. Timberlake making fun of him was the logical denouement. 

I think the reason that bit resonates with me so much is also the reason I think they “got away” with doing this. For those of you not familiar with Straight out of Compton, allow me to introduce you. To complete Fallon’s start…

”Straight out of Compton crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube

From the gang called Niggaz With Attitudes

When I’m called off I got a sawed off

Squeeze the trigger and bodies are hauled off…”

 

It is, in a word, horrifying. If taken literally, it consists of mass murderers bragging about their body count and especially taking glee in gunning down cops. Oh, it has some truly grotesque misogyny thrown in for good measure too. So why is it popular? Are the people that like it just cretins? I’m sure some of them are. I can tell you that from the perspective of a well off, white (late)teenager, it was exhilarating. A pure dose of testosterone wrapped up in a fantasy of anger unleashed. Straight out of Compton was probably the height of bragging rap. It was understood to be hyperbole. Well, it was understood to be hyperbole to its targeted audience. To everyone else it was self described “Niggas” talking about killing people and they were from Compton after all. No wonder they scared white people everywhere! It was attractive to me because, as a frustrated male coursing with hormones, violent thoughts weren’t all that uncommon even if, and maybe because, I never gave in to them. Why was I frustrated? I dunno, aren’t all teenagers? As attractive as this was to me, I can’t begin to imagine what the effect could have been on people actually living in Compton. You know, people that had real frustrations in life, the kind that lead to making that kind of music…

For 4 seconds, Jimmy Fallon channeled that teenager, giving in totally to the rush. And while playing the cassette in your car as a teenager gave you the freedom to feel totally bad ass, a white guy on national TV has no justification. Having Timberlake bring Fallon back to reality was a gentle rebuke to all of us. It is this awareness that kept the entire exercise from veering into the stupid. Acknowledging that there  are limits and using them instead of the off limits material is a sign of a mature performer.

For those of you that want “to witness the strength of street knowledge,” I give you NWA. If you haven’t heard it before, it is definitely NSFW. Those of you that have heard it before I’ll leave it to you to decide how gangsta you want to be at work…

 

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Life as I see it episode #15. Sometimes the theory doesn’t work

 

Why in the world did systems with single ended tube amps sound good? By all rights they should sound terrible. Anything with that much distortion should only have made things sound worse. And yet, opinions are sharply divided. Why? Turns out there is a reasonable, if complicated possible explanation. This is a geeky story but I think it has some potential lessons outside the audio world… I actually recorded this a week ago but am just now publishing it. Gotta stay up to date!

 

 

Here’s the article on how second harmonic distortion could potentially be beneficial.

 

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Life as I see it podcast #14 Thinking of my grandmother

 

Random, silly things make me think of my maternal grandmother:) Tetris, gooey things, and upholstery…

 

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Life as I see it podcast #13 I got new speakers!

 

Yes, I got a new system. This time the system is mostly just the speakers. I have ditched my vacuum tubes (gasp) and ton to an active speaker system. A regular system gets a small signal from a source (CD player, computer, etc.), goes to an amplifier, gets sent to the speaker where it is split between the woofer and tweeter and then you hear sound. That is how 99% of all systems work. An active system does it slightly differently. You still get a small signal from a source but you send that to the seekers directly. It is then split into the different frequency ranges. Each driver in the speaker has its own amplifier, amplifying only the frequencies that are given to it. This has a lot of technical advantages, most of them revolving around the ability to have a sharper distinction of the frequencies going to each driver (steeper slope in the crossover) and much better control over the drivers (the amplifiers are directly coupled to the voice coil). The result is a much more dynamic, clearer, and more accurate speaker. Plus, this particular speaker uses Digital Signal Processing (DSP) to correct for some of the inevitable issues and compromises that are involved with every speaker design. I’ve gone from WWII vintage technology to 21st century!

 

I got a pair of Equator Audio D8 speakers.

D8

It’s a coaxial speaker, much like my long time favorites KEF. It shares the open, wide soundstage and wonderful tonality. It adds fantastic clarity and dynamics. I think this has been a great upgrade. Anyone looking for some kick ass single ended tube amps?

 

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Life as I see it podcast #12 Bitcoin part 3

 

This is the third installment of podcasts about bitcoin. It’s the last one I have planned but I reserve the option to make more if things get interesting. The Bitcoin protocol is actually pretty flexible. If it proves to not be flexible enough it is easy to fork the code base and make your own Bitcoin based system. Here are some of the articles and stories I referenced in the podcast.

 

Twister is a peer to peer, decentralized social network based on the Bitcoin protocol. Still in alpha, download it at your own risk!

Danny Bradbury writes about Colored coins. Colored coins pain sophisticated future for bitcoin. 

Bitcoin: How its core technology will change the world by Jacob Aron. 

A video introduction to Ethereum. Also a good, quick inter to the uses of the Bitcoin protocol. That page also has lots of info graphics and explanations, recommended.

Bitcoin is not just digital currency. It’s Napster for finance by David Morris for can.com. Not a fan of the comparison to Napster but a good article.

 

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Life as I see it podcast episode #11 Bitcoin pt.2

 

This is my second podcast about Bitcoin. In it, I mention some links where you can read about some of the potential problems with bitcoins and then talk at length about some of the other potential uses of the protocol. Notice how I keep using the word potential? The links for the pitfalls are rather technical from an economics point of view, I don’t think there is any real discussion of the cryptology or network configuration. Ran across a great article in the NYT. Do read it, I found a lot to be interested in it.

 

How and Why Bitcoin will Plummet in Price by Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution

The Marginal Cost of Cryptcurrency by Robert Sams at cryptonomics.org

A list of 83 different cryptocurrencies

Why Bitcoin Matters from the New York Times by Marc Andressen

 

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