Arranging the deck chairs…


Before you read any further check out this article on the LYTRO. This is a camera isn’t just “pie in the sky” it has indeed been released and reviewed by a reputable photographic reviewer. What this does is reinforce for me the fact that the world is once again shifting under my feet.

I’ve been away from photography for quite a long while. I never stopped using cameras just never bought another expensive one after moving to our second home. And frankly that has been a blessing, not a sad fact. It turns out that the time away from the photographic world has meant being able to revel in the ease of image making that Point-and-Shoot cameras afford everyone. But until recently I never considered the sort of post processing that was common some30 years ago when I set aside my view camera and Leica M4-P for the emerging digital camera that Apple was having made by Canon.

My focus in those early days of digital photography was on its use in providing cheap and fast images for use in desktop publishing. I was able to hold my nose and deal with the grainy black and white images which tried to fake grey-scale tones by spreading back pixels among the white ones to fool the eye. It worked pretty well. The first PostScript printers from Apple were quite a revelation. In conjunction with PageMaker you could produce a newsletter with graphics in record time and it all slid out of the paper tray piping hot.

Over time I settled on Nikon Coolpix cameras as the means of documenting bicycle rides that we were doing. It was a very nice thing to be able to ride in virtually any kind of weather and then take a photograph of the club members enjoying a mid-ride repast or smiling at the end of a long ride having ridden a personal best that day. Photography became synonymous (for me at least) with a very utilitarian purpose, that of documenting my life.

The early black and white image editors were eventually replaced with Photoshop. And of course before long the dot matrix and digital printers using toner were replaced by ink jet printers whose ability to produce color images got better and better. In fact today with an Epson ink jet printer you can indeed produce archival quality images that rival just about anything produced 30 years ago and are likely to outlast dye-based prints by a good deal longer than anyone had ever imagined. And all of this was being done without the need to ever enter a darkroom to mix chemicals and stand for hours in the dark to make that beautiful image you hoped to hang on your walls.

Today’s Whiners

So this past year I decided to purchase a new Nikon Coolpix camera. Each year or so these little wonders kept getting better and more features added and I have always tried to keep them relatively updated. The ones I chose to use cost $300 of so and were not a big burden to replace every couple of years. But this year something different caught my eye.

Nikon was releasing a new camera which was like their point and shoot models but had interchangeable lenses. But the cost was a more serious $1,000 for the high-end version and that was a bit of a stretch. But I am glad I made the leap. For one thing I started to get image quality that was not unlike what I had attained with my Leica M4-P. And what is more the camera was quite small and focused quickly in daylight.

By now the iPhoto application I used was doing a great job of managing the growing number of images I had accumulated and I decided to augment its use with another product called Aperture which was designed to allow me to do a considerable amount of post processing on the images to “clean them up”. That along with the paper prints I was able to make for family and friends really came as quite a surprise. I remember sitting in stunned silence when I realized that you could do everything inside your laptop that you once thought only possible in a darkroom. You no longer had to go out and purchase film and paper in yearly quantities and mix chemicals that eventually got washed down the drain of your darkroom sink to end up heaven knows where.

I was elated! And then I came across a forum called DPReview in which I found I could learn a great deal about this new camera I had purchased. At first I was excited to be “getting back into the game”. I had a better camera than I had used in years and despite the fact that it was not as expensive as some of the Nikon DSLRs it was as good as anything I had ever used in the 35mm format and that was good enough. But inside the forum there was a fair amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth that really puzzled me. It seemed that there were some folks who were simply unimpressed with this little marvel called the Nikon 1.

In every day conversations it became clear that the camera was being judged against its full-sized sensor cousins and for them it was an abject failure. At them time I remember thinking to myself, “Why would anyone complain about image quality in the 35mm world?” If you really wanted good image quality you needed to at least avail yourself of a medium format camera system like the Hasselblad. And indeed having been a Hasselblad owner in the past and visiting the website of the current crop of digital cameras from this manufacturer I was in no way disabused of the notion that 35mm format digital cameras are simply not in the same league as those in the medium format. The eye doesn’t lie. The differences are simply astounding.

I could only wonder aloud what it would be like to be able to afford such a camera. The body alone of these beasts costs nearly $30,000 and if you go for the fancier versions of these cameras you really need to be earning your living with them to justify the costs. The lenses for these cameras are as expensive as the bodies on the highest end Nikon DSLRs. But for a working professional this would be a price worth paying.

Before long I decided that either these Nikon 1 whiners were unaware of how good they had it compared to the days of film photography or were simply trying to impress one another with photographic equivalent of how quickly they could send back their meal orders in the photographic equivalent of a fine dining establishment. But conversations with these folks left you aware of the fact that they had no idea of the history of photography or much less the chops to produce images that they could not rely on the camera to produce with an assortment of buttons, dials and electronic features that would frankly get in my way when trying to focus on capturing images in real time.

I took to describing this crowd as the photographically insane. They were the equivalent of soldiers who constantly complained about how hard life was in the proverbial fox hole while eating a meal they carried which did not require heating or refrigeration and included all sorts of delicacies that guys in the trenches in WWII would have given a eyetooth to enjoy. In fact today’s soldiers carry field wound dressings that are probably better than those applied to the raw bodies of soldiers in WWII by doctors back at the field hospitals.

This is not to minimize the suffering of soldiers but simply to acknowledge that even battle has become “high tech”. We can now direct hell fire at the enemy using drones which are flown by folks buried under a mountain a few thousand miles away from their targets and with deadly accuracy. The night goggles of today’s soldiers are lightyears ahead of those used in even the Vietnam War. And the weaponry and its ammunition have improved immeasurably.

What is different about soldiers and amateur photographers is probably that a soldier has to use what he has in the field. He cannot sit and cry in his fox hole about the fact that his weapon really ought to have a new firmware release. His sergeant will probably give him the stink eye and explain that until such time as the weaponry is upgraded he will have to make-do with what he has and thank his lucky stars that he has far better battle gear than his adversaries.

Amateur photographers have the unwarranted luxury of whining. I would not be surprised that somewhere in the U.S. Constitution there is a paragraph or two that along with the right to bear arms comes the right of every American to whine his or her fanny clean off about the abject conditions they have to live through. Who in their right minds would not be upset that despite having indoor plumbing in just about every nook and cranny of this great nation that we still have toilet paper that clings to our swollen asses. And when will we be rewarded with high speed internet connections at a cost that keeps us happy while surfing the web on computer driven devices that have more power speed and intelligence than anything on the market in 1970?

I simply weep at the sorry state of photography when a camera like the Nikon 1 emerges with a sensor too small to satisfy the wailing members of this forum. Just think of the tragedy of not having a live histogram on the back of your camera when you have it pressed to your face trying to capture a picture of a running dog or your child taking their first steps. And imagine the agony of using a camera which will adjust its sensitivity to light when indoors to mimic the film equivalent of ISO 3200 without ever having to even touch a dial and if needed set off a flash to produce fill light when the subjects face is in shadow. It is simply unconscionable that we cannot have more buttons crammed into a already tight space on the back of this camera simply because that is what we are used to on the behemoth D3S we have in our bags at home.

Sorry for the ironic tone. I simply wonder though if there is not a greater need for scorn that I have shown. We are a nation of “soft people” who do not deserve the sacrifices of our soldiers or the wonderful cameras that we can now purchase. Heck my iPhone can take better pictures than the early digital cameras I owned and with one hand tied behind its back.

Looking Forward, Ranting Sorta Off

What I have discovered is that 35mm camera users love something called “bokeh”. I kept wondering why I had never heard of this in years past. Then I learned that we used to call that fuzzy out of focus area in images “circles of confusion” because only a 35mm user would have to suffer them in order to get his handheld shot in low light conditions with Tri-X pushed to ISO 800. View camera users were proud of the fact that f/64 was their aperture opening of choice. You learned to swing the camera back or tilted the lens board to keep the focal plane of your image as deep as possible.

It was with the advent of the 35mm that relatively long lenses whose depths of field were relatively shallow could be carted around with relative ease. View camera users simply did not use such long lenses. And even the medium format users of the Hasselblad would need a pack mule to carry the 800mm equivalent of a 35mm camera.

But as with most things what had been a “flaw” in the 35mm lenses has been turned into a “fetish” of sorts. And once again the 35mm crowd has honed in on the fact that the Nikon 1 lenses currently on the market do not have enough of this highly prized commodity. It is like having grown up in the South in the black section of town where food was scarce and the only part of the chicken that you could get in plentiful supply were the wings, since the wealthier white folks only like the breasts and possibly the thighs to return from a coma to find that things were all twisted.

Today we have entire food chains that serve chicken wings. And people seemingly cannot get enough of them? There are a whole rafter of contradictions like this going on today. A hundred years ago while folks in the deep south prided themselves on how pale they could look. After all only poor whites would ever work in cotton fields alongside blacks and quickest way to spot “white trash” was to see if they were tanned. Fast forward to today and if you are pale and pasty looking you can rid yourself of this “flaw” with a cream in a pressurized can or better yet subject yourself to high doses of radiation in a box indoors even during winter. Lordy, lordy.

Shallow depth of field can now be dialed in after you have made the image. I asked you to read the article about the Lytro. Why? Because it signals the death of yet another aspect of photography that has plagued us from time immemorial. We already can alter the images we make to correct for a titled horizon, barrel distortion, vertical and horizontal positioning. With the advent of High Dynamic Range (HDR) image making techniques you can expand the contrast range of images to something that exceed that even possible by the human eye.

And now we are going to be able to focus where we want after the image is made. What do you want to bet that there will be future forum discussions in which even that wonderful feature will be found intolerable by yet to be born amateur shutterbugs who by then will no longer know the agonies of incorrect exposures or incorrect colors or less than perfect white balance corrections?

Photoshop to the Rescue

Standard Focus

I cannot wait for a Lytro to fix the problem on my Nikon 1. So I will adjust while I wait for the proverbial new lens or firmware update. It turns out that you have been able to dial in the amount of blur you want (and for that matter to create the kind and amount of “bokeh” you desire) from within the electronic walls of Photoshop.

I’ve owned this program since its inception. But frankly I used it far less often than I would like to admit. Of late I starting experimenting with various special effects. But it turns out that you can also add standard camera artifacts with very little effort.

In short the whining about “bokeh” or the lack of it is going the way of spats. You will be able to produce just about any visual effect you could want after you have captured the image. And even Photoshop is not exempt from all this progress.

The Art Institute of Chicago has two very famous statues of lions that grace its main entrance. I made an image not long ago of the one on the southern end of the entranceway. I was using a 10mm lens on the Nikon 1 which is the equivalent of a 27mm lens on a standard sized sensor DSLR. It is relatively wide and certainly useful indoors and in urban situations where capturing a wider field of view is desirable.

Manufactured Blur

The image you see now was given additional processing (after an initial round in Adobe Lightroom) to add in what Adobe calls “Lens Blur”. This is to distinguish it from the less realistic looking “Gaussian Blur”. And you can dial in the amount of blur you desire.

What I did not do was add artificial “circles of confusion”. I was happy with the results you see and am looking forward to the day when even the focusing of images will be something I can “fix” after the fact.

Until then I am warming up my fingers in order to join in the photographic insanity that passes for on-line conversation between middle-aged men who have brought whining to levels that make it an art form. Note I said whining and not bitching. We males make a clear and necessary distinction between ourselves and the distaff side. They bitch, we discuss or argue. They complain about broken fingernails we whine about a lack of bokeh or the size of our sensors. I suppose this is understandable since it would really seem weird if we were to be complaining about the size of our genitalia, right? After all we are much more lofty in our concerns than those on the distaff side, right?