THE ENVIRONMENTAL PORTRAIT IN A WORLD OF ‘SELFIES’…

Jessica on a red sofa and the Castle family, 2 environmental portraits by John Robinson.

The environmental portrait is a telling photograph of a person or group of people, it gives the viewer insight into an aspect of these people’s lives. In a FaceBook world of hyper happy selfies the environmental can introduce into the conversation a sense of calm and connection between the Subject and the viewer.

The environmental portrait has always been my first love in photography; and I offer environmental portraits in the Durban area done on A3 cotton rag art paper of yourself and or group for ZAR 1000.00 per print.

 

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SHOOTING IN A QUIET PLACE

The relationship between people and their God is a soulful place, belief is such a strong force; and there is very little that can break that system. I know this from my own relationship with God or Abba Father. I commune and walk in this space too.

To take out a camera in a place of worship is not something I can do lightly, I have to be trusted and walk through these flowers with out a hint of damage, each picture will be seen by those in that place and as a fellow worshipper I am not an outsider that can get away and never come back after the stems are broken and petals crushed.

The moments taken are considered first before committed to a place in the public space. I also know of no better tool then a 35mm film based rangefinder camera for this work, there is no hurry in this way of work; and thus plenty of time for the considering of the fall out from my actions on the day…

Shooting For Myself…

Jessica and Mark Byerley in Jessica Byerley's home at 43 Cromwell Road, Glenwood, durban.

Jessica on a red sofa. Photo John Robinson

“There is nothing new in this world” – Ecclesiastes, the preacher, son of David, King in Jerusalem.

When I first got a camera in my hands it was personal; at this point in my life I work well with leather and have started again to make a financial way for myself. Photography has always been a personal thing, now as ever it has always been…

Max and Jason gave me a day job as a leather smith, it’s been a game changer for me I am good at this leather thing and I can get much better too. I feel that where there is leather there is a way forward for me also. I say the following to Max and Jason, “we have a long way together still”.

I have written about perception in the past and it’s personal, now with leather in my picture I am freed to shoot personal, for myself and the best is still to come on all fronts…

 

 

 

 

Shooting for Real Raw Files

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Ken Rockwell writes about real raw photographic files, I have read his thoughts and I have also referenced him in my dissertation The Full Frame DSLR Camera vs The Analogue 35 mm Rangefinder Camera; but here I want to write about capturing real moments photographically and the .ding open source .raw files that I use in my photographic system…

I came to photography in about 1992, I was attracted to the idea that I could just document what people were doing around me in Johannesburg, South Africa as I was perceiving it. I was not and am still not attracted to trick photography, I use photo editing programs for inserting metadata and adjusting the colour, light and shadow of the digital file to as I saw the moment on the day I took the shot; and I do it in .dng files too. It’s very important that photography is about recording and reading real moments that really happened, and not about producing images of over adjusted colours and changing the construction of the original photograph.

The core value of photography depends on the perceived realness of the photograph…

In those days we were all using photographic film for our images, black & white film for social documentary, colour print for press work and colour transparency for most magazines. Digital photography was still in it’s infancy, we did know of the ethical monster that we were birthing at the time. Digital photography has now become to be as much about what can be done to the image after leaving the camera as it is about what was done during the moment within the camera.

Photography has lost the perception of truth in the public eye due to the prevailing perception of the ease of digital manipulation of photographic images in those same public eyes, the same eyes that read my pictures and maybe yours too.

I work all my images as .dng files (open source .raw files) in Adobe Bridge CS5 and I like doing so, many photogs (photographers) like doing the same in Adobe Lightroom. I use ‘Bridge CS5 alongside ‘Photoshop CS5 for all of my work.

Working in ‘raw’ has the reputation of processing ‘flexibility’ and greater image ‘quality’ among many digital photographers, both amateurs and professionals…

A young digitally based professional photographer friend of mine aspires to work with colour film one day, I tell him to just go for it now, but he still thinks that it takes extraordinary photographic skills to work with film.

All my important work is now done on colour print film in the same camera that I did my black & white work up till a few months ago, I have migrated to colour print film from black & white film for ease of processing reasons and because I like the feel that colour print film gives to my photography; plus that 50mm Leica lens can’t be beat for it’s crispness.

My work station is an old wooden desk with a hand crafted A2 Oregon pine light box on the one side, a Nikon Coolscan V ED film scanner running VueScan Professional, a MacBook Pro and a 1.5 terabyte external hard drive. The 35mm film dedicated scanner provides me with A3 124 megabyte .dng files off my 35mm colour print film. The .dng files are stored in the external hard drive and I work the files in the Adobe Photoshop CS5 raw window on my MacBook Pro just like any other digital file. I work my .raw files just like any .raw file coming out of a DSLR camera with the benefit of the extra information that the 124 megabyte files afford me; this plus the far greater latitude that colour film gives me over latitude coming out of a digital camera sensor.

All of this rides on a strip of Japanese made plastic and photosensitive emulsion that I buy and process in the Foto 45 shop in the center of Durban. Oh, and the legal proof that what the reader of my photograph sees is actually what I perceived but not chimped with my Leica M6 on the day…

Painting With Light

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I love perspective, photography is also about perspective as it is about cropping, to understand something better I have to sometimes walk across and stand in other shoes. Perspective helps me to to see as other people might have seen.

What is photography?

At the roots of the word photography the words light and drawing lie around. Up to the time of the invention of photography people where painting in multi chrome and drawing in mono chrome; and the pointillists or neo impressionists were beginning to paint with small dots of pure colour that where blended together in the eyes of the viewers of the resulting work not unlike the pixels of modern digital photography.

Their world changed and the new black and white pictures of those first photographers pushed aside the non photographic realist artists of the period as photographers went to the front line of war, adverts begun to employ the photographer rather then the painter and more and more portraits of the famous where done through photography rather then artist and paint brush. There was a time when photography just did realism better then the painter with colour and brush of the time. If the technology of the time had permitted and photographers had started out with colour, we might have been known as photo portraitists rather then photographers.

The realism of that period of photography was backed up by the little slip of plastic covered in emulsion that we call the photographic negative; in the analogue or film age of photography the realness of the photograph could be just broken or backed up by the production of the original negative.

Now in our modern digital photography world news wire services like Reuters ask their Photographers to give in unprocessed .jpg files straight from their cameras because of the eroding of the realness in the public eye by ‘over processing’ of image files in the digital news picture industry and in the modern photography arena in general.

Though I too love the creamy colour of the modern digital photograph, I prefer the crisp image that my rangefinder lens provides me with the no nonsense provability that colour film in my M6 camera still gives me and my readers… JR

Live by the Sword and Live More Fully

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Me half way up some stairs in Kinshasa, DRC. Photo John Robinson.

As a self confessed visual poet and spirit thief, I will do well as a photographer to make some of my own spirit more available to the people around me.

In a conversation with T-Bone at the BAT Centre in Durban about the tangibility of the substance of a good photograph, I realized that as a photographer I am able to connect with the spirit of others and or the spirit of the moment before my lens but I am hard pressed to share my self with those around me on a daily basis.

T-Bone asked me if there was a tangible transfer of something when a photograph is taken “like in drama on the theatre stage” I said a big yes to his question, T-Bone is a drama specialist at the BAT Centre. I have seen many ‘stiff’ or ‘dead’ photographs to conclude that something of the ‘spirit’ or the ‘moment’ resides in some other photographs. I told T-Bone that a photographic image that speaks to the viewer is the same as the stage drama that speaks to someone in the audience in this sense.

Take my camera out of my hands and I become a bit of stiff too, but I am learning to loosen up on my spirit in the social sense, it’s hard, but I am making headway. I don’t like the word ‘networking’ and I am an useless networker, but I like the word ‘connect’ and as a photographer I understand the concept. By connecting my spirit with those of others, those others may too get a hold on who I am as a person, while I get a hold on something of their spirits. We are members of human race and all have something in common; and it is for us to find out what our commonalities are and blossom together if possible.

As a narrative photographer I am a task master at lurking on the edge of an activity with my ‘M6 and getting away with some of the gold on offer. As a member of the same race that I shoot I am too now more giving of my own spirit to those others around me. It’s like giving back of what I have gotten over the years as a photog; and it’s good for me too. I am freed up to just be me more often, and in front of others too.

They say “live by the sword and die by the sword”… I add to this by saying I can also live more fully too before the end comes as it will for everyone of us.

Fools Only Go Where Angels Don’t Tread

I always carry my Leica M6 around with me because it has become a habit, it is my comfort blanket of sorts; and there is always a roll of colour film in it and a spare roll in my shoulder bag. Without my camera on me I have no chance of shooting a decisive moment, with my M6 on me I may just be in with a chance as it where. Decisive moments are not only in places of high drama and action worthy of front page news, often the best of them go past unnoticed. The photographer just has to be at the right place at the right time, that place can be anywhere that life is being outworked. But I am not writing about just getting out there and snapping pictures, this is about playing it forward.

I liken narrative photography to walking carefully through a flower bed, I want the telling pictures but without plowing up the space that I am working within.

The other day I took a long walk to clear my head and to put the city behind me; and the beach does that for me. I am working on a body of beach scape pictures, it’s a move from the person centric portraits of my South Beach work to a more environment centric focus of local beaches. I made a dent in the project with a few new images, but then the rest of the afternoon was quiet time for me to just absorb the space around me. I could have loaded a fresh film but the feeling to sit on the outskirts of the day’s activities and just look at what was was stronger.

Cuttings Beach is an 1.5 hour walk from where I stay in Durban South, it is just beyond a cemetery and a wetlands and between the Mondi paper mill and the SAPREF oil refinery. It was a Sunday that I felt that just looking was the better option. A large group of believers in the local Shembe faith were there alongside the normal subsistence fishermen who have made this place a home from home. By just sitting on the side I got to look deeply and enter into a conversation with one of their church elders, I came away with an understanding that will be of use next time I am communicating more fully aspects of the Shembe faith.

That day I made more then one new friend and made concrete for myself the concept of walking softly through the fields of photographic flowers.

As a narrative photographer I don’t want to be so busy taking pictures of all that is around me at the expense of first engaging with aspects of these subjects. How can I my photographs narrate fully if I as the author don’t first engage with the spaces? I want to dig below the surfaces with my images; and my conversations that Sunday opened up these narratives for future readers of photography. Instead of just a picture of an ‘unaware of it’s fate’ chicken on an African beach I can have a deeper outworking, by now knowing somethings more of the goings on of Cuttings Beach, Durban, South Africa.

SOME BASICS OF FILM AND DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY

Cameras and coffee.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the story tripod of the the photographic image; and how the photograph relied on story, technique and composition to convey the moment to the reader of the photograph.

Now I want to write a short piece on the most basic photographic tripod; and this is the tripod of the manual exposure mode of your film and or digital camera.

A camera is a lightproof box connected a hole through which a controlled amount of light gains access to a light sensitive surface producing a ‘drawing with light’, or photograph.

In all cameras light is controlled by just 3 mechanisms; and they are aperture, shutter speed and ISO. The aperture controls the intensity of the light coming through the hole or lens, the shutter controls how long the light coming through the lens is in contact with the film or the digital sensor and ISO or International Standards Organisation controls the sensitivity of the film or sensor to the light coming through the aperture and shutter.

At this point I want to say that there is no single standard exposure setting for bright sun light or late afternoon light as it where. The 3 legs of this tripod work together; aperture, shutter and ISO work together for the photographer’s good, there many exposure options whatever the light conditions are.

Exposure is based on ISO and balanced out by aperture and shutter speeds like an inverted equilateral triangle. ISO is at the bottom and aperture and shutter speed keep the balance on top. ISO in photography can be defined as the film or sensor’s sensitivity to light, ISO 100 is half as sensitive to light as ISO 200. ISO 400 is twice as sensitive to light as ISO 200, and ISO 800 is twice as sensitive as ISO 400 and so on to ridiculous heights with the new digital cameras.

The principal to remember in exposure is one of halving and doubling, ISO 400 is twice as sensitive to light as ISO 200 and so on…

When coming to grips with manual mode on your camera the first step is deciding what ISO film you want to load on your film camera or what ISO you want to set your digital camera at.

Another way of understanding exposure is seeing it as two glasses filling with water under the water tap. The size of the glass is like ISO in exposure, one glass is twice the size of the other glass so it will need twice the amount of water to be filled to the brim. The water in the filled to the brim glass is like exposure in photography. The smaller of the two glasses is like ISO 400 to ISO 200, it only needs half the amount of light to be fully exposed. When filling a glass just to the brim with water whatever the size of the glass you always depend on how wide the valve in the tap is and how long the glass is held under the tap. The valve in the water tap is like the aperture, and the time I hold the glass under the tap is like the shutter speed in the camera.

So when I want a glass filled to the brim or a photograph exposed just right, if I halve the size of the valve through which the water flows I have to double the time the said glass is under the tap. Or if I double the time time I hold the glass under the tap I have to halve the size of the valve or visa versa. It always depends on the size of the glass or the ISO of the film or the camera setting.

Firstly you set your ISO then whatever you do in your aperture setting you have to compensate with your shutter speed until you get your light meter centered on the dial in your viewfinder and visa versa if you slow down your shutter speed by 3 stops you will have to close down with your aperture by 3 stops too. If you open up the aperture by a stop you increase the intensity of the light to compensate for this increase you will have to decrease the time the film or sensor is exposed to light by a stop too or you will over expose your photograph in the end.

By practising this exercise you will now discover that there are many combinations of aperture and shutter speed that will give you a perfectly exposed picture under any given lighting situation.

In closing, no you can’t change the ISO mid film, you should stick to the given ISO.

I DON’T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT IT…

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Diagram courtesy of https://www.videomaker.com

Printing my own black and white photographs in the darkroom taught me a bit about what my M6 camera and a bit of Kodak Tri X film could record for posterity. Learning about the importance of 18% grey, middle grey or zone V taught me about the importance of correct exposure in gaining from all the black & white film could give me no matter what light conditions I work in.

I have now given my Leitz enlarger away and no longer wet the floors of any darkroom floors; I now just do the ‘darkroom’ thing with a Nikon Coolscan V ED scanner, Adobe Bridge and Photoshop CS5 in my office. But my hand held Polaris light meter still ensures that the colour or black & white print film in my camera records the moment so close to how my eyes perceived it. A hand held light meter in incidence mode ensures that the high and low lights remain as just that. When I still worked my negatives in the darkroom, the negatives exposed with my hand held meter in incidence mode were much less hassle to work with. The empirical evidence in front of my eyes told me that it was much better to work with the available light then fight with it in the ‘darkroom’ or ‘lightroom’ as the process is commonly called now.

The hand held light meter in incidence mode meters the light in an as is way, deep shadows or blacks will remain as just that and high lights or whites will remain as is. If you a photographing someone in the dim shadows they will appear as such. When I am doing a portrait I sometimes reposition the subject to get some of the available highlights to fall across their face; I then take a light metering and shoot the portrait. Work with the light, don’t fight with it, you will get better pictures in the end.

Though I have given up on the darkroom, I have not stopped using colour and black & white film; and when I use film I use my Polaris light meter too.

This method of exposure gives me images that have all the tones from the highlights through to the deep dark shadows just as God gave them to us all.

A CASE FOR THE TANGIBLE DOCUMENT IN A PHOTOSHOPPED WORLD

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Goat herder and goats just before sunset in Iriri, Uganda 2006, Photo John Robinson.

The camera never lies, but we can not always say the same for the photograph or the photographer in our digitally adjusted world…

The other day I interviewed a prospective client for my ‘photography lesson over a coffee’ sessions, the client wants to learn “candid, fashion, landscape photography and everything” including editing. We live in a world of selfies, photo bites and altered realities where the subject is carefully ‘perfected’ after that aspect of reality passes into the wonderland of digital photoshopping between the camera and the end viewers of said photograph. When the above client said editing, she was not talking about which pictures worked best or which one to open the body of work with but rather “polishing imperfections” and “touch ups” of the original digital file. My client wants to become a photographer of everything and the polishing of imperfections is an expected part of the photography that the client wants to learn.

Photography and photoshopping or lightrooming has become synonymous. As a lecturer I have often heard “you can change things in photography” when a photograph is viewed, or “you can now do that in photoshop” is also heard from the sceptic in the class…

So the file that comes out of the digital camera is now just the first step in many possible steps in the expected altered realities of the the modern digital photograph.

I don’t think that it is for nothing that most documentaries are now movies and not still photographs, these moving picture documentaries are just more believable then still photography for now. When the technology to make these documentary movies becomes more accessible as has become of photography in general they will too be in a wonderland of of their own and lose their credibility too. The World Press Photo competition is also evidence of people who should know better, of photographers who enter altered realities instead of aspects of reality in the hope of gaining a prize as such.

We can’t blame this ‘wonderland’ state of narrative photography solely on amateurs and the sceptic, ‘adjusting reality’ has been around as long as the photograph itself… Adjusting reality also includes viewing a full colour world in black and white to adjusting vibrancy to make a scene muted or a bright day dark, this all adjusts how the viewer perceives the reality in front of the photographer and camera.

I do all my important narrative photographic work with a Leica M6 rangefinder camera on colour print film now, I use a hand held incident light meter to get an exposure as close to what my eye saw in the first place.

Making documents of what we see around us is important. Going back to the basics of ‘getting what we see’ with colour film will also provide tangible proof that what the viewer sees is also what the photographer saw through the eye piece of the camera.