Saturday, October 04, 2014

Marilynne Robinson by Alec Soth in The New York Times

I really liked this portrait of author Marilynne Robinson in the Times by photographer Alec Soth, better known for his 8x10 view camera photographs. If you want to see more by this photographer, there's a major survey show of his work at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) through January 4th. Gorgeous prints. Check it out, if you haven't already.

Friday, October 03, 2014

How to Focus on a Wet Window

Sudden Downpour on University Avenue
A heavy rain cascading onto a window creates marvelous pictorial effects, but capturing them with a camera can be difficult because autofocus gets in the way. Point your camera or phone at the window, shoot your picture, and the rain just disappears, because the camera focuses on objects in the distance, not the wet window.

You either have to focus manually, usually with a DSLR, or you have to trick the autofocus system. Most point-and-shoots and many phone cameras will let you lock the focus on a selected point. The trick is to lock focus on something sharp that's in roughly the same plane as the window. Indoors, that could be the edge of the window frame. You can do the same thing in a car. Last summer, when I was caught in a sudden deluge on University Avenue, I locked the focus of my iPhone on the line where the dashboard meets the windshield. This was the result.

When It All Came Together at Tiedeman's Pond

Milkweed
You never know when the magic will happen. We were walking around Tiedeman's Pond in Middleton late one fall afternoon a few years ago when we found ourselves surrounded by milkweed pods launching their little seed pods into the afternoon light. I began photographing them. Although each new pod seemed more beautiful than the last, the beauty wasn't registering on the camera. Each image looked like just another milkweed picture. I began to focus less on individual pods and more on clusters. I kept shooting, trying different angles, and gradually the light changed as the sun dropped in the sky. The background fell into shadow, and suddenly the slanting rays of the sun made the milkweed glow with light. Pure magic.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Wild Strawberries

Wild Strawberries
When I see them I'm always reminded of one of my favorite films, and so, of course, I see them in black and white.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

What Is the Future of Libraries?

What Is the Future of Libraries?
"Asking about the future of libraries is another way of asking where this big, hot mess of information is taking us... It depends on us."
                                                                            -- Los Angeles Review of Books

Monday, September 29, 2014

Color Landscape Photography: Frederick's Hill

Color Landscape: Frederick's Hill

When shooting digital landscape photographs, color is the default option -- and a tempting one. It seems to capture the "real" look of nature. It's eye-catching and often inherently pleasing to the eye. Who doesn't like a pretty color image?

But not everything is as it seems with the apparent naturalism of color images. Color vision is a complex process, less an optical phenomenon than a psychological one. Our brains construct the color we see, providing us with a more or less stable visual environment in wildly different lighting conditions, all of which photograph differently. In addition, film doesn't have nearly the dynamic range of the human eye (neither does a digital sensor), so there were always tradeoffs. Professional film shooters required considerable technical finesse to match what their eye saw on slide film, juggling many variables, including the choice of film itself --each had its own characteristics that determined the final image. Hobbyists usually settled for what the processor gave them. It was a hit and miss proposition, often pleasing -- but rarely matching the original scene very accurately.

Things got even more subjective with digital photography. There is no physical reference copy, no one "real" rendition of a scene in color. How it turns out depends on the processing algorithms built into the camera, and those are all different. Most serious photographers do additional post processing in an image editor like Photoshop. They are trying to recreate the color palette they saw on a computer screen -- or deliberately distort it for creative purposes -- but in either case, it's a very subjective process. (In fields like technical photography and advertising product photography, enormous technical effort is expended in trying to create a more or less accurate color match -- but this still just reduces the subjectivity; it doesn't eliminate it.)

For all these reasons, color photographs -- including my own -- sometimes seem to me to say more about color itself, and the photographer's preferred way of seeing color, than the actual subject. This photograph records the way I saw Frederick's Hill in Branch Conservancy, Middleton, WI when I processed the file, based on my memory of the scene and how I thought it would look best in color. A hundred different photographers could have shot from the same spot with different cameras and processing techniques, and there would be subtle -- and not so subtle -- differences between all their photos.

"Realism" in photography remains an illusion, often a beautifully crafted illusion, but an illusion nevertheless.

Sunday, September 28, 2014