The Block

Today I'm being lazy and rehashing something I posted on the APUG forums, in response to a midlife-crisis photographer's "Photographers' Block."

I have recently come to the conclusion that I am suffering from a photographer's block. I used to find inspiration in the places I was in or in the people I was with. Just lately I keep drawing a blank.

Does anyone else suffer with this problem or is it just me? Does anyone have any suggestions for getting through it? Do I just need to drink more beer?


N, don't worry about repeating past successes. The most satisfying photographs you can make are those you haven't yet made.

Such moments of "blockage" give you an excuse to re-assess (without getting mired in nostalgia or frustration), and most importantly, give you a little breather to try different sorts of things, to look at those Paths Not Taken. Imagine yourself as what you might have been — now imagine that alternative you, imagining the you that you actually are — and consider: what is the real core YOU that is shared by both versions? And what sorts of photos and ideas are central to THAT guy?

With that in mind, consider that whatever your work has been in the past, it has come about as the product of your entire person at that time — your surroundings, the people, your schedule, and how you felt about them at that time (and only peripherally, your level of photo-technical expertise).

In what ways have they changed, in what ways have your attitudes changed simply due to age, to fatigue, to arrivals and departures, or simply to outgrowing your previous levels of understanding? Which direction interests you today, in your life? Ignoring the camera, what sorts of pictures might you imagine making? What sorts of things interest you, your eye, your heart?

Okay, now pick up the camera again and remember that it is an explorer's tool, just like a compass, or a pickaxe. Like a pickaxe it can give you purchase on jagged circumstances, and can reveal things that were hidden, bringing light to the surface. Like a compass it can let you align both the world and yourself.

Let us know how it goes.

Posted May 26, 2007 | Comments (0)

Long Wait

After more than 50 years, the first trains have finally rolled through this crossing between North and South Koreas.

Posted May 17, 2007 | Comments (0)

Is Photography Inherently Humanizing? (III)

I've been in Seattle for the past couple of days, attending and speaking at the Online Games Developer Conference.

(This post is part of a series which can be found through these links: Part I and Part II.)

Yesterday morning, I found in the New York Times an editorial by Nick Kristof which has been widely copied to other locations such as this one — the article, "Save the Darfur Puppy," tries to grasp at some of the issues revealed by psychological research and "the implication of a series of studies by psychologists trying to understand why people — good, conscientious people — aren't moved by genocide or famines."

The research found that people were more likely to want to help individuals, rather than groups — even groups as small as two. By coincidence I was about to write a little on this topic here myself, as something of a followup to the previous posts, in large part spurred by a recent post by Jim Johnson entitled "Photographic Conventions & Their Vicissitudes: The Irony of 'Vividness'," in which Johnson challenges the convention, common among photojournalists and other documentary-styled photographers (and TV) that mass-scale social issues are best shown by revealing the stories of individual persons (often the suffering of those people: think Salgado, think Abu Ghraib, think Smith's Spanish Village). In that post's comments, another reader mentioned a recent Situationist article, "Too Many to Care," which likewise cites the same research referenced by Kristof.

Personally, I think that such research validates the usefulness of these photographic conventions: that a direct appeal to people's emotions comes from proximity (perhaps by engaging the "mirror neuron" regions?) and that emotion is far more important in driving action than is reason. Is this something of a bitter pill, does it reveal something in human nature that we'd wish were not true? Yes. Does it mean that there can't be better approaches? No, and Johnson's to be lauded for proposing alternative photographic solutions, approaches that photographers could make to large-scale social issues that convey both emotional power and yet a sense of larger scales and stories.

My inclination is to think that humans, who evolved over most of their history in very small bands, have a hard time feeling direct-affect compassion towards groups larger than their own atomic families. We can reason that a compassionate stance is a good one, but that reasoning is less immediate. So far we have had some bits of luck in our large social systems. After all, isn't democracy itself a large-scale form of "love thy neighbor"?

As humans, we are not perfect animals. Our inability to grasp at large-scale problems on an emotional level is, as Paul Slovic writes, a "deeply unsettling insight into human nature." What's positive is the notion that it is an insight, and that we do find it unsettling. It means that we know we can do better. And if we know it, we can seek better-informed ways to act on that knowledge.

Posted May 11, 2007 | Comments (0)

Hi-Fi Lo-Fi


It's common to tell digital photographers: "don't trust the camera LCD as a preview."

Why the heck not? A lot of the time, I happen to like the picture I see on the LCD. So I made myself an Adobe Camera RAW preset that, as best as I could eyeball, would match the tonal range of the LCD on the LX1.

It was a somewhat subjective process, not entirely perfectly scientific, but simple enough. I shot some Kodak grayscale charts, played them back on the camera LCD while simultaneously loading them in Adode Camera Raw, adjusting the corresponding RAW/DNG conversion on my laptop under Photoshop CS3. I could see where the blacks petered-out, and the overall relationships in tones between neighboring patches. So patch 1 was full-on, the grays died out arounf patch 14, the values were a little boosted around patch 5, etc. It made the picture that I liked.

Once I'd made such a preset fro RAW files, I also made a corresponding adjustment curve that would alter camera JPGs to also more-or-less match the results I was getting from ACR. It's easy to make such a curve with a three-layer photoshop file (I like RAW but some situations — particularly very fast repeat shooting — still require JPEG for this little bufferless compact camera).

To make a curve that matches a JPEG to the ACR result: First, open the JPEG. Next, add a Curves layer and close the Curves dialog (we'll come back to it). Now, open the RAW file in another window, Select-all, and paste it on top of the JPEG (which will make a new layer). Set the blend mode of this new layer to "Difference."

Now all you need to do is open that curves layer again and adjust it until the visible differences between mictures are the absolute minimum. If the picture is black, then both the bottom (JPEG) and top (RAW) layers are a match.

The less-than-wonderful surprise I got was: the pictures don't align. At first I thought it was sharpening, but actually they just don't line up. They are two or three pixels misaligned, apparently at a 45-degree angle. In fact it's not even an integer number of pixels — the pic above (a 100% blowup of the previous blog entry) shows the closes I could get, and shifting it in the opposite direction simply moves the various contour-outlines from one side of the face to the other.

The second surprise was that, despite the fact that these curves reduce the tonal range (that is, they step on constrast), the RAW pic holds detail quite a bit better than the JPEG. I'd expected that since the JPEG had more range than my desired pic, I wouldn't make much difference. But it does. The higher fidelity of RAW still matters even on a low-fidelity images.

As a minor aside, we noticed last night that the LX2 makes a guest appearance in Spiderman 3 — in a scene where a photographer loses his SLR, he wastes no time in dragging an LX2 out of his jacket pocket & just keeps on shooting.... (though I'd never recommend carrying the camera in your pocket with the lens and flash both already extended).

Posted May 07, 2007 | Comments (0)

Garage, Pajamas, Nintendo


Posted May 06, 2007 | Comments (0)

Portrait Paradox

How to handle portrait-format images in an ongoing weblog? is the question that's been dogging me since switching PhotoRant to its current, 807-pixels-across form (why 807 pixels? I genuinely don't remember).
As Michael pointed out in a recent 2point8 post, there's an appeal to the idea of giving all photos "equal time" — that is, giving them all equal area on-screen (in his case, 375,000 pixels), distributed according to whatever aspect ratio they have.

The troubles are in the tall ones. The 16x9 pictures I make regularly are 897x454 when put into this format . If I turn it those same pixels on their sides, the 807 pixels is just, well, too tall. It doesn't fit most web browsers, and scrolls off the top. Ungh. Making a photo 512 high (as this one is) fits most browsers, but leaves the picture only 40% as big as the horizontal version. And the horizontal one is minimized enough as it is (then again, the version here is still a tiny big bigger than a flicker standard or "medium" picture).

I've come pretty well to the conclusion that there is no good answer. I could reduce the size of the webpage header, but I can't control how many extra bars of lins and navigation tools are in each user's browser. I hate the idea of pictures appearing so tall that you can't see them all at once.

The relentless landscape format of web presentation is one of those attributes that have probably had more influence than we realize, and will continue to do so. Compare it to books, whose pages are usually portrait format but that can be any aspect at all. Is it any surprise that the default formats for internet-based book printers like iPhoto and Lulu are landscape-format books?

Posted May 05, 2007 | Comments (0)

May Days

Only 2-1/2 weeks until 17 mai (or just four days until Norway Day in San Francisco, the blond alternative to a city awash in tequila for Cinco de Mayo).

Posted May 01, 2007 | Comments (0)


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