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Thursday, 15 April 2021


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Hah, this is a conundrum only suffered by those old enough to have used pre-digital workflows and process. Digital is a big ole hard reset on "how a photograph should look" as it obliterates the lines that analog drew around the structure of a photograph and creates an almost limitless sandbox to work in. Is this a good thing? It certainly creates a fair amount of consternation for those that cut teeth on film.

Made me smile, this article, and then 'Book o'this Week' below your piece is a book by Leonard Freed from the 1960s!

Would it be B&W, shot on Tri-X, by any chance?

I know how you feel, Mike. I look at some stuff shot on massive Mpixel cameras and printed to 20"x16" or maybe a bit larger. It is micro detailed, sharp all the way from six inches from the lens to infinity and beyond and to me, an oldie, it just doesn't look 'real'.

I need a little grain, doesn't have to be Tri-X, to 'satisfy my eye' and just to look like a photograph of reality for me. Doesn't have to be B&W but that helps.

I too followed your tried and true Photo 101 for decades: Tri-X, D-76 1:1, FF @ 11X14. My preferred photo formula now: 16MP crop sensor printed to largest native resolution- 16in, color. And having a grand time doing so...

Your preferences (and mine) are based so much on arbitrary commercial constraints of our earlier times. "Prefer B&W" comes from expensive and not great color film and processes. "11x14" = I can only get certain sizes of paper. Sizes that don't fit any film anyway... Constraints can drive good art, but these are really artificial now. However, the display problem remains - do we buy 8K TVs? We are still plagued by a variety of aspect ratios, crops, and so forth. Taking pictures is the easy part. Printing is such a tiny part of our image experience now - how do we make our new life better?

Like most people, I like all photos and all music except for the stuff I don't like. I am more engaged by the subject matter than by the technical, or presentation details. However, in the film days, despite having a B&W darkroom, my preferred look was Kodachrome, or Ektachrome on a large screen. I think that helped to make the transition to digital images on a video display easier for me.

As far as subject matter goes, food shots for some reason leave me cold. A similar feeling to the sound of opera singers!

Sure. For b&w I like the look of Polaroid Type 55. I think Mark Klett used that in Traces of Eden. For color, something like Kodachrome but with less contrast. The color thing is tricky. Digital lends itself so easily to experimentation that I find myself in Lightroom behaving less like a photographer and more like a shaman, trying to smoke out each photo's "best" look rather than pretending I shot the day's take on a roll of film.

This is why I value Olympus and Pentax's wide variety of in-camera filters. There is often a feeling I get when viewing a scene that it would work best in b&w or cross process or retro, etc. So with the camera set to raw+jpeg I pick a filter that seems to fit just so I can try to capture that instinct, if that makes sense, since I probably won't remember later. Probably 70% of the time I go with natural color just because it's the first thing I see in front of me, but I'm sure that really creative people see a lot more in a scene than I do.

Hi Mike, made me think. I concluded that I'm partial to B&W prints with nice and bright mid tones. Not to large. Letter sized or smaller so you can have it to yourself when you look at it. I never did any darkroom work (not counting a Saturday afternoon in a small bathroom with 5 other boyscouts and a red light and weird chemicals), let alone dodging, but in Lightroom I often pull up the mid tones. Think Robert Adams 'The New West'. Or the cover of a book by... can't remember the authors name but it definitely had Empirical in the title somewhere!

Best, Nick

For my own work, I am more and more preferring smaller prints and B&W. I recently fell in love with Dan Burkholder's photo gilding, and the images are usually 5x7 or 3x5-ish. For me there is something in not having too much detail, but worrying more about lights and deep shadows, and mystery, and the emotional impact an image has one me.

As a viewer, I am eclectic though, do love f/64 work, but also love more "spontaneous"and not too heavily worked photography, subject matter being important (people, fragments, poetic moments), and I don't mind things not being perfectly sharp at all.

For me, I'm going to quote James Nachtwey when he was asked this question: "I like them to be well-exposed and in-focus".

For me, it depends on the subject. For people pictures, home base would be a 6x9 inch print on fiber based glossy paper with no black line border, probably taken on 35mm Tri-x. To me, the black line border tried to put a check box on the "uncropped photojournalist objective" picture. As if the photographer didn't choose the focal length for his picture or where to aim the camera.
For non-people pictures, I prefer a 10x13 inch print on 11x14 fiber based paper taken with a 4x5 or 5x7 camera. All black and white, of course.
I haven't decided what size to print my digital color landscapes yet; probably larger.

This, I think, is an excellent question. I think that because I'm surprised that I don't know the answer. And this is after 50-plus years of looking at, and making, a LOT of photographs! I don't think I could make a list of things I like to see in a photograph and not immediately be able to think of photographs I like that are exceptions.
Of course, if I were intelligent enough to know the answer, then I might doom myself to a 'rut', never to see new ideas again! :-)

I take pretty much the opposite view from Geoff Wittig. While I have several large and beautiful prints made by printing geniuses -- and would hate to be without them -- I really most like event photos of moments of great significance. I don't care too much about perfect focus or great tones -- I guess you could say that Robert Capa's D-Day shots, or his shot of the falling Spanish infantryman, are really the kind of things that stick in my mind. I like Peter Turnley's stuff. And I love fine portraits. For me, a big, well printed book is the perfect presentation, where I can sit with a whole theme or photo-biography in my lap. Somebody has already mentioned James Nachtwey, and I have to say that his "Inferno" is a classic book of the type. Also, Robert Mapplethorpe's "Flowers" book, is a fine example, although in that case, it's more the book presentation than the actual photos that I like. I guess you could say I like the reality behind the photo, more than the print as an object.

I have all of my father's negatives, shot from the late 1930's to the late 1960's, but very few prints that he made from them. The negatives are all 35mm B&W. The wet prints are either "wallet" size (2 by 3) or printed with wide borders on 8x10 paper. I try to make my 35mm B&W inkjet prints look like he could have made them, but somewhat larger with wide borders on 4 by 6 or 8.5 by 11 paper, and mostly with subjects unmistakably of our era.

My preference is simple--a photo done well in whatever style or technique fits the mood of the whole. I like rich blacks, a range of grays and near clear film whites. But I also like stark contrast if the subject demands it. Or subtle gray all over like mist or fog with only a hint of other tones.

The first B&W photo I saw that really impressed me was one by Ansel Adams. It took a while but I got over idolizing his work by taking healthy doses of Walker Evans, Robert Frank and Robert Adams along with a chaser of Lee Friedlander and Daido Moriyama. I still have to fight with myself over trying to get the last tiny bit of detail in the light midrange. Digital makes it a bit more simple for me to get the creamy tones I like but I tend to overdo them. I guess I'm a sucker for something pretty.

Overall I think I like the look of digital B&W better than film. But, honestly, I sometimes can't tell if a photo is done with film or with zeros and ones. Doesn't really matter in the end, does it?

Calm and curious.

My preferences have been shaped by the technology I use today, digital cameras (Olympus MFT, Sony RX100, iPhone) and digital means of displaying photographs (phones, tablets and computer displays). That's how I take and others view my photographs. This has driven me to take all my "serious" photographs in a 3 by 4 aspect ratio in landscape mode. If I crop it is to the same.

I don't like viewing a set of photographs on a screen that constantly jump between landscape and portrait mode and between various aspect ratios. To me that all becomes a distraction from the images.

I also like the 3 by 4 aspect ratio because it is somewhat horizontal, the way we view the world, and because of its balance, not excessive in either dimension. Again, it's not a distraction as some exaggerated aspect ratios seem to be. It just seems right to me.

So when capturing an image my challenge is to fit it within those parameters, not selecting other parameters to fit the image. This is the reverse of how many photographers proceed.

As for the tonal quality of the image (mostly color but some black and white) I see manipulation of the image's intensity as a way to match it to how I felt when first perceiving what I attempted to capture. If I was struck by a red door in a wall then I want the viewer to see the same, a red door in a wall. If that means intensifying the red a bit, so be it. It's a way of matching the viewer's response to mine.

It's been useful to think about this. I have more of an expectation of how my photographs should look than I first thought.

Like it or not, prints are dying. A modern day grandmother doesn't show off the grand kids with a wallet-size print. She pulls out her smart phone and shows multiple photos and videos of them. How cool is that?

In this modern world digital is relevant to everyone. Eleven by fourteen prints not so much.

Photos have become a commodity. And like all commodities they have little value. An above-the-fold photo will be replaced for the next edition. While a viral-video may last forever.

Freedom of choice is a real thing. Therefore people can and will choose different things.

When I'm editing a picture I keep trying to do something different, but the results I really like always end up with yellow-ish highlights and green-ish mid tones.

Glass half full, I've found my "style";glass half empty, all my pictures look the same.

About what other people's pictures should look like, I honestly don't know.

Winogrand: "There is no particular way a photograph should look."

[...And yet Winogrand's had a very distinctive look...just sayin'. --Mike]

I don't worry about how photos should look, I'm more interested in whether this photo or that just "works" or not. And that's ultimately not definable.

I much prefer looking at prints to online and really do appreciate photographers with an identifiable "style" or output (whether or not I like the work is another matter) because I know how hard it is to do. I had the wonderful benefit of working with a professional curator for an exhibition a couple of years ago, and the hardest bit was not producing exhibition quality work but producing 20 works which were all immediately recognisable as from the same series and with an identifiable style. I'm shooting for another exhibition (hopefully for late this year) for a different gallery but with the same curator, and this time around, I am definitely seeking a consistency of style before I press the shutter rather than trying to choose amongst a variety of work and post-produce into it.

The type of photograph I like best involves tones. B&W tones. I have seen photographs, totally eye catching involving ordinary subject matter with just beautiful B&W tonality.
PS my new used Chevy Equinox came with trial satellite radio which includes a jazz setting. So maybe I include jazz to my liked music list? Hmm well maybe.

The challenge is not to find photos in a style you already like. In today’s world of infinite supply that will be easy. The thrill is in finding something you like in a style you’ve never seen.

Whilst I was shooting 4 x 5 my intended size of prints was larger than 16 x 20. This proved to be financially unviable. So much of my early work is unrealised in satisfactory print form.

Today I shoot square and I love and print ten inch square on A3 paper. I love a soft off white, almost cream paper with gentle warm sepia tones. Something that’s gentle on the eye that drags you in slowly and deliberately. Put next to some contrasty pure black and whites on bright white paper they are such a different kettle of fish. I fell into this size for convenience and finances. I now just love it.

As you say it contributes to a consistent look in ones work. I can add one tomorrow and it fits with the rest from the last decade or two. Not enough artists think about this clearly enough.

I'm far less interested(as in hardly at all) in how photographs 'look', lenses 'render' and other such airy-fairy matters than I am in the formal construction of a photograph and how that affects what a photograph is a picture of, about and has to communicate.

Sometimes I think it’s easier to say what we don’t like. Hence it is nicer to say we like everything, rather than rattle off a list of what we don’t. Just a thought Mike?

“ So my question is, do you have a favorite kind of way that you prefer photographs to look?”

So my reflected question to you is, do you have a favorite kind of way that you prefer paintings to look?

[I don't paint. --Mike]

I hadn't thought about my "sloppy boarders" for a long time. I still carry a point and shoot (many many years it was a Yashika T4 Super, too expensive now for a disposable box I think. Now I have an old Olympus Stylist I got from a dead guys things) that I use quite often with out looking through the viewfinder. I always found the neg carrier filed out, too much wasn't good, but a rough 1/16 to 1/8" black line made a nice edge to the frame. I printed 6x9 or 9x12 ISH. I never really standardized sizing.

I read your posts intermittently and always enjoy the read for your humor, wit and your complete adoration of photography. You are a superb teacher, you instigate thought about our creativity and processes of life which are all intertwined. I find myself smiling and laughing with a lot of your posts and during these times for my profession, this is much appreciated. You make me question the hows and whys of my photography so I salute you and say thank you for your vision and passion.

[Thanks very much Rob. That's very nice to hear. All best, Mike]

After accumulating several photo paper box fulls of prints, including HP5+ and TriX darkroom developed and printed by me on Ilford paper (30-years ago) -- I said paper, not plastic -- and c41's printed on 13x19" inkjet papers on both Epson and Canon printers more recently ... I realized there wasn't much point to it. People generally consume photos on assorted device displays. So I've decoupled my ideas of photography from printing, going on for nearly ten years now. Good bye and good riddance to the expense and hassles. I kept a clogged and plastic-shrouded i9900, as a talisman of the 'good old days.' One day RSN I will heed my wife's advice and clear out the junk.

It sounds like you are asking how we like our own photographs to look. I suppose my favorites have a slight "fine art painted" look to the contrast and draw. Some lenses are better at that than others. I recently tried my limited lenses on my X-T4 (31mm, 43mm and 77mm) and they all have different degrees of that look, very nice, better I think than all my Fuji lenses. The lens in the Ricoh GR cameras also has it. But of course there are many other aspects to the photo. I lean towards somewhat messy compositions, but with at least some kind of coherent focus (If I'm successful). For my people photos, mostly family, I very much lean towards the unguarded, natural moment.

Since I'm trained as a painter/draftsman, I look at this through a different lens, pun intended. My first big painting that I did as a 1st semester freshman in college was 6'x9'. What I learned from it and subsequent works large and small is that the "work" itself has its own life and thus its own size and other characteristics. Some things are better small, and some huge. This applies equally well to photography, imo. Candida Hofer's huge images make sense huge, but smaller they wouldn't be as effective or interesting. Her teachers' work, the Bechers, make sense small, and I'm not sure it would have the same meaning large. And this goes for other aspects of a photograph as well, contrast, color, etc.

I can tell you a couple of things I *don't* like.
1. Most wide angle shots. I just hate wide angle distortion, yet for casual family snaps I'll still use it. But for anything with any artistic aspiration, I find that the normal field of view, and especially the short telephoto range, yield the most pleasing and satisfying results. It is no coincidence - in my humble opinion - that the best known Ansel Adams pictures are short tele landscapes, and that all wide angle street photographers can't seem to get Cartier-Bresson's magic.
2. Like you I dislike the exaggeration in treatment in regards to adding excessive amounts of contrast that kill all midtowes, or in the case of color photographs, kill all the beautiful color transitions for which the best lenses are (should be?) designed.
In particular about digital photographs I also don't really like how CMOS sensors seem to "squash" color nuances, making all tones of a certain color fairly similar. But I've been guilty of using mostly CMOS sensors lately while my CCD sensors aren't getting much use.
So I guess if I should turn those concepts around to what I do like, it would be - regardless of color or B&W, and screen or print - naturally looking scenes and portraits, without obvious "filters" or processing that gets in the way. A scene or person or object is either beautiful and well composed, or it isn't - attempts to make bad subjects look good are just annoying and futile.

A photograph should be in color. That's it.

Hi Mike, I'm a little confused whether you're asking this as a consumer/appreciator or as a producer. Either way, it's a healthy question. While the following requires some scrutiny on my part, I like to think that what really resonates with me in a photograph, regardless of style, are things like clarity of thought or emotion, coherence, intention, competence... I could also use a term much overused these days: "authenticity". But I think that's what you're getting at in your conclusion--that the style you practiced for so long is not authentic to who you are today, or what your circumstances are--that it would be an affectation more than an expression or interpretation--dishonest, even.

Call it a mini-crisis if you like, I think it's a terrific place for an artist to be, and ought to be on a regular basis. It's really the crux of the work. Good luck working it!

Here is one place where I think turnover in gear, mediums or methods can have positive impact, in that switching tools can nudge us to do things--even see things--in unfamiliar ways, ways that might turn out to be more true to our current selves or circumstances.

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