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Saturday, 11 March 2023


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Is there a photographer you like to follow these days? What makes them compelling?

That’s a fascinating response by Rudolf Kingslake. Of course I don’t strictly believe him, but I can grok the sentiment.

I have a couple of his books, and the impression they give is of a towering intellect who knows precisely everything and can explain it with the lucid force of the most confident academics. His writing style reminded me of Jobst Brandt’s in The Bicycle Wheel, another masterclass in simple explanations of hard concepts.

Here’s my question though: should I take Jörg Colberg’s “Work Strategies for Photographers” workshop even though I have a two-year-old laying waste to my energy and, to boot, one of the classes will be during a family holiday? Maybe these are the excuses of everyone who doesn’t get out there and make things happen. Or maybe it would be disrespectful to Colberg, he of Conscientious fame and surely a better teacher than I deserve.


How about the importance of non-photographic input.

Back in 2005, I took a two year leave of absence to get my MA in Studio Art. My goal was to devote two solid years to photography, and age 50 seemed an ideal time for it. As it was, the school I attended (California State University, Sacramento) did not have a graduate photography department, per se. Roger Vail taught there at the time, though on a part time basis.

So I was the only photographer in the graduate program, which included about a dozen painters, sculptors, ceramicists, and others who knew precious little about photography (including the professor I worked closely with, though Rachel Clarke was very into and knowledgeable about new genres). Roger had informed me I’d need to “educate” them all.

I wanted to take my photography in a different directio during this time. I’d done over 3 decades of street photography, black & white film, and felt I had exhausted that mine. I had moved to digital, color, but was not settled on what. I just knew I needed a change in direction.

Sitting around talking with my fellow grad students, both in and (more importantly) outside of class was eye opening. The creative process was similar across it all, though the production process was vastly different. I learned a lot from the students, and even some from the professors (which was all a bonus).

In the end, being deeply involved in working in a non-photographic yet still very creative environment, got me my two goals: two years devoted to photography and a major change in my direction, which I still pursue, happily and energetically, to this day. I believe that time spent in that world of painters, sculptors, et al, was essential to my second goal. And I know my being a photographer had an impact on their work as well.

In a situation like this, it never hurts to consult a friendly neural network. Here's what ChatGPT suggests:

What are some good questions about photography—not just the technical aspects, but also the image attributes that make a good photograph—that would be appropriate to ask a well-known photography blogger who is temporarily bereft of ideas for subjects to write about?

1. What techniques or approaches do you use to capture emotion in your photographs?

2. How do you balance technical perfection with creative expression in your photography?

3. What makes a photograph stand out from the rest in a crowded field?

4. Can you walk us through your creative process when composing a shot?

5. What are some common mistakes that amateur photographers make, and how can they be avoided?

6. How do you approach storytelling through photography, and what are some tips for doing so effectively?

7. What are some unique and unconventional approaches you have used to capture compelling images?

8. How do you approach post-processing and editing, and what software do you recommend for beginners?

9. How do you manage to capture the essence of your subject in a portrait, and what techniques do you use to make them feel at ease during a shoot?

10. What advice would you give to someone just starting out in photography, both in terms of technical skill and artistic expression?

I often point out that I’ve forgotten more than I ever learned. So I know where you’re coming from.

Regarding the book on clasic black and white photography, I vaguely recall that Charles Dickens published his books first in serial form in magazines. Perhaps you could do something similar, say six chapters per year. I would would pay for that model and at the end you have a book to publish.

I don't so much have a question, but would like to share something that I recently became aware of in my practical photographic work.
I had been working with almost all film formats in the last decades and in the last years mostly with m4/3, also because I particularly like the aspect ratio 3:4, both in landscape and portrait orientations.
Meanwhile, even with my full frame cameras, I design most of my images in the 3:4 aspect ratio.
Now I know that m4/3 format is said to have a crop factor of 2, compared to full frame. The 20mm lens on m4/3 is equivalent to a 40mm lens on full frame.
But this is only true if both different shooting formats are each used full frame.
Now comes my point:
If I use the 20 mm lens with m4/3, I get exactly the same crop (angle of view) as with the 35 mm! lens in full frame, if I crop its length to 3:4 (32 mm instead of 36 mm)!
For me, this also explains why the 20 mm lens (m4/3) is so popular, similar to the 35 mm lens in full frame.
Analogously, the same is true for other focal lengths: a 60 mm lens (m4/3) does not look like a 120 mm lens under these conditions (cropped full frame), but like a 105 mm.
Emotionally, I had always felt that there was something wrong with these focal length analogies for me (aesthetically), but now I've become more aware of the connections, especially with regard to the different (or intentionally trimmed) aspect ratios.

So I was at the Tucson Festival of Books last weekend as a presenter. One panel was in a tiered auditorium and was pretty full. Just before the panel started, I shouted (I'm not shy) "I wanna take a picture and I want everybody to smile." 95% of them did and I shot a photo with my iPhone. One of the better photos I've taken in the last few years, but I would kill to have done it with my Z7II and a 28.

So to your question: you shoot iPhone, so detailed discussion of the strengths and weaknesses and how some of the weaknesses might be ameliorated and how some of the strengths exploited. Something on iPhone prints. I took a beautiful shot of my wife on a horse but was some distance away, shooting with an iPhone, and a (cropped) 4x6 print isn't very good, though I do have it framed. Maybe an interview with a pro who shoots with iPhone. I know there are some around. How about getting your pool friends to go along with an iPhone documentary? How about iPhone substitutes like the Sony RX100, which is very pocketable with (I think) a 1-inch sensor and a long zoom?

I don't like iPhone photography, but if you see a photo and you don't have a real camera...you take the shot.

I feel like I have a bit of a hoarder mentality when it comes to photos I've taken. Beyond a basic first pass removing (near) duplicates, and photos that were clearly out of focus or had some other glaring technical defect, it can be very difficult for me to delete photos. With inexpensive digital storage, there's an argument to be made that it doesn't matter, but as my shooting volume has increased over the years, it becomes more difficult to find things (even though I'm pretty diligent about tagging) and generally inefficient to navigate through the ever growing piles of files.

Any suggestions on becoming a more disciplined culler?

Here's a little of my context -

For me natural history and photography are completely intertwined. I try to get out and see what's going on in the world for at least a little while each day. As part of this discipline, I take pictures for observations I put on iNaturalist, and I also try to write a photojournal (blog) entry each day with at least a photo or two (publishing is not always done in a timely fashion). Sometimes these are purely documentary photos with not a lot going for them aesthetically, but I do try to get photos that are at least somewhat aesthetically satisfying to me.

There are many aesthetically unsatisfying photos that I keep because they are documentation of what I saw. I keep a bunch "just in case" one of them shows a some aspect of what I'm documenting that ends up being important. This is not such a bother for me.

The area I feel I could stand to be more disciplined is photos that I've taken which I'm keeping because I like them for aesthetic reasons. I suspect it might be helpful to raise the bar here, and would appreciate perspectives on how to approach this.

Would also love to hear your thoughts on creating b&w from digital.

Interested to hear more on printing from digital, too. You did write about inkjet recently with your recent print sale, but would be interested on what you think about c-types, or other processes (whatever they may be - I did a brief course a few years ago making cyanotypes by printing digital files onto acetate and then making contact prints from those).

What are your thoughts on developing visual literacy, or critiquing one's own work?

Or how to escape the homogeny of digital?

Here are my old and new street cameras-

How do you learn to create better compositions, specifically, when taking photos? (Especially for street or event photographer, photojournalism—where the scene won't wait for you.)

Or maybe what I need is the step before that—how do I learn to better understand and judge the composition of photos (my own and others)? (Can't make better ones if I can't evaluate ones I see!)

I mean, the obvious thing, trying to spend more time looking at good photos, and trying to think about why I consider them good! But suggestions on how to do that better, or learn more from it, or even just find good examples in more quantity?

Are art school methods of teaching composition to painters of any use to us? Are there good books, or does it need in-person teaching?

Agree with you, Mike, about street photography. Mostly anyway. I think the thing missing from most people's street photographs is courage: add that to the mix and the genre can be amazing.

I “hear you” Daniel.
Young child taking up most of my time. I spend more time reading and thinking about photography on forums like TOP than I ever do taking / making photos - and I’ve managed to cut back my online purchases of gear as a substitute.
I do so in the vain hope that one day the time will start to free up, just a little ;~)

Well, Mike, you're absolutely right about work. I was, though, rather hoping you had found a miracle cure along the way.

An artist I knew once said the most important thing is to show up to the studio and stay there. You don't even have to paint -- you can tidy the studio, clean brushes, rearrange the furniture, but you have to be there.

And a composer in New York gave similar advice: Go to the piano room every day and stay there. You don't even have to make music -- you can read a mystery novel -- but you have to be near the piano all day.

I guess for photography that means pick up the camera every day and shoot something. Actually does work for me, but I'm still hoping for that miracle ;)

[That's been my rule with the gym so far--I have to go, change my shoes (required), and get on one of the machines I use. I don't have to actually use it. But I have to do that minimum every day.

It worked today--I went meaning just to do the minimum, because I had pressing things to do, and ended up putting in an hour.

We'll see how long this lasts, though. --Mike)

Mike, I am attempting a modest version of using a Leica for a year(M4 with 50mm). I have enough HP5 and TRI-X 400 to go a long way. Subject matter is my hang up. I have limited skills (mostly used a Nikon D2H for a few years shooting my kids sports). Thus, this "exercise" is to help me learn about reading light, exposure and finding unique perspectives. I carry the camera with me every day but rarely take a picture. Not possible at work. I am also hung up on wasting film for the sake of an exercise which tends to give me pause about taking a shot. I have a phone app light meter to help with exposure settings. I have completed two full rolls in 2023 thus far. Sent out for development and scan. A little direction?

To me, even when you’re off topic, you’re writing about your experiences, which seem to be the heart of photographic expression. So no matter what your subject is, I’m still sensing a photographer between the lines. The only request I’d make is maybe a related posted photo. This would show the extra”thousand words” you wouldn’t have to write towards any specific photographic subject. Oh, and please list the specs of the shot, if you can…


1. If image technical quality wasn't an issue, what would be the camera that you most enjoy using?
FOR ME: Nikon P7100 (little sensor, great controls). The only Nikon I own. Was instantly intuitively understood by my brain and fingers.

2. If some people like images you've made, that you don't like, should you have a 'Plan B' portfolio made up solely of the images that you don't think quite make the grade?
FOR ME: Yes. Absolutely. You could almost call it "For Non-photographer Folk".

3. Phones don't zoom well. They're just too flat. So, what are the best bang-for-buck (I hate that term, but it's apt, so...) ultra compact alternative that's so pocket-able as to be unobtrusively carried on your personage? HINT - the top candidates are only available 2nd hand. Who doesn't love a bargain?
FOR ME: Canon S120. If you google a tear-down on this, you see why they were so expensive when new. They're built like a cross between an Abrams II tank, and the space shuttle. And with DxO Photolab, or ON1, the raw images rival DSLR quality.

4. Shoot a scene with your Sigma BW Beast. And shoot it at the same time, with a camera from Topic 3 (above). Do the very best you can with the files from both. Then print them both at 8 x 12. Finally, have an objective photographer + another non-photographer judge the results. I think this has probably been done before, buy not as neatly segue as my suggestion.

5. Invite submissions of no less than 500 words (and no more than 1000). Pick the one you like the most. Make it a guest post on Off Topic Day. Then post ALL of them, in the comments.

6. Offer free prints to people who randomly submit more than 5 suggestions :-)

How about discussing "concentration.' In order to focus (mentally, not photographically) on a project, it is necessary to concentrate on the task at hand.
In today's world, we are overwhelmed with distractions which makes concentration so difficult. I've learned in dealing with people in business that the issue is "CPA" - continual partial attention - the click of a keyboard while you are having a phone conversation or zooming, the beeps in the background or long pauses.
In photography, our cameras can fill the screen with distractions (I though about this when posting about the "level gage" in the OLY viewfinder). making it very hard to concentrate on the composition you are trying to capture.
Fortunately we can turn off most distractions - I often advise people to clear the viewfinder of all extraneous information and look at the composition.

Please write that series of articles about B&W tonality you’ve threatened since the 1990s.

The blacks... both in b&w film and in digital photography, and - what's probably even more interesting - darkroom vs digital (ink jet) printing.

Those blacks - consider https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/August_Sander#People_of_the_20th_Century whose greatest ones you can see in a museum in Cologne - sometimes blow me away as they say... and it's a miracle to me how to achieve these b&w silver "prints".

Thanks for considering the topic.

>>The trouble with books is that they require intensely front-loaded effort.<<

The solution, it would seem, would be to front-load the payment. Kickstarter does that, of course, but you could do that here. I'll buy your book, and pay you up front, if it isn't crazy expensive. How many do you need to sell to make it happen?

[That's kind of you, and thank you, but I need to keep writing the blog to keep from going under. It's my way of treading water. If I got $60k to write one book and it took a year, that would do it for that year, but what about the next year? All this has to do with my favorite joke/non-joke, which is, "my retirement plan is to keep working." Hardy-har-har. --Mike

PS Where did "hardy-har-har" come from? I have a vague memory that it was from a cartoon character my brother Charlie liked.]

I recently read this book https://www.amazon.com/How-Photography-Became-Contemporary-Art/dp/0300234104 and I liked a lot the subjective and personal approach to the topic. I would love to read more (I know you wrote about this several times before) about your personal experience from art school and the surrounding art photography related events. Maybe about the "professional" part of the field: getting your first show, dealing with sales and dealers and collectors etc.

What is best way to display photos which allow you to change the images very frequently.

[I guess you'd need to define that. Do you mean change once a month, or once every ten seconds? Both could be described as "very frequently." And, what kind of photos? Digital or prints? --Mike]

Wow. I'd love to tackle the first half of Kirk's questions one by one (the second half gets into areas outside my expertise).

Mike Plews: "How do I get a digital inkjet print that is as beautiful as the ones I used to get from Portriga Rapid back in the day? I can get nice prints from my printer but not that nice. Something is just missing."

Mike replies: Forget digital! How do you get a B&W film negative print on fiber-base gelatin silver paper today that's as beautiful as the ones we used to get from the old Portriga Rapid?!

First, don't forget digital. In that domain, use a Canon dye-ink printer (I've a PRO-100, which is discontinued, but the PRO-200 should perform identically) along with Hahnemühle FineArt Baryta Satin paper. Select "Black and White Photo Print," "Manual" Color/Intensity and set the color adjustment to "X=10." That will match the image tone to the paper's base tone. I think anyone would be very pleased.

Second, one cannot get a print on today's fiber-based gelatin-silver papers that is anywhere near as attractive as Portriga Rapid. Ignoring all other subtle differences, the surfaces of what's sold today (this refers to air-dried glossy papers) is garishly reflective. I suppose manufacturers must cater to the market's apparent infatuation with shiny objects.

"It's an area in which gatekeepers and shared group experience would be very helpful."

I think I may be misinterpreting what you're saying, otherwise, I kinda have to disagree (re: street photography). I think there's a plethora of self appointed groups and gatekeepers out there, particularly when it comes to this genre. And unfortunately, it's too often a case of the blind leading the blind.

Instead of just studying the masters, many of these young-uns will casually refer to them and then use their own photos trying to desperately mimic said masters in order to accentuate their own photography and 'lessons' concerning their newly acquired artistry. It can border on the ludicrous, particularly when you see some of these fairly recent practitioners as actual... judges of the genre.

Case in point: one newbie wrote a post on PetaPixel a couple of years back inviting readers to join him on his journey as a developing street photographer- experience and share the challenges, progress and victories of a budding young artist... learn, grow and experience together. Fair enough, sounds good! A few months later, sure enough, he was advertising for his very own street photography 'workshops.' An "l," an "o," and an "l."

One thing however is certain as you well point out- it is a highly competitive genre with no discernible market. And that's kinda worthy of study itself...

Love you, Kirk. :)

Obviously on the opposite side of low energy!

I noticed that there were a lot of comments which mentioned street photography so I did a count. 24 comments so far and 5 mentions of street photography.

Those responses asked questions about your thoughts on street photography, whether YouTuber street photographers using film Leica M's with 28mm lenses were foretelling the end of street photography, and composition. Your only comment, to Pete Komar, was brief but hinted at some interesting thoughts on what makes a good street photography and why the genre is so easy to work in and so difficult to do well.

How about a longer, considered post about street photography including on its beginnings and ongoing artistic development, what makes a good street photography, and where you think it may be heading.

Personally I think street photography is alive and well. I think the best work being done today is just as good as the best work done at any time during the history of street photography and I think there's more of it being done than at any earlier time. If as you and Alex Webb both say, street photography is 99.9% failure, a view I have no reason to doubt, then given that a lot more street photographs are being taken today than at any other time in the history of street photography there are definitely going to be more great street photographs being taken but we have to work our way through a lot more poor results to find those great results. The standard only seems to be higher in prior decades because it's easier to come across the great photos from those periods than it is to come across the bulk of the poorer ones, time does a great job of culling what we can see. It just hadn't had a chance to press the Delete button for 99.9 % of the photos being taken today but it will eventually get there.

Kirk should have added Los Angeles to the cities to visit for galleries and museums showing photography.
We've got the Getty Museum that devotes a full floor of one of the buildings to photography and has had shows on some of the earliest photography to recent work. Riverside has the UC Riverside Museum of Photography, and LACMA, the new Academy Movie Museum, the Vincent Price and practically every other museum features photography.
In LA, there are so many art galleries that my wife keeps a spreadsheet of them so we don't miss exhibitions. Many feature photography, but Fahey Klein downtown and Peter Fetterman and Danziger at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica are specialists.
We even host several photo shows each year.
Hey, we're more than Disneyland and the beach!

Well Kirk has given you the jackpot! That should keep you, and us, busy for a while! An area that I've been curious about lately relates to the process of Libraries and Museum's "acquiring" photographic bodies of work. What does that transaction look like in its various forms?

Maybe talk about how we all peak and plateau at some point, we stop improving. Eventually we seem to reach some inherent limit on how good we can get, work though we might. Like - your writing probably improved up to some point, and then you became what you are, you didn't keep going up to the Leo Tolstoy level (no offense).

Re. Kirk’s comments about going to galleries to look at photos: I seem to be doing this less and less. What has happened since I retired is that I have started visiting art galleries to look at paintings. I even make significant trips to do this - a couple of trips to London already this year, for example, to visit the National Gallery (to look at Dutch Golden Age art) and Tate Britain to look at 19th century British art - Pre-Raphelites, popular art (Frith, John Martin) and late century classical-inspired art (Alma-Tadema, Leighton). All extraordinary stuff.

One thing has struck me - the art I prefer has lots of detail; it’s sharp, if you like. Is that because I’m used to viewing photographs for so many years, or does both liking photographs and detailed paintings spring from some deep preference in my mind? I’ve never been able to get Impressionism, for instance, let alone Van Gogh or Gauguin. Yet Surrealism (Dali, Magritte), Cubism (Picasso, Metzinger), and other types of modern art definitely attract.

Mike, thank you for a typically thoughtful, honest and surprising answer to my question about print pricing. And I have to agree with others that this is an amazing and rewarding thread to read through.

One of Kirk's questions caught my attention: Whether brick-and-mortar photographic galleries would return. My personal and inexpert observation (based solely on occasional trips to New York City and Philadelphia) is that while there may be fewer photographic galleries than there once were, there are more photographs and photographic exhibitions to be found in art galleries than there once were, whether private galleries, major museums, coffeehouses, etc.

Perhaps now that photography is widely accepted as an art medium, there's just less need for dedicated photographic galleries. (A case of "be careful what you wish for?")

Another reason there likely won't be a broad resurgence is that despite our constant warnings or harping about digital screens, prints translate far more readily to 2D screens than other kinds of art, quite often accurately enough for a potential buyer to judge whether she wants to see more such work in person, which is a big reason to show in a gallery. The kicker is that despite its shortcomings, that digital representation is astronomically more accessible than anything hanging on a wall.

But no worries--photography has successfully infiltrated just about every other form of physical venue for current art.

"Got any photography questions? You'll be helping me out."
You should ask this question more often. This entire thread is a goldmine!
Regarding my previous question about whether you'd consider writing a book on B&W, and you asked, "Film, or digital, or both?" I say Yes!
I appreciate the effort that would be involved and the front-loading you mentioned, but perhaps setting up a GoFundMe would help you gauge interest. I'll be one of the first to sign up. You could even release the book(s) in installments. Here's to hoping!

What is best way to display photos which allow you to change the images very frequently.

[I guess you'd need to define that. Do you mean change once a month, or once every ten seconds? Both could be described as "very frequently." And, what kind of photos? Digital or prints? --Mike]

Digital prints and every 2 or 3 weeks. Thanks

Not a question, just a comment. I like, among many other likable things about TOP, when you perform a bit "photography course professor-y" here. For example, I'd be more than okay with you posting every Sunday (? Monday?) an artificial photo challenge exercise for the week. You, in a way, do this with your Baker's Dozen and your "mail me a print" features, but those toss a big big task back to you-- to curate or to critique-- and, though that is awesome too, I think we'd all be okay with just being given a once weekly challenge (monthly? occasional?) without you being burdened to give us feedback.

I suppose that if you wanted the exercise to lead to a regular post, you could end the challenge by commenting on a photograph at the end of that week. It wouldn't have to be one of ours. It could be an example you found ahead of time, one that inspired that week's challenge, that you then can talk over just for fun. I suppose you could allow us to then comment on the post with our photos from the week, maybe. Or not.

Just thinking of more fun TOP ideas. You are perpetually the teacher. It comes across in your writing. We like it.

Now that you are using a B&W sensor, I am curious about your exposure process and if it might in any way be related to the old school of Zone System film photography? In photography school we shot film and learned a basic version of the zone system for exposing film correctly (expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights) and for finding the right ISO for our camera and film processing system.
I have not purposely shot B&W digital as I still shoot B&W film. So, I am curious to know your thoughts on exposure. Perhaps, the latitude for sensors is now wider than film and so it’s not as much of issue? But as I understand it, there is more of a concern with blown out highlights with digital.
So, when you’re framing up one of your beautiful landscapes with a wide latitude of tones, where are you ‘placing zone 5’ and what are the tools for arriving at that decision? Using the histogram or shooting multiple exposures?

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