Photography

My favorite things of 2010


At the end of 2009 I put together a quick list of things I liked from the year. Earlier in December some friends asked if I would be making a similar list this year. And indeed, I have made one, and it is more ambitious than last year’s in its scope, volume, and design. Check it out here.

Inevitably, there are some things that I would like to mention that I liked during the year but, for one reason or another, didn’t quite make the list. Here are the honorable mentions:

Henri Cartier-Bresson at the MoMA — I’ve only gotten a quick preview of this show, but it’s very promising, and I can’t wait to take the time to really take it in. Without Bresson, the sort of photography I practice wouldn’t even be possible, so I’m looking forward to the chance to see so many of his prints in person.

Audrey Tautou — I love her acting, her films, her style, and the fact that she uses a Leica to photograph people she meets.

Difficulty — This one really should have been on the list, but I chose to write it into a couple other entries. I feel like we’ve become less and less patient when it comes to difficult things—people, art, technology, and work. But one of the things I learned in my life as a reader is that difficulty often conceals great value. And that’s something I remembered in 2010. Difficulty is something to engage with, not run away from, because the rewards for doing so can be so great. It’s closely related to insistent compassion and creating possibilities, which both made the list. You can find someone difficult to know and just throw your hands up and walk away or you can insistently try to know them because, perhaps, their worth will justify their difficulty. You can leave Gaddis and Proust and Foster Wallace and Pynchon on the shelf because their books are too long and confusing or you can take the time to read them and, perhaps, find yourself changed. And, ah ha, wouldn’t that be worth any level of difficulty?

Yanidel — The street photographer Yanick Delafoge calls himself Yanidel, and his post-processing techniques produce a look that it utterly unique and European and brilliant. I especially enjoy his photographs from Paris.

Cosi on rue de Seine in Paris — In April I returned here for the first time in nearly nine years. It still serves the best sandwiches in the world.

Ken Griffey, Jr. — He was the hottest minor league prospect in baseball at the time when I really became fanatical about the sport, and I followed his entire career until it ended this summer. His swing was beautiful, and he should go down as the greatest player of his generation. I got to see him play in the 2007 All-Star game when he started in the same outfield as Barry Bonds in San Francisco, something I’ll never forget.

Subjective Time — This is the simple but not often cited concept of how we experience time subjectively in relation to our age. It’s no secret that time seems to pass faster as we get older, but it’s not commonly known that this concept has been scientifically studied and verified. In fact, there’s even an equation that describes one’s perception of time based on her age. Given current average life expectancies in the Unites States, we feel like we’ve lived half of our lives before the age of 20. Twenty is the subjective halfway point of our lives. It’s no wonder that it seems like such a formative age!

Concord, Massachusetts — Walden Pond, Mount Misery, Sleepy Hollow, and ridiculously large servings of ice cream—and only a 30-minute drive from Cambridge!

Love and Its Opposite by Tracey Thorn — That no one else writes songs about the disappointments of middle age makes this a unique album. That Tracey Thorn does so with brilliance and nuance makes it spectacular.

Printing Photos — So much better than storing them in the “cloud.”

Generation Why? by Zadie Smith — This is one of the better things that has been written about online culture, i.e. what the Internet has done to our culture.

J.D. Salinger — Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.

Don’t forget to read the final list. Click on the images to reveal the descriptions. And click on the Away arrow to open the page for a random favorite.

My year in photos

This was the first year of my life that I documented more with my photography than with my writing, especially if that whole picture = 1,000 words equation is true. Here are some of the things I saw in 2010, arranged, more or less, chronologically. For those of you who are curious about gear, I took most of the shots with a Leica M7, Leica M8, or Panasonic GF1.

Using HDR Efex Pro for the first time

I use Nik’s Color Efex Pro and Silver Efex Pro quite a bit for post processing my photos, so I felt compelled to try out their new HDR software. Unfortunately, I don’t have exposure-bracketed shots that I took with the intention of making an HDR image. So, I took a couple photos I had from a hike to Mount Misery last month and put them into HDR Efex to see what it could make of them. The conditions under which I shot these photos were not ideal—I handheld them and took my rangefinder camera away from my eye to adjust the shutter speed in between shots—but the result from only two shots is not disappointing. See below for the HDR image and the original two photos that HDR Efex combined to make it.


40mm Leica Summicron-C: The best cheap Leica lens

Steve Huff recently posted his choice for the best budget Leica lens, the 35mm f/2.5 Summarit-M. It’s the second least expensive lens in Leica’s current lineup, and I agree that it’s the best bargain new M-mount lens you can get from Leica.[1. The company’s least expensive new lens, the 50mm Summarit-M doesn’t quite render as nicely as the 35mm version from this line. However, it’s still a bargain, and you find find used copies of the 50mm Summarit for as low as $600 on eBay.] However, one of the great things about shooting Leica is that there’s a robust secondary market for lenses. And for the price of a new 35mm Summarit, you can purchase a faster f/2.0 used 35mm or 50mm Summicron. You can even get the pre-ASPH version of the 35mm lens that people refer to as the “Bokeh King.” In fact, there are several used Leica lenses you can purchase for the same cost of or less  than a brand new Summarit.

My favorite, and what I believe to be the best bargain lens for any camera system is the 40mm f/2.0 Leica Summicron-C. This lens was made for the Leica CL, and you can get used copies for $250-$400 depending on condition. (Note that the 40mm Minolta Rokkor-M is, essentially, the same lens with its own nickname, the “water lens.”) However, it will, contrary to what you might hear, work on any modern M-mount body. It renders very much like the 35mm Summicron but can be had for about 75% less. Put it on an M8, and it effectively becomes a 50mm lens with the 1.33x crop factor. The only problem is that most M bodies do not have 40mm framelines. However, it’s simple to modify the 40mm lens to bring up the 35mm framelines, which are more accurate and even precisely so on the original M8.

Moreover, the 40mm is probably the lightest, smallest lens Leica has made in the past 40 years. Mounted on a camera body, it makes for a very small, perfect package. The filter size is a little odd; a modern 39mm filter won’t screw all the way in, but it attaches well enough, and I’ve never had any problems with my filter coming loose or falling out. Finally, this lens works quite well as a portrait lens with the 2x crop factor of the Micro Four-Thirds system. If you’re looking to purchase a copy, check eBay and KEH. They both often have these lenses available, though you may pay a premium on KEH.

Here are some sample photos from the 40mm Summicron-C.

Rediscovering film with the Leica M7


Six years ago I gave up shooting film entirely and made my transition to digital photography complete. In the process, I moved from an SLR with nice lenses to a series of point-and-shoots whose convenience, I thought, compensated for their subpar image quality. Eventually, I gave those cameras up and moved on to more robust digital cameras…a couple of which have inspired me quite a bit. So last week when I had the chance to shoot a couple rolls of film with a Leica M7, I wasn’t expecting much, having not shot any film since 2004.

I took the camera to cocktail night at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, a fun event where admission gets you unlimited drinks and appetizers from some of the best bartenders and chefs in San Francisco. This is the organization that puts on the event, and I encourage everyone to attend, if they do another one.

Before I could go or shoot anything, I had to load up the film, which is quite easy. Some people complain about it being more difficult than it is in other cameras with a rear door that flips out. Perhaps, this matters for critical jobs where you need to reload film very, very quickly, but it didn’t bother me at all, nor did I find loading the film slow in any way. I’ll have a video of the process up later.

A few years ago in the New Yorker, Anthony Lane described the sound of a Leica shutter as a seductive kiss. I had never handled a film Leica M series camera before last week, and I have to say that Lane’s ostensibly cheesy observation is dead-on. After I loaded my first roll of Kodak Portra 400VC in the camera and advanced it a couple frames, I thought there was something wrong with the shutter. “Why isn’t it making more noise?” I asked myself. Seduction begins with a little mystery, I suppose.

Handling the camera was great, especially with one of Gordy’s wrist straps. It just feels absolutely right when you’re holding it. And I had mounted on it my favorite lens of all time, Leica’s 50mm f/2.0 Summicron. To test it out before going to the Ferry Building, I took it to Elite Sports soccer store on Haight, where Boone and I watched Spain defeat Germany in the World Cup.

One of the great things about the Leica M cameras is that you can shoot them at very low shutter speeds—even with the 50mm lens, I can reliably get shots as slow as 1/10 second. It’s like having a faster lens or better high ISO performance or just, generally, an extra stop! This comes in quite useful indoors where light is usually low. With the exception of the first shot below on the street, I don’t think any of these were taken at speeds above 1/50 of a second. Normally, on an SLR with a 50mm lens mounted, that would be the minimum shutter speed that someone could expect to use—here, it was my maximum shutter speed.

Another thing I like about the M7 is the viewfinder. It’s bright and the focusing patch is fairly easy to align in most conditions. The camera I was using had a viewfinder with 0.72x magnification. As I don’t find much use for wide angle lenses, I think a 0.85x viewfinder would suit me even better.[1. I tried out someone’s M3 last weekend. It has a 0.92x viewfinder, which means that things appear nearly life-sized when you look through it. That would be perfect for shooting 50mm lenses.]

Looking through the viewfinder, I was able to wait until I saw something I wanted to photograph, whether it was someone walking through the frame or an already framed subject looking towards the camera or smiling. The viewfinder is easily the brightest on any camera I’ve ever used, so I feel like my perspective on a given scene is not particularly compromised even though I’m looking through it. Conversely, when I’m looking through an SLR’s viewfinder, I feel less a part of my surroundings. When I’m looking at a liveview LCD viewfinder on the back of a digital camera, I feel like I’m somehow watching a cropped, delayed, and pixelated version of what’s really happening in front of me. Not so with the M7.

Because I was shooting film—expensive film that would need to be developed at additional cost—I was patient waiting for shots I was anticipating. I tried to avoid wasting a single frame, although I inevitably did because of user error, though not user intent. I spent more time thinking about what I was doing rather than blindly snapping away.[2. Okay, I admit I took one shot from the hip. It didn’t work out so well, and knowing the odds that that would be the case, I regretted it almost immediately.]

The big advantage of the M7 over other M series cameras is that it has an aperture priority mode. I found this quite useful, as I could focus my concentration on controlling the depth of field and framing of my shots. Some Leica purists eschew the aperture priority mode, but I think it’s a nice convenience. Not using it or overriding it is easy on the M7, which has Leica’s traditional shutter speed dial.

Shooting, with a Leica, as many others have noted, makes you slow down. It makes you more careful about composition and exposure. And shooting with film compounds those effects. In general, I’ve spent the past few months trying to regain two abilities I feel I’ve lost in the Internet age—that to be patient—to delay gratification—and that to concentrate on something for an extended period of time.

Digital photography conditions us to expect instant gratification, providing us with instant previews of our images. In some cases, this is useful and helps us get the shot we wanted. However, more often it’s simply a distraction from doing the thing we should be focused on—taking photographs. Is there any other activity in which people so immediately evaluate their performance with such scrutiny as photographers checking the LCD image previews on their cameras? It’s like watching an instant replay of yourself walking down the street. Perhaps, it’s useful if you’re, say, recovering from an injury, but, probably, it will just make you miss the door that’s about to open right in your face.

When I had the M7, all I was thinking about was taking pictures. I was fully engaged with the process because it’s all the M7 could do. I couldn’t change the ISO or the saturation or the scene mode, and I definitely couldn’t review my images. How difficult it has become to engage so fully with an activity, to limit yourself thus! And yet, who would disagree that doing so is more valuable and memorable than not?

Moreover, the M7 makes this process entirely pleasurable. It’s small enough to take anywhere, and, combined with one of Gordy’s wrist straps, can stay in your hand for hours at a time, unlike an SLR. It feels like a well-made object because it is one. Everything from focusing the lens to advancing the film and releasing the shutter feels completely, wonderfully satisfying in a way that no other camera I’ve used before does. The shutter is the quietest I’ve heard. Approach a scene, lift the camera to your eye, focus, frame, kiss.

It isn’t just the process that blew me away; the results were awesome. I waited with anticipation for the local lab to develop and print my film. What would it look like? What surprises lay in store? I can say that I felt my patience was rewarded. Even though their content is boring, the prints I got back from the lab had a contrast and vividness that makes them look not only unlike digital images, but cinematic in a way that I absolutely love—rich, textured, almost tactile. Unfortunately, getting to that result means paying a lab for developing and printing, which is why I don’t think I can shoot exclusively on film. My digital color management and workflow isn’t quite yet at the point where I can use film scans to produce prints that are as good as those I received from the lab.

Despite the costs, the joy I had shooting with the M7 and the cinematic quality of the prints I got from the roll of Portra have convinced me that film still has a place in my photography. Now to find a suitable M-mount body for myself—[3. The Zeiss Ikon and the Leica M6 both seem like viable options.]


Here are some images I scanned with my Nikon CoolScan. Unfortunately, this line of film scanners from Nikon is no longer available, and prices on the secondary market are high. My friend CK over at 39 East Photography uses the Epson V700, which he highly recommends and which can can larger batches of negative strips than the Nikon, saving you time. And we all know that time is money.

Next time I’ll share my thoughts on the Leica S2, which I was able to borrow from Leica for a weekend when I was in France earlier this year.

Here’s Lori waiting for the bus to go downtown.

Boone and Eric at cocktail night. The print of this image had a very cinematic feel to it, which I liked.

Boone at home.

I even liked the images that showed more of the film grain.

This bruschetta was very good.

Some of the drinks contained odd ingredients, such as sausage, beef stock, mango, and sandwiches!

This man sat next to me to watch the Spain vs. Germany game at the soccer store on Haight.

This boy watches his team get dismissed from the World Cup moments after his mom had purchased a Germany soccer jersey for him.

I even shot a roll of Kodak Tri-X, and made this print in the darkroom. Unfortunately, I was too lazy to do the work necessary to make a more contrasty print.

One final image of the M7.

One day a week: Ann Curry on photography

I watched this segment when it aired on the Today show a couple months ago. In it, Ann Curry discusses her passion for photography and gives the best advice you’ll receive all day: “All of us can find peace even in the chaos of our own lives if we can find that one thing we care so much about that it helps us breathe more deeply. For me, it’s taking pictures.” Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that she shoots with an M9.


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Yanidel street photography Aperture presets

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I’m a big fan of Yanidel’s photo blog of his street photography in Paris. I’ve long tried to get a similar look to his photos by decreasing the desaturation slider and then selectively increasing the saturation of colors or spots in my photos. However, I’m nowhere near as good at it as he is. I recently posted on DPReview’s forum about this issue, and Ian Wood responded to me by creating a few Aperture presents that achieve a baseline for Yanidel’s look. You can download the Yanidel Street Photography presets for Aperture. I tested them out tonight, and you can see the results here.