Monthly Archives: September 2015

Highway 17 Around Superior

I just got back from Thunder Bay, and while I could have flown, I prefer the drive, especially once I get north of Sault Ste Marie and start following the shoreline of Lake Superior. You might think that the reason I like the drive has something to do with stunning scenery. I guess it would if it weren’t for the camera around my neck. Photographically speaking, stunning scenery doesn’t do it for me anymore. In the modern world of HDR images, landscapes have taken on a plastic quality. They’ve stopped being interesting. In my view, what redeems landscapes are the other points of interest happening within them. Landscapes are merely frames. Sometimes pretty frames. But frames just the same.

Pruce's Motor Inn

I enjoy photographing the ruins scattered throughout Northern Ontario. A fire breaks out and, afterwards, it seems to take years to deal with the wreckage. The owners simply walk away. The buildings persist, ghostlike, offering a dumb testimony of livelier times. They challenge our assumptions about the natural rugged landscapes of the north.

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Posted in Heart Tagged , , , , |

The All Important Question

Sooner or later, every street photographer has to confront the gnawing question: am I an asshole? Always, there will be people who see you with your camera and accuse you of being a stalker. They call you a pervert or a voyeur. You respond with high-minded talk about documenting the cultural moment for the benefit of future generations, or about the aesthetic of street that captures the soul of local culture. But as with all creatives, doubt eats away at your high-minded talk; maybe it’s all bullshit. Worse: maybe your work is garbage.

It doesn’t help when word comes over the wire that a man from a nearby neighbourhood has just been convicted of mischief for using a concealed camera to photograph women’s backsides or, as the Toronto Star article so genteelly puts it, their derrieres.

News like this has a chilling effect on the legitimate activities of street photographers. But, doubt being what it is, you begin to wonder if there are any activities left to a photographer that qualify as legitimate. Maybe the line has been redrawn and now you find yourself standing on the wrong side of it. The chill sets in when, rather than ask questions about where your work falls in relation to that line, you play it safe and share only your work that’s nice and inoffensive. Pretty soon, your work has all the kitschiness of a Disney feature film.

But before you get too self-critical, maybe you should take a look at the article to see if there are ways to distinguish what that photographer did from what you do. Maybe there’s still room for some edge in your work without being a complete asshole.

First, there’s the element of concealment. That seems to be important to the finding of mischief. Most street photographers tend to be unobtrusive, opting for a mirrorless camera with a small body, but they don’t go so far as to shoot with a hidden camera. Still, one wonders if it’s fair to presume mischief from concealment. Think of Walker Evans’ 1966 book, Many Are Called, featuring photographs he shot with a hidden camera while riding the New York subways. Maybe mischievous intent shouldn’t be inferred from the fact of concealment but from the results of that concealment: the photos themselves.

Second there is the question of a sexual purpose. The judge even cites Robert Mapplethorpe. Maybe he wants us to think he’s, like, attuned, you know, to aesthetic stuff. He acknowledges that images of derrieres can be concerned with form rather than titillation. And since he can’t say for sure that the secretive photographer was shooting backsides for solely sexual purposes, he dismisses the more serious charge of voyeurism.

Personally, I feel some empathy for the accused. While I believe that shooting women’s backsides with a hidden camera is a douchy thing to do, I can see how my own photographic activities, no matter how benign my intentions, could easily be interpreted against me.

How about this photo? I couldn’t help myself. In my favour, I shot it in a public space, the camera wasn’t concealed, and the woman’s identity isn’t obvious. But, undeniably, I have shot her backside. On which side of the public mischief line does this photo place me?

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Let’s push it a little further. Here’s a photo of a young woman, including her derriere. As before, I shot it in a public space, the camera wasn’t concealed, and the woman’s identity isn’t obvious. But there’s a tripod stuck between her legs and the whole arrangement can be interpreted in classically Freudian terms. In my favour, the woman is a photographer trying to do the street thing herself. She can’t very well run around with a camera and complain when someone takes her picture.

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One more shot to explore the question of interpretation. It’s an apparently benign image from Toronto’s Buskerfest. But a particular kind of interpretation is more apt to arise if the photograph appears in a context where that interpretation is expected. For example, in an article discussing mischief and voyeurism, all kinds of interpretations seem plausible.

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Playing with MacPhun Software

I recently bought a suite of photo “enhancement” apps from MacPhun. I use the word enhancement in quotes because I feel conflicted about such tools. They make it easy to inflict an endless array of cheesy effects on unsuspecting photos.

The “to app or not to app” debate reminds me of an episode from the novel, Diva, by Delacorta (Daniel Odier), which also appears as a scene in the movie of the same name. The opera singer, Cynthia Hawkins, is giving a statement to the press when a reporter asks why she refuses to record her performances. She answers that the performance is a special moment which a recording can never capture. She then mentions Glenn Gould by way of contrast. Gould famously refused to perform and devoted himself, instead, to the post-production process.

A analogous debate has raged in the world of photography since the discovery that film negatives could be manipulated. But what was once an esoteric art practised by a handful of darkroom geeks is now accessible to anyone who owns a smart phone. And so the debate has gained new force. Purists insist that everything rests on the process; their aim is a Platonic photograph captured fully formed in camera without the need for post-processing manipulation. The rest of us aren’t so skillful or we’re lazy or we like to play with all the latest digital tools. We draw an analogy to Glenn Gould and wonder: if the object is to produce a compelling image, what difference does it make which process we use to create the image?

My position in this debate? I begin with the observation that recent developments in camera technology make photography almost idiot proof. Auto-focus has become blazingly fast. In fact, it’s possible to dispense with focus altogether. The Lytro Illum allows you to take your photo and decide what to pull into focus after the fact. Add to that the proposed technology that would allow you to take perfect HDR images every time, and it becomes impossible to take a technically bad photo. Stripped of technical challenges, all that remains for photography are creative challenges. Composition and post-processing.

Maybe purists will insist on using old cameras so they can claim bragging rights for all the technical challenges they’ve overcome. But for those who adopt new tools and still want to call themselves purists, all that remains to them of creativity in the process is composition. Personally, I find that unnecessarily limiting. I like to play.

With a name like MacPhun, you get the feeling this app developer panders to people who like to play (especially if they are Mac users). Each of the tools in the suite can function as a plugin in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. Although they aren’t non-destructive editing tools as you’d find in Lightroom, they get around this problem by automatically making a copy of your image source file and editing the copy instead. (The downside of this is that a copy in .tif format of a 50 megapixel image can be as large as 250 Mb and I begrudge the space.)

What follows are before and after shots to illustrate some MacPhun possibilities using 4 of the 5 tools. (The 5th is SnapHeal Pro which you don’t need if you have Photoshop but would be useful for people using other image editing software.)

First, let’s play with Tonality Pro, an app for conversion to black and white. To illustrate, here’s a shot of a horse eating grass framed by another horse eating grass. It’s compositionally interesting, but not a great shot because I was facing the technical challenge of shooting into the shadow side of a dark subject. But convert it black and white and use the handy slider to reduce the shadow and the result is vastly improved.

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Next are a couple samples using Focus Pro. In the first, I apply a tilt-shift effect to a rooftop scene in Paris. In a way, Focus Pro allows you to simulate the Lytro Illum camera. If you shoot with a small enough aperture so that most of the image is in focus, then that gives you a lot to play with in post-processing. In this case, I angled the plane of the tilt from bottom left third to top right corner. It produces the “toy town” effect, especially in the trees, that is characteristic of tilt shift lenses.

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I used Focus Pro to try a different effect with an image I took last weekend at Toronto’s Buskerfest. I mask the woman in the foreground, then give everything else a motion blur. Again, what makes it work is the fact that I shot the source image with a narrow aperture – f/11 – so I could start with most everything in focus.

Toronto Buskerfest 2015

Toronto Buskerfest 2015

Intensify Pro is probably the most dangerous of the apps because it’s the one with all the cheesy HDR possibilities. Use with moderation. I’ve applied a moderate “punch” to a photo I took during this year’s Pride celebrations. It brings out the colours in the umbrellas and their reflections in the wet pavement. Too much? Maybe. The app also allows for black and white conversion.

Boys Holding Hands

Boys Holding Hands

Finally, a sample using Noiseless Pro, a tool for reducing (or increasing) noise. I shot these fireworks from Ward Island across the Toronto Harbour at the end of the PanAm Games. I was shooting at ISO 1250. (Despite Canon’s advertising, I find the 5DS doesn’t handle low light as well as other DSLRs, not even as well as the Mark III.) I reduce the noise in the sky, then use Intensify Pro to give the colours some punch.

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Bottom line: it’s a decent suite and works effectively (and efficiently) as a plugin to Adobe products. If you have self-control, it can be applied to make subtle enhancements to your images.

You may not need the full suite. SnapHeal seems unnecessary. There are black and white conversion and de-noisifying tools in Intensify Pro so you can probably dispense with Tonality Pro and Noiseless Pro. All the apps are available on a trial basis, so you can judge based on your own needs.

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