appropriate quality

In learning photography, technical and aesthetic considerations feed upon one another.

Both are a matter of practice, except that the technical side is easier to discuss and to analyze.

With any luck, what happens is that as your pictures improve aesthetically, you become more and more aware of how they can be improved technically, and you learn how to make these improvements.

If you get it wrong, though, there is a serious danger of falling into one of two traps. One is that you ignore the technical side as too difficult or too irrelevant: you press your wrist to your brow and say, "I have no need of this! I am an Artist!" (You can always hear the capital A). The other is that you end up photographing only test charts and grey cards, often trying a wild profusion of films and developers, in a search for a perfection that doesn't exist. Actually taking pictures is something that falls by the wayside.

Obviously a middle course is far more desirable than either extreme. It is a fair comment that a great picture can survive truly rotten technical quality, and most of us take at least the occasional picture of this kind. But a picture that is good, without being outstanding, generally benefits from as much technical quality as the photographer can muster.

 

 

 

At the other extreme, there are technically perfect pictures, of exquisite sharpness and tonality, that are simply not worth looking at: they are sterile and dull, and might as well be of a test chart or a grey card.

Two chairs

This is the sort of picture where you need all the quality you can muster in terms of tonality and texture: without a certain standard of quality, there is no picture here at all. The easiest way to get better quality is by using a larger format: here, Roger used a 6x6cm KowaSIX SLR with standard 85/2.8 lens, shooting on Maco Cube 400. Frances printed it on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone. Even so, it would have benefited from using the camera on a tripod, instead of hand held, which would have allowed more depth of field with no risk of camera shake.

fooling yourself

It is easy to try to persuade yourself that technical shortcomings don't matter: that the picture is technically adequate, even if you know, in your heart of hearts, that it is not.

What is less obvious is that you can also fool yourself in the opposite direction, persuading yourself that a picture is technically inadequate even when it would be regarded as good or excellent by the vast majority of photographers, and probably even more highly regarded by non-photographers.

After many years of experience, we would say that both approaches are equally dangerous, and that it is extremely important to separate the aesthetic and technical merits of a picture.

A picture that is aesthetically very pleasing can, as we have suggested above, survive a great deal -- though eventually, it must still hit a sort of 'quality wall' where the quality is unacceptable, no matter how good the aesthetics. We actually keep a file of what we call 'favourite failures', pictures that almost (but not quite) make it.

 

Sailing Barge 'Celtic', Barge Museum, Sittingbourne

Yes, this picture could be technically better. It is, after all, a 35mm shot. A larger format -- 6x7cm, 6x9cm, 4x5 inch, 5x7 inch -- could have delivered even better sharpness and tonality. But the point is, we probably wouldn't have shot it on one of the larger formats, and the quality we have here is, in our opinion, more than adequate.

Paterson Acupan 200 film (still available as Fomapan 200), developed in Paterson FX-50 developer, delivered exquisite tonality and did full justice to the sharpness of the 50/1.5 Voigtländer Nokton which Roger used (with a 2x yellow B+W filter) on his Voigtländer Bessa-R. In the original print you can trace the weave of the fibres in the ropes.

Frances made the print on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone, then toned it lightly in Fotospeed selenium toner.

 

 

We are also acutely aware that some of our pictures have the opposite fault: if they were not technically of a very high quality, they would be uncommonly dull. This fault is not unknown among the American 'pseudo-wilderness' school of photographers who model themselves on Ansel Adams. Many produce excellent pictures, but they would be excellent even without large format cameras and the paraphernalia of the Zone System. Others produce pictures that are moderately attractive, but which would be the dreariest record shots in the absence of their authors' undoubted technical prowess.

aesthetic failures

As well as keeping an eye out for technical failures, it is worth thinking hard about aesthetic failures. This is much more personal than technical failings, but for us, there are two particularly irritating kinds. One is the kind of picture where something creeps in unnoticed, and the other is the picture that isn't quite right because we chose the wrong subject.

unwanted picture elements

The classic example of this is the tree growing out of someone's head, but almost as prevalent is the unnoticed sign pointing to the nearest public toilet, etc. Then there are the things that we don't notice at the side of the image...

 

Beach umbrellas, Rhodes

There are two problems in the picture as taken (near right): the disembodied foot that intrudes on the left and the sloping horizon (as the old joke has it, ideal for water-skiing).

Fortunately, thanks to the wonders of Adobe Photoshop, the picture can be cropped and trued up (big picture, far right).

The picture has also been very slightly warmed up, with a touch of yellow and a very tiny amount of red. Roger shot the picture on Agfachrome 100 with his Leica M4-P and 35/1.4 Summilux.

 

 

 

bypassing technical shortcomings

Perhaps 'bypassing' isn't the right word. What we are talking about is taking pictures that minimize technical disadvantages, or even make a feature of them.

The most obvious example is probably soft focus. Most people want their pictures to be as sharp as possible. But there are plenty of pictures where absence of bitingly sharp focus is either no disadvantage, or a positive advantage.

 

 

The classic commercial example of the latter is wedding photography, where the bride's mother (in particular) will not thank you if every line is drawn with unrelenting clarity. A 'fine art' variation on softness is dreamy, romantic travel shots, or even still lifes.

 

Congress Hotel, Miami Beach

An 18-70mm zoom on a 6-megapixel digital camera, even when both are from such an excellent manufacturer as Nikon, will not deliver the same image quality as our Leica and Voigtländer lenses on film. But 'not the same'  does not necessarily mean the same as 'inferior'. To our eyes, digital images always have a slightly airbrushed quality to them, a smoothing out of fine texture; but for a subject such as this, where shape and line are all and texture is secondary, this hardly matters. Roger shot this on the D70.

Or for another example, 'empty' black shadows are anathema to many. But often in portraiture, and in some kinds of reportage, you either don't care about an absence of detail in the shadows or you actually want to suppress detail. For that matter, in the picture of the chairs, above, there is very little shadow detail visible in the darkest part of the original print (and none at all on most computer monitors). This was a conscious choice: the detail is there on the negative, but you don't have to print all the detail that is available to you.

Or again, consider blur due to camera shake or subject movement. Usually, this is a problem. But sometimes -- just sometimes -- it can create moods that simply could not be captured by a razor-sharp image.

Examples can be multiplied almost without number: colour balance, big grain, excessive contrast, very light prints, very dark prints, and so forth. For many kinds of pictures, faults are just that: faults. But with the right picture, a fault can be transmuted to a virtue.

 

 

Agfa 1000S

As far as we recall, this was shot in Crete, and the buildings are old windmills stripped of their sails; but we have to confess to our shame that we are not sure. The important thing, though, is that it is typical of the now-vanished generation of E6 slide films that gave ISO 1000 with normal processing. We had quite a weakness for these films: the only thing that stopped us using them more often was their cost, which was high. Nowadays, too, one can come close to the same effects via Photoshop. The point is simply that big grain, low contrast and poor saturation are usually things to avoid in colour, but sometimes they can contribute to the mood of a picture -- and therefore to its quality. Roger, Leica M, 35/1.4 Summilux.

enlargement sizes

Blow up a picture and you blow up its faults. Everyone has had the experience of getting 4 x 6 inch/10 x 15cm pictures back from the lab; selecting one that looks wonderful; and then finding that it loses its magic at 8x10 inch or 18x24cm.

Sometimes this is a matter of pure aesthetics: you lose the magical, jewel-like quality of the original, and it becomes too literal. More often, though, it is because of a lack of sharpness that is only apparent in the bigger enlargement; or grain that suddenly becomes obtrusive; or (especially with black and white) the half-tone effect.

The solution is of course simple. Don't over-enlarge your pictures. We firmly believe that every picture has a size that it 'wants' to be, and that this is only partly a result of the intention of the photographer.

It's a bit like characters in a novel. Many novelists will tell you that they take on a life of their own. Even though they are made up, there are certain ways they must react in order to remain consistent and in character. Photographs are the same: they have their own internal logic.

 

Deadline, PMA

A moderately amusing little snapshot, but not outstandingly sharp: you certainly wouldn't want to blow it up very big. So don't! Roger used his MP and 35/1.4 Summilux for this picture, shooting on Kodak Elite Chrome 100 EBX.

 

 

silver and digital

Some say that it doesn't matter what equipment you use to take a picture: a picture is a picture is a picture.

There is just enough truth in this statement to make it dangerous. No, it doesn't matter -- for some pictures of some subjects. But equally, the camera you use will affect the way you take pictures, and will shape the pictures you take.

It does this in three ways. The first is via the actual handling and performance of the camera; the second, via the aspirations that the camera engenders in the photographer; and the third, via the photographer's own comfort level in handling the camera.

 

Ruined spa, Slovenia

Trying to shoot black and white with a digital camera is, as far as we are concerned, more trouble than it is worth. The tonality almost never looks right; the cameras are a lot more expensive and a lot less reliable; and besides, we just like film better. Unsurprisingly, we find that the happier we are with a camera, the better the results we get.

handling and performance

This is most easily seen via a reductio ad absurdum, comparing a Leica and an 8x10 inch view camera. The Leica is small, light and fast handling, and is normally used hand-held. You can bang off an entire roll of 36 frames in the time it takes to set up the 8x10 inch camera on its tripod, compose, set the movements, insert the film holder, pull the slide and take the picture.

On the other hand, consider boxing pictures. Many of the greatest boxing pictures ever taken were shot with 4x5 inch Speed Graphics and the like, because that was what the press used 50 and more years ago. To a considerable extent, it wouldn't have mattered if the same photographers had taken the same pictures with Rolleiflexes or even Leicas.

Or would it? The depth of field of a five-inch (127mm) Ektar on 4x5 inch; the different quality of the out-of-focus image (the bokeh); the option of the leaf shutter, where the whole plate is exposed simultaneously instead of by the moving strip of the Leica's focal-plane shutter (or the rear shutter in the Graphic); all of this makes the pictures different enough that while you can take the same sort of pictures, you can't take the same pictures.

Now think about Hollywood-style portraits. The lighting was formulaic, and the formulae (and their variations) are given in Hollywood Portraits, which Roger co-wrote with Chris Nisperos. But if you want to re-create these pictures, it is vastly easier to do so with an 8x10 inch camera and an uncoated lens than with a 35mm, roll-film or even 4x5 inch camera.

 

 

Dean

Hollywood portraits were seldom generously exposed, which is no great surprise when you consider that the equivalent of ISO 200 was considered very fast indeed (ISO or even ASA speeds had not been invented yet, of course) and they were working with 8x10 inch cameras with lenses of limited speed.

Yes, f/3 (1/6 stop slower than f/2.8) was not unknown, but f/6 was more usual, and that's 1/6 stop slower than f/5.6. Roger actually took this with an f/7.7 (effectively f/8) 21 inch Ross (533mm) mounted on an 8x10 inch De Vere monorail.

 

 

aspirations

Certain cameras are associated with certain styles of photography and certain photographers. M-series Leicas, for example, conjure up Henri Cartier-Bresson and Sebastiao Salgado, while large format 'woodies' evoke the shade of Ansel Adams. Nikon Fs were the chosen tools of hard-bitten Vietnam war photographers. And so forth.

Inevitably, the camera you choose is likely to say a certain amount about the sort of pictures you want to take or the photographers whose work you admire.

comfort level

To some extent, this is related to the previous point, but it is different enough that it warrants its own heading. We can illustrate it most easily with reference to ourselves; no doubt you can make the necessary modifications to reflect your own conditions and circumstances.

 

 

 

Neil and Leslie

Frances shot this with the then-new 75/2.5 Voigtländer Color-Skopar on one of her old Nikkormats, a camera she had been using for a decade at least when she took this picture. She had nothing to learn about how the camera operated, and the design of the Nikon mount imposes certain restrictions such as the positioning of the diaphragm ring. The camera she knew to be all but bullet-proof (there are indeed well-known cases of Nikon Fs stopping bullets and saving their users' lives) and the lens had already been proven of very high quality.

At this point, there's a lot of comfort in using the equipment: there are unlikely to be any nasty surprises, and if the battery runs out it affects only the meter, not the shutter or the wind-on. Ilford XP2 Super printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

 

 

There's an old saying to the effect that quality doesn't cost: it pays. In other words, if you buy the best, it will do its job better and it will do it for longer. Thus, an expensive kitchen knife will take a better edge than a cheap one (and keep it longer and be easier to sharpen); will be better balanced and more comfortable; and will last longer.

 

Analogous considerations are a lot more true with mechanical film cameras than with electronics. Cameras from 50 or even 100 and more years ago may remain perfectly usable, as long as we can get film (or plates) for them. We may well be able to 'upgrade' them by fitting newer, better lenses, and each time we put a roll or sheet of film in, we have the option of upgrading the sensor to the current state of the art.

If anything goes wrong with a good-quality mechanical camera, it is usually possible to repair it, even if you have to make up new gears on a lathe or a new shutter curtain with a sewing machine.

Digital cameras, on the other hand, have fixed sensors -- which are inevitably superseded -- and are based on circuit boards and integrated circuits which are irreparable: if they go wrong, the only option is replacement. Once the integrated circuit in question is out of production, you would need to be very rich indeed to have a new one made.

 

 

Fly loft, Theatre Royal, Margate

Quite honestly, we forget which of our 'baby' (6x9cm, here fitted with a 6x7cm back) Linhofs we used for this, but we are reasonably sure that it was a Super Technika IV from the late 1950s or early 1960s with a 105/3.5 Schneider Xenar. The camera would have been thirty or forty years old when we used it in the mid-to-late 1990s, loaded with Ilford HP5 Plus. Somehow we doubt that digital cameras will last as long...

There is, therefore, very little point in buying the best on the grounds that it will be immensely strong and almost invariably reparable. No matter what you do, a digital camera is unlikely to have the longevity of a Leica M-series, or indeed, of any high-quality mechanical camera.

This greatly reduces our comfort level when using them, for two reasons. The first is that while one may be able to afford to buy the best from time to time, buying second-hand if necessary, most people (including ourselves) cannot afford that sort of outlay an a regular basis -- and the best digital SLRs are more expensive than a new M-series Leica. The second is that we therefore have to buy 'consumer-end' digital cameras, which are nothing like as strong as the top-quality ones. As a result, we are always worried about breaking them.

silver and digital side by side

The above considerations do not mean that we eschew digital. Far from it. We would hate to be without the Nikon D70 in particular. But equally, we do not expect the D70 to be as tough or long-lived as a Leica. If it were, we couldn't afford it. The point is, we are happy to use the two different cameras for different purposes. Before you choose any camera, for any purpose, we suggest you consider the points we have listed above.

the internet: the great leveller

One more point is that the internet -- or more specifically, the wild profusion of monitors that people use to view the internet -- is a great leveller: it can be very hard indeed to tell digital from silver, or (among silver halide cameras) one format from another, whereas in real life, looking at prints in a gallery, the differences are abundantly clear.

 

Transformer station, Da roca

On the internet, it really is pretty hard to tell what we used to take this, but if it were reproduced as a good-quality print (digital or 'wet') or even in a book or magazine, the difference between film and digital would be abundantly clear.

Roger actually used Kodak Elite Chrome 100 EBX with a Zeiss 35/2 Planar; as far as he recalls, the camera was his Leica MP but it might have been the Zeiss Ikon itself which we were testing at the time

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telling a story

We thought of entitling this section 'subjectivity and objectivity' but decided against it for two reasons. One is that we always prefer short words wherever possible, and the other is that the short title is closer to what we mean.

What is the purpose of a photograph, after all? It is to represent a subject in the way that we want others to see it; to draw their attention, in the picture, to precisely those things that prompted us to take the photograph in the first place, whether it was the subject matter, the shapes, the colours, the textures, the interplay of light and dark, or any combination of these and other factors.

In other words, every picture tells a story. The exact nature of the story is will vary from subject to subject, and photographer to photographer; but to pretend that you are presenting the unvarnished and unselected truth, with no bias, is pure nonsense. This is true even in forensic photography: after all, why else would you photograph the murder weapon and the body instead of the sunset outside the window?

On the Road, 1961

Frances's late father Artie shot this when he was driving across the country from Rochester, New York to California. In a sense it's a snapshot, nothing more -- but it's a brilliant snapshot in the way that it captures the seemingly endless road and the desultory architecture that is strewn across most of the western desert states. What really makes it is the little bit of car in the bottom left-hand corner. Cover that with your hand, and the picture collapses.

We don't know what camera or film he used -- this was quite heavily restored in Adobe Photoshop -- but it is a near-perfect adaptation of the technique to the situation: the colours, the composition, the slightly faded look.

 

 

Of course there is a difference between trying to present as objective a record as possible and trying to evoke a particular emotion in the person viewing the picture, but this is exactly what we mean when we say that the story will vary. The writing style for an instruction book on how to repair a television will seldom be the same as the writing style in a love letter -- though of course you can always explore the incongruities inherent in applying the one style to the other object.

selectivity

We select our subject matter both in space (viewpoint) and in time (the moment we press the shutter). In other words, we have already made a lot of choices about what we want people to see. Further choices, about whether or not to use selective or soft focus, big grain, 'funny' colours or anything else, are every bit as legitimate as the choices of where and when to press the shutter release.

But -- and this is important -- there must be a choice. It may be made at the time the picture is taken, or it may be made later.

Consider for example a low-light shot. You are up against it: the choice is between a shutter speed that is so long it runs the risk of camera shake, or simply under-exposing and losing some shadow detail. You are perfectly at liberty to try both, and decide later which is more successful, or whether both must regretfully be considered failures.

What you can't do is to choose either (at the time or later) and then attempt to excuse poor quality because you had no choice. If the quality is so poor that it significantly detracts from the picture, then the picture is simply a failure, and we are brought back to the heading above about fooling yourself.

 

Dawn, Summer Palace, Chengde

This is exactly the picture Roger wanted. You can almost feel the stillness of the air, smell its dampness. No change -- viewpoint, film, camera, lens, exposure -- would make the picture any better. Yes, they might make it different, and someone else might prefer a different picture to this one; but that's not the point. The point is that the picture is what the photographer wanted. Tripod-mounted Leica MP, 35/1.4 Summilux, Kodak Elite Chrome 100 EBX. The tripod was essential.

quality and the picture

We hope that in the above we have made it clear that there is no such thing as absolute technical quality: there is only appropriate technical quality, and what is appropriate will vary from picture to picture. A snapshot doesn't have to be technically perfect: it's enough if it makes you smile. A 'fine art' picture may stand or fall on its technical quality; or the technical quality may be substantially irrelevant; or a technical 'fault' may have been used creatively.

Worshipping technical quality for its own sake, therefore, is as big a mistake as pretending it never matters. In subsequent modules in this series we hope to explore specific aspects of quality such as sharpness, tonality, colour, fine grain and maybe more.

Classic car show, Minnis Bay, Kent

These are Polaroids shot with an NPC 195 with fixed 127mm lens. Roger chose both the camera and the materials for a 'vintage' look, as if the pictures had been shot in the 1960s or even 1950s instead of in the early 21st century.

Shooting in black and white and keeping the pictures small adds to the 'vintage snapshot' mood. From the point of view of 'pure' technique they could be better; from the point of view of appropriate technique, they would be hard to better.

 

 

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