Saturday, December 21, 2013

My Fave Photobook buys of 2013

Hey everyone, I was just looking at all of the end of year lists that are appearing of the 10 best, movies, songs, photos etc. and of course the many, many versions of the top photo books of the year by various critics. This got me to thinking of the photo books that I have personally bought this year and to be honest its been a bit hit and miss in terms of quality and alignment with the the topics and visions that interest me. Having said that I have been lucky enough to acquire what I think are some simply extraordinary pieces of photography and I am personally a huge fan of the photo book as being the ultimate expression of the art. One thing that struck me about the critics that proposed these lists was that they probably hadn't bought and paid for these books themselves and they all seemed to strive to be unusual or unique in some way. I guess that is the way of journalism and the search for originality. With that in mind I thought it would be a bit of fun to highlight my favourite recent purchases, photo books that I have bought with my own hard earned. These are not in any order of significance or rating but the idea is simply to perhaps whet your appetites and give some insight into the books and why I personally like them. So settle down with a coffee and packet of your favourite biscuits.

First up then......

Ernesto Bazan

I am lucky enough to own two personally signed books by Ernesto and they are prized possessions for a number of reasons including the wonderful memories they evoke of working, shooting and learning from Ernesto in Sicily and Brazil. The two books that I have are both from the fourteen year period that Ernesto spent in Cuba during the turbulent period when Russia was moving into Perestroika and economic aid to Cuba was largely cut off. Both books are of course crammed with Ernesto's beautiful, poetic and lyrical photographs and it is obvious that this depth of work can only be created over a very long period of time by someone with the tenacity and skill to understand and express the people of Cuba and their environment. The books are different in that Al Campo, the study of the Cuban countryside and farmers, is in colour while the first book in the soon to be trilogy (the final book in preparation is very beautiful and shot on an Xpan) Bazan Cuba, is in black and white. Nevertheless the same sensitivity and outright beauty is apparent in both. Despite having a personal preference to shoot B&W I continually find myself returning to the colour Al Campo most and I love the mood, feel and warmth that book generates for me. I particularly like one of the most simple shots in the book of an old lady and some flowers. I find the photograph completely beguiling and timeless.

Bazan Cuba on the other hand has a more documentary feel for me and despite the fact that many of the photographs are timeless and insightful, you can't help but get a feeling of historical significance and I think it is a book that is going to become even more important with the passing of time. Many famous photographers have visited Cuba and tried to interpret it but in my opinion, only Ernesto through his integration (he also married a Cuban) really understood the people and place and for that reason his work is I think the definitive book on Cuba.

Again, the book is classic Ernesto and filled with beautifully observed  and sensitively shot images that combine to create a visually stimulating and thought provoking document of Cuba.

I think Bazan Cuba is coming towards the end of the first edition print run and is getting harder to find and more expensive. If you are looking for an absolutely classic photo book that will interest, inspire and educate you as a photographer then I would highly recommend either Bazan Cuba, or Al Campo, you won't be disappointed and you will be buying something that will only become rarer and more valuable.

Daido Moriyama 

Now for a complete change of tone and style and a quick look at a few Daido books. I find that Moriyama polarises photographic opinion and perhaps its not so trendy to like his work as it used to be. Personally I don't care about trends and I find Daido's work truly inspirational and own a large number of his books, many of which are signed. I wanted to mention three of his books here; the seminal 71 New York, Buenos Aries and Reflections and Refraction. The first two mentioned books are recent reprints and come in a very nice pulp paperback type form. These two books for me have to be looked at in their entirety and I find it pointless and almost meaningless to isolate individual images because the books seem to create a narrative, mood and sensation of walking along these streets beside Daido. They have rightly been likened to beat poems and I always think that is the best way to describe them, I find them vibrant, loose and energetic. I always make a point of re-reading 71 New York if I am setting off to visit a new city, it seems to create that 'road trip' feel.

I think you are either going to love or hate Moriyama so if you are not familiar with his work have a look around first, there is no shortage of it on the web. If you find you like it then I think 71 New York is a great place to start and it would do no harm to look at where Daido got his inspirations for the book from, Midnight Cowboy, William Klein and James Baldwin.

Nikos Economopoulos

Again, I consider myself very privileged to own a personally signed copy of Nikos' classic Balkanlarda which I bought in Istanbul. Nikos, for me is an out and out artist, his eye for shape, structure and his bold compositions are a delight and like Ernesto's books, I find this a highly educational as well as enjoyable piece of art. There are other parallels in that this book was composed over a considerable period with Nikos wandering around the Balkans in his camper van (which he still does incidentally as part of his workshop programme)

 I think any photographer that takes the time to study this book will come to marvel at the innovative framings and structures of Nikos photographs, following my meeting with him and the workshops I attended with him I felt an intense sense of liberation from the cliched concepts that I had previously understood to be required for 'good' photography and I can truly say that Nikos set me free to look at things in a more individual way.

Jason Eskenazi

Make no mistake, this small, unassuming little book is a thing of very great intelligence and beauty. Jason Eskenazi is not a name that jumps to mind for many photographers and I think that is only because he likes to keep a very low profile and happily just wander around taking the most incredible photographs. I do not exaggerate, there is not a single image in his Wonderland book that you could class as a filler or in anyway mediocre, its that good. Some of you will be aware of the incredible story that Jason was a security guard at MOMA in New York and travelled many times to Russia to create his 'fairy tale of the Soviet monolith' which he structured around the classical folk tales, child gets lost, taken in by guardians who don't really care about her and so on. I feel that I don't want to spoil the enjoyment that anyone who reads this book will get by saying too much about it, read it and see for yourself.

I can think of very few photographers that can compose a frame with the precision and insight that Eskenazi can. As with some of the other books shown here I see this as a paragon of intelligent photography and there is an enormous amount to be learnt not only from the photographs but in looking at the overall structural concept and strict editing that Jason has applied. Like some of the others in this short list, this is becoming harder to find and more expensive so if you see one, don't hesitate to buy it.

Anders Petersen

My ownership of this book and introduction to Anders Petersen's photography was a lovely piece of good luck when a friend in Singapore who acts as the unofficial librarian for the Invisible Photographer Asia community asked if anyone was interested in Petersen's 'Soho' so that we could share shipping. I decided to take a chance and this amazing book showed up a few weeks ago. Its always so nice when something unexpected works out so well, the book turned out to be really cool and there is so much I like about it even down to the physical choice of materials, cover etc. very understated but high quality - just like the photography. I have bought a few books from Mack who published this book and I always find them to be exceptional in the presentation and quality department.

Back to the photography and I guess that you could draw similarities in Petersen's style with other photographers that I like, admire and try to learn from, in particular Moriyama and Sobol. Petersen's book was a commission to shoot London's Soho and he has done a damn fine job of capturing the sense of the place and its uniqueness. One thing that particularly struck me in many of the photos was how he captured eyes and to me its this feature of his work that takes the book beyond the ordinary. Personally I think its become very tiresome looking at harsh, flash lit 'street photography' but the way that Petersen and Sobol in particular use flash to create stark tones is really masterful and, as opposed to the mainstream approach which tends towards sensationalism, the flash and stark contrast enhances the mood and subject.

Like Sobol, he also seems to have a knack (and the courage) to find and engage with extremely interesting subjects and it is the blending of these fascinating subjects with the quirkiness of the Soho environment that makes the book a winner for me.

Takuma Nakahira

Nakahira's For a Language to Come, has been out of print for a while and become pretty expensive and hard to get. However Osiris have now republished this piece of photographic magic and I was lucky to get a copy. Like Moriyama, this book and Nakihira's style will polarise photographers and I have a few friends who are much better photographers and more credible in this area than me who do not like this at all. That's the beauty of human diversity, and I am sure there are many people who will not like or agree with other choices in here and that is a fantastic thing and, ultimately for me, one of the sources of creativity.

I think its important to contextualise Nakahira as someone who was brought up in post war Japan and I think you see his thoughts on that in many of the photographs. Somehow he strikes into deep rooted sensibilities inside me and I find the photographs universal and disturbing and scary and beautiful all at the same time. As with Moriyama, don't buy this without having a look first to see if it aligns with your senses and ideas. There is a very nice little piece here by Gerry Badger if you want to find out more: For a Language to Come

Vanessa Winship

This is a very, very special book and like some others in here it will easily stand the test of time and become more and more relevant as it ages. As I understand it Winship was the first woman to ever win the Cartier Bresson trust award (how can that be ???) and she used the modest amount of the award to fund some trips to America which she had always wanted to photograph. How easy would it have been to try to update Frank and do some kind of modern road trip work? Not Winship, 'She Dances on Jackson' is as original, sensitive and insightful a photography book as you are ever likely to come across. Again, its published by Mack and the prints inside are delicious in the way they pull you into the pages. I have no idea how you can create a book of this quality at a reasonable retail price, if you were to have all of these shots printed separately to this level of quality it would easily cost three or four times more than the entire book cost, amazing stuff.

I read somewhere that she doesn't like 'shouty' photographs and that is very clear in the subtle beauty of this work. The photographs are almost delicate and even the many portraits have that gentle, lyrical but always meaningful, sometimes disturbing look.

I am convinced that we will be looking back in 10 years time at this book as an out and out photographic classic. Winship has in my opinion done something extraordinarily creative in here and it looks like the culmination of all of her years of experience and craft. 

Roger Ballen

I am at a bit of a loss here as to what to say about Ballen's work that hasn't been said before. This year however was my introduction to him and, although I own a few of his books 'Shadow Chamber' is my favourite. It has a rawness that has now left his more modern work and, like all of his work it is psychological in its nature and can be deeply disturbing and thought provoking in equal measure. I really like the way Ballen constructs his frames and there is a lot to be learnt from his structuring and arrangement of elements and shapes.

More than any photographer I can think of Ballen has a unique ability to tap into our deepest recesses and his photographs both disturb and fascinate me. Perhaps an acquired taste but well worth looking into if you want to see some completely original and creative work by a accomplished master.

Todd Hido

Todd Hido seems to be very much in vogue just now but unlike many trends and styles that come and go I think the substance behind his work is enduring. His latest book is 'Excerpts from Silver Meadows' and is structured around his search for the home of his younger days. What sets Hido apart for me is his ability to create universal metaphors and evoke generic memories that most of us have, this is his genius.

It takes enormous skill to blend different formats and mediums the way Hido does and there are not many photographers that could pull this off. Its easy to be drawn in by the motel room female shots, and they have their part to play, but I personally find his lovely, through the windscreen landscape shots to be exceptional. 

This is a large book and definitely benefits from the sense of scale but from a learning viewpoint its also worth considering his arrangements and sequencing, very powerful but accessible photography.

Peter Turnley

As many of you will know, Peter is a world renowned photojournalist and there is almost no major world event of the last twenty or thirty years that he has not shot. Peter and his twin brother David have been very much in the news recently due to the close relationship they shared with Nelson Mandela and their documenting of his release from prison and subsequent shaping of modern South Africa. Peter has lived and photographed in Paris for around forty years and this book is, as he says, is his 'love letter to Paris.'

I had a deep concern when I first saw this book coming out that it would be a bit twee and while Peter does get dangerously close a few times, I think the over-riding sense of love, sensuality and out and out joy in the photographs bring it home for me.

My own favourites in the book are the more subtle and in a way artistic shots as I get a sense that these were Peter's therapy for the horror, conflict and desperate situations that he routinely photographed in his journalistic work.

In some ways this is a very different book from the others in here but I think that, like me, many people will appreciate how the delicacy of the photographic situations and Peter's obvious love for Paris and people make this a very worthwhile addition to any photo book library.


Finally, something a little different and closer to home to finish with. I have been working and living in Singapore for over six years now and find it an exceptional place to live, and, as an added bonus, there is also a thriving photographic community. From that community twenty locally based photographers have gotten together to produce a set of books in commemoration of Singapore's Golden Jubilee in 2015. The books are very innovative and high quality in their concept and design and each photographer seeks to show a unique aspect of Singapore from their perspective. There are currently only four published but their intent is to complete the entire series prior to the Jubilee events. Needless to say the photographers are very different in their style and approach and this is one of the things I enjoy about the series. I know that this is really of most interest to Singaporeans' but if you are interested in the books have a look here to find out more:

Also, if photography in Asia interests you there is no better place to find out what's happening and see very original work than Invisible Photographer Asia

Well that's it for this year folks, please take this article in the spirit it was intended. This is not a definitive 'best of' list, this is simply my favourites from the books that I have personally bought recently and, as such, I am sure there are many, many other great books that I have not yet seen or enjoyed. My intent here was to share, and hopefully some of you will like these choices and enjoy and learn from them in the way that I have.

Just to conclude the blog for this amazing year, I have tried to bring together this years (and Istanbul from last year) work into one place on a new website. I have to say that I was a bit shocked and disappointed about how uneven and choppy it all looks but I think that some of the separate portfolio pieces work well and I am personally very fond of the Brazil 1:1 set.

Have a look here if you are at all interested and have a very happy Xmas and a great New Year. Colin Steel Portfolio 2013


Thursday, November 7, 2013

Ricoh GR Tokyo Style

Wow, my mind is a whizz just now with all of the exciting new cameras that are being hyped and launched at us in a seemingly endless stream of intense campaigning by all of the big manufacturers, incredible times and I must say I really enjoy looking at all of the shiny new stuff. One of the less highly hyped cameras of recent times that seems to be quietly slipping into the background though as it is eclipsed by the exciting FF, M43 and retro Nikon's is the good old Ricoh GR. I wrote briefly about it in a recent post from a trip to Brazil where I used it in a limited way but began to respect its small size and easy handling. Last weekend I had the opportunity to make a short weekend trip to Tokyo and I decided to take the little fellow as my only camera as I thought it would be perfectly suited to city shooting on the streets of Tokyo.

Given that I had only three days in Tokyo I wanted to treat it casually and just enjoy the gorgeous Autumn weather and light, and to catch up with a few friends including the amazing Bellamy Hunt (Japan Camera Hunter) who is the font of knowledge on all things film camera in Tokyo. Before I left for the trip I happened to be having dinner with a few friends in Singapore, one of whom also happened to have the GR and while we were messing around Kevin Y Lee (founder of Invisible Photographer Asia) who is a smashing photographer and very knowledgable camera dude pointed out the High Contrast B&W effect preset and laughingly called it 'Daido mode' after the style of the revered Tokyo based photographer Daido Moriyama who also happened to be a Ricoh user. Well, like most serious photographers I am usually totally dismissive of in-camera effects and normally don't even bother to look at them. We continued to mess around with the setting and against my ingrained bias, I had to admit that the effect was pretty cool for certain subjects and I decided to give it a try for a bit of fun while shooting in Tokyo over the weekend with of course the camera RAW files for my more normal stuff.

With the little GR set up to shoot RAW + jpg and in the B&W high contrast (Daido mode :) ) my buddy Jay and I decided to try to stay out for 24 hours and shoot what ever came our way while wandering around Akihabara, Shibuya and Shinjuku. As any photographer who has been there will know Tokyo is a delight for just wandering and shooting as you go and the more discreet your camera the better and I don't think its any coincidence that the film GR was Moriyama's tool of choice. Where the modern GR scored big time for me was with the snap focus function, which as I mentioned before, I have programmed onto the function button on the side of the camera and I usually leave it set on 1.5 metres which works well for me most of the time.

As I said, the use of in-camera effects is usually frowned on by serious photographers and I think for very good reason. However, as I found out, they can be fun if applied appropriately and sympathetically to the shooting context. I thought it might be worth mentioning what I personally consider the pros and cons of this kind of effect. Firstly, I don't think this particular effect is overly extreme and indeed many great photographers (particularly Japanese) develop, process and/or edit their shots in this way because of the visual impact that it can achieve and from that point of view is a fast and simple way to get that look. Secondly, I very much like the consistency factor that using the strong B&W effect gives and that goes a long way to creating a mood and rhythm to your set or portfolio. Finally, I like to see my shots in-camera and as I am shooting in as close a form to the finished article as possible and I normally have my Fuji's set up for square and B&W with a yellow filter so that I can see how the light is behaving and how the shots are looking as I take them and when I review them. With the GR I have a small Lumix optical VF that I picked up cheap but I still predominately use the rear screen to frame and shoot. Its a style that I liken to a gigantic rangefinder and I have come to like it so it makes sense to see the shots on the screen in as close a representation of how you want them to finally look.

I think the downsides of using effects are pretty obvious. There is a real danger that the shots become cliched (as happened to me with a couple of these..) and that the pre-set becomes dominant at the expense of creating proper emotional effect or mood. On initial viewing some shots can appear very attractive but that can sometimes wear off very quickly after looking at a few shots if the subject matter, light, form and content is not good and the overall effect becomes tiresome.

Going back to the GR as a camera for a moment, I don't want this short, fun article to detract from the enormous capability of this tiny titan. I managed to stroll around Tokyo for hours on end without carrying any bags or other encumberancies with this little gem on a wrist strap. It goes without saying that the longer you walk and venture around a city like Tokyo then the more you increase your chances of finding interesting situations and material and, along with some good light footwear I can think of no better photographic tool for city shooting.

I don't think there is room in this short post to show enough of the set I created (40 shots) in order to build the full mood and feel that I was trying for but I hope the benefit point I made about consistency begins to emerge at least in a limited way. I haven't had a chance yet to look at the RAW files from the three days but am keen to do so to see what else is in there as I think the strong contrast obscured some detail that may be interesting.

At risk of stating the blindingly obvious, this kind of effect works best on simply sturctured subjects and frames and you need to be very careful that you don't start to miss important shots and details because your screen is showing you a mass of pure blacks and whites with very little real tonal detail.

Finally on the in camera effect front, I did out of interest try one other mode that my friends had mentioned and it delivered a shot that I like very much and for me captures a little of the essence of Tokyo's Ginza shopping district. The effect is called positive film look I think and clearly it emulates a nice slide film appearance. To be honest I don't think I will use these again in any seriousness as I like the output from the camera as it is and I think these effects can make you lazy in your shooting style. Having said that, I can't deny the fun I had with the 'Daido look' setting and it contributed to a fantastic, fun weekend in this endlessly interesting city.

Well, thats it for this brief bit of fun shooting. I mentioned at the start all of the amazing cameras that are coming our way and, as I said, I am as big an addict as anyone for cameras however, I think its a shame that less well marketed or hyped cameras like the GR will quickly be lost in the stampede, don't be seduced by the marketing spin, I never buy a camera until I have held it in my hands and got a sense for its responsiveness to the way I work. That is much more important in my book than the sensor size, resolution or tricky features. 

Incidentally for any photo book fans visiting Tokyo, the area around Jinbocho station is a treasure trove of used bookshops most of which have photography sections and I picked up a lovely cheap copy of Tarkovsky's polariods which I can't put down. Happy hunting if you get a chance to go there.

As ever, safe travels and happy shooting.


Friday, September 13, 2013

Brazil, 3:2, Colour, GR etc.

Hey friends, sorry its been a while since I posted anything but I thought some of you may be interested in some thoughts I have on the newish Ricoh GR which I used in a pretty limited way on a recent trip to Brazil. Regular readers will know that I have been shooting 1:1 black and white for a while now and this trip was no different, I used my trusty Fuji X20 and to a lesser extent the X100s for most of the work I did (working on a post on that to follow). However, I also had along with me a newly purchased Ricoh GR and I decided to see how that worked for me as a camera and just for a change, to show the results in a normal format and in colour. As most of you will know, I kind of take image quality as for-granted with modern cameras and of more importance to me personally is how the camera fits the way I work and its overall usability factor. Here are some links to reviews that you might want to look at if the camera interests you at Steve Huff, and, although I much prefer Steve's real world user style, here is the more thorough and technical DP Review version. I think as you can see here, you will have no problems with IQ and so on and almost all of the reviews I looked at were very positive on the camera overall.

Just in case anyone is wondering, I stopped shooting colour and 3:2 because firstly, I am very colour blind and had a lot of problems in Lightroom when editing and secondly, I really find that I can fill the frame more interestingly with a square format. These are only personal preferences of mine and I will try to explain the thinking behind them a bit better in my next post on the main body of work from Brazil. Anyway, these colours look ok to me but please bear with me if they are a bit off in any way. All of the shots here have had very minimal adjustments with a mild saturation boost and a little clarity added and that's more or less it. Enough of the background stuff, what about the camera as a travel partner and photo tool?

GR, Friend or Foe?

Quite often camera reviews often end with a 'who is this camera for?' statement or an extensive list of pro's and con's that can often be somewhat amusing. For example I read a review of the GR that had the fixed 28mm equivalent lens as a con, you have to be kidding !!!!!! Surely no one in their right mind would buy a camera like this if they didn't see that as a distinct advantage for their needs. 

The longer I am involved in photography and the more passionate I become about the creative possibilities of its art, the more and more I gravitate towards simplicity and compactness in the cameras that I use and this little wonder ticks all of the right boxes in that respect with a couple of major operational upsides that I will come to shortly. The reason I mentioned the lens comment is that I have tried to show with the photos that I have chosen to show here that this is an extremely versatile camera and much of that is down to its maturity as a product (the GR range has a strong film heritage) the focal length chosen and its overall ease of use.

From a handling perspective I really love this camera, I attached one of the marvellous Peak Design cuff wrist straps on it and it becomes a highly manoeuvrable and flexible, one hand if I want it, shooting marvel. Let me explain why and also point out where you have to be a bit careful with this as well. The GR is very easily configured to your preferred set up and very easy to control with one hand if you need to - here is what I find works best for me and you might want to try yourself. First up, I set the camera in the Pentax/Ricoh unique  TAv mode which allows you to set both shutter and aperture via the front and back control dials and the camera then gets the correct exposure by choosing the ISO value. This is extremely liberating for me as I tend to value a lot of depth of field but at the same time want to make sure that I can maintain a suitable shutter speed for my situation. I also found that ISO up to 6400 was a breeze for this camera although you need to be very careful in colour if you go beyond that. So, all I do is tweak the setting as I move into a new environment. In other words in daylight I would normally walk around with the GR set at F8 and 1/125th as I know this will get me almost any shot I want as long as there is no great movement going on. Indoors in poorer light I simply open up the aperture F3.5 or something and if things are static drop to 1/40 s shutter speed or thereabouts. This is a very simple process that quickly becomes second nature and gives good predictable results. Then the icing on the cake is that I have configured the 'effect' function button which is handily placed on the left hand side to control the snap focus distance and I use this as a kind of insurance policy by normally setting it on 1.5 metres so that I know that if I press he shutter straight down it will focus there and my additional DoF via the aperture will get me the shot. I realise as I read what I have written here that this sounds a little complicated but trust me its not, simply try it for yourself and you will see how it frees you up to think about the shot and what you want to say with it. The only catch I have found with this is that you have to be respectful of not shooting one handed unless it suits what you are doing and this is because of the obvious risk of the inherent lack of stability that goes with this style of shooting. Its fine to control the camera with one hand for the settings and so on but better to get as much grip on it as you can when actually shooting. I believe some of the previous GR models had image stabilising in them and its a shame it wasn't possible to engineer it in here, just be sensible and you wont find it a big deal. Thats it for menus and settings for me, I simply don't touch the menus again after that initial set up and only apply small variations to the aperture and shutter speeds as I described. Incidentally, I mentioned that the GR is a mature product and it feels just great in the hand, the grip and tactile feel is superb.

Here is a good example of the one handed approach giving me an interesting angle and there is a strange story to this shot as well. Two of my companions were Brazilian and unbeknown to me this guy that I was photographing outside the tiny Bar Dos Amigos cantina had told them that he had killed a guy with a machete the day before !!! Not sure if this was true or not but he did look a bit sinister and I am glad I was blissfully unaware. As usual with smaller cams though, they are generally much less intrusive and discrete and I think that, as many of you will have experienced, they lend themselves to a more intimate style of shooting. 

As other reviewers have pointed out, I did find that the camera has a slight tendency to underexpose but personally I tend to like a slightly darker tone and the exposure compensation is a breeze being handily located near the thumb grip. You may want to consider setting the AEL/AFL button on the other side of the thumb grip to exposure lock and using that to control metering off of neutral tones if required or to lock on a sky as in this shot above. 

I had intended to keep this brief as in all honesty I didn't use the GR very much on the trip so I want to finish by returning to the lens and its benefits and then looking at what happens when you push the ISO on the camera.

At 28mm equivalent focal length this is about as wide as I am prepared to go nowadays as I have come to really dislike the distortions that come in with wider lenses. The distortion is here too in the GR but I chose this shot as an example of how decently controlled it is for such a wide lens. You can see the 'pull' on the boys eye and face but for me it doesn't ruin the shot or overly distract me and I think that is a fine achievement by Ricoh and this is a pretty extreme example. Sharpness is something else that I usually take fore-granted in modern kit as I don't think its that critical for my style but even with my dodgy eyesight this looks sharp all of the way to the edges. Again, this is born out in the techy reviews.

By the way, all of the shots here were taken using the superb rear screen on the GR and I never once felt that I couldn't see properly to frame my shots. I have mentioned it in previous posts but I rather like the giant rangefinder effect of being able to see the complete environment while framing. Since returning from Brazil however I did have a bit of luck and found a a Lumix 24mm optical viewfinder used for S$70 and its proving great for when I feel a viewfinder framing is needed. Absurdly the stated 24mm frame lines seem to fit perfectly the 3:2 size of the GR images. I don't know if anyone else has had this experience but if if you are looking for a cheap viewfinder option I can highly recommend this one.

I want to draw towards a close with a couple of shots that were taken in near impossible light at what I think was the cameras highest ISO setting. I had to apply quite a lot of NR in Lightroom to these and the they became a bit mushy but I rather think they still just about make it. I am not a purist at all in these matters and prefer the fact that the images have some degree of visual and emotional impact on me that overrides the lack of clarity in the final image. The following shot was taken with flash and unfortunately this one is a bit more mushy but I still like the overall effect and I could probably have gotten away with more in a B&W conversion.

By the way, I think the marvellous Roger Ballen would have loved this place which was a riverside abandoned sugar cane factory which had been occupied by itinerant fishermen and their families. I would dearly love to go back and try to shoot in a more controlled way, it was an astounding setting.

Which leads me to the end here by mentioning that I have been studying with the very wonderful Ernesto Bazan for a while now and the trip to Salvador de Bahia and Cachoeira was as part of one of his incredible workshops. Ernesto is a dear friend, very fine human being and wonderful maestro so if you enjoy learning and want to develop your style while having a great time, have a look at his amazing schedule.

Well that's it folks for this short piece, I sincerely hope that there was something of interest in it and hopefully it will have at least given some ideas to anyone thinking of buying the Ricoh GR. I will round out by saying that I have been carrying it in my bag every day and while I don't see it unseating the X20 for my personal way of shooting, its definitely a very fine creative tool.

safe travels and happy shooting,


Friday, April 12, 2013

Il Cuore Siciliano 1:1

Easter in Sicily with the New Fuji's

Hey folks, I am just freshly returned from my two week trip to Sicily where I photographed the Easter festivals and celebrations. For the Sicilians this as an extremely important and often very emotional event for them and it culminated in following and shooting the highly charged 24 hour procession of twenty four alters through the regional town of Trapani. Just to add a little fun for me I managed to purchase the new Fujis (X20 and X100s A really useful review by Steve Huff)) specially for the trip and I will share my thoughts on them for this type of event based documentary photography. As anyone who has read my posts before will know, what I wont do is dwell on the image quality and technical aspects of the cameras as I find that most cameras nowadays can produce acceptable technical quality results and, given that all of the shots had some post processing in SilverEffexPro, the differences become largely redundant for my purposes. What 'image quality' means to me is how effectively can I create interesting photographs with these tools ? Not what do the files look like at 100% enlargement of stamps, bottles or walls. For that reason I wont even say which shots were taken with which camera (mainly because I can't remember and can't be bothered re-checking each one :) 

Before I go into some background on the shooting and make some observations about the cameras, I think it would be good to mention something important that emerged in my approach to some of the photographs.  Never having been to Sicily before or having previously attended an event of this nature, I was taken by the iconic imagery of the paintings and statues within the churches and halls that I was shooting in and I tried my best to imitate that look whenever it was appropriate. I did that by watching for the right light and compositions where I could remove background distractions and create a 'painterly' appearance to the photographs. I also used the Tri-X film simulation in silverefexpro2 to add to the feel of the images (more on the editing and PP later)


I have been very lucky to meet many fantastic people on my travels and a few of them have become very good friends despite being from extremely diverse locations such as Costa Rica, Chicago and Geneva. As we share a joint passion for photography and travel we decided to try to meet up this year at a location that none of us have visited before. Also, having previously enjoyed attending workshops hosted by knowledgeable photographers who's work we admired, we decided to combine both and attend an Ernesto Bazan workshop in his home country of Sicily. This turned out to be an inspired decision and I will talk about the workshop experience later as I am beginning to think that, when wisely chosen, these are the best single photography learning and educational investments you can make to improve your skills and style.

The context for Ernesto's Sicily workshop was to locate everyone in a gorgeous traditional villa by the seaside and near to the town of Marsala as a base and then make the short trips to shoot the various processions and festivities that took place over the Easter week. I think its fair to say that Ernesto's approach is to encourage the search for emotional and poetic inspiration and as we all know, that is not so easy at the best of times and even more difficult when you are shooting in throngs of people with myriad distractions and 'shot-killing' elements. To this end he set a very high standard for everyone and immersed himself with us in trying to interpret the events as we individually and uniquely saw them.

As I said earlier, my own main focus was to try to use the light as best I could to create the iconic, painting look that I had observed in the many churches we visited. Additionally, it appeared to me that there was somewhat of a 'dark' and mysterious side to Sicily that I also wanted to try to incorporate without becoming cliched. Given this approach that emerged as to my interpretation of sicily and these festivals, how did the equipment I used help or hinder in achieving the results that I was looking for?

The Cameras (X20 & X100s)

Firstly, as readers of previous articles will know, I have been shooting  in a square 1:1 crop and in Black and White for some time now. I am at a loss to explain the square crop other than that I like the tightness and symmetry of the results I get. Although it could be argued that it is more suited to portraits and still life, for me (and many more superior photographers than me like Vivian Maier, Diane Arbus and any of the TLR users) it is not difficult to adapt to documentary style photography although you do lose the undoubted advantage of the 3:2 narrative style. Anyway, I have settled on this format in the meantime and now find it extremely difficult to frame outside of that and this is one of the major benefits of these cameras and in particular the delightful X100s, let me try to explain. The X100s has a marvelous optical viewfinder that frames like a rangefinder and when 1:1 crop is selected the frame lines adapt to a centered square with lots of space around the lines so that you can tighten your composition just like in a Leica or other rangefinder. I appreciate that the vast majority of people shoot 3:2 and the frame-lines are nearly as good in that format and are reasonably accurate. Additionally, the X100s now has an extraordinarily good manual focusing system that is deadly accurate. At first when I read about this feature I thought it was a bit gimmicky but believe me, this is the real deal. If, like me, you like to shoot with a lot of depth of field whenever possible, this manual focusing system is fantastic and lends itself very well to zone focusing at set distances. If you have ever used a split screen to focus (as in old film slr's) this is based on a similar principle with the added benefit of enlargement to aid and also a 'focus peaking' type shimmer on the focused area. I used this a lot and found the best way was to aim and press the AF button which is very conveniently located and then fine tune if needed via the light focusing ring on the lens. For my purposes I find this much simpler, easier and quicker than trying to change AF points and I found that I could get very nice tight results even in very low light.

Having praised the manual focus which I used a lot, the auto focus on the X100s is also vastly improved as well although, despite Fuji's claims and what I have read, I personally did not find it to be as fast as the Olympus OMD or Nikon V1, but it is more than adequate. On that subject, I still don't find this camera to be a speed merchant in any area however, I did find that for the type of shooting I do it worked an absolute treat and I was extremely happy with its all round performance. I wont bore everyone by re-iterating the key selling points of the Fuji X range but suffice to say that this is one extremely well made camera with exactly the type of manual controls that photographers who concern themselves with the final image rather than playing about with endless mode settings and menu trickiness will value. The ability to have a clear optical viewfinder with superb frame-lines, just the right minimal amount of shooting information required to make a shot and the the ability to use the nicely weighted exposure compensation dial with your thumb when you know the meter is going to make a mistake, is all that I can ask from a camera so well done Fuji, this is a classic. Of all of the camera manufacturers these are the guys that are really homing in on what real photographers want and need.

Just to round out on the X100s, like its older variant the X100 the lens is fast and sharp and the silky aperture ring around the lens is a joy to use. For what its worth my preferred set up for the camera is to use the square format, aperture priority, optical viewfinder, B&W film mode with yellow filter and manual focus. As I mentioned earlier, this gives me complete manual control of all of the critical photo making aspects of the camera as a creative tool and it all becomes extremely intuitive and very fast to use. The only other point worth mentioning is that I shoot RAW plus Fine JPG and this gives me the margin for error with the crop in the 3:2 RAW file if I need it (which isn't often thankfully) I hope you begin to get a sense of how much I enjoyed this camera and the pleasure I got from its ability to get out of the way when I was looking for interesting light, form and content to shoot.

The Fuji X20 is a very different but complimentary camera to the X100 (and nearly any other camera I can think of) for a few very key reasons. Like my much loved X10 before it, it is stunningly well made and is essentially manual in control of the key creative photographic functions. As you will all probably be aware, Fuji have updated the sensor and processing engine and critically added shooting and focus information to the optical viewfinder. This transforms the camera into a superb, compact shooting tool and I found it even faster than the X100s in practical shooting use as it seemed to me to focus more quickly. Although I very much liked the viewfinder improvements I still found myself shooting more with the rear screen on this camera to compose and this allowed me to shoot from higher or lower angles when I needed to. 

When the action was getting faster at the end of the parades, I found myself using the two cameras in tandem by using the X20 when I had to do something fast and reactively and the X100s when I had more room and time to compose. I also sometimes used the X20 at 50mm equivalent on the odd occasion when I couldn't get as close as I needed for the X100s' 35mm equivalent. Did I need two cameras to do this? Of course not but I did find that the similarity in controls, function and results meshed very nicely to the extent that I can unreservedly recommend these as a delightful and highly usable pairing for anyone in a similar shooting situation.

I don't want to go over all of the aspects of this camera that I liked again as they are identical to the ones I mentioned in the previous X10 article but the manual switch on and zoom which I can now guide to 35mm or 50mm by touch is exceptional and the exposure compensation dial which is similarly placed and functional to the X100s completes the control package. Because of the family similarity of controls and menus these cameras make using them together a very simple and attractive proposition. On that compatibility advantage, because I was unsure of how the lighting conditions would play out, I took along the wonderful Fuji EF-X20 flash unit which is a beautifully built but tiny marvel that works equally well on either camera. I did use it very sparingly but once or twice it got me shots that would have been impossible to light otherwise.

I know this will get me in deep trouble with the strobist community but I am personally very fond of the flat, shadowy, frontal look of camera mounted flash and that is exactly where I used this little marvel as it added so little size or weight to the camera. I kind of like the almost grotesque, paparazzi look that can be achieved with it. If anyone is interested in how this style can work as show by a master creative photographer, have a look at Jacob Aue Sobol's work with the Leica MM where for almost every shot he took he used on camera flash. I had the very good fortune to meet Jacob in Singapore and he explained to me that he had a very unique, high contrast processing style for film which up until that point he had used exclusively and to get similar contrasty results with digital he had to use the on camera flash.

I think by now you can all tell how pleased I was with the Fuji cameras and the ultimate functionality and simplicity of using them to make photographs. To finish off on the X20 my preferred set up is again RAW plus fine JPG in square crop (the square crop does not show in the X20 viewfinder but its not difficult to judge) B&W film mode with yellow filter and aperture priority.

Post Processing

Every shot shown here was processed in a similar fashion and here it is: Although I set up for fine JPG in B&W I tend to use that more for review to make sure I am getting the look I want and the actual PP images are taken from the RAW files. The process I used is ultra simple as I hate spending time on the computer. As the RAW files are presented in square in Lightroom, unless I need to change the crop slightly (and that is unusual thankfully) they go straight into silverefexpro2 where I normally apply the Tri-X film look filter and occasionally selectively darken or lighten a distracting area with the simple to use control points. I generally then add a little vignette using the lightest option unless something a bit more severe is required for the mood and that's it. If it takes more than a few minutes something is very wrong and I usually give up on the shot at that point. Despite never having shot film, I have become a huge fan of the Tri-X 400 look and the contrast and grain is gorgeous. In one or two of the low light shots here this has become pronounced and I love it as it creates exactly the look and mood that I am after. It never fails to astonish me how simple the modern processing tools have made it to achieve this look and this is the reason why I think conversations about the sensor quality and output in modern cameras are pretty irrelevant. To my mind the files output by both of these cameras are very robust and they seem to adapt to the Tri-X look beautifully. I would imagine that if you are a fine art or salon type photographer the X100s could be a dream for you with its sexy smooth looking images.

Photography Workshops

This has been the longest post I have written in a very long time as I completely lost enthusiasm and felt that I had run dry on photography as a subject. I feel the need to change topic here or I will talk to much about equipment rather than the creative photographic art and that is exactly why I lost enthusiasm in the first place !! :) A couple of events changed my life in many ways last year and they were both photography workshops with people that I consider to be at the absolute top of the game for the type of photography I like and it has now happened again this year and I consider it critical to share this with anyone who is reading this that has the drive and passion to try to improve their photography to both better understand humanity and express their uniqueness in their own style. As regular readers will know, I love travel and out of that developed a love of photography however I began to feel that the type of travel photography I was doing (even though it was commercially successful) was very unsatisfying and clearly not expressing any of my personality or thoughts on the world. I still wanted to travel to unique places but also wanted to learn from photographers who to me were credible and whose work I admired. With this in mind I travelled to Sicily, where these photographs were taken, to a workshop with Ernesto Bazan having researched his work and found myself admiring his work on Cuba very much. This turned out to be a completely inspired decision and the environment that Ernesto created and his out and out humanity, openness and passion made this a truly life enriching experience. I know some of you may think I am getting carried away here but its very true and I think any of the 10 other students would say the same. I am beginning to form an opinion that if you are open to it these type of workshops somehow give you better insight into yourself both from a human and personality perspective and from this comes moments of insight into the gorgeous diversity of this world and the endless visual richness that light reveals to us. Personally, I feel that it is this combination of personal insight and increased sensitivity to visual possibility that transcends technical competence and conventional structure to allow you to be more creative and to express yourself in your own way, this is what Ernesto enabled for me. 

In conclusion then, if you are thinking of a photography workshop I would advise going through the following simple thought process before you make your choice; firstly, select a location or event that interests you a lot, this is more important than you may think, secondly, look at which photographers run workshops there (I will add links of my favorites at the end), thirdly extensively research their work, it is vitally important that you admire their work greatly. I think if you follow these simple steps you will find the workshop to be the single best investment that you can make to improve your photography. Forget about new equipment, on-line training and college classes as a properly chosen, minimum 7 day workshop with a real creative artist will reward you with greater satisfaction and development than all of these put together.

If anyone is interested, I have a simple way of funding my passion to learn and develop (and to buy the equipment that I am addicted to....) and that is that I simply stick $50 every time I think on it in my Starbuck mugs that I have collected from the cities I have visited. I am continually amazed at how this accumulates and finances my photography :)

I am sorry if this has been a bit too much of a ramble for any of you but there was a lot in my head that I wanted to get out and writing doesn't come easily to me so apologies for any grammar, spelling and structural errors :) I do hope that you have found at least something of interest in here and even more hopefully, something that helps you to enjoy photography more.

the links:

Best Wishes,