Fil's interview with Voyage Houston

I had the opportunity to describe my work to Voyage Houston, and the article was published today.

I used it as an excuse to show off some of my vintage camera collection, get the story out that I take epic city-scapes as well as portraits, and self-indulgently feed my own ego. It has not been fed in a while.

Voyage seem to be exhaustively cataloging all of Houston’s artists and entrepreneurs. Even though their almost un-edited style can make for a difficult read sometimes, it is nice to have a site full of local creatives sharing their stories.

Thanks for reading!

Using shadow barriers to anchor a viewer on your photograph

How can you hold someone's attention on a photograph? What about making barriers to stop them from leaving?

Photographs are not often studied for long periods of time by the casual viewer, but I think if you can hold someone's attention for 5 seconds rather than two, the image is somewhat victorious.

Many things can grab the viewer's attention - story, metaphor, gore, et-cetera - but in this post I'd like to talk about figuratively bouncing the viewer's eye back into the picture as it is trying to leave.

Lighting this portrait from the left, and having the sitter gaze to the left also, I’ve tried to prevent the viewer from prematurely exiting right, even if it is for a fraction of a second.

Lighting this portrait from the left, and having the sitter gaze to the left also, I’ve tried to prevent the viewer from prematurely exiting right, even if it is for a fraction of a second.

  • Light sources from camera left create shadows on the right so that the eye reads across the image and the shadow returns the eye to the left side.

  • If a person faces left, the viewer follows their gaze back across the picture. If they are facing right it is almost like the viewer can skim across the picture and has permission to exit the right side of the frame.

  • Bouncing the eye back into the picture is also the purpose of a matte in a frame - that is why wide mattes (relative to the picture) are desirable rather than simply filling the frame just with the picture. It provides a wasteland the viewer must cross to exit, and they may decide to return to the picture by force.

I find this theme interesting because it implies the direction a subject faces, and the position of the key light are not at the photographer's whim, but are best kept constant to capture the attention of a viewer. Of course, the converse is also useful - you may want a rapid flow of the viewer’s eye from the left and out over the right side of the frame.

There are plenty of examples dating back to renaissance paining. The lighting on the Mona Lisa is from the left and her eyes take you back left. Read across Caravaggio's “Calling of St Matthew” and you’ll find Jesus pointing you back left from the shadows. Those painters didn’t leave anything to chance - every minutia of the picture is intentional.

Using a stereo film camera for the Villain Collaboration

Omar, who has a line of Villain printed apparel, set up a photographer/model collaboration in Houston to promote his brand. I thought it would be a good opportunity to break out my stereo camera to get some gritty black and white 3D images. The camera takes two pictures at the same time, with the lenses as far apart as human eyes are. When the images are combined in the brain, the give the illusion of depth.

stereo realist model portraits

How to view the images

The simplest way to view the stereo pairs is to go cross-eyed until the two images appear to overlap and a third image seems to exist between them. If you are viewing this on a desktop/laptop, you want the images to be small or viewed with your screen further away from you. If you are on your phone, it should be only a few inches from your eyes for the effect to work. Many people cannot (or will not try to) use this technique. In this case, you can use an set of inexpensive 3d viewers which are easily found on eBay (I recommend these low cost viewers). If you get it to work, let me know about how you did it in the comments below!

stereo realist jumping portrait houston 2
Stereo realist jumping portrait houston 1

The people

We had a great group of people from around Houston who I’d previously only known through Instagram. Photographers: @filnenna @ashtxc @mptheephotographer. Models: @the_villain_lifestyle @kristen_wollenberg @miss_gemini_polefit @jono56_bjj @heyyyyyy_ms_hayes.

stereo realist portraits houston
stereo realist roller skates houston

The camera

The Stereo Realist is as basic a camera as it gets. It is slow to operate because the shutter needs to be cocked independently of the winder, and the focusing has to be done through a rangefinder which is separate of the framing window. You can read an in-depth description of this camera in this overview Stereo Realist blog post. I left the digital camera at home for this session - I figured that because there were other photographers on this shoot, I could take the risk of shooting only film.

stereo realist film portrait houston
Villain T shirts Houston









None more black - The shadows of a Caravaggio painting

The usual vibrant reproduction of "The Calling of St Matthew".

The usual vibrant reproduction of "The Calling of St Matthew".

It is interesting that, if you think about it, a picture doesn't end at its frame. That is why looking at a picture on your computer, and the same picture in a museum can provoke different emotions. Your computer screen is surrounded my what ever is on your wall, but art in a museum is often purposefully lit, with the architecture of the room and surrounding artworks that frame the mind.

Caravaggio was a renaissance painter who used light and shadow as characters in his compositions. His style can be described as chiaroscuro - literally 'clear' and 'dark'. I might have underestimated how dark his pictures can be when seen in their intended setting as opposed to in a book or on a screen.

A simulation of the painting by natural church window light as it looks in Rome.

A simulation of the painting by natural church window light as it looks in Rome.

I recently had the opportunity to see a Caravaggio close-up. 'The calling of St Matthew' is one of three Caravaggios in San Luigi dei Francesi, a church in the center of Rome. An image ripe with metaphor and foreshadowing, the Christ figure points to call a reluctant disciple with a hand that closely resembles the hand of God in Michelangelo's 'creation of Adam' (physically located just across the river in the Vatican). The Caravaggian twist is to place this hand in a dark room with tax collectors in 17th century dress rather than a fantastical scene of clouds and cherubs.

What is interesting is that, though the picture is lit in the church with artificial lights on a coin-operated timer, when the light goes out the painting is only lit by a small window on a nearby wall. In this natural lighting, the painting is so dim, the mid-tones of the painting become part of the deep shadows. All that remains are the brightest parts of the image.

There is significantly more scuro than chiaro in the real world setting. The reproductions in books are trying to preserve the details of the picture at the expense of the shadowy reality of the physical space around the original.

The remaining highlights show the artist's focus in the painting - the had of Jesus, the perceptiveness of the youngest boy to the event, the cross-frame on the window. The bowed head of Matthew is so dark it can barely be seen. The light is not on him yet. Perhaps if the scene was painted a few seconds later...

 

 

 

The decisive month

What is the length of a decisive moment?

Henry Cartier-Bresson's images imply the composition changes in fractions of a second. Ansel Adams waited for the movement of clouds and sand dunes over the course of minutes and hours. The temporal decision on when to release the shutter adds a third dimension to the 2D composition in-front of the lens.

Missing the decisive moment

I recently realized I missed a decisive moment, probably by weeks. I took a low quality picture of a Houston downtown abandoned building with a Pen FT. The picture is grainy, but more importantly, it was in black and white. The graffiti on the windows of the building was very large and interesting, but colourful - and it disappeared when viewed in black and white. I told myself I would return later to get a colour photo on a digital camera. 

Weeks passed - and when I returned I found a building with all the windows removed. I guess the building is now being repaired and put back to use. It is still an interesting scene in its own right, but not the image I had visualized.

Waiting, in this case, was a mistake. You have to grab your moments, because you don't know when the moment will end.

Canon 30-700mm DO - don't read old reviews

Canon 70-300 DO F4.5-5.6 IS

There are few online reviews of this old, now discontinued, lens. They were favorable but complained of low-contrast images and a high price tag (about $1,150 new). These two factors are no longer relevant - software can increase contrast, and the lens sells for about $500 on the used market. 

Canon's diffractive optics proof of concept

 The Canon 70-300mm DO was originally expensive because it was one of the first tests of 'diffractive optics' in a Canon lens. This used a saw-toothed fresnel lens to magnify an image while keeping the un-zoomed length of the lens to a minimum - at the expense of some contrast and a small maximum aperture (f4.5-5.6).

Historically, the lens competed against the better, and larger Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS (which is compatible with Canon's extenders. unlike the DO), along with the 50% cheaper, and larger,  EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM. At the original selling price, the DO was a tough sell - only people who valued its short length as a compact travel lens would pony up the cash.

But then the DO lens got older. The price came down. I also think the mediocre reviews (based on the high price tag) contributed to the massive reduction in the used price of the lens. The only other reservation you might have about this lens is the variable f4.5-5.6 aperture, but again, modern cameras and software compensate for this with excellent high-ISO quality that was unheard of when this lens was first released.

The best travel lens set for Canon

So when the DO is viewed in today's context - a low priced compact lens - it is a no-brainer for a small travel kit. I pair it with the 40mm pancake lens when taking a digital camera on trips. The 40mm stays on the camera and the DO comes out when the extra reach is needed. If the DO is on the camera, the 40mm can be in a trouser pocket. 

You can see some examples of images taken with this lens (including many of my own) through the Instagram tag #canon70300doisusm.

For those of you on the fence about getting an old 70-300mm DO lens, there has never been a better time to get one.

Canon travel lenses 40mm 70-300mm DO

If you are struggling to load your MOD 54, read this

At this very moment you have your hands deep in a dark bag trying to load your 4x5 negatives. You've called a nearby family member to Google 'load a mod 54' for you because you've forgotten the details of what it looks like and things aren't going well. 

Don't panic. It is going to be alright.

  1. First things first - locate the ridges at the top of the MOD 54. The ridges on the negatives must be on the same side on the top left (note that this is different from the location of the ridges when placing them in a film holder, which is top right in that case).
  2. Get your first sheet of film in your hands. Bend it along its length and place it to the very bottom of the stack before releasing the bend. Check with your fingertips that the film isn't held up in one of the upper notches.
  3. Your breathing should be easier now and your heart rate lower. We are going to make it.
  4. The easiest notch to locate is the upper one, so here is the secret tip - load the second sheet into the upper notch. "That's crazy!" you say - but keep your trousers and/or pants on. From here you can carefully move the film down to the middle notch one side at a time. You know you've done a good job when you feel the sides of  two sheets of film are parallel.
  5. The third sheet of film goes into the easy upper notch and can be left there. Again, check the sides of the sheets are parallel. If they are not, work backwards until you find the offending sheet/notch combination.
  6. Repeat these steps for the three sheets on the other side of the Mod 54.

Hopefully you got this done before the combination of stress and time made your arms perspire streams of frustration in the dark bag.