Happiness is a nice camera. Acinipo, Spain. 2009

For my wife, Engogirl, an interest in photography started as an act of retaliation to my photography. Let’s face it, photography is a crap spectator sport. My wife is as close to perfect as one could hope for and she indulges me in just about any way one could wish for, but watching me photograph things was beginning to pall.

I sensed Engogirl’s frustration in having to wait around for me to take my shots, so when I bought my SLR, I gave her the little compact camera that I’d been using to keep her amused.

Engogirl isn’t afraid of technology, as a matter of fact she actually likes reading instruction books (what’s that all about?!), so it wasn’t long before she was off and taking her owns shots. At first, I think doing something with a machine was what Engogirl found more engaging than the resulting images. I don’t think the images were as important as having something to do. After a while Engogirl discovered the pleasure of sharing her pictures with me. Luckily for me, my wife has a good eye and it was a joy to see her images improve over time.

By the time we went on our trip to Europe last year, Engogirl was really enjoying taking her photos, but then a fly settled in her ointment. Engogirl discovered the short comings of her camera. How come her clouds were all blown out and mine weren’t? How come, my shots had better colours than hers? Why was I able to get shots she couldn’t?

As technically minded as Engogirl is, being an engineer and all, she wasn’t all that interested in educating herself in yet another discipline. The idea of humping a big heavy SLR with a few lenses around with her all the time didn’t appeal either.

About one and half months into our trip, my wife’s camera started to play up. Many shots were coming out with thick magenta stripes through them. By this point, Engogirl wouldn’t dream of going out for the day without her camera, even though she was becoming disenchanted with it’s lack of capabilities. I though this situation was a good opportunity to lure my wife further into sharing my love of photography. I mentioned that I thought it was a good time for her to upgrade to a better camera.

Engogirl said, “but I don’t want to be lugging around a heap of gear like you”

Me: “We’ll get you something that is smaller”.

Her: “But it’ll be crap like what I’ve already got”.

Engogirl had a point. Most smaller cameras are aimed at “happy snappers” who would have a brain aneurism if they had to think more that a nanosecond before they took a shot. I then remembered my friend Paul raving about his Canon G9.

Paul is a card carrying, grade “A”, gear freak.

You name it, if Paul is interested in it, he’ll research the hell out of it and buy the best thing he can afford. I respect Paul’s opinions about equipment, be it photographic, camping, cycling or woodworking. So I suggested we get the G9 for Engogirl. We were in Nimes in France at the time and we went into a camera store to get the G9 but it was out of stock because it was discontinued ( I found out later that the G10 which followed the G9 wasn’t a very successful design) and the new model G11 was coming out soon.

“How soon?” We asked.

“A few days, would you like us to order you one?”

Nice try, sales guy, but unfortunately we couldn’t hang around and wait. So every town we went to, we’d check to see if the G11 had come in. Every time I took photos when Engogirl didn’t have a camera, I felt guilty. I even went so far as to hand her my camera to take photos with (no greater love), so she felt like she was getting shots of things she found interesting.

It wasn’t until about two and half weeks later that we were able to find a shop in Lisbon, Portugal that had the new G11.

What can I say? Other than my wife is totally thrilled with her G11 and now is actually interested in printing out some of her shots. 

As for me, I’m constantly amazed how my wife’s photos are so different from mine. We often take photos in the same places but they couldn’t be more different.  I often take very wide angle shots because I’m interested in context, narrative and interaction, whereas Engogirl is into recording detail and objects. Often when I see my wife’s shots, I find myself thinking to myself, “why didn’t I take that?”

So together, we’ve got a very broad record of our trip together.

Shooting into the sun at Zahara de la Sierra. Andalusia, Spain. 2009

Several years ago I was having a bit of a moan to a camera salesman about the limited tonal range that digital cameras could capture. I complained about how the clouds were always blown out and shooting into the sun was pointless because most of the sky would go white. I also mentioned that I thought that even the high end digital SLRs still had a long way to go as they weren’t that much better that the little compact point and shoot cameras.

Luckily the guy I was talking to, unlike so many sales clerks, actually knew what he was talking about and he said that I should take a look at the Fuji Pro S3. The Fuji is basically a Nikon body with Fuji’s super CCD in it. The store where the salesman worked didn’t sell the Fuji and at $3500 AUD without a lens it was way out of my price range. Like a lot of things that I can’t have for whatever reason, I sublimated my desire for the Pro S3 and put it on the back burner of my mind.

Some more time passed and about 9 months before I went to Europe last year I bought a second hand Fuji Pro S3 body, over the internet for $650 AUD. I was pretty happy with the results I was getting with my new camera and I took it on my overseas trip where I took over 4000 photos with it.

About a month ago, I helped out a friend of mine (Mark) who owns a Nikon D200, get his beautiful landscape photos from a recent tirp to California, ready for an exhibition. Mark was a bit concerned about some of his shots because the skies were blown out and the clouds had lost their details. I asked Mark if he’d shot in RAW and he said “yes”, so I said to him, “don’t worry, you’ll be amazed at what information we will be able to pull out of a RAW file”.

I was looking forward to showing Mark how much detail we were going to pull out of his skies and clouds. I got quite a shock when I opened up Mark’s images in Photoshop and there was much less detail than what I expected. I’d become so used to the extended tonal range of my Fuji, that I thought it was “normal” and I was really disappointed for Mark. Although we got some nice results for Mark’s exhibition, I knew the Fuji would’ve provided much better results.

A while back I’d been talking to Mark about his decision to buy the camera he did, and he said he’d been influenced by Ken Rockwell’s camera reviews

To me Rockwell is one of those guys who would have people believe he knows all about cameras. From where I stand, I’d say that he still has a lot to learn. Here is an example of what he has said on his website:

“The Fuji Fujifilm S5 has highlight dynamic range clearly better than any Canon or Nikon camera I’ve ever used. This is too bad because it makes very little difference in real photography. I had to go out of my way to contrive these examples. Cameras can’t fix bad light, only photographers can.”

My response in a word:

“RUBBISH!”

I think what people like Rockwell are lacking, is an understanding of how important post processing of images is.

Just like in the old days with film, one couldn’t get a really good image until they’d figured out how to develop their own negatives and do their own printing. Darkroom skills used to be essential to get images to look like they did to the photographer when they saw the scene originally.

“What!” I hear you cry.

Yep, cameras don’t tell the “truth” as we know it. Cameras, film, CCDs only approximate what we see. The huge difference between an image taken with a camera and a scene seen with the human eye is that the eye has a brain behind it that makes all sorts of decisions about how the scene is going to be interpreted by the viewer. Cameras, for all their electronic wizardry are basically very, very, very dumb.

Have you ever noticed how flat and boring so many photographs are when you get them back from processing or look at them on you computer monitor in comparison to when you were looking at the original scene? The camera has no way of prioritising what is important to us; what should be emphasised and what should be ignored. To a camera, every scene is made of elements that have no meaning or aesthetic weight.

Your eye has a far wider acceptance of tonal range than any film, camera or CCD. Plus our brain automatically adjusts to what we are interested in, whereas a camera has no way of knowing what is important to us. Now I know there’s bound to be some smart arse reading this, who will pipe up and say, “oh yeh, what about exposure compensation?” The trouble with exposure compensation (particularly with digital cameras) is that if you expose to retain detail in your highlights, your shadow detail will be lost, and vise versa if you expose for the shadows.

Back in the days when film was king, the maxim of, “expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights”, was the catch cry of the masters of the darkroom arts like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. The old photographic masters knew that most of the tonal information could be captured if you knew how to control the process.

Nowadays in this age of digital cameras, the darkroom has been just about replaced by Photoshop.

Now many people think Photoshop is for “jazzing up” images and that somehow using it is “cheating”. These same old purists would think nothing of selecting a particular film stock for it’s saturated colours, or printing papers for it’s rendition of flesh tones or “pushing or pulling” colour film to affect its colour balance, etc.

Back when one worked on an image in the darkroom, it was accepted practice to dodge and burn a print, because of the fact that film and the paper being printed on couldn’t deal with the complete tonal range. The same goes for the printing industry. The highest quality fine art books, especially those with high quality black and white images, use a process called “duotone” to get a tonal range that is close to a hand processed photographic print. A duotone is basically two images at either extreme of the tonal range that are printed on top of each other.

So in a long winded way, I’ve tried to point out that it is necessary to have as wide a tonal range as possible so that the end product image, can be as close as possible to the scene first seen by the photographer. The wider the tonal range, the wider the options are when it comes to how one wants an image to look in long run. 

The trouble with reviewers like Rockwell is that they seem to have limited knowledge about what’s really going on when one takes a photo and what’s really important. So many of the specifications that people masturbate over, are in the grand scheme of things, not that important. Unless you’re a sports or wildlife photographer, who cares if your camera shoots 5 frames a second, if your tonal range is crap and it causes highlights to be blown out, while your shadows are just black blobs?

When it came to the misrepresentation or misinterpretation of facts, my grandmother used to parody an unscrupulous cloth merchant, saying, “never mind the quality, feel the width”. Just to emphasise how ridiculous, whatever illogical or misleading thing was being said.

Much of what is in reviews isn’t all that relevant to the photographic cognoscenti. Knowledge is power, and it pays to be an educated consumer. The trick, and this goes for just about everything in life, is to pick the right people to listen to and learn from.

For me, the best on-line camera reviews are at

http://www.dpreview.com/ 

Yes their reviews are very in depth and require a fair bit of technical knowledge to interpret, but I’d say just take a deep breath and look up the terms that you don’t understand as you go. Eventually you will build up enough knowledge to make informed decisions on you own instead of being misled by people with big holes in their knowledge like Rockwell. 

Oh!

One more thing, if you are shooting to save your files as JPEGs, do yourselves a favour and stop it. Start using RAW because you will get far better results because the RAW file format is much more versatile as it contains way more information.

Here’s a video tutorial on how to adjust RAW files as they are opened in Photoshop.

[youtube tK0uqKJSFMY]

This next tutorial is on another important Photoshop technique, “masking”, by the god of Photoshop, Russell Brown.

[youtube pJp260NVqEY]

Dunn’s Swamp. Kandos Weir, NSW, Australia. 2010

My wife Engogirl and I, decided we wanted to get out of town for the weekend so we invited some friends to come camping with us up at Kandos Weir at the Dunn’s Swamp campground which is in the Wollemi National Park.

Kandos is about three and a half hours drive north east of Sydney. Although the weather forecast was for rain we left on Friday night anyway.

Just about everyone we hang out with is fairly experienced with the outdoors and they all have plenty of camping gear for just about any circumstance, so the weather was of no real concern for any of us. As a matter of fact I always feel good when it rains at night and I’m in my tent as it seems to justify bringing all the equipment.

Engogirl’s uncle Ray brought up his kayaks so we could get out on the water and have a look around the lake created by Kandos Weir. The kayaks were quite nice sleek things that were designed for better kayakers than me. Being so narrow made them not only fast but also a bit tippy. I felt a bit nervous in them although I’ve done quite a bit of paddling in wider, more stable kayaks. Whereas, Ray and Paul (in the photo below) were quite home in them.

Although I was in constant fear of falling in, Engogirl and I went out for a couple of kilometres to paddle about the lake. It was absolutely beautiful and if I hadn’t been so afraid tipping over and getting my camera wet, I would’ve taken some shots while we were out in the kayaks.

The Weir was built back in the late 1920s to supply a cement factory 25 kilometres away and it flooded a narrow valley of sandstone pagodas. I’m pretty sure such a structure wouldn’t be allowed to be built in a UNESCO world heritage area (due to the biodiversity of plant and animal communities, including the recently discovered Wollemi Pine) with Aboriginal cultural sites nowadays.

The name “Dunn’s Swamp” doesn’t sound very promising but I’m sure it comes from before the weir was built. When ever I hear the word weir, I think of one of those low walls in a stream that the water flows over. Kandos Weir is more of a dam in the real sense of the word being about 30 metres high (about 90ft).

When Engogirl was at university she did an assignment on the weir and we went to the cement works to meet up with the engineers who run it now, to have a look at the original drawings. It was a bit of a shock to see that the plans for such a large structure were in pencil and seemed so simple and yet the weir is still there working just fine.

One of the things I love about my country is that places like Dunn’s Swamp have been made available for public use at a very reasonable cost. Only $5 a day per person and firewood is supplied plus there are environmentally friendly composting pit toilets, but there is no potable water so you have to bring your own.

All around the lake there are various walking tracks and on Sunday a few of us went up to a look out, which gives a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside.

Because of all the rainfall lately, the vegetation was lush (by Australian standards) and I can’t remember seeing the area looking so beautiful and green in the past 15 years I’ve been going there.

 

It was just so beautiful that it came as a surprise to come across a large group of people (foreign university students) who were out there drinking and leaving their beer bottles lying about, discarded on the track. I went up to them and said, “hi, it’s a beautiful area isn’t it?” They all smiled back and said yes. Then in a polite and gentle way, I suggested to them that the area looks better without the bottles and they agreed.

From a distance I watched them leave and the guys who had been drinking weren’t carrying anything back with them.

It’s funny how people will say one thing and do another.

When we came back to the area we found a bunch of bottles hidden behind rocks and under bushes so we collected them up and took them back to the campground. On the way to our tents we passed the students, so my friend Joseph and I went up to the group of about twenty with smiles on our faces and I said, “Hi! How are you all?”

Smile and greetings of “hi” came back to us.

I walked up to one of the guys who I had seen drinking the beer and I pulled out one of the bottles from my coat (a Gore-Tex with large cargo pockets) and said, “here, I think this is yours”.

He looked embarrassed and his friend stepped forward and said, “oh thanks, we were looking for them but we couldn’t find them”.

I said, “yeh right!” and then I handed the other bottles back to various other guys, “saying, here, I think this one might be your’s” until I was rid of the rest of the bottles.

Sheepish looks of embarrassment all round. I then dug out all the bottle caps that I’d also picked up on the way back and said to the group, “these are so small you can just put them in your pocket and bring the back with you”.

All the while I was making sure I was smiling and speaking in a polite and gentle manner. I was into winning hearts and minds, not getting the crap beaten out of me.

I went on with, “it’s great to share these places with you, but let’s try and keep it nice for each other” as I patted the biggest guy in the group on the back in a friendly and brotherly way (I’ve read that touch can help make people more calm and co-operative). Much to their credit, the students seemed to be taking what I had to say on board, and there were mumbled apologies (which I hadn’t come for) and smiles.

Hopefully that will be a group where some of the people will think twice about littering in the bush.

Before and after on Gloucester Street. The Rocks, Sydney, NSW, Australia. 2010

As I was wandering around town the other day I went through some back streets in The Rocks.

The Rocks is one of the very first places in Australia where European settlement began. For about 100 years The Rocks was basically a very dangerous open air prison that was almost a no-go zone for the colonial authorities. It was such a notorious place that the government soldiers never went in there alone and always would go in squads when ever they had to extract a miscreant.

Herman Melville in his book “Moby Dick”, basically says that the worst people that the whaling captains distrusted the most, were “Sydney men”, who were thought to be worse than “canallers” (the workers on the Erie Canal) which was saying something back in the 1860s in America.

Gloucester Street in The Rocks was bisected by the Bradfield Highway (the shortest highway in Australia and probably the world) when the Sydney Harbour Bridge was built back in the 1930s.

The mural is an attempt by the city to beautify an act of expedient civil engineering brutalism. It shows a scene from a 1901 photograph taken in the same place, looking in the same direction.

1901 is significant because it was a year after the bubonic plague broke out in Sydney and it was about this time that the government started cleaning up the area by resuming the properties with the intention of demolishing them. The government allowed people, for a very cheap subsidised rent, to live in the old houses until they were going to knock them down.

As with most government projects that get punctuated by a few world wars, progress was exceedingly slow and by the 1970s the area was such a slum that it was all going to be knocked down, but the unions stepped in and banned work in the area to preserve the housing for the poor.

Since The Rocks are a very short walk to the most expensive real estate in Australia there is no way any of the long term residents could afford to buy the houses and the unions weren’t going to let them be knocked down or sold on to the rich.

The solution has been to sell the houses at a very reasonable price to the long term tenants in the hope that they will fix up the old houses. Trouble is that many of the people who live in subsidised housing can’t afford to fix up the dilapidated houses. Slowly but surely, yuppies are weaselling their way into the area and The Rocks has been steadily becoming gentrified since the 1970s, to the point it’s in danger of becoming yet another a “Disneyfied” tourist trap.

A note on the photo.

I took the shot with my 10mm lens, and as such, the tops of the tall buildings almost came to a point so I straightened the verticals (like I would’ve in camera, if I had been using a view camera) in Photoshop and that is why the very top of the buildings are a bit blurry because they have been stretched so much.

Bored with barbed wire on the bridge. Sydney Harbour Bridge, Sydney, NSW, Australia. 2010

I bought a second hand Fuji S5 pro on ebay the other day, so I thought I’d wander around town and take some shots with it to see if everything was O.K. with it.

I’ve been feeling a bit low in energy lately so I figured I should get some exercise by walking from town hall to North Sydney, over the Sydney Harbour bridge. It’s not far, at only 4.5kms or just under 3 miles. Today was a warm sunny day and the views from the Harbour Bridge promised to be as beautiful as ever.

The road that goes over Sydney Harbour Bridge is about 50 metres or 160 feet above the water and because it is so high it was a popular spot to commit suicide, back in the 1930s during the depression, wire suicide barriers complete with barbed wire were installed in 1937 and have largely been a successful, if very ugly, solution.

Landmark structures like the Sydney Harbour bridge, not only attract the suicidal but also climbers.

 

Back when I used to rock climb in the early 1990s many of my climbing friends had climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It was considered a doddle with spectacular views. In those days, the fine for climbing the bridge was only $200 and most of my friends climbed it at night and didn’t get caught. Climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge was something I always wanted to do but unfortunately the fine went up to $1200 and that put me off. Nowadays the fine is $2200 and the bridge is covered with detection systems that make getting caught assured.

As much as I would’ve like to have climbed the bridge, I can understand why all the security has been stepped up and the fines increased. For example, years ago, my good friend Paul decided it would be a simply brilliant idea to climb the bridge with some friends after a heavy drinking session at a buck’s party. Needless to say, he fell off after only (and luckily) 5 meters (about 15feet), onto the railway tracks below, with his arm behind his back, smashing it so badly that his arm is now held together with about 6 steel bolts.

Thanks to all the recent terrorism around the world, there are now security guards and cameras all over the bridge as well.

 

Now, not only has photography been made difficult because of all the wire everywhere, there is the added paranoia of whether or not it’s considered a preliminary act of terrorism if one photographs any of these security measures, intentionally or not.

I guess me being a pasty white guy who doesn’t look like he’s from the middle east goes some way towards my cavities being left unprobed. After all the anti terrorism ads on TV, where people are encouraged to report suspicious activities, I wouldn’t recommend anyone who looks obviously middle eastern, take photos of anything other than the view from Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Because if the big brothers watching the security monitors thought some malicious reconnoitring was going on, it would be highly likely they’d get frog marched off by a nearby security guard, probably of middle eastern appearance (sometimes it seems like almost every second security guard in Sydney is from a Lebanese background), for a “chat” in an enclosed uncomfortable place.

All this talk about people of middle eastern appearance reminds me of once when my wife and I were at the airport about to go overseas, when a security guy asked for my wife to step out and be checked over with a hand held metal detector. Anyone who has met my wife, Engogirl will know she is the embodiment of sweetness and light and it’s obvious that she would’nt hurt a fly, never mind blow up an airplane full of people.

The security guard was so apologetic, saying that he had to pick people out at random. We told him we understood and that for appearance sake they can’t just pick on people of middle eastern appearance. He said, “you’re so right!” they get so mad, they just blow up!”…… “I mean … I mean, I mean, get so angry”. The poor guy was so flustered that he had said something that was accidentally so politically incorrect. We tried to reassure him that the situation was O.K. and we weren’t going to report him. Poor sod, what a crap job. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. As for me, I wish everybody was thoroughly searched before they got on a plane, particularly one I was on.

While I acknowledge that the various security measures in place on the Harbour Bridge are necessary, I just wish the view wasn’t so obstructed. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is a very popular tourist destination and many people walk across it to see the views. Surely in this day and age of the consciousness that cities should be beautiful places to live, rather than being purely functional money making machines, a more up to date and pleasing barrier could be erected on such an important landmark?

The grotto of miracles where statues pray to each other. Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin, Dubrovnik, Croatia. 2009

As a piece of visual communication, I find the iconography in the photo below, confusing.

 

 I mean to say, “what’s going on”?

A statue of what I presume to be Mary, or maybe it’s supposed to be a pilgrim, praying to Mary in a fake grotto where crutches have been left behind. Is the big statue (with it’s back to the viewer) meant as a way to communicate to the illiterate that they should pray in the direction the statue is facing?

If statues are supposed to represent some sort of Christian idea, rather that being idols, why are people encouraged to pray towards them? Most people I’ve seen praying in churches, tend to do so with their eyes closed, which would mean that they can’t see what they are praying towards. Perhaps the statues give the devout something to focus their thoughts on before they shut their eyes.

I’m guessing that the crutches have been left by people whose prayers have been answered. It would be interesting to see how many crutches would be collected if those who prayed, but didn’t receive blessing, had to leave their equipment behind as punishment for being unworthy of divine intervention. Which reminds me of the following exchange from the movie, “The Island”:

Lincoln Six-Echo (played by Ewan McGreggor): What’s “God”?
McCord (played by Steve Buscemi): Well, you know, when you want something really bad and you close your eyes and you wish for it? God’s the guy that ignores you.

To me the grotto is almost like one of those chain mails that circulate in our e-mails every now and again. Read the message, believe you will get something and then pass it on.

Oh, and by the way, the polyptych behind the altar is by Titian.