Category Archives: Architecture

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:


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 

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. 


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]

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.

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.

The view from Ludwig’s place. Neuschwanstein, Bavaria, Germany. 2009

Regular readers of this blog know I’m not a fan of palaces. Neuschwanstein, yet another monument to one man’s utter cluelessness and bad taste, left me cold, but I did enjoy the surroundings.

Say what you like about mad King Ludwig II, but he certainly owned some nice real estate.

As I looked out at the view from one Ludwigs balconies, I found myself thinking about Wagner and his music.

Anybody who knows anything about Wagner, knows he was an odious little creep as a human being, but as far as I’m concerned, he sure captured a sense of the landscape around Neuschwanstein in his music.

Here’s a two part video of Karajan conducting one of my favourite Wagner pieces, the overture from the opera Tannhäuser.


[youtube IDwiYOCnuao]


[youtube NVnZZekYMrY]

The best things in life are shared. Venice, Italy. 2009

As life goes on inexorably forward like a juggernaut into the future, I find myself thinking about how it’s the people in my life, rather than where I am or what I have, that gives me the most joy.

I’ve done a lot a traveling by myself and while I have enjoyed it, I’ve found that as I’ve grown older, sharing experiences with someone who I care about enhances the experience exponentially. Epicurus once said, “We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink, for dining alone is leading the life of a lion or wolf”.

I first started thinking about this over thirty years ago and nowadays when I see older couples it warms my heart to know that as the pleasures of the flesh become less distracting, the real basis of a relationship, that of sharing experience with someone you care about, comes to the fore.