Wednesday, August 14, 2013

My trip to Belgium (Part 2)

In my previous instalment on the subject of 'my trip to Belgium' I told you guys I was meeting up with another photographer. Here's how that went.

A day before we left Cochrane (talk about last minute) I emailed Didier Demaret with the notion that I was coming to Belgium. I asked Didier if he saw an opportunity for the two of us to meet each other and maybe go out shooting or go for a coffee or something.

I've been following Didier for over a year now (thank you Google+) and he quickly became one of my favourite Belgian photographers. He's primarily a long exposure artist that does some really beautiful minimalistic work. And that simple fact surprises me. When I lived in Belgium I found it very hard to find ANYTHING worth photographing. But Didier showed me, stuff is there.

Anyway. So on my birthday, I made my way down to the little town of Ecaussines. Yes I had to use gps navigation to find the place. But it was just under an hour's drive away from where we were staying.

When I crossed into the French speaking part of Belgium I immediately noticed that the sense of 'space' was much greater here. Towns had fewer houses. A lot more trees and fields, etc. In a sense it's like driving out of Calgary onto the prairies. Well not quite. But that's all I got right now. :)

I had just parked the car around the corner of Didier's house and was walking up to the front door when I heard a car stopping behind me. I turn around and Didier jumps up out of his car with this enormous smile. I could see he was as excited to meet me, as I was to meet him.

Anyway. Long story short. Didier invited me into his home and introduced me to his girlfriend. She was busy working on some sort of architectural plan for her studies. It looked all very complicated. Didier also showed me about 12-15 framed prints of his. He had just finished preparing a new batch for a exposition he was part of.

I always find it very interesting to see other photographers prints and presentations. They can say a lot about the photographers' personality. Without saying a word I studied his prints. I could immediately feel and see that Didier had the same COD attention to detail then myself. His prints looked immaculate.

So then Didier invited me to do some sightseeing around his town. We grabbed the gear, jumped in his car and set off. He showed me around for a bit and showed me 2 castles. All very nice but I was hoping for some more... let's say... minimalistic scenes. ;)

Afterwards we went to see the inclined plane of Ronquieres. An immensely impressive structure that permits ships navigate a 222ft vertical elevation in the local canal. Pretty crazy undertaking... The whole structure serves as a huge local landmark. I've always heard about this place but had never seen it before. It made me pretty silent.

Then I saw my first photograph! It got me pretty excited. From underneath the inclined plane I could make out a really nice minimal scene. I asked Didier on our way out to stop exactly here. We walked into the field a little bit. The field was still bare but it was freshly worked a few days before (if I had to guess). That's where I made this photograph.

Anyway. I know this is becoming a bit of a long blogpost.

Later that day, Didier took me out for a 3.5 hour hike around some fields and pastures. Rain was now coming down hard. Navigating slippery mud and puddles we finally saw another scene. And then another and another.

Trying to photograph the scenes above I realized, I forgot my spotmeter! I only brought one bag on our muddy hike and the other bag (with the light meter) was in the car. Which was 30 minutes away from where we where now. Luckily, light had not changed a whole lot during that morning. AND I had my trusty iPhone with me WITH a Light Meter app. Looking back, that app nailed the exposures pretty good.

And then we came across this tree. Now this was a bit of a challenge. But again, the light meter app prevailed. I still can't believe it by the way. I should use it more often.

By now, we were both soaking wet. Didier was apologizing for the bad weather, but I told him I love photographing in bad weather. It's the truth. I love being out in fog, snow, rain, ... 

And THEN we saw this scene. It was pretty spectacular. Well at least in my book.

We came across 2 trees across a field. Again the field was still bare. Behind the trees the background was getting simplified by rain (yup it was still raining hard and we were basically trying to not go face first in the slippery mud in front of us). I immediately 'saw' the photograph. I wanted to silhouette those trees. And I wanted them to have some presence in the frame.

I screwed on the 127mm with the 2x Vivitar extender. The trees fitted the frame perfectly (oh yeah I still had no spot meter). As I was watching through the viewfinder I noticed the bird. I turn to Didier "Dude there's a bird in between the trees, you see it?!". I was excited about this. Then – like on command – the bird started walking from the right tree to the left. I tripped the shutter when the bird was exactly in the middle of the trees. Framing the bird between them (oh yeah, the bird was a model!). I can't tell you how excited I was when I saw the negative of this!

In that negative you can exactly make out what bird it is. For you bird people out there, it's a Northern Lapwing. :)

After this encounter, we decided to not jinx it any more and find our way back to the car. Happy we finally found it again we headed out to a local cafe and grabbed ourselves a hot chocolate and talked a bit about the day. It was amazing to work along side Didier for a few hours. And it was interesting (yeah let's call it that) to brush up on my French again. :s I just hope I didn't offend Didier to much. hahaha.

Anyway an hour later I was standing under a hot shower trying to get the cold out of my bones. My camera bag was soaking wet. I just let it air out. Since my camera doesn't use any electronics I wasn't too worried. But I was worried to see that my film compartment in my bag and all of my exposed rolls of film inside of it, was still soaking wet 2 days after our meet up though.

But nothing was lost. No photographs where harmed. :)

It was great meeting Didier and see the person behind the imagery. I strongly suggest to everyone to check out Didier's website. I can assure you, if you like minimalism and B&W photography, you will be impressed.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

What happens when a B&W landscape photographer, photographs horses... in colour.

A few weeks ago, I was able to fulfill my marital duties and ...

Wait for it.


Photograph our horses.


I got you there didn't I?
It happens every summer. And time after time I have no clue what I am doing.

But this year it was slightly different. Sarah had done some research. And in the days before the actual session, she showed me a pile of photographs she liked. She had done research on Pinterest and Instagram ...

Yay for me! 

She showed me details, overall photographs, portraits, ... of horses. All really good stuff. All stuff I could do too.

Or so I thought.

And then she said:
- "I think I want them in colour."
- "Wait what?! In colour?!" I replied. "No no no. Maybe you haven't noticed but I don't 'do' colour anymore honey."
Oh the horror. I had to photograph the horses in colour?! Something I had not done for ages. Maybe there was a way to convince her that these photos would look amazing and original in classic black and white. I had to convince her. I had to.
- "Oh I know you don't do colour anymore" she said, "none the less I want them in colour."
I tried to say "but ..." in combination with the sad puppy look, but that didn't work. I knew I had no way out anymore. Sarah's mind was made up long before she had even asked me to photograph the horses.
 - "Ok" I said to myself "Screw it. I can do this". "How hard can it be? Right?" 

You see every year, I step up to that same challenge with a lot of confidence. You probably know how it goes. You have this mind full of ideas. 'I want to do this and that and what do you think about this and that?'Only to get literally smacked in the face with failure 5 minutes into the job.

That was in short how it went. 5 minutes in, I just wanted to quit. Even with the 5DmkII (Yes I did this digitally, I'm not completely crazy) on continuous shooting and servo focussing, I still wasn't able to press the shutter fast enough. Yeah I am a slow poke. 

So I just ended up pressing it constantly. And make 20 shots in a row. Heck we'll edit later. I was literally putting all my eggs in the 'spray and pray'-basket. Something I never EVER do. I felt like a hack.

Anyway, the horse wasn't really interested in standing still for anything longer than 2 seconds. He was more interested in what he was seeing around him. Or 'oh wait... fresh grass, I gotta taste that, it looks so different than my regular grass, nom nom nom'. You see our horse Oli (his name is Qhromatic but the previous owners gave him the stable name Oli) has the attention span of a 3 year old (well he IS 3 so maybe that's why).

Anyway. Loooong story short. It was a frustrating experience and one I will have to repeat next year. And the year after that. And the year after that ... etc. Oh and of course it is an experience that always ends up with a little fight between the misses and me. :)

But 614 photographs later (not kidding), I got about 20 keepers. Twenty! That's a 3.25% success ratio. That is sad. But lucky for me, the wife loved the keepers too. That meant I was able to escape the dog house. Oh wait we don't have a dog. But you know what I mean. And that I scored some big time points too.

Every time I photograph our horses, I have a growing respect – at the end of a session – for photographers that do this for a living. May it be equine, wedding, pet, action photography or anything else where a subject moves fast and needs the photographer to react in tenths of seconds.

I came to the conclusion that I can NOT photograph horses. Or people. Or other moving organic things. I like landscapes. I like to compose. Take my time... Enjoy the moment, listen, feel, smell and then press the shutter.

There is an art to action photography. One that I still have to learn.

Monday, August 5, 2013

My workflow

Once in a while I get emails from other photographers with the simple request to share my workflow with them. Usually I just forward them towards a document I've written a few years back (when I was still playing the digital game) that explains everything from capture to output.

Since I believe in the 'sharing is caring' methodology and I don't believe in keeping knowledge (or secrets) to once self, I will share this document with you here too. I've done so in the past but here it is again.

Basically what I do is very simple and very similar to what I once did in a wet darkroom. That is, I dodge and burn, I apply contrast (selectively or not) and I use a technique that is similar to selective bleaching in darkroom terms. That's it. No intricate selections or fancy Photoshop work. I don't have the patience for that I guess. 

Now that I've switched to film, nothing has really changed. The capturing of it all now happens on film. And I use Ansel Adams' zone system technique. That means I define the zone where the shadows need to fall on and I measure where the highlights fall on the scale. If they fall lower than desired, I over develop, and vice versa I under develop.

Nothing fancy. See it as the recovery slider in Camera Raw. If my highlights are 'too hot' I can get them back during development. Downside of it is though is you have to really know how high those highlights fall on that scale. So you know how much to over or under develop. Obviously there's no way back. Once the negative is developed you're done. 

Well that's partially true. There is still a way of intensifying the highlights in an under developed negative by using a selenium bath. And I've used this technique once with good results. 

The key to this all is previsualization. You need to understand and know how you can reach a desired end result on your negative before you start the developing process (or even exposure process all together). And the end goal is to create as much separation between tones as you think is needed. Some scenes require not a lot of separation (think fog images). Too much separation in foggy scenes will render that photograph too contrasty and thus not 'truthful' to the original conditions. I'm not saying photography is truth. My work is often far from the truth. 

Lucky for us, but some film these days is very forgiving. The film I am using (Ilford Delta 100) has a very long flat characteristic curve. Which means it will hold highlight information really well without blocking up. 

Delta 100 curve vs FP4+ curve. Notice how the FP4+ curve has a real shoulder. Which means if your exposure is not 100% correct, you will end up with blocked up highlights. Notice also how the Delta curve is steeper than the FP4+ curve. This is why Delta 100 is considered a higher contrast film than FP4+.

Here's a raw scan of Ilford FP4+ in DD-x. Notice the gorgeous mid tone rendering and very smooth grain structure. This film would work well with portraiture I think.

The difference in film is often described as this. FP4+ is creamier in the mid tones (because of the rounder curve) and Delta is a more contrasty film. Since my work is mostly high contrast anyway, I chose (after testing a lot of film) for Delta. It produces very good results in combination with a developer called Ilfotec DD-x (also by Ilford). It is such an amazing combination in my opinion.
Developers change the look of your negative. Think of your developer as the sharpness slider in Camera Raw. 

Here's an example of what acutance means. This Delta 100 roll was developed in Rodinal. Grainier than DD-x but slightly higher acutance. 

Here's an enlargement from the center section of the photograph above. You could count the leaves and branches if you wanted too. The extraordinary thing about this photograph is that this was made with a 60 year old camera with mediocre optics. 

You choose your developer mainly for something they call acutance and grain. Acutance is about the transition between edges. For instance a dark tree in front of a light sky. Acutance describes how sharp that edge is going to be. And how many tones that transition is going to consist of. Think of it as an unsharp mask. Acutance on the other hand has nothing to do with resolution.

Grain is also partially controlled by developers (developing Delta in Rodinal for instance will yield a sharper acutance but also sharper defined grain) and partially controlled by process. To much agitation in development (or a temperature that is too high) equals more grain.

Again everything boils down to preference. And grain compared to digital noise is something that is in my opinion beautiful. Grain can really add to the drama in a photograph for instance. Grain also often is accentuated in the darkroom when you start to heavily burn in areas of a photograph.

Here's a good example of what I mean by that. 

The original scan truthful to the negative (top). You can see I place the foreground on Zone II. Which means deep tonalities and slight detail. In the final photograph (bottom) I added a little bit of contrast on the bottom part of it and a whole lot was added in the sky (together with burning in areas). You can see how that burning in accentuated the grain. I didn't mind that at all in this composition. It complements the drama that this photograph is carrying. 

Ok so all of this needs to be decided before I press the shutter. I measure light according to the – non existing – end result in mind. It's an interesting exercise. Because there's no LCD to check exposure on. Everything is done 'in my head' so to speak.

At first that was a challenge. I hardly dared to press the cable release. Was I right about exposure? Was I right about development? Etc etc. It took some time for me to translate my vision to desired negative densities. Now I'm confident enough to make those decisions real quick.

So once everything is developed and hung up and dry, what do I do next?

Usually I have a good idea of what negatives I want to scan in. Yes scan. I will get back to this later in this post. I scan everything on an Epson Perfection V600 Photo. It's a relatively cheap scanner that does the trick for me. Keep in mind my scans are not high resolution. This scanner realistically can't handle anything above 1200dpi. But the scans are fine to produce small 10x13" prints at 240dpi for proofing purposes.

Once I've done all the tweaks to it (like I describe in the pdf at the beginning of this blog) I save the layered tiff to 2 hard drives. I then output a 1000px wide jpeg for posting on Flickr, G+, Twitter and Facebook.

For making the big prints, I'm currently in the process of finding a high resolution scan service in town. I tried out ABL imaging a few months ago and was rather disappointed. A few days ago I contacted a new company and will try these guys out soon.

Printing also happens digitally. I print using simple K3 inks on Ilford Smooth Pearl paper (290gsm) using Epson printers. For all my printing work I use Resolve Photo, who is – by claims of a lot of photographers in Canada – one of the best printers in Canada.

Ultimately. In the next year or so, I want to ditch all digital processes and print in a wet darkroom again.   I am thinking of printing somewhere along the lines of 20x24" or 30x40". In other words. Large. 

And I am currently in the market for a 4x5 enlarger. I would love to find a stand alone floor model enlarger like the Durst Laborator or a DeVere 405 or 507.

If you have any leads... make sure to let me know. :)