Saturday, November 12, 2022

Seeing without Looking

I've noticed lately that my eyes have been doing most of the heavy lifting in the discovery of new photographs.  While that might seem reasonable or even expected I'd estimate it only accounts for half of my best images over the last 25 years.

Beyond looking for photographs visually, I frequently find them by following my feelings.  This involves a contradictory sounding process I think of as seeing without looking.  While I came upon the practice naturally, I found my way to a better understanding of it through the writings of photographer Mark Citret and the Taoist teachings of Lao Tzu.

Mark writes, "there is something irrevocably illogical about searching for something by 'not looking' for it. But experience has taught me that when I allow myself to drift in 'autopilot,' divorced from all my preferences, expectations, and judgments, my eye will eventually settle on some familiar scene, never quite seen before."

Students of Taoism will quickly recognize the idea of "effortless or actionless action." It's often referenced in Eastern Philosophy as the Paradox of Wu Wei or the mental state of Wu Xin and there are all manner of practitioners in sports, arts, politics, and everyday life.

My typical approach is to explore a place as calmly and openly as possible while paying close attention to my feelings as I move through the space.  When I'm inspired by something, even if (or maybe especially if) I can't put my finger on why, then I know it's time to get out a camera and start looking around.  In my large format days this meant spending time under the dark cloth panning the camera around until I settled on a composition that felt right.  These days it means exploring through the EVF of one of my Fujifilm bodies but the idea is the same.

I frequently find that the images I create in this way have far greater meaning and deeper connections than I recognize at the time of exposure.  Through talking with the photographer Paula Chamlee I came to think of these photographs as manifestations of that which I am unable to express any other way.  I believe most artists working sincerely experience something similar; even Edward Weston mused in his daybooks that "my work is always a few jumps ahead of what I write about it."

So it is my intention to get back to this way of seeing without looking more often. If experience is any indication it might take some time for me to recognize the deeper connections I uncover but it will surely be worth the effort or, non-effort.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Back to Basics

The Great Zoom Experiment proved to be what I'd always thought it would but hoped it wouldn't, too many options and not enough creativity inducing constraints.  The positive takeaway was a reassessment of my photographic tools.

X-T3 w/ 18mm f1.4 WR

My ideal kit would be a phone with a few built in lenses.  I have friends who shoot this way and make beautiful pictures.  I've tried using only my phone and while the results are technically good enough I just don't get the same satisfaction I experience using a dedicated camera.  That joy in the process ends up fueling my imagination and enthusiasm which results in better seeing and more photographs.

X-T3 w/ 23mm f2 WR

Those thoughts led me to the following question.  What camera and lens combo would bring me the most joy to use?  The answer was simple.  A camera with the exposure triangle controls (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO) visible at a glance on the top of the camera and changeable without accessing a menu or looking through a viewfinder.  That narrowed it down to Leica and Fujifilm and prices being what they are, Fujifilm was the clear answer.

X-T3 w/ 33mm f1.4 WR

Lenses were a little harder and lead to several thoughts. Prime lenses were a given and no matter how many lenses I own I always leave the house with only one or two. I hate changing lenses while I'm working but still like to have at least one alternative focal length option. I also like to have a backup body as being without any camera to use if something happens is not acceptable. I prefer perspectives that aren't too different from human vision so that the composition isn't overwhelmed by the drama created by the lens.  

X-T3 w/ 50mm f2 WR

Based on those thoughts the answer was clear, two identical cameras and two, two lens kits. A set that is small and lightweight and a second set that lets in the most possible light and allows me to use selective focus. This way I make a choice as to which lens pair to take when I leave the house, and then there's only one choice to make in the field, a little wider or a little longer.  And with two bodies there's no changing lenses once I'm out the door.  (Honestly, this feels a lot like what I did shooting weddings 20 years ago but I'd prefer not to think about that.)

X-T30 w/ 27mm f2.8 WR

In the end I sold all my Sony gear and bought two Fujifilm X-T3 camera bodies. For the slower and smaller lens pair I went with the 23mm and 50mm f2 Fujicrons.  The bigger and faster pair consists of the 18mm and 33mm f1.4 Fujilux lenses.  I also added a tiny Fujifilm X-T30ii with the equally tiny 27mm f2.8 pancake lens for EDC and when I need to keep things as absolutely small and discreet as possible. It looks like a miniature version of my X-T3 bodies and is a dead ringer for my old Pentax MX film camera with it's 40mm 2.8 pancake. The nostalgia is real!

I could see buying a telephoto zoom for certain special circumstances someday as I'm a big fan of the way André Kertész and W. Eugene Smith used those type of lenses but otherwise my equipment is set and I've been thrilled with my Fuji gear thus far.  My focus the last few months has been on images as the tools have quickly become second nature in a way my Sony's never really did.

Monday, November 15, 2021

The Great Zoom Experiment

I recently wrote about my fondness for the 35mm focal length and preference for prime (non-zooming) lenses.  It was that post plus the release of two new, compact, f2.8 zoom lenses that has caused me to reconsider using them again.

There are several reasons to prefer fixed lenses. For starters they are generally sharper, faster (let more light in), and smaller than their zooming counterparts.  The biggest reason, however, is actually their limitation.  By not being able to change focal lengths with the twist of the wrist it forces you to look at things in ways you might otherwise have never considered.  I've frequently discovered compositions by simply panning around and looking through the viewfinder or at the screen (or ground glass in my view camera days). If you want to bring something closer you either have to physically move closer or take the time to change lenses.  After enough practice it's also easy to visualize how a certain scene is going to look with a given lens.  However, I typically try to avoid that unless I'm in a hurry as I can usually discover something better than I initially imagined.

I've found that when using a zoom lens many beginners, myself included, tend to remain stationary and simply zoom in to fill the frame with whatever they perceive as their subject.  That is a sure recipe for boring pictures.  Exploring through a camera with a fixed lens reveals relationships between the initially recognized subject and it's surroundings which can themselves become the real subject of the photograph.  These relationships combined with, and sometimes created by, a certain type of light are the key elements from which my best images are derived.  And of course it's always the right light to photograph something.

So after all this, why go another round with zoom lenses?  The obvious reason is having multiple focal lengths available without carrying more or changing lenses.  Swapping lenses is a bit of a pain in good weather and during bad weather I generally won't even bother.  The biggest obstacle, lack of creativity inducing constraints, I believe I'll manage simply through experience.  I have been approaching photography with a zoom as though I were still using primes.  I imagine what lens would be best for a given scene and zoom to that focal length before I look through the viewfinder and then proceed as usual.  If it's not working and I need to "try a different lens," only then do I change the zoom position.

This also allows the added bonus of using the zoom in a more traditional way when I'm stuck in a certain spot and unable to move around.  I've also found that when I've exhausted my traditional approach I have the option of exploring through the camera with the added dimension of  zooming in and out both on and around the subject.

I've only just begun this process so I imagine there's more to discover and I'm looking forward to using these zoom lenses on a day to day basis.  Of course there's no replacing my 35mm 1.4 when shallow depth of field or shooting in low light is required and the tiny size of my 2.8 primes makes them indispensable when traveling as light as possible... but I anticipate using them much less now.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Creating Calm

When I'm doing my best work it typically begins with being calm and quiet enough to allow my surroundings to speak and then responding in an intuitive way. Though not my only recipe for good photographs it certainly produces the highest percentage of keepers. It can also be an exercise in restraint and good practice for dealing with other challenges.  

Exposing the above image was a perfect example. Immediately after arriving in this tranquil autumn setting the construction crew widening the nearby road showed up. While their arrival didn't affect the scene visually the mood definitely changed and I struggled to compose a picture.

In moments like this I find it helpful to focus on my routine and not the freshly broken calm, so I looked to simple advice I've heard countless times over my 23 years of photography. "If you're having trouble composing; get higher, get lower, move closer, move farther away, or change lenses." I only had a 35mm lens with me and the tiny peninsula I was on restricted my ability to move around. An exposure from full height didn't feel right so I lowered the camera to a couple of feet off the ground and found a composition that worked.

The scene required a one second exposure at f11 which wasn't long enough to blur the occasional ripple disturbing the otherwise still waters of the lake. I prefer not to fool around with filters in extremely humid and misty conditions as keeping them from fogging can be quite difficult thus ND filters were not a good solution. A bit more patience was in order as I waited and tried to time my delayed shutter release plus the one second exposure in between the randomly occurring surface disruptions.  I feel remaining calm and sticking with it payed off in the end as the resulting picture embodies the serenity I experienced when I first arrived.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

A Most Comfortable Field of View

For a number of years I had settled into a routine with my large and medium format equipment.  One wide angle lens, one normal lens, and one or two longer lenses.  All of fixed focal lengths as I've never gotten on with zoom lenses despite their obvious appeal and several attempts.  After transitioning to an all digital workflow in 2016 I assumed I would simply duplicate those lens choices and be on my way.

I'm not sure if it was the aspect ratio change from 4x5 to the longer 3x2 or simply a change of taste after nearly 20 years of photography but I was never quite happy with those lenses after the switch.  In "full frame" speak, which is what I use, a normal lens has a 50mm focal length or a 47 degree angle of view (on the diagonal).  My wide angle has a 24mm focal length or an 84 degree angle of view. And of course the longer focal length lenses have a much narrower angle of view which makes distant objects appear closer and the scene look more compressed.

I came to realize that there's quite a large gap between my 50mm and 24mm lenses. So I picked up an old Minolta 35mm lens which seemed to fit nicely in between them and my photography has not been the same since.  Suddenly the 50mm felt like a long lens and the 24mm looked rather wide.  I still use them both but that 35mm focal length felt just right to me.  Maybe not exactly what my eyes see but how they see.

My best description of the 35mm focal length with its 63 degree angle of view would be this: a telephoto wide angle. An oxymoron for sure yet precisely how it feels.  From longer distances it allows me to capture what appears to be a wide field of view without much distortion.  From middle distances the 35mm lets me pick out the most important details of a scene while still feeling natural.  And up close I'm able to include a bit of context while highlighting a specific subject.  A long wide angle or a wide long lens... Either way I approach it the lens simply provides a most comfortable field of view and lets me focus on visual relationships and light in a decidedly natural way.

I still have and use my other focal lengths but the 35mm is responsible for at least fifty percent of my keepers now.  And when I go out with only one camera and one lens, it's almost always one of my 35s.  That's right, I love it so much I have two; a small f2.8 pancake model, and a much larger f1.4 version for low light and shallow depth of field situations.  Part of me wishes I had found this goldilocks perspective earlier in my photography but finding it now has been quite exciting and reinvigorated my work in a way. So, I'll just be grateful for discovering it when I did.  Of course 35mm is one of the most popular lenses around so maybe "discovering" isn't quite accurate, but again, that's how it feels.