Tag Archives: art

On Pixel Peeping

Dream Bicycle-1When I launched this blog a bit over a year ago it was with the idea, in part at least, of rekindling my love of writing which had waned a bit over the years as a result of my nearly always having to write to other people’s specifications and expectations. Along the way though I rediscovered my old and long buried love of photography, something I had put away and nearly forgotten about years ago for reasons that now aren’t clear to me at all.

It has been like an awakening. I have really enjoyed getting back behind the lens, creating images, using light, getting back in touch with my artistic side and meeting (or trying to meet) the challenges of being both subject and photographer as I record aspects of my daily rides. As I began to find my old skills, visual imagination and ability to see, I have felt myself constantly wanting to expand, improve, do more and better.

I have been investing. A few months ago I picked up a Canon G1X – a rather pricy pro-quality compact with which I have been using and enjoying greatly, revelling in its improved high ISO capabilities, bigger sensor, near DSLR quality images yet still in a convenient, nearly pocket-sized package.  Satisfied though I was with my G1X (review to come eventually) the momentum continued to gather.

This week I made the big splash and acquired a full-frame DSLR, a big capable Canon 5D Mark III – in part to generate some (hopefully) nicer images for my blog (and how frustrating it is to be laid up right now!) but also to let me pursue some new and interesting professional leads that have opened up as a result of my re-launched photographic career.

I love the new camera. I still have a couple of excellent L-series lenses left over from before, but to cover a focal length gap in my collection I also bought a Zeiss 35mm f2 prime – a lovely piece of glass.  It is manual focus, of course; all Zeiss lenses are. I don’t mind the seemingly retrograde step. I am old enough to have learned on manual focus lenses (as I learned to ride bicycles with toe-clips). Furthermore in tinkering around in my living room – my battered shoulder doesn’t allow for my doing much more – I have been pleasantly surprised at how well the auto focus assist works with manual focus lenses, beeping softly and a green dot lighting up to tell me when focus has been nailed.

One of the things that intrigued me most about buying this beautiful manual focus lens, and indeed in buying the new camera body as well – one whose technical capabilities far, far exceeds that of my old DSLR – has been reading the reviews of other buyers, and long threads on photography forums where aficionados debate the relative merits of various types of lenses and bodies. In reading all these critiques, test reports, reviews and comparative analyses I found myself thinking that somewhere along the line, while I have been away, art has been subsumed by technology.

In shopping for a lens I found myself reading – surprisingly often – that manual focus is simply impractical, or even impossible, if one is going to be serious about photography in anything other than a tripod-in-the-studio set-up; certainly that for of action, sport or street photography manual focus is out of the question.  It makes me wonder how pictures ever got taken in the old days.

And on the optics and sensor front I found myself reading – and this despairingly often – about the urgent, desperate necessity for Canon or Nikon (fill in the blank) to address their woeful shortcomings on noise, dynamic range, resolution and the sharpness of their lenses in the corner of the frame. Pixel peeping is the term for this particular form of nit-picking and if one was to take seriously some of the jeremiads I’ve seen in photography forums, you would be left with the impression that even my spiffy new Canon 5DIII, or the unaffordable 14 frame-per-second 1DX (a sports or wildlife shooter’s camera) or Nikon’s near medium-format-quality D800 were little more advanced than the cameras Matthew Brady was using during the U.S. Civil War.

There seems to be this insatiable demand out there for more and better, and as quickly as possible, together with swift scorn for yesterday’s breakthrough. Twenty-two megapixels, pin-sharp, at ISO6400? That’s so five minutes ago. Forget the matter of how they used to take pictures in the bad old days of manual focus, one is left with wondering why they even bothered.  And, my God, what sized prints do these reviewers and forum posters imagine they are going to be making with their ultra-high resolution 70 megapixel cameras with 24-stops of dynamic range they dream about and expect to have in ten years time?

The one positive thing about all this was that it prompted me to take a couple of hours off the other day and do a reality check: look over some of the work of some of the great photographers of the 20th century – Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Robert Capa, Frank Hurley etc. – and also to look over the old pictures in a book I contributed to for National Geographic some years ago about the history of photography in the magazine (The Photographs: Then and Now).

My goodness. All those people muddling through with their manual focus lenses (and in Henri Cartier-Bresson’s case pretty much the same old boring 50mm focal length) and their grainy old film. Funnily enough, despite the passage of years and yes, often the graininess of their prints, none of their photos have lost their power to fascinate and involve.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the technology that we have today. I am not longing for the days of film. When was the last time you shot nice sharp usable stuff at ISO6400 on film?) It is just that when you are shopping around for lenses and bodies it becomes so easy to be swept away by technology and clinical test results that you lose perspective and forget it is the person behind the camera, and the composition that makes the biggest difference of all.

 

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Early Saturday Morning

Something about Edward Hopper’s urban paintings have always appealed to the solitary cyclist in me – their melancholy style, a sense of late-night desolation, the themes of solitude and loneliness in the midst of a big impersonal city, and lives lived out far beyond the periphery of my own. Because of the unsocial hours in which I ride, and the generally downbeat quality to Hastings seafront I often come across such Hopperesque scenes and vignettes on my rides, and often find myself wishing I possessed Hopper’s power to capture them.

I came across just such a scene today – one that reminded me of one of Hopper’s Main Street Depression-era gems, called Early Sunday Morning. I was spinning along the seafront in the pre-dawn grey, an hour when everybody else was still fast asleep and their windows were all dark except, all but this one solitary bay window along this row of tired and gently down-at-heel Victorian flats. Here a lamp glowed golden yellow and as I glanced up I could see the outline of an indistinct figure gazing thoughtfully out to sea. Funnily enough when Hopper was painting Early Sunday Morning he had wavered back and forth about including a figure gazing out the window, before deciding against it. Here was my opportunity, on a Saturday Morning,to try something of my own.

I couldn’t resist. Although I’d found a nice comfortable rhythm and had been making brisk time, I touched the brakes, pulled over smartly and hopped off. In a trice I had my tripod set up and moving quickly as I could, before this scene could change, I made a sort of tribute photograph to one of my favourite painters; think I’ll call it Early Saturday Morning.

Early Sunday Morning – Edward Hopper (1930)
Oil on Wood
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

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Photographing Your Bicycle

Bicycles are works of art, kinetic sculptures that literally and metaphorically transport us, and provide those of us who get about on two wheels, and identify ourselves as cyclists, with a means of personal artistic expression. Tourers, road bikes, hybrids, mixtes, MBT, porteurs, audax, whatever the breed, whatever the livery and choice of components, the look and style of bicycles we chose for ourselves says something about us, our own styles and aspirations, and the heady, often complex relationship we have with bicycles and cycling. Small wonder then that we like to take photographs of our bikes, trying to capture that image that is worth those thousand ungraspable words.

It is not always easy though.

Too often what we end up with are snapshots, pleasing in their record-the-moment way yet also vaguely unsatisfying, too. We know what is was we wanted to express: beauty, muscularity of design, efficiency, speed, grace, freedom, a sense of aerial liberation, maybe the romance of the open road, all the complicated things that excited us about cycling and bicycles and that bicycle in particular. We can kind of see what we had in mind, a reminder of these things at any rate, but somehow as an expression the images just seem to miss the mark. To be honest, they always will. Even art has its limitations, let alone artists. But there are ways of seeing and photographing that bring you closer to saying what you want to say. For what it’s worth I have put together a few thoughts and hopefully useful suggestions based on my own experience – many thousand frames by now – of photographing my bicycles. (I have already put together a short series of tips on photographing yourself aboard your bicycle here and here, and here, and here)

For starters, consider your backdrop. So many times I see photographs of what appear to be splendid bicycles – someone’s pride-and-joy – but set against some ugly bit of pebbledash or homely brick, or even propped up against the washer-drying in the laundry room with a scattering of bunched socks on the floor. While there is nothing necessarily wrong with any of this – a carbon-fibre or hand-made steel beauty juxtaposed with a Hills Hoist in a suburban backyard could have kind of a raffish Polaroid appeal if set out properly and well lit – for the most part these things just seem hasty and ill-considered; someone taking a snapshot, not making a photograph. Give some thought to the entirety of the picture, not merely the presence of the bicycle.

Human eyes and sensibilities have an uncanny way of editing out those bits of minutiae that are of no interest to us in a picture, and never more so than when we are looking through a camera view-finder and composing an image. Our thoughts and focus are on the object of interest – in this case a bicycle – and so we literally don’t see the washing machine or the dirty socks or the drab ugliness of the pebbledash wall. The camera’s sensor, however, is very unemotional. It doesn’t care. It sees and records every last little thing. And alas, so do we, later on when we view the photograph and marvel that it somehow doesn’t live up to the excitement we felt when looking through the viewfinder and triggering the shutter. The picture didn’t come out well, we tell ourselves.

The trick is to step back, figuratively, and view the scene dispassionately, as the camera sees it. Get rid of the extraneous clutter or find a different backdrop altogether. Consider the colour and brightness, texture and tone of your backdrop and measure it against the colour of your bike. Look for differences in tone or contrast: a light-coloured frame in sharp focus lifted out against a sombre and slightly out of focus background, for example, can draw the eye immediately to the bike – which is the thing you want your viewer to focus on Simply. Get rid of everything that doesn’t pull its weight in the image you want to make.

And add stuff that does. Forget the garage door as a backdrop – take the bike to a setting that will create an appropriate bit of ambience, a backdrop that hints at your relationship with cycling or your aspirations for your bicycle. In the two bicycle photos I have posted here, one is of my dream bicycle, a lightweight classic lugged-steel tourer that I had been forming in my minds eye for many years before I finally commissioned the frame to be built a year ago. For that one I took it to a shingle beach and shot it with the sunrise sparkling on its shiny rims, hubs, and drivetrain – and metered on that. What I wanted was something dreamlike and evocative, a sense of escape and longing.

The other shot is of my old expedition tourer which now sees service as my winter bike. Since I go out every morning at 4:30 or so, and am generally riding by the light of the moon or stars, I wanted something that represented that, and hinted too at a sense of location and so I set up this shot early one morning by an old Edwardian kiosk along the seafront at Bexhill-on-Sea – something I pass by almost every day.

Whether I achieved what I was looking for with either of these photographs is not really for me to say, other than that I was – and am – happy with the results. The thing is, there are endless possibilities for setting up a shot of your bicycle in ways that can express your own particular style and relationship with your bicycle.

Bicycles are off course a sum of their parts, and these individual parts can be interesting and beautiful in their own right. Again, as with whole-bicycle shots, look at your composition. Use depth of field to blur the backdrop and draw the viewer’s eye to the object you’ve kept in sharp focus, and want them to see and appreciate. This is done, if you’re not familiar with the workings of your camera’s lenses, by using a wider-open f-stop, say f1.8 or f2 or even f2.8. The wider open the lens (the smaller the number) the narrower your depth of field, and the greater the degree of blur in the background (called bokeh in photographer’s vernacular, after the Japanese term for blurring the background in a painting)

Portrait photographers do this all the time – which is why specialty portrait lenses have f-stops as low as f1.2 – and what are you doing here but taking portraits of your bike – the lugged stem, the seat-stays, the head-tube badge, the pedals, the brakes, the chainrings, whatever. Bicycles can be visually complicated when you get close up – all that chain-driven mechanical stuff, and cable-drawn brakes and derailleur mechanisms, and foreshortened angles in the frame. Take things one at a time, and give a bit of thought to perspective. Make these shiny bits interesting and attractive, ideally as interesting and attractive to the new-to-the-scene viewer as they are to you. I have included here a study on pedals I made in black-and-white. Something about old-style flat pedals fascinates me – they are like a magic step, filled with latent possibility, and so I tried to capture that sense of magic with a series of images.

A note for anyone photographing componentry on their bike: a work stand is very helpful. With the bike on a stand you can experiment with different angles and perspectives and depths of field. I have found, for example, that the shadowy depths of our back garden, where the chestnut tree casts it shade, can provide a pleasing bit of contrast with the shiny bits on a bike, especially when blurred with a narrow depth-of-field setting on the lens.

I hope some of these thoughts are useful. I’d love to see some of your results.

Here are a few more of mine:

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Dog Day Afternoons

Holiday at Mentone by Charles Condor 1888

I read in the BBC news website yesterday that England has enjoyed, if that is the word, its warmest day of 2012 so far with temperatures soaring to more than 32C in parts of Surrey, or 90F for those measuring their temperatures on the old Fahrenheit scale. Still warmer weather is forecast for today, and the summery conditions are meant to prevail right through the middle of next week – before cooling off apparently and, alas, probably becoming typically grey and rainy once more, in time for my return home.

So it looks as though I shall miss out on this English ‘heatwave’, although given the early hours in which I do my riding I wouldn’t have been cycling in it very much anyway. Pre-dawn temperatures have been a fairy pleasant 20C or so, or a touch under 70 degrees Fahrenheit; delightful weather, really to be out on a bike. But then I have never really minded the heat, and in fact kind of miss it.

Living in rural South Australia, as I used to do, and riding through the vineyards in the Barossa Valley on bright hot summer afternoons when the temperatures would be in the low- to mid-30sC – anything up to 95F – used to be my idea of a pleasant time. I liked the hard enamel blue of the sky on an Australian summer’s day, the clarity of the sunlight and the violet qualities the eucalypt haze lent the hills in the distance. I’m hardly unique in my noticing and appreciating the light and colour of an Australian landscape baking in the heat- some of Australia’s most iconic paintings were painted outdoors in breathless heat and glare by the great plein air impressionists of the 1880s and 1890s – Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Frederick McCubbin, and Charles Condor.

Unlike Australia’s earlier colonial painters they took their easels out to the countryside to paint the Australian landscape as it really was – hot, bright and glary, with gnarled gum trees and sun-browned grasses. Their masterpieces owed nothing to traditionally pretty English scenes and European aesthetics. Far from gentling their images, these Heidelberg-school artists (so called because of one of the Yarra Valley villages, just north of Melbourne, in where they frequently painted) ventured into the blinding afternoon sunlight and positively celebrated the heat and dust and antipodean weirdness of their native land.

One of my favourite of these Heidelberg paintings, now in the Art Gallery of South Australia, is Charles Condor’s ‘Holiday at Mentone’. It depicts archly Victorian holiday-makers ‘unwinding’ in the purplish heat of one of Melbourne’s beachside suburbs, south of the city, along Port Phillip Bay. Look at it and you can feel the breathlessness of the afternoon and imagine the sweat running down the gentlemen’s collar as he coyly eyes the girl reading a book beneath her beach umbrella. Something about the scene just appeals to me and an image of it often comes to mind when I am pedalling along English seaside promenades on what passes for a hot summer day over here.

Some of those iconic Australian landscapes and beach scenes were painted in shade temperatures of up to 115 degrees – conditions that would be challenging enough for broad-hatted artists dabbing oils on canvas. For anyone pedalling a bicycle, however, that is downright dangerous. I don’t mind the heat, up to a point. If it is dry heat, as it usually is in South Australia, I can quite happily ride in temperatures of 35C or 95 Fahrenheit, as long as I have a couple of water bottles on board.

Over 40C – or 104F – is another matter, although when I was cycling around Australia I often encountered shade temperatures of over 45C and the occasional 50c – or 122F. That is insane heat. In those days, when I was riding long empty stretches of outback highway, I thought of myself as buying distance with water. I carried as much as 23 litres with me on some of the longer and more difficult desert crossings and used to reckon on getting 15 kilometres for my first litre of water in the morning, in the relative cool of the day, maybe even 15 on my second if I was lucky and feeling my oats, and then 10 kilometres per litre after that until mid-morning by which time the temperature would be well over the old century mark and the distance-water calculus was no longer working in my favour.

Then it was time to pitch a day camp, find or make some shade, and sit out the next few hours, resting and sipping at a water bottle, until a point in the middle of the afternoon when a shift in the colour of the light told me the heat of the day had passed and the long, slow decline into evening had begun. Then I would put away the book I had been reading, break camp and start down the road once more, buying my distance ten to fifteen kilometres at a time.

You can become inured to anything and during my months of riding through the bush, I grew quite accustomed to the outback’s searing temperatures. I can remember once, when I was staying at Shalomar station, a half-million-acre cattle property in the Great Sandy Desert, getting up in the cool of the day at about 4:30am, seeing a temperature of 27C (81 Fahrenheit) on the battered old trade thermometer that hung from a nail on the shed wall, thinking how deliciously cool the air felt at that moment, wishing it could stay like that all day and marvelling to myself that there were places in the world, wonderful blissful far-away places, where that would be the high for the day.

I think about that long-ago morning sometimes when I am in England and I hear the weather forecaster on ITV4 or the BBC predicting a ‘scorcher’ for the morrow with temperatures of up to 27C or some such for London and it makes me smile. Although I wouldn’t have imagined myself ever thinking it on that distant morning at Shalomar Station, in an odd sort of way it makes me wistful for those long-ago dog day afternoons beneath a vast and brassy Australian sky.

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