Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Smell of Snow

Today started off sunny but in the afternoon the storm that clobbered the mid-west started moving in. Around 4 PM it was coming down hard and I shot some 'cheater' images from the cover of the porch and out various windows. This one was made through the window in the laundry room, a clump of white birches that is attractive in almost any season but it looked especially nice in the falling snow which greyed out the forest across the field behind it.

This snow is wet and heavy. The first bit that fell immediately turned to slush. When I got up this morning the snow that fell last night was like tiny snow balls, round clusters not much more than 1/16th inch in diameter. The Eskimos have different words for different kinds of snow and anyone who lives in an area like this that gets frequent snow can tell you that there are different smells to different snowfalls too. This one smelled like spring, the kind of snowfall we get when the maple sap begins to run. The kind of snowfall that both reminds me that it is still winter but also promises spring.

Canon SX50.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Pondering Impermanence With The Way Back Machine*

In October of 1993, the same year I finished climbing the 46 High Peaks, a group of Tibetan Monks were visiting St. Lawrence University. During their stay they created a sand mandala (photo above) in the art gallery. We went to the final ceremony. Before the ceremony there was a step ladder from which I (and others) were allowed to photograph the mandala.

During the ceremony the monks swept the  sand to the center and stirred it before scooping it into a glass pitcher. Those who wanted were given a small amount of the sand as a souvenir. Above my monitor as I type this there is a small silver box containing about a teaspoon of that sand. Following the destruction of the mandala and placing the sand into the pitcher it was taken to the river where it was poured into the water to wash away.
One of the purposes of the creation and destruction of the sand mandala is to demonstrate the impermanence of all things. Tonight as I was scanning these old negatives I was struck by the irony that the mandala lives on in these photos and not only mine. In the second photo where the sand is being poured into the river I count no less than 5 still cameras and one movie camera, not counting the one I took the photo with. In addition to that there were dozens, if not hundreds of photos taken during the several days that the monks worked on creating the mandala in the gallery. Those of us who photographed the mandala and ceremony took a demonstration of impermanence and made it permanent, at least relatively permanent. Certainly more permanent than the monks intent.

I recently read about a group of photographs that were shot into space on a geostationary satellite with the expectation that they will still be around millions of years from now. It seems in spite of the message that the monks brought to Canton, NY nearly twenty years ago we humans are doing our level best to create permanence in an impermanent universe and photography seems to be our chosen tool.

* With apologies to Sherman & Mr. Peabody I've taken to calling my camera "The Way Back Machine".

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Can You See the Forest Among the Trees?

The tree and rock just left of center have appeared here before. The tree is at the Northwest corner of a section of our small woodlot that extends into the corner of our back field. In case you haven't noticed, I fond of woods and trees. They appear frequently as subjects of my photography. I enjoy seeing other photographer's photographs of trees and forests, at least I usually do.

Yesterday I was in book store and they had a copy of Skogen by Robert Adams. I've read some of his books on photography and he has a very different view of the medium than I do. That said I wondered how he would do with woodlands as subject matter. The single review on Amazon was a rave and I had seen a couple of other favorable reviews but I wasn't about to order a copy sight unseen.

The reviews I've seen are uniform in their praise of the book, its layout, fine paper and printing, the quality of the binding and I have to agree that those things are very nice indeed. After thumbing through the book however it remains on the bookstore shelf nor will I be ordering a copy from Amazon at their 30% discount price. Suffice to say that had I made those photos they would all be in the reject bin.  A beautiful package that was a let down when opened.

I debated whether I should write my own Amazon review but since I didn't buy the book at all, much less from Amazon, it seemed churlish to write a "Customer Review" on their site. Instead I vent my disappointment here.

Woodlot, Northwest Corner was shot with my Canon SX50 and converted to B&W using NIK Silver Efex 2.0.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Another New/Old Photo

Scanning old film files is an interesting exercise. I'm finding photos that I never printed and simply forgot about. Unless you make at least contact prints, film images are easy to forget about and never see again. They are shut away in file pages inside boxes. Looking at them requires pawing through and holding each page up to the light while mentally converting the negative image to a positive one. To complicate things even further, unless they are badly out of focus they all look sharp in small negatives. It isn't until you use a magnifying glass or put the negative into an enlarger that you can see for sure how sharp it is and whether the DOF is all you intended.

Aside from that though there is a subtle quality to to a film image that digital doesn't quite match in my opinion. When digital cameras first came out I was skeptical because film images are made up of random grains of silver whereas digital images are made up of square pixels. The reason that makes a difference is that we instinctively recognize things by shape and pattern. The random grains of silver have no inherent pattern so we immediately recognize the image they form. With early digital and its low resolution we had a grid of squares which competed with the image for recognition, a lot like a tiny mosaic. Once resolution passed the 11-12 megapixel range though the pixels were so small that (theoretically at least) we can't see individual pixels so it shouldn't make any difference whether it is made up of random grains or a grid of squares. Yet somehow there is a difference.

Back when CDs were a new technology an audio technician in a recording studio told me that they did all their recording and mastering on analog tape. I asked why they didn't record digitally and he explained that digital recording lost subtle resonances. In any musical performance there are sounds above and below our threshold of hearing which add to the overall quality of the sound. In order to create a digital file however, they needed a constraint on the size of the file, much the same as the way that pixels are all described by the same number of bits, 8 bits/channel in an 8 bit image, 16 per channel in a 16 bit image. To do that in a reasonable sized file the audio engineers designing the recording system had to chop off the frequencies above and below human hearing and in the process lost the subtle resonances. Thus (according to him at least) the best recordings were AAD, analog recorded, analog mastered and digitally reproduced.

The corollary in photography is that the tonal range is 256 shades of brightness from pure black to pure white. The number of tones was determined by what a monitor could display. Besides that, the steps between tones had to be even because they are mathematically derived. To make it work you can't have pixels in one area described by 1 or 2 bits and others described by 80-100 or more. They are all described by the same number of bits with even jumps from one to the next. Consequently continuous tone with digital is an illusion created by making the steps so small that the eye can't see the jump from one to the next. But light doesn't work like that. It really is continuously variable without steps.

Arguably film isn't continuous either. The silver particles may be random but they are opaque and cast a shadow on the printing paper resulting in white areas on the print. The resulting tones are determined by the density of the grains in the same way that a newspaper half-tone screen does, albeit much smaller. There is a difference though because the halftone screen, like a digital image, is a grid, not a random pattern like silver grains on film. Also the printing ink is always black while a silver emulsion print can create shades of grey.

Scanning negatives has gotten me thinking about all this because I have recently read a couple of articles questioning whether one could tell from a print whether a photo was originally made with film or a digital camera and that question was apparently lurking in the back of my mind. Of course I know with my own photos which is which and my gut tells me that there is an undefinable difference something like those tones in music that are above and below the range of hearing but never the less add to the overall performance. Can I tell when looking at someone else's prints? I'm not ready to place any bets.

Today's new/old photo shot on 120 B&W negative film with a 645 camera. I made it on a daily exercise walk past a beaver pond that was about a mile and a half from our home. Like the Snowy Trees image from a few days  ago this is the first time anyone other than me has seen it and before I scanned it, I had only seen the negative version. The roll it was on was not contact printed. In the audio technician's terms this would be an FDD image, Film recorded, Digital scan mastered and Digitally presented.