Local Walks

I wrote quite a post here, but accidentally wrote over it. Well, I saved it, then began another one with a different title as I didn’t think it ready for publishing and it looks like that was interpreted by the WordPress software as ‘overwriting’ it. Not too sure I am good at using that quick post tool after all! One of the reasons I started this blog, even more than  various other, often half-hearted web projects, was to find my own voice. I assume everyone has their own, unique voice as after all, whilst it may be convenient to see people statistically, we are individuals. I am actually from a family with not 3.25 people, living in an apartment with 2.5 rooms. Well, I’m not the 0.25 if that’s what you’re thinking, sleeping in 0.5 of a room, anyway (though some might beg to differ)!

Anyone who knows me will know that as well as loving to take photos, I take many of them (probably too many) and in fact do so almost every day. Digital has allowed me to be prolific in a way film would never have permitted and as cameras get faster and easier to use and get good results from, the temptation is to take even more! Of course, what’s more important is quality over quantity, so such a machine-gunning approach has severe limitations, which might only be apparent after the fact, when you see a friend’s collection from the day and envy their 15 good ones as opposed to your 800 mediocre ones, but that’s the way it goes. In some cases, it does help, for example getting the composition or focus just right, or being free to experiment with angles. I’m not sure it’s really better than a slow and meditative style, with less shutter-clicks and more looking, though. Large, ‘endless’ memory cards are as much curse as blessing in this sense.

I often head out for a walk in my local area, a ‘walkabout’ in the hours of best sunlight. Best sunlight for photography, that is, which means the early morning, though this can be as late as 7:30 in winter, or around and including the ‘golden hour’ before sunset, when that luminous golden aura surrounds everything from the setting sun. I truly enjoy these walks and the bonus is that not going to far means I can get back and do other things at home more easily. Once I start messing with trains, a necessity for a lot of interesting places to be sure, the whole thing takes up much of the day. So what do I photograph? There is a beautiful shrine near me, called ‘Suwa Jinja’ that is a favourite place. The shadows and streams of light between trees are evocative. The only thing is, it’s pretty small and being a shrine has hardly any flowers and the trees don’t change much outside of Autumn. Another favourite is a small stretch of water, connected to a larger river, where reeds have been planted and small fish and turtles swim. Yet what I go there for, despite it’s (hideously) concreted-over banks, a seeming favourite reducer of unemployment figures here in Japan, are the migrating wild birds that cluster there. Alongside ducks are cormorants, blue or white herons and egrets. I try to catch them in beautiful take-off, which necessitates a fast camera, either that or zoom in very far on their faces with my ultrazoom.

Then there is the area I jokingly call ‘beautiful countryside’. It has some nice paths, rice fields, old farmhouses and some small half-forgotten shrines here and there. Some of the local farmers are very friendly, offering me a drink and none has really been hostile, though I don’t like hearing the yappy, barking dogs much. Wild birds are to be found here and there and depending on the month, autumn leaves, cherry blossoms, various insects and at times even snow, though that is only once or twice a year. These local walks are something I truly enjoy, getting lost in the mystery of my surroundings. Each time I can find some new minutiae of detail to obsess over and sometimes whole new places. It’s a kind of adventure for me, a smaller scale camera trip with the advantage of no time limit and knowledge that I can always come back and photograph later.

So what gear do I use? Currently, pretty much all of my collection. These expeditions are also a good way to find out more about them and realise which ones I enjoy using most and why. I suppose ultimately, I’m learning more about myself this way.

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Walking in Ueno Park

One of my favourite subjects is actually people. No, not just pretty girls (who make good subjects, too!), but also older folk whose faces tell stories, couples loving their children, artists painting and so on. Ueno Park, I have found is actually a pretty good place for this and the nearby city streets give a nice taste of new/old Tokyo, though the people are a bit less relaxed once they are back in the busy smoke of the city.

Ueno park has also been refurbished a lot, to make way for Tokyo’s 2020 Olympics bid. Of course, I have no idea whether that’ll be successful or not, but I wish the city luck.. Anything which makes the place nicer and more livable is fine in my book and if it costs money, well, that’s the way it is. It’s a fantastic and fascinating place and it would be great to give more people the excuse to discover it.

So anyway, here are some of my park life shots. I actually really enjoy watching people, especially when they are relaxed and having a good time. I’d say it’s quite therapeutic. Whilst nature offers its own glorious, beautiful and inspiring displays, closer to home fellow humans are easier to relate to and have just as much grandeur and beauty in their admittedly smaller lives. I go here pretty regularly. often with different camera and lens combinations, so expect to see more of this!

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The Best Photo is the One You Have in You

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We have all heard the famous words by Chase Jarvis of his iPhone photography, that-

The best camera is the one you have with you.

From what I have seen of his incredible work, he makes that very clear and it opens up new worlds in photography for those obsessed with pixel-peeping activities… but what makes for the best photo, or even the best photographer? Surely the end product is more important than the camera, whatever it is, (something I am pretty sure Jarvis was also saying, but here I’ll make it more explicit)? What about when size is no object and techniques abundant, how then to take a truly great photo? In fact, in many ways, by simplifying the process, the mobile camera may even be better. (Another interesting point is that Jarvis was using an older iPhone 3, with a technically terrible camera, yet it’s distinctive low-fi look may actually have helped make for the astonishingly interesting results).

So why is it that we can often find ourselves making a better, more moving and more immediate photo with our mobile camera, or compact, than the otherwise far superior results from a DSLR? It’s not only the fact that it is with us… for those of us who go out with the specific intention of seeing things and photographing them, a decent-sized camera (if not it’s larger lenses maybe), can easily come along. The camera that is with you is not the whole story of what makes for meaningful photography, as opposed to merely well-done photos. I feel that this aspect of photography, partly due to our banal, ‘despiritualised’ world, is so often neglected. Yet it is of the very essence of what photography, or any art (as opposed to mere craft) is truly about.

The reasons are manifold, but come back to one basic point that I am sure a lot of you reading will find fanciful, even faintly ridiculous, but is absolutely essential if our photography, or painting, or writing, or even speech is to have any impact. It is that when we take the picture, the very moment we press that shutter, we imprint something of ourselves in it. It may well be what we see, but it is not self-same with the thing that we are seeing. It is our unique, precious, view of it, our experiential response to it. That response is a creation in itself. The more authentic, deep and meaningful the response, the more interesting it is.

Having a good camera is only part of the story, though a big part, as one is needed to sensitively record as much as possible. Purely in terms of pixels, dynamic range, colour depth and other considerations, more and more accurate data is better. Of course, the same goes for film, for the camera itself and the quality of the lens. Which by implication includes all the designers, technicians and even artists whose efforts went into producing the camera or lens itself.

Yet what is even more important is having a clear mind at the point of capture, having a mind that is focused on the scene, place, person, object or whatever it might be.Yet it is not so much the subject in its own right as what it means to us, the inspiration of beauty, sympathy, meaning that it brings us. It would be easy to stop here, but I’m going to go on and look at what photography really is and it is something that definitively marks out the best. Like anything, it can be studied, but it must also be sensed, just as how to make the most of a particular camera can, ultimately, be sensed.

Sometimes, less can be more.

Photography is a capture of light, of photos. Nothing more, nothing less. Yet light is a vast field of variation and meaning. It is an appreciation of and absorption in that play of light that makes our world visible. In fact, if light is indeed energised, it is what makes our world possible. Yet we often, when focused on our needs for survival, neglect to notice the sheer soul-illuminating beauty of this light.

This is why people make their way out in the early dawn hours or ‘golden hour’ before sunset to make their captures. This is why they position themselves to best appreciate the moment and express that beauty of light, their cameras like prisms to show our human eyes what is contained in it.

Yet ultimately it is a brief moment being captured. It is probably 1/60 or 1/80 of a second. There is no way we can consciously be aware of this, yet that is that. The fast multi-shot capture of a DSLR can certainly help us to capture the best moment in a quickly changing situation. Yet the ease of use can make for ‘mindless’ captures. Even if such captures superficially look good and are technically good, by my estimation, as the photons are allowed into the sensor for that brief moment of capture (or onto the film), along with them flows something of our mind. How this happens I’m not quite sure, but for anyone looking at a photo and thinking, ‘yes, it looks like so and so took that’, it is a fact as real as the monitor in front of you, even if by being invisible it gets discussed less. A lack of discussion which to my mind it to the detriment of any creativity. which is as empowered by mind as much as learnable technique (which I should add, is just as important to be successful).

Meanwhile, a mobile camera, held up for that instant might just take one shot, but that shot could well be imprinted with intention. It’s automation leaves no room for playing with settings… a fact that I would agree is both good and bad. Yet the sheer sincerity of it can often make for a very honest, mind-imprinted capture. A good photo. A meaningful photo. A photo full of creative energy rather than one chosen from hundreds of similar looking-ones, all leaving you with a feeling of flat emptiness. Which isn’t to say that mobile cameras take better photos or are inherently better for photography at all. Not at all. Yet they can be very spontaneous, liberating and sincere. Which are all just as important as the quality of photons being captured in the photo. Which are all very much what photography is about.

So just remember when you take out your camera(s) next time, to focus on what you are seeing, what you are doing as you take those photos. It might be worth it to slow down a little maybe take less of the things around you and more of that which really strikes you. Treat the camera less as a notepad and more as a sketch-book. As something to express your pure mind, a channel for a variation of the very mind of the universe, reflecting on itself through you. Keep it real, keep it mysterious. Be here, in the now.

Facebook Page Started

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Ever since I started posting on the internet, I came across an interesting dilemma  how to share things with both my personal friends and the world at large? This has often created the issue of sorting out personal ‘likes’ or ‘favourites’ and those done by people who I’m not so sure really understand what I was getting at.

So now Facebook comes along and has it’s Pages feature. I thought, why not try and have the best of both worlds here? I have loads of personal friends/acquaintances plus, through the public nature of the page, I can reach beyond them . People who subscribe will be getting my updates in their news feed, a very personal area which they’ll only want them in if they really want to see them. If not, they’ll probably keep their like and stop the updates from appearing. Which is fair enough, I’m not doing this in an exercise to merely collect likes, but in search of more meaningful interaction.

So here is my new public page for my photography, using, of course, my real name.

https://www.facebook.com/GideonDavidsonPhotography

A Trip to the Zoo With the P510

Zoos are actually a great place for photography- providing, that is, you have a long lens. I thought I’d take out my P510 to Ueno again and take her for a trip to the zoo. One thing I’ve found with zoos, as with birding and any wildlife photography, really- is you can’t have too long a lens. Especially if it’s a zoom and you can shrink it at will. I found a remarkable connection with the animals through this. Whilst I may have looked absurd to some, through the lens I could get closer than my merely human eyes are capable of. Of course, another option would have been to jump in the cage and get even closer that way. But not wanting to be anyone’s lunch course, I opted for the safer option.

Certainly, I found the same joys and limitations as when birding. I could get in astonishingly close, even being able to find abstract patterns of the animal’s skin and isolate them as I took them. I can’t overemphasise too much how meaningful it is to be composing such photos as you take them. Simply to crop afterwards may get the same effect, but (a) it won’t usually have enough resolution for a decent print anymore, as only slight cropping allows this, however high megapixel numbers might seem. Also, (b) it’s far more effective and fun to be seeing what you’ll create. So that’s the positive. The negative is the impossibility of tracking any movement unless it be that of a snail and also the lack of fine detail at the pixel level, something that limiting ISO can help, but you are a far cry from DSLR, or even M4/3 land. So, knowing this, I just got out there and took some images I found remarkable as with less reach they simply wouldn’t be.

See what you think- is an ultrazoom for you?

Street Candids in Ueno

One of my favourite types of photography is the street type. Capturing the lives of people, with brief snapshots of their lives. Each photo in this field should tell a story, preserving for posterity those fleeting moments that make up so much of the human experience. Generally, for intimacy and inconspicuousness, short, relatively wide lenses are often used for this and also small, range-finder style cameras are prefered.

Yet there is certainly a place for the candid taken from a distance. The intimacy can be just as real, with the space bridged by the lens. I took my Nikon P510 out for a stroll in Ueno. I found the range of images I could capture quite miraculous, all without scaring anyone or feeling like an intruder.

A little note here might be appropriate- I intend to turn this more into a photo-blog, or at least a blog with more photography as an art-based features.

Nikon P510 User Report- The Camera Compared

So why did I chose the P510? Of course, there is the V1 option, with it’s adapters allowing AF with long Nikon lenses, offering a massive, stabilised 200-800mm with my 70-300 (or so, actually for nitpickers, 189-810mm). I tried it out in a shop and both the usability and detail was surprisingly good. Yet it feels unwieldy, delicate to have that long lens on a small body, like a NEX on steroids. Also, having only recently gotten into m4/3, for now I don’t really want to invest in yet another system, especially one that is in its infancy as far as native lenses go and I’m not so convinced Nikon’s DSLR lenses can all hold up so well to its massive 2.7 crop either. I can see myself getting into that in the future, though, perhaps when their uniquely attractive (in abilities if not so much in the looks department), V2 plummets in price. The V2 fixed a lot of the problems of the V1, despite losing the smooth styling, but is at least twice as expensive as it ought to be considering its small sensor and doesn’t really develop the IQ much from what I’ve seen. If I’m going to make a big purchase, I’d rather invest in DSLR lenses or m4/3, where you can already get such great images. So I went even smaller, sensor-wise.

Memory Lane-1972

I live far from Mt. Fuji, yet on a clear day and on a high point, you can make her out in the distance.

Memory Lane-1970

With the ultrazoom at 1,000mm I can clearly see the crest. Almost unbelievable, considering the distance.

So far, there’s a lot to like. It has incredible software, which can quickly take and process HDR images, or construct panoramas as you pan the camera. The zoom is accompanied by a tremendous VRII system, which works right to the end of the zoom. Even the mode choices are good, choosing the clearest shot automatically, or adapting to the environment well (snow mode much more appropriate than automatic for today’s purposes). I’ll admit I’ve previously turned my nose up at such ‘bridge’ camera due to their tiny sensors and often low IQ, but as sensors advance and their lenses get so exotically long it is hard to ignore them. There is simply no other way to get small lenses that reach so far and whilst my interest is birding, there are other applications where it may work wonders- flower-fields, candids in the street way out of sight, temple details on a trip. It opens up new avenues, even if, with that small sensor, the dynamic range and high-ISO qualities are so limited… something that blending photos with the special modes may help with, the same way that HDR helps with my iPhone, which with newer apps and faster processors has become my standard usage now for it.

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Snowy Day- First Shots with the Nikon P510 Bridge Camera

Great- it’s snowing! Or terrible, I’m not sure which, as I have the day off and my Nikon P510 just arrived and I’m itching to take it out for a spin. So I settled for throwing on my coat and taking some shots from the balcony. After all, I don’t really want to risk any damage to it on its first day.

 

I’ll cut to the chase and put some samples right here- I think you can see the rich creative potential of having such a tremendous zoom in such a small and handy body, as well as modern processing abilities that make it a fast and effective camera to use. Meanwhile, I’m working on a review/user report, which I’ll be posting in installments shortly.

 

Wow that zoom is tremendous! You can see how, from a safe distance, I could zoom right into the scene and catch what was going on. You get an intimacy with events that you otherwise would just distantly notice. It is, in fact, the digital camera equivalent of a telescope.

I got it to help out with my birding, where the maximum reach of anything I have is a relatively short 450mm equivalent, offered by my trusty 70-300mm VR on a Nikon D300, which offers excellent autofocusing even on birds in flight (BIF). This is fine for big birds or those silly or brave enough to stick around when I’m approaching, but the little ones get away. Even the photos I do get, when they are snacking on fruit in trees, as heavily cropped, so I really need more image. This seems to be a very convenient way to get that and in portable form. As a companion to my DSLRs or even m4/3, I can see it transforming my photography. It can produce some wonderful candids, as well, without the obvious issues of pointing a long lens in someone’s direction- it looks so small and inconspicuous.

Infrared Photography

Suwa Jinga, a small shrine near my apartment, seen in infrared. I found seeing a usually invisible part of the light spectrum adds to the sense of mystery this place already has for me, making photography there more of an adventure into the unexpected.

Early this summer, I started a new project: infrared photography. “What is it?”, I hear you cry. Infrared (or IR) photography is something you can accomplish to varying levels of success with any digital camera. The two ways I know of are either using a modified camera, with its IR blocking filter removed, an expensive process, which usually renders the camera useless for anything else, or the method I use, which involves mounting an infra-red sensitive filter, like the popular Hoya R72 (In Japan, branded Kenko), which will block out all the visual light below, say, the 720 spectrum. What remains, after a relatively long exposure, is what can be seen with infrared light only, perhaps with some visual light bleeding in, giving a touch of colour.

Stronger filters, such as a 830nm, or even 920nm one are more expensive and on unmodified cameras lead to exposure times 2-3x longer, meaning perhaps as long as 30 minutes and so impractically long. Seeing as anything stronger than 720nm tends to block out all visual light, you are left with a very contrasty, black and white image that is itself very impressive, but maybe not as interesting as the ‘false color’ images that comparatively lighter filters can give.

A false colour image, as opposed to black and white, taken with automatic white balance, will just be full of red hues. By making a custom white balance, based on setting the white point on green foliage, preferably grass in sunlight, will help things along a bit, giving the more desirable white foliage and blue or brown skies that most people prefer for these false colours. The false colours themselves, by the way, are really a means of aesthetic colour separation, much as you may see on NASA photos of space, with different bands of heat coloured differently. Having played around with them a bit, I must concur that dark buildings or tree trunks and bright white leaves and grasses, set against either a blue or golden sky looks best and brings out a ‘wow’ sensation that combinations leaving in reds and pinks fail to elicit.

These red hues are what the photo looks like straight from an unconverted camera, with an R72 filter attached.

If you like, you can convert infrared images directly to black and white, or even do so in the camera by setting B&W shooting. This gives a wonderfully rich black and white image, but arguably not as interesting as a colour conversion.

Yet even the custom white balance isn’t quite enough alone. For one thing, most raw converters won’t go down into the ‘deep blues’ of below 2000hz, so unless it’s a jpg, you generally end up with a red-hues raw file. I export that into Photoshop and then do what is called a channel swap, where you reverse the blue and red channels. To speed things up, I use this action, available (at least for now) for free online- I then tweak the hue settings at the end of the action to get those blue skies, then play around with levels to increase the contrast.

After conversion in photoshop, swapping the blue and red channels, you get these ethereal white trees and contrasty buildings. A unique image that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

Taking the photo is a lot more difficult than you might imagine…

Taking the photo is a lot more difficult than you might imagine. I’ve found my way around HDR work, which newer technologies have made a lot easier, but this is a real challenge and a half! Once the filter is on the lens, having blocked out visible light, the viewfinder is black, so a camera with live view is better. Yet the filter is extremely dark, so with a dark lens, even live view might black out, depending on how sensitive to IR light the camera is. I found my D5100 very dark nand needing much longer exposure times than my Olympus EPL-2. The latter can generally see a bright enough image through live-view and autofocus the lens that way. With the Nikon I need to focus before I put on the filter, which sounds fine, except for one little caveat… lenses focus at different points in infrared light, so I need to play around with it manually until it hits an infrared infinity position, slightly different from the usual one (I generally use this camera at infinity for this). It helps to also stop down the lens a bit to increase the depth of field for this, making more chance of a sharp image.

My Olympus EPL-2, with attached R72 filter. It can get a nice, though pretty much monocrome image right out of the camera. With a bright lens in sunlight, it can even be handheld.

For some reason, perhaps related to the greater sensitivity to infrared light, there isn’t much colour in the Olympus’ images, being mostly black and white with hints of brown or gold, very rarely blue. Meanwhile, despite the massive exposure times, which can be as much as 7 minutes, the D5100 captures some amazing false colour, making for exotic and remarkable images, like these. So whilst the Olympus can even be used hand-held at times and is much more convenient to focus, I can get a very different result through the Nikon and of course, with the larger sensor, a richer image, with far more dynamic range and also more detail.

One more thing to watch out for is lens ‘hot spots’. This, more commonly on newer lenses with special anti-reflective coating, results in a bright spot in the middle of the image in infrared photography. Here is a list of good and bad lenses for this, which might surprise you, as some kit zooms are very good for infrared, whereas expensive pro models, such as my Nikon 17-55 f/2.8 AF-S have the dreaded hotspot, if not all the time, enough to rule them out. Luckily, my Olympus lenses are all fine in this regard. Of the ones I’ve used on Nikon, the 18-55mm VR kit zoom is fine, as is my Sigma 50mm f/1.4 HSM, which while a little long, is such an excellent lens I like to use it for artistic photography whenever I can… though I’ll be trying out others when I get around to it.

The dreaded hotspot! See the bright circle in the center, that’s it. It’s caused by lens coatings blocking IR light. Concentrated in the center, it spoils such photos and can make some of the best lenses unsuited for infrared work.

A view of another world, one we’ve been living in all the time.

It may be a lot of trouble, but it brings a view of another world, one we’ve been living in all the time. Some incredible images are possible this way and since so few people have ever used this technique, especially the false-colour mode which is specific to digital (though there was a false-colour infrared film made by Kodak, which had its own special look), you are assured of unique images wherever you go. They have an ethereal, spiritual quality to them and their exotic look gives a sense of timelessness and otherworldliness. I liken to think of them as a magical dimension of our world, one we rarely see, but can be revealed this way, in many cases for the first time.

Perhaps one day I’ll get or convert a camera specially for infrared work, preferably a live-view capable DSLR. Until then, I’m quite happy to experiment with the filter and play around with the images, to find out just what is possible to see.

‘Tree of Life’, perhaps my favourite IR image yet. This striking effect and the sense of usually hidden beauty being revealed is what, for me at least, IR photography is all about.

Ancient Forests in Suwa Jinja

Living in my old place, I used to make frequent trips to the local temples Tozenji and Hondoji, both amazing places to visit and near to Kita-Kogane station. I like the sacred, quiet atmosphere in these places, which as a former religious studies student appeals to me over the hussle and bustle of the city (though interestingly enough, viewed the right way they are both sacred manifestations of life) and find myself watching my watch a lot less when faced with the questions of eternity. Also, they are great refuges for nature, in the form of collosal trees and beautiful gardens, which in a city poor in greenery is a great resource to have. Now that I live in Toyoshiki, my nearest place is Suwa Jinja.

Japan has many Suwa Jinjas, the original being located in Nagano prefecture, which makes the one I like to visit so much a kind of ‘franchise’ of sorts. Due to it’s location and tall, shady trees, it is best before sunset, when it quickly gets dark and is amazing in the early morning. Some of them are reputedly hundreds of years old, one is even said to be several thousand years of age. There are also some remarkable statues there, designed by a modern artist, which are far less ubiquitous than the ones you usually find in temples or shrines here. Sitting amongst the trees all year around, they almost seem to have a life of their own.

The general atmosphere conjures up a fantastic world, reminding me something of the universe of the Zelda games or Narnia. The quality of light there is incredible and having what remains of the ‘ancient forests’ of the title there mean it comes through the trees creating shadows and spotlight-like patches of light. In fact, it seems to me to be another real-world photo studio. Very early in the morning, with the pink light of dawn spreading slowly overhead, you can even here the rhythm of Sanskrit chanting and taiko drums, as the priests who live there prepare for and celebrate the day ahead. It all gives an atmosphere of timelessness, of a space that is neither old nor temporary, just endlessly vivid and new.

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Straight, No Chaser.

A Traditional Photography Blog - dehk © 2016

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