The Best Photo is the One You Have in You


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.


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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“All For One and One For All”… Getting Beyond the Ego

The flight of a butterfly is an adventure of the mind, if you are that very butterfly.

Recently, as many who know me will know, I’ve been heading out to Suwa Jinga in the mornings to take photos and then heading back to the safety of air conditioning before it gets too hot. I’m not just there for the photos. Being surrounded by the tall, wise, cooling trees and fluttering butterflies is an ethereal experience in itself. But I feel something more is drawing me there, like a moth to a light, or a bee to a flower.

Yesterday I took my time wondering amidst the trees and set up an infrared photo in one of the shady regions. Now as I said in my last post, these photos can take time… This particular one needed about seven minutes on the taking side, which means a further seven to take a black frame for noise subtraction, an essential part of the process. So I decided I’d do a little study while I waited for the camera and chanced upon this page. It suggested an exercise to increase awareness by expanding your sense of empathy to people or things around you, entering their minds, as it were to experience the universe from their point of view and attaining a wider sense of how things are.

I started on one of the big, black and dark-blue butterflies that flit between the trees. Imagining I could do the same, I felt a much richer sense of the environment. Height and tree-cover suddenly became relevant, as the trees became as central to my perspective as the surrounding buildings and shops are to the average human. The shrine structures themselves, of course, faded into obscurity, seen this way.

The next thing that occurred to me was a traffic policeman who had suddenly drifted in to sit on a bench and listen to his iPod and doze off. I found it a nice enough seen, but I couldn’t quite enter into it and the fact he sometimes woke up a little and threw not so friendly glances in my direction didn’t help much.

Then something remarkable happened, which I suppose could be coincidence, but Ai couldn’t help but see as connected to my little exercise. A young guy entered, with a small camera to take photos of the shrine. He gestured to me and we swapped stories. Apparently he is a care worker whose hobby is visiting shrines, not just here, but far and  wide. He showed me photos on his camera of ones in Omiya, where he was going later that day, Izu and Nikko. In fact, he collects the spring water from each shrine and carried some in bottles in his bag, as he believes the essence of the kami from each one resides in it. He showed me other photos, of bright, rainbow-like orbs above shrines he called kami and a very dragonesque cloud over a shrine that he said literally is a dragon, the shape showing what it is. Whilst I’m sure many people would call the ‘kami’ examples of lens flare and the ‘dragon’ a random shape, or perhaps a shape that had inspired the myths of dragons many years ago, I was prepared to suspend my disbelief. Now his world was mine and the narrow one of only my ego, with it’s personal, survival-centered (including economic survival) concerns had to be set aside as just another illusion, one more limited interpretation of reality, now that this one had come to the fore.

I showed his the web-page and told him of the exercise to regain a sense of all-oneness and transcend individual blinkered understandings. He smiled and understood immediately, probably better than I did; “All for one and one for all?!” Yes, that’s what it means. It’s not just a metaphysical explanation, but an emotional one, too. We are all in this together. Indivisible connected and with a clear mind we can be happy for every expansive success, however small, as it is one of our victories, too. For my own part, I was happy to have made a new friend…

It made me realise, thinking now, that there is a lot more going on with the seemingly frivolous social- networking we do so much of these days. We aren’t just swapping photos and silly jokes, but actually sharing in one another’s experiences, to realise on a greater level more of who we ourselves really are. Its like lots of people realising they are really all one, related family, or droplets, each individual, finding out they are all part of a vast, seemingly infinite ocean. Seen this way, it’s an invigorating, exciting experience, a fusion and ‘reunion’ of all the parts of humanity.

So think this next time you like a photo or Facebook post, seen from a broader perspective, you are actually liking another part of your cosmic self, reaffirming your essential and the internet are part of a human process of growth, reorganisation and even, dare I say it, evolution. A leaving behind of the fearful, primate-based, tribal ways of life, for a broader realisation of our destiny.

“All for one and one for all, indeed”!

Snowy Wonderland

By a lucky and rare coincidence, it snowed on Friday night and I woke up to some stupendous views of my local shrine, Suwa Jinja. It was truly a winter wonderland, with snow slowly falling from the trees and light shining between branches. A little old lady was there too, carefully taking shots her camera sensei recommended. It was fun talking with her and I got some insight into the way the shrine had been arranged. I feel in this peaceful little place I had a taste of what the sights must be further north, luckily without needing to shovel mounds of snow all the time (sometimes it’s so deep there, they have to clear passages every two hours). Just the magical beauty of nature, something C.G. will never catch up with (I think!) The dramatic lighting, the contrast of bright, fluffy snow with deep greens and browns of the huge trees there was unforgettable.

It doesn’t snow much here, so it is always a great sight, worth making the most of. I headed out with my D300 fitted with my sadly under-used Nikon 17-55mm and I have to say, I really love this lens. As zooms go, it really captures a really beautiful image, crisp and detailed, with a nice bokeh. Usually it’s too heavy to take on a trip with me alongside other stuff, so my Tamron equivalent fills in, but for a one-lens adventure outside my door, it works just perfectly.

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