Saturday, March 29, 2014

Things are getting complex!

As I have written before, as an engineer it is easy for me to get distracted by the technical side of photography; and this week has been no different to any other. The problem started with the purchase of my new ‘toy’, the Canon TS-E 24mm F/3.5L lens: one of the sharpest primes out there, plus it comes with bells and whistles, ie a tilt and shift capability.
I was na├»ve to think that ‘just’ buying the lens was it, and, soon, related purchases started cascading into our Amazon account, which generated an insightful question from my wife: “when are you going to start taking pictures, rather than buying stuff”.

And this got me thinking about the complexity of modern digital photography.

At one level digital photography has simplified are photography our lives: point the camera at what you wish to take a picture of and push the shutter button. Assuming, as we are at the simplest level, you have the camera on Programme mode (P-mode), your half-shutter press does auto focusing and you are shooting JPEGs, with in-camera style settings, the camera will do everything for you. Simple; and, abusing the use of some technical analysis, the photograph was captured with just one degree of freedom, ie the choice of the scene, because the camera removed all decisions about focus and exposure from you. As I say, photography at its simplest.

But, as we know, as we develop our craft, complexity creeps into our lives. Instead of using P-mode, we gravitate towards manual (M-mode), we reassign focus to the back-button and become sensitized to not trusting the camera’s exposure meter, ie we need to understand stops, 18% grays and metering zones etc. We also shoot in RAW and spend hours ‘making’ an image in Lightroom and/or Photoshop.

All this means we now need to ‘worry’ about many more ‘degrees of freedom’, some of which are independent variables, with others being inter-related. Complexity has entered our lives.

To illustrate the above, take what just happened to me this last week or so. I convinced myself that my photography would benefit from a tilt + shift lens. But such a purchase ended up just being a trigger for some other purchases: 
  • As a manual focus lens I needed to use the LCD, but, in strong daylight this is impossible to see, hence the purchase of a Hoodman loupe;
  • Although the Hoodman loupe is great, the LCD screen is still ‘low-res’, hence I needed a higher definition way of achieving Live View focus, eg using an external monitor. Luckily I already have CamRanger and this saved the day (and my pocket);
  • The tilt + shift lens is a precision instrument that needs to be used as such. I quickly found out that a tilt + shift lens and a ballhead are not good bedfellows. Although my ballhead is a good one, it was too difficult to achieve the required lens alignment, even using the camera’s built in ‘spirit level’ or an external one. This led me to buy a Manfrotto geared head!

  • The head arrived (BTW one of the best purchases I have made) but then another ‘problem’ arose: because of the diameter of my feisol carbon fiber tripod, I needed to buy an extension block to lift the head above the top of the tripod (here’s the final arrangement, including an optional nodal rail).
Thus, from a single purchase, the tilt + shift lens, I ended up ‘needing’ to purchase several more pieces of ‘stuff’. 

And what about the ‘degrees of freedom’ I now have to contend with, well it goes something like this: 
  • 1 from the scene/composition; 
  • 3 from the head, ie yaw, pitch and roll; 
  • 1 from the nodal rail (if I use it);
  • 1 from the tilt; 
  • 1 from the shift; 
  • 1 from the manual focus, to rotate the plane of sharp focus of the tilt+shift lens; 
  • ‘3’ from the manual exposure (assuming I’m not using Magic Lantern Auto-ETTR).
That is, at least, 11 degrees of freedom! With many of the degrees of freedom being inter-related.

Anyway, enough of the technical ‘stuff’, what about the ‘artistic’ side. Well this (Saturday) morning I decided to go out early (nobody around to disturb me) and try out some architectural photography. I took both of my DSLRs: a ‘normal’ 5DMkIII with the TS-E lens attached and my IR-converted 50D, with a 10-20mm lens.

The attached are two of my first cut processed images from the shoot. The triangular one is the IR shot. As I say, these are quick and dirty processed ones: I really need to spend more time on getting the right vision, eg luminosity and presence. 

In conclusion, the deeper you get into digital photography, the more complex life becomes. Or so it appears. In other words, the common factor in the above it me! That is, I choose to create complexity! It’s that technical streak in me, which I have difficulty suppressing.
“Technical skill is mastery of complexity, while creativity is mastery of simplicity”
Erik Christopher Zeeman (British mathematician)

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