The promise and loneliness of airports

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You're sitting at a starbucks, drinking a double espresso—long, cos it lasts longer. Your flight is two hours away and you've already passed through security, taken off your belt, smiled nervously even though you had no reason to be nervous. Security does that to you...although not as much as it used to. These miles add up after all. Your gate is at the very end of the airport —64—until it changes; probably to Gate 5. But hey.,,,exercise right?
Ding dong.
You've always wondered why so many people get called over those intercoms. The special ones. That chime will ring and ring—it never stops. And some of these special ones get called over and over again...they can't be busy doing something else can they? It's an airport...dreary and tedious and made to break you before those dreams of travel take hold.  Hey maybe that's it: these people have simply dissolved within themselves. They've lost all ability to react, forgotten their own names. 

Yeah. Sounds about right.

...

After all the cheers and enthusiasm, the packing pics and the social banter, one thing remains, regardless: the ambivalence of leaving. It hits me every. single. time. Sure it's exciting to travel, all these images waiting to be seen, waiting to become. Adventure is a rush, a chemical boost as drug-like as heroin. And eventually you crave it, in spite of yourself. You long for the promise of the unseen. I'm not going to whine...I'm one lucky son of a &$(@. I get to do stuff others dream of, get to shoot for a living, get published. I can't even pretend at a pity party.

But right now, as I sip these last few drops of coffee and write these words, under the sterile glare of sodium lights...a loneliness overcomes me. It's that in-between state before jet fumes and strange surroundings. That moment when you think of your kids and your wife, of the possibility of never returning.

Airports are like that.
Full of hopes and uncertainties.

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Introducing: The Process

PROCESS: a sustained phenomenon or one marked by gradual changes through a series of states;

For quite a few years now, I've tried to strike a balance on this blog between technical, personal and visual. It's not always easy—at times I veer too much towards one or the other, depending on how I feel, what I'm going through, shooting at the time etc. But to be honest I've often rebelled, internally, against the how-to side of it. Why? Well, for one I get tired of purely technical pursuits. I get tired of how without why. I'm also afraid of repeating what's already been said by photographers I respect, and to whom I have nothing, zero, nada to add—David Hobby, Joe McNally, Zack Arias...seriously, all the bases have been superbly covered already. If I'm to contribute anything serious, it would need to at least provide a different angle.

I've been promising a book on post-processing for what seems like ages. Questions about this subject come up over and over again, either through comments or via email and I'm always happy to help when I can spare the time. I totally understand the interest around this topic and consider it an integral and very serious part of the photographic workflow. But I've pushed back writing about this due, mostly, to lack of enthusiasm. My own enthusiasm that is. Again, it comes down to finding the proper approach. Last year I finally decided to start working on it... and instead found myself derailed, diving head first into what became These Kings. These Subterraneans—hell of a different ride. I've known—deep down—that a few people were probably disappointed when I released that project, expecting something else entirely.

But as some of you know (thank you btw) TKTS became more than a photo book: music's part of it, and some of the texts are essentially philosophical ramblings on the art of photography, experiences... So I had an "epiphany" regarding the next project: forget processing. Instead, why not talk about the entire process? Philosophy, mechanics, subject, narrative, clarity sliders and focal lengths. All of it. Yes, post-processing as well but as part of something much, much larger that would tie it all together. That got me excited. And given the breadth of the topic, a book didn't really make much sense anymore either—I wanted something open-ended and revisable, something I could add to and modify as a sort of living entity. Like...oh I don't know...a website? Hmm...

Long story short: no more waiting. Today I'm launching The Process, an ongoing series that I'll be publishing through this very blog, dealing with everything mentioned above. Because photography isn't just pixels— it’s an art form, a craft, a science. It's a method of experiencing what surrounds us, making sense of it in a way that also happens to prolong its consciousness. It's a pursuit that has to be about emotion just as much as sharpness. It needs the how while also begging for the why in order to avoid becoming an empty shell. 

The work-in-progress nature of this project means its organization will likely always be in a state of flux. For now, the index is divided between Techniques and Thoughts—rudimentary "chapters" that I've populated with a few relevant posts written over the years. You’ll also find the first article written specifically for The Process: A Film Curve. And to be clear: the new index is there simply as an additional way to browse and gather articles in one place. As you can already see, all articles will still be part of the regular content. This wasn’t obvious at first. I could’ve segregated the entire series to a separate blog—in fact I almost did that—but in the end, keeping these posts together with the rest of the site felt like a logical extension of the core concept: that all of it is one and the same, that everything feeds everything else. 

That The Process is ongoing, holistic and universal. 

The Process: a film curve

No matter how advanced our cameras, no matter how high the resolution or how sharp the results, many of us still consider film images to possess a certain quality that's often missing from an out of camera digital picture. There's something "natural" about film that comes from a complex combination of elements and how they react together. Needless to say we could devote entire chapters on the subject but basically, it comes down to character: every film stock had a specific curve, grain and sensitivity that resulted in a baseline look and a very specific visual rendering.

If you're a Lightroom user, there are preset packages available that do a terrific job of replicating the classic looks of film with very little effort. VSCO Film is the most well-known and pretty much the standard out there. It's also the one I'm most familiar with, having been a beta tester on some of their offerings. But there are other products as well, each with their own takes on the same idea—Totally Rad's Replichrome for instance or RNI's film packages that are also highly praised. All interesting in their own right.

As great as these are however, presets should always be treated as starting points. Because every image is unique and requires different manipulations that will usually go beyond the one size fits-all approach. Understanding the fundamentals of image processing, what goes on behind the scenes of the film emulations, will only allow us to more fully control the final results, regardless of tools, and eventually perhaps create our own personal signature.

With Fujifilm X-series cameras, we've seen a rather successful attempt at bringing film character back through JPEG-based film simulations. But even when I'm shooting Classic Chrome or Acros, I still apply the same approach that I would with raw files—the difference being in the level and amount of adjustments that will be needed.

In my workflow, processing includes two main components:

  1. Tonality and density, which basically translates to shaping the visual character of the image through contrast, curves etc. This is done through general adjustments (meaning we're affecting the entire image).
  2. Assessing the various elements in the frame and intensifying their value. This will be done through localized adjustments (brush, graduated or radial filters).

A few eons ago I mentioned a film curve, a basic element I apply to all my images in one form or another, regardless of the software I'm using. I've probably received more emails about this than anything I've ever talked about on this blog—which I completely understand. The idea of some sort of goto setup for any image is obviously appealing. The truth however, is that there's really no miracle or super-secret weapon: this is essentially just a mild toning adjustment that I happen to apply to pretty much any image as a starting point. It's not the end-game, just one small part of the equation.

But here's the important takeaway: we can do this in any application that offers a Curves module. Which means it's an entirely portable workflow that doesn't rely on plugins or app-specific tricks. When I briefly flirted with Capture One Pro, I was able to quickly recreate most of my "looks" simply through the app's Curves module—at least their basic building blocks. Once that was done, it simply became a question of tweaking the new presets using COP's other built-in tools. All apps are different and usually require slightly different manipulations to achieve the same look. But it always begins with this simple curve. So here it is in all its mundane glory:

Yup, it's an S-curve. A bit anticlimactic isn't it? But that's all there is to it. There are four points by default and each one serves a specific purpose (from lowest to highest):

  1. Fade black point. This is often referred to as a matte look.
  2. Add shadow contrast.
  3. Add highlight contrast.
  4. Fade white point.

Points 1 and 4 are important because they're placing limits at each ends of the spectrum, compressing tonal values into a smaller space as we shift them up or down. Now, it may seem counterintuitive to trash ANY visual information in this age of ever expanding dynamic range. But in the end it's all about how an image looks—not how much data it displays. What a photographer decides at this point is entirely personal in my opinion. Here's an image I've quickly processed that incorporates this curve (plus some basic and local adjustments):

So what do I mean by compression? Let's look at an extreme example to make this a little clearer. First, that same image SOOC (straight out of camera):

If I push the exposure slider in Lightroom's Basic panel I get the following response (this is a JPEG btw but a raw file will eventually react more or less the same way):

The entire image is getting pushed towards a white point currently set at 100%. Now let's reset and do something similar with the Black slider, dropping it all the way down.

Same deal: image values are pushed towards 0%. Ok. Let's set that film curve again, but this time let's also compress black and white points (points 1 and 4) much further to see what happens. Here's the curve I'll be using:

Now if I push that same exposure slider, here's what happens:

Quite a difference right? That's because the highlights are no longer at 100% but somewhere around 74%. The curve we've set is restricting the tone range. If I reset exposure and drop the black slider:

Our black point is now around 15%, so the black is no longer black. Again, what the Tone Curve is doing is establishing limits for the Basic panel, which will now work solely within the values we've set. We've essentially created walls at each end of the spectrum and there's no way to go beyond. We can push like crazy but we can't jump over them. Obviously, we'll rarely use anything this extreme but hopefully this helps you understand how certain looks can be achieved. The image below is an example of this method incorporated in a personal preset I call BW-MANN (as a nod to Sally Mann). 

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So that's it. This is the premise of what I call the film curve—just a slight compression that will then work in conjunction with tweaks in the Basic panel and everything that follows. No voodoo and no earth shattering revelation. But as simple as it looks, it can actually be quite powerful and I suggest you experiment with various images to get a feel for the way certain scenes will be affected. The great thing about our apps today is that nothing is ever destructive; so go crazy.

There's much more that can be done in the Tone Curve panel; this is really just the tip of the iceberg.
We'll examine more in future posts.


This post is part of The Process, an ongoing series on the craft and art of photography. Find more articles here.

Like Candy | Custom Flash Drives

It's crazy how much our reality has changed over the last few years: faster internet connections, higher or even unlimited data caps (at least in Canada) combined with most of our lives moving to the digital realm...all these factors have contributed to less and less reliance on physical media. In fact I have trouble remembering when I sent files to a client through anything other than WeTransfer, Mail Drop, Box or similar services. Well apart from prints obviously, but those have also become few and far between and focused on extremely specific projects (art installations, decor etc).

Still, there are times when it's nice to provide files on something more tangible. In these cases, Flash drives have of course replaced the CD/DVDs of old—and thank god for that. I have very few fond memories of burning discs, printing labels...dealing with corrupted CDs...what a pain those were to deal with. And you were never sure if they'd be reliable in the end either.

Flash drives are small and ubiquitous. The fact that they'll most likely be re-used by clients means they also provide a great opportunity for branding and mindshare. Win-win, basically.

A couple of months ago I received an email from a company called USB Memory Direct, offering me samples of their custom Flash drives. I get quite a few offers like these to be honest and I usually end up just moving on...but the tone of the message didn't feel like the typical SEO/Spammy/upsell BS. It felt genuine. So I checked them out, liked what I saw and got in touch with them.

I decided to go with the wooden Tower drives in walnut. The ordering process was painless: I sent in my logo and the text I wanted on the flip side, received a sample image within minutes, tweaked placement over email a few times (I'm a bit nuts for details) and that was it. Ten days later the drives were here.

Each Flash drive comes with it's own cellophane bag, ready to be sealed. Like candy. The cap is also magnetized (those two dots on either side); a nice touch that closes the drive with a very satisfying snap. Hey, it's the little things...

In terms of specs: the samples I received were 8GB but I believe they're available at up to 64GB. Like most USB sticks they come formatted for PC but that's trivial to change if needed (OS X mounted the drives just fine). Prices vary depending on quantity and model but these are US $8.90 each, including custom engraving on both sides. Minimum quantity is 25.

I just did a job for a pretty big commercial client and thought for sure I'd get to use one or two of these for final delivery. Alas, they were just fine with an FTP upload. Oh well. I'm still glad I have them and I'm sure they'll come in handy at some point. Many thanks to Hector at USB Memory Direct for sending these in.

I wonder if they taste like chocolate...

 

 

Tidbits and Countdowns and Interviews...

So I’m trying to tie all remaining loose ends before flying off to Europe next week—the countdown has begun baby. Client obligations to finalize and a lot of new content that will appear on the blog next week. If all goes according to plan that is.

It’s been such a strange rollercoaster of a summer…emotionally as much as professionally. Things I can’t really talk about that have somehow given me an entirely new outlook on life. On the mechanics of it. That day in, day out construction of moments we can’t escape no matter how far we retreat. I know I’m being cryptic…suffice it to say I’ve changed in ways I didn’t think possible anymore. Acceptance being the operative word here.

Alright…enough of that mysterious chatter.

I’m incredibly excited about Photokina this year. Mostly I’m looking forward to seeing a bunch of friends, or meeting photographers I’ve been in touch with for awhile without any actual physical contact—this Internet thing has a tendency to forge links that can remain virtual for a long, long time. Case in point: KAGE. In almost 4 years now, I’ve only ever met Bert and Kevin face to face, when we spoke at Photokina 2014. This time five of us will be in the same room, our largest gathering so far—with Charlene and Flemming arriving in Cologne on the 21st to headline the official Fuji Photo Walk on the 24th. Unfortunately I’ll be gone by then, but I’m sure we’ll make the most of the little time we have together. Germany has this beverage called beer, right? Huh…we’ll need to try that. I’m also looking forward to The Temporary Collective in Brussels on September 26th. It’s now sold out and Bert Stephani and I will be working with a great bunch of photographers.

Some personal projects mixed in there as well, of course. I’m intrigued by the Rimbaud/Belgium connection…I’ve planned on re-reading une saison en enfer on the plane. It’s all very vague but there’s a brainstorming sessions going on in the back of my brain. We’ll see what happens on the ground.

September issue of Photo Life...

I leave you with some random images and a last couple of tidbits: the September issue of Photo Life is out and includes my latest article entitled The Narrative. And if you’re into listening to a podcast this weekend, I had a great chat with Valérie Jardin for an episode of Street Tips on This Week in Photography. It’s always a challenge to “itemize” something that’s usually more instinctive than rational or deliberate. But it was a fun exercise and I apparently managed to find tips she’d never heard before on her show. So yay :)

Have a great weekend guys.