Friday, September 12, 2014

Kodachrome - A Brief History + It Lives On Thanks To Digital Technology

Kadak's Kodachrome was the first commercially successful color film. Before Kodachrome, color photography was a difficult process that produced poor results. Next year marks the 100th anniversary of when Kodachrome became commercially available.

Kodachrome was the standard color film for many decades. In fact, for a long time National Geographic would almost exclusively only publish photographs captured using Kodachrome. Paul Simon even sang about Kodachrome. The film produced natural colors, with just enough contrast and saturation that it could be used for landscapes, but not so much that it couldn't be used for portraits. The tiny silver grain (except in the ISO 200 version) was well liked.

In the early 1910's Kodak wanted to improve color photography, but they were not making much progress. A much smaller company called Wratten and Wainwright was, in fact, making some progress, so Kodak bought the company and placed some of the key people into their newly built research lab in Rochester, New York. One of the Wratten and Wainwright employees, John Capstaff, would a couple years later invent a two-color process that was a significant improvement over other color methods. This new two-color process was called Kodachrome and Kodak began selling it in 1915.

While this version of Kodachrome was an improvement over everything else available, it was far from ideal. Kodak continued trying to make a better color film, but with no luck. But, as luck would have it, two musicians, Leopold Godowsky Jr. and Leopold Mannes, saw a color movie in 1917 that they thought was terrible. They decided that they could, in fact, make a better color film. And so they did.

In 1922 Kodak got word of the two Leopold's experiments, and gave the two of them use of their labs and helped fund their project. It wasn't until 1935 that the two successfully figured it all out and created a three-color process that we now know as Kodachrome. The original Kodachrome and this new Kodachrome had very little in common other than they had the same name and were both color. Kodachrome was made in a number of different formats for still photography and cinematography.

Ansel Adams was a consultant for Kodak during this time and provided feedback on numerous projects, including Kodachrome. He used Kodachrome during the 1940's, but didn't really like it. Some of his clients wanted color photographs, so he captured a large number of color images, even though he is known almost entirely for his black-and-white photographs.

Kodachrome is essentially a three-layer black-and-white film. Color was added during development. The process was complicated and required exactness. While the film looked good, the process was not ideal. Kodak would invent Kodacolor, a color negative film, in 1941. Eventually easier processes were invented, including C-41 and E-6 in the 1970's.

In 2002 Kodak began phasing out Kodachrome. By 2009 the line was completely discontinued, including the chemicals needed for development. The very last roll was developed on July 14, 2010 in Parson's Kansas. The photographer who shot that final roll was legendary photography Steve McCurry, and the images were published in National Geographic.

Interestingly, Kodachrome can still be developed as a black-and-white film, but with so-so results and only by a small number of labs that know how to do it. Kodachrome is officially a relic of the past.

Kodachrome still exists digitally. Some photo-editing software programs, such as Alien Skin Exposure 6, can replicate the look of Kodachrome film pretty convincingly. In fact, the image at the top is a Kodachrome 200 digital replication. While the film is gone, and most photographers are using digital cameras now, the aesthetics still remain, proving that Kodachrome was an important milestone in the photography continuum. The legacy still lives on.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Why Prime Lenses Are Better Than Zooms - And Why It Doesn't Matter

Zebras Below The Castle - San Simeon, California
Captured using a zoom lens.
I just got a new camera (more on this in the coming days and weeks), and the very first lens I ordered was a telephoto zoom. Why? Because it was on sale for a really good price. I have a standard prime coming soon, but it hasn't arrived yet. This got me thinking about lens choices and if it really makes any difference.

Prime lenses are better than zoom lenses. A fixed focal length allows the engineers to fine-tune the lens to as close to perfection as possible. With a zoom there are a lot of variables that make it much more difficult to get that super sharp, super crisp glass. There are some zoom lenses that are exceptional and are as sharp as some primes, but those cost a lot of money.

Prime lenses are sharper than zooms, and they often outperform them in other ways, too. Almost always a good prime will have a larger maximum aperture than a good zoom. Often there are less chromatic aberrations and vignetting on prime lenses.

Night Mystery - Stallion Springs, California
Captured using a zoom lens.
One advantage of prime lenses that may not be immediately obvious is that you are limited to one focal length. Limitations improve art. Having only one focal length available will force you to be more creative, and being more creative will improve your photographs.

But does any of this really matter? Should you abandon your zoom and use only prime lenses? No, because equipment doesn't matter. Photographic vision is far more important than camera or lens choices.

Forgotten Faucet - Tehachapi, California
Captured using a zoom lens.
Ansel Adams said, "There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept." I'll add that a fuzzy image of a sharp concept is by far preferable to a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.

Sharpness is sometimes overrated. Looking back at some of the "masters" of photography, there are plenty of photographs that are not tack sharp. The photographs are great because the concepts are great. What lens was used isn't all that important.

Worry more about sharp concepts and less about sharp lenses. The photographer's ability is more important than the lens' ability. Artistic vision trumps equipment every time.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

It Doesn't Matter What Camera You Use - Photographic Vision Is What's Important

Photography Is A Drug - Stallion Springs, California
Does it matter what camera I used to create this?
There were two conversations that inspired me to write this post today. The first conversation I overheard and the second conversation I was a party in.

"I have a new DSLR so now I can take better pictures," said the first person.

"Me too!" The second person answered. "I haven't figured it out yet, but when I do I know my pictures will be a lot better."
Train Around Bend - Tehachapi, California
Does it matter that this was captured using an obsolete camera that was free?
The second conversation was about a photograph of mine and it involved someone who was trying to give me a compliment. "Your photograph makes me want to get a DSLR again." The funny thing was that the photograph was captured using a cell phone!

Here's the deal: either you can craft great photographs or you cannot. If you can craft great photographs, it makes no difference what camera you use because you'll craft that great photograph with whatever camera you have in your hand. If you cannot craft great photographs, it makes no difference what camera you use because your photograph will be poor using whatever camera you have in your hand.

If you are a skilled photographer, it could be an old cell phone or a $20,000 camera with a $25,000 lens--whatever camera you have you'll create something great. If you are not a skilled photographer, your pictures are not going to be good even if you have that $45,000 set up. This is because the camera is not nearly as important as you think it is.
Flare & Flag - Barstow, California
Does anyone care that this was captured using an old, cheap camera?
Ansel Adams said, "The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it." In other words, it is the photographer that makes an image either great or terrible, and the camera has little to do with it.

A great pianist can play a masterpiece using any old piano. A great painter can create a masterpiece using any old canvas and paints. A great writer can use an old #2 and some scrap paper to pen a great story. The opposite is also true. Someone who cannot play the piano won't be able to even with a beautiful grand piano. Someone who is not a painter can't create a masterpiece even with high-end canvas and paint. Someone who is not a good writer won't be able to pen a great novel even when given the use of modern computers.

So those two people who have brand new DSLRs won't see any improvement in their photographs. They themselves have to improve as photographers before their photographs will be any better. And the person who wants to buy a DSLR doesn't need to if they are skilled. And if they are not skilled, buying a DSLR will not make their images any better.
Keep Out The Sun - Tehachapi, California
Another cell phone image--does it make any difference whatsoever?
So if equipment doesn't matter, what does? Photographic vision. What is in the photographer's mind and heart is what's important. Without photographic vision there are no great photographs.

The photographer must know what it is that he or she wants to create. And then the photographer must make it happen. The photographer must be both creative and active.

It doesn't matter what camera you use. Either you can create great photographs or you can't. If you can, be careful of GAS. If you cannot, spend your time and effort learning how to develop your own unique photographic vision.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Why I Sold My Sigma DP2 Merrill

Web of Neglect - Mojave, California
Captured using a Sigma DP2 Merrill.
I mentioned not long ago that I sold my Sigma DP2 Merrill camera. A question that I've been asked several times now: Why?

I've mentioned over and over that the Sigma Merrill cameras can produce exceptional image quality. These cameras are capable of producing stunning photographs. Why, then, would I part ways with mine?

There are two reasons: speed and versatility.
There Is No Life In This Place - Lancaster, California
This is the very last photograph that I captured using the Sigma DP2 Merrill.
It is well known that the DP2 Merrill isn't the fastest camera in the world, but that doesn't bother me much. I can live with that. What I can no longer live with is the speed of Sigma's software. It takes forever to convert RAW files to TIFFs. Unfortunately, because of the uniqueness of the RAW files, you must use's Sigma's slow software. And because Sigma's JPEGs aren't great (especially above ISO 200), you must use RAW. This has slowed down my workflow by an incredible amount. I've lost so much time that I could have used for other (more important) things. No more!

By versatility, I'm specifically talking about high ISO performance. The camera is not meant for low-light situations, unless you're using a tripod and photographing a stationary object. There have been times that I really wanted to capture a photograph, but the camera's limitations got in the way.

Anyway, I think I've found a budget-friendly alternative (more about this in the coming weeks, so stay tuned). I may be able to get image quality pretty darn close to that of the DP2 Merrill, but without the limitations (and without breaking the bank). Technology changes quickly, becoming both better and cheaper all of the time, and this whole thing is made possible by that.

I was a bit sad to part ways with the camera, but I think this will prove to be a move well worth it.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Don't Wait For Inspiration

This View Never Gets Old - Stallion Springs, California
It is easy to get into a photographic rut. Sometimes you just want to sit and wait until inspiration hits you. Unfortunately, this causes your camera to become dusty.

Imagine you have a bucket that you wish to collect rain water in. Suppose you wait until it actually begins to rain to place the bucket outside. Yes, you'll catch rainwater. But suppose you place the bucket outside no matter the weather. You can then catch the unexpected rain that falls from the sky.

Waiting for inspiration is like waiting for the rain to begin to place your bucket outside. It is better to use your camera even when you are not feeling inspired so that you can catch that unexpected metaphoric rain.
The Sunset - Stallion Springs, California
Thomas Edison said, "Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration." In other words, don't wait for inspiration to strike your brain--get to work instead. Grab your camera and start photographing!

"Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration," Stephen King wrote, "the rest of us just get up and go to work." Work is a part of the processes. Work is what leads to inspiration.

Legendary music critic Ernest Newman said, "The great composer does not set to work because he is inspired, but becomes inspired because he is working." It is in the doing that inspiration comes.
Early Signs of an Early Autumn - Stallion Springs, California
Inspiration will remain elusive if you are not actively using your camera. It is when you are out in the field looking that you'll find what you are hoping for. You will not likely get photographic vision while sitting on your couch. 

Jack London said, "You can't wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club." If you are waiting for inspiration to find you, you might be waiting for a long time. Instead, through work, which is a part of the photographic process, you must aggressively seek inspiration.

Waiting for inspiration is an excuse. You don't really feel like going out with your camera, so you say, "I'm not inspired today." You do something else instead.
White Flower Pedals - Stallion Springs, California
"Excuses are the tools with which persons with no purpose in view build for themselves great monuments of nothing," said actor Steven Grayhm. Be a photographer, not an excuser.

It is important to grab your camera and photograph, even if you are not inspired whatsoever. You don't have to go far, but you do have to go. Action is required.

All of the photographs in this post were captured recently in or near my home. White Flower Pedals was captured inside of my house and Early Signs of an Early Autumn was captured while standing in my yard. I captured The Sunset across the street from my house and This View Never Gets Old was captured in my neighborhood. I used my cell phone, a Nokia Lumia 1020, for all of them.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

My Photographs Stink - Or, How To Keep Moving Forward

Rays of Hope - Stallion Springs, California
My photographs stink. They are not very good. Really, they are not good at all.

Sometimes I think that my photographs are pretty good. Occasionally I feel like one of my images is "portfolio" material (whatever that means). Every so often I think that one of my photographs is a real "winner" worthy of attention. 

Then I look at the work of others. I look at the old "masters" and the things that they created with far less sophisticated equipment. I see some of the current great photographers and the work that they are creating. In comparison, my photography is amateurish.

I could get down in the dumps about this. I could throw my hands up in the air and just give up. I could decide that my work will never be as good as their's, and I could stop trying. Or, instead, I can keep moving forward.
Old Coffee Cup - Mojave, California
Henri Cartier-Bresson said, "Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst." I like to add that your next 10,000 photographs are your second worst. It takes time and practice to have the skill and vision to create great works of art. The lesson here is that one cannot expect to be a great photographer overnight or even within a few years. The more you do the better you become.

Ansel Adams said, "Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop." One of the greatest photographers of all time had a good year if he created one significant photograph a month. Someone like me cannot expect to accomplish the same thing. Perhaps two or three significant photographs in any one year is a great crop for me.

Thinking about this more, how many of Henri Cartier-Bresson's photographs can you think of off hand? How many of Ansel Adam's? It is less than 10 each that come to my mind. It takes a whole career to create a handful of truly memorable photographs.

The point of this rambling is that it is important to keep moving forward. I must move forward. There is a lesson with each photograph captured, and I need to make sure that I learn whatever lesson is offered.
Peerless - Newberry Springs, California
The way that you move forward in photography is to be critical of your own work. No, make that ultra-critical. Look harshly at your own work and think about what you did well and what you could have done better. Almost always there is something, even if seemingly insignificant, that could have been done different that would have improved the image. Then, next time, try to not repeat the mistakes while trying to replicate what did go well.

You move forward by always improving, even if just a little. Slight forward momentum is better than none at all. Eventually slight movement becomes significant.

I wanted to end this post with a long quote by Chuck Abbott from The Man Who Came Back article I published over a year ago. I think it closes this well.
"Years ago there was a book titled 'The Man Who Came Back,' and while I never read the book or knew anything about the man or what he came back from or to, years later when I went into the photographic business, that title rang in my ears many times as I found myself personifying not only the man who came back but the one who came back again and again! 
"When asked by complimenting amateur photographers--'Oh, Mr. Abbott, how do you get such good pictures? I was there and mine didn't turn out at all well'--my answer is invariably the same--'you'll have to go back and try another day, another light, another season.' Meanwhile I am mentally recalling that 'good' picture; was it really good, couldn't it have been better, and shouldn't I go back again and do it over? 
"For that's the trouble with this picture business--there is so little satisfaction in it! You are always beset with the haunting thought that every picture could be improved, if not by you, then by someone, sometime; so you end up traveling in a circle, periodically returning to do a better, or at least a different, interpretation of the subject. Perfection, of course, is the goal."

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Sigma DP Merrill & Monochrome

Abandoned Boles-Aero Trailer - Mojave, California
Captured using a Sigma DP2 Merrill.
I get asked camera questions from time-to-time. Sometimes the question is found in a blog post comment. Sometimes it is via social media. Sometimes I'm asked in person. Other times the question comes in my e-mail inbox.

Yesterday I received a question in my e-mail and I wanted to answer it right here. The question is regarding the Sigma DP2 Merrill camera. Are there any differences between shooting in black-and-white mode and shooting in color mode converting to monochrome later in post-processing?

First, I want to explain how Sigma's Foveon sensor is different from traditional Bayer sensors, and why the Foveon sensor is better for monochrome.

Sigma's Foveon sensor has three layers, one sensitive to green, one to red and one to blue. The image is captured fully in each color channel. Bayer sensors have only one layer, with pixels sensitive to either green, red or blue. Half of the pixels are sensitive to green, and the other half are split between red and blue.
On A Brighter Day - Tehachapi, California
Captured using a Sigma DP2 Merrill.
What this means for monochrome photography, when using a Foveon sensor, is that the color channels can be manipulated to simulate what color filters do to black-and-white film. For example, you simulate the look of using a red filter by using the red color channel.

You can also do this with a Bayer sensor, but you have far less data to work with. Instead of having a complete photograph available in the red color channel, you only have 25% of an image. The software has to grab data from the other color channels and manipulate it significantly to compensate. It doesn't take too long before degradation sets in.

This is a particular problem for Bayer sensors with low resolution, and less of a problem for higher resolution sensors. A 24 megapixel sensor has twice as much data to work with than a 12 megapixel sensor, and a 36 megapixel sensor has three times as much data to work than a 12 megapixel sensor.

Next, it is important to understand the differences between RAW, TIFF and JPEG file types. RAW files are unprocessed data and are not yet photographs. They are like undeveloped film. TIFF files are processed photographs, but where the unused data is still kept. I guess this might be like developed film that hasn't been rinsed. JPEG files are processed photographs where all of the unused data has been erased.
Broken Angels - Bodfish, California
Captured using a Sigma DP2 Merrill.
Here is another way to understand this. Let's say you have a plastic kit (car, airplane, train, building--it doesn't matter). RAW is all of the pieces and parts unassembled. They're sitting in a pile waiting to be constructed. TIFF is the kit assembled with a tacky glue that's easy to undo and the extra parts are saved. JPEG is the kit assembled with super glue and the extra parts are tossed in the trash.

So what does all of this have to do with the question? It is the foundation to understanding the answer.

I don't own a DP2 Merrill anymore, but, if I remember correctly, if you use the black-and-white mode on the camera it saves the files as JPEGs. You are letting the camera decide how the monochrome photograph will be, then you are throwing away all of the useful data that makes using the Foveon sensor great for black-and-white photography. You might as well use a Bayer sensor.

If I am wrong and the camera saves the image as RAW when in the black-and-white mode, then it is the same as using the white-balance monochrome conversion method in Sigma's software. If this is true, there is no difference between using color mode and converting later in post-processing or using the black-and-white in-camera mode. But I don't believe this is true--I'm 85% certain that using the black-and-white mode saves the files as JPEGs.

It is best to avoid using the black-and-white mode when using Merrill cameras so that you can take advantage of the three-layered sensor. Capture in color, then convert to monochrome in post-processing.

Update: Someone told me that I didn't explain very well how the whole RAW/TIFF/JPEG thing tied into the answer to the question. When using a Sigma Merrill camera for monochrome, save in RAW, do whatever editing you want in Sigma's software, save as a TIFF, do whatever other post-processing you want in the software of your choice, and then save as a JPEG.