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Gili Island, Indonesia

Fri 29 August 2014

This might be my favorite place in the world. As I got off the speedboat from Bali I was worried about finding a reasonably priced place to stay. I walked inland through narrow dirt streets, past goats and chickens and geese in the streets, past fields with cows, but only covered about a quarter mile when I found a homestay charging 200,000 Indonesian Rupiah (about $18) per night.

There's broken wifi, cold water, but a free towel and toilet paper and more than one electrical outlet and fan in the room. The mother and her daughter cook me breakfast for free, lunch and dinner for 15,000 rupiah more (about $1.20).

Today I went snorkeling, did some programming, and then wandered the streets taking in the sights and photographing what interested me. My last article wrote about photographing with one hand behind your back. I tried that today — I thought about processing these into black and white shot at ISO 2500 and f/8, but it wouldn't do justice to the scene. This isn't anything worthy of Ansel Adams or HCB or Sebastio Salgado, but it is decent photography showing how a town feels. I shot half the day closed up to f/8 and half of it more open around f/4 and f/2 and I was happier with the more open shots. All of these were processed using a Fuji Velvia 100 RVP Simulation Lightroom preset that I found online. I'll post the link once I can find it again.

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Shoot Like the Greats: Tie One Hand Behind Your Back

How restricting options can lead to better photos.

Wed 27 August 2014

Note: This is the first time I've used images that I didn't take in my articles. I need to adjust the code so that people are prevented from buying prints of the images that aren't mine. Please don't try :).

Henri Cartier-Bresson is perhaps the world's most famous photographer. Some people would agree with that statement, others would say it's Ansel Adams. If you then asked who the greatest living photographer is, people might respond that it's Sebastião Salgado.

A modern full-frame digital SLR is an almost infinitely better than anything that these three men used (or use, Salgado is still alive) 1. It has fast autofocus, automatic metering, much higher usable ISO, and much faster and higher quality lenses. So why aren't we all getting better pictures from our cameras?

A photograph from Henri Cartier-Bresson in India. You can look at this photo for a very long time before wondering how much noise it has, what aperture it was at, or what shutter speed Henri used. That's the point of this article.

Too Much Technology

Why aren't we getting better pictures from our cameras? I think it's because today we have too many options. Cameras are so powerful, have so many lenses, and each camera has so many settings that we have an almost infinite number of ways to take a decent picture. This makes it hard to focus on any one method and it's hard to master that method.

The most technically advanced camera I ever owned was a Canon 6D. It could see and shoot anything: the stars, butterflies, landscapes and people. I would point the 6D at subject, take a picture, and the picture would come back with such remarkable detail that I'd spend all day shooting different pictures and staring at the results in awe. It wasn't so much a camera as a scientific instrument that functioned well even as a telescope.

A few of my previous favorite shots from the Canon 6D. I later realized that these were beautiful pictures aesthetically but lacked depth. You can also see the wide variety of topics without any restriction.

The photos from the Canon 6D were beautiful. I showed them to a friend and she thought they were beautiful as well — but she then challenged me that they lacked emotional depth. She was right. It blew my photographic ego to shreds. The pictures had technical quality, but other than being pretty there was nothing of significant substance shown.

Maybe We Should Throw The Technology Away

So how do we get better at making pictures with emotional depth? How do we make pictures that help people feel things? I think the secret is to throw all of that modern technology away. Photography as an art form hasn't advanced much since the 1950's, so to make great pictures you don't necessarily need anything beyond 1950's technology. In short: If you tie your hands behind your back and you might get better pictures.

One thing that ties the three photographers mentioned at the beginning together is that each of them has a definitive look. As I've learned more about their definitive looks I've learned how it's really a restriction on the number of things that the camera can do. As these men things to think about, they focused more on the content and composition of their photos. They tied their hands behind their backs, limited what their camera could do, and got monumental photographs as a result.

All three men made pictures almost exclusively in black and white and at narrow apertures. Their photos fit into narrow rules, described below:

Almost all of Henri Cartier-Bresson's photos were shot in black and white with a 50mm lens focused at 4 meters with 1/125 sec shutter speed. He only varied the aperture to get an adequate exposure. As a result Cartier-Bresson spent no time focusing, no time changing lenses, and no time deciding to make a trade off between depth of field and shutter speed.

Two of my favorite pictures by Henri Cartier-Bresson. No one cares what lens, shutter speed, or ISO these pictures were shot with. Details for left picture, and right picture.

Sebastião Salgado shoots in black and white at enormous ISO, often 3200. He uses all kinds of cameras and lenses, but by sticking to high ISO he's limited to fast shutter speeds and narrow apertures. This probably means that he spends almost no time focusing, or thinking about shutter speed and aperture. The only concern is getting enough light on the film and he can focus on making remarkable photos like the two below.

Two of my favorite pictures by Sebastião Salgado, both from Genesis. No one sees these photos and thinks about bokeh, selective focus, or noise. Few people would care about the lack of color.

Ansel Adams's famous pictures are shot at narrow apertures on slow, large plate film. Unlike the other two, Adams rarely made pictures of people. His goal was supreme detail and so his pictures were at insanely narrow apertures2, with long exposures, and carefully timed to choose the exact best scenery, light, and weather to photograph.

Two of my favorite Ansel Adams pictures. These were likely shot on 8x10 view cameras, at super small apertures, with crummy lenses. Sources: left, right.

My Lessons

A modern camera with a fast lens can shoot in almost any light, can blur away a dull background, can stop bullets in mid-flight, and its raw files can be post-processed to create dreamlike high dynamic range landscapes. It can make a nice looking photo out of almost anything, but unless it's used carefully those photos won't be good enough to hang in any room except a hotel room.

In the in early and mid 20th century none of this technology existed. Lenses faster than f/2 were rare and expensive, zoom lenses were shit, and film didn't go to ISO 128,000. As a result the masterful photographers during that time had to work within narrow parameters to find art. They had to carefully stage scenes and wait for the right moment to take a picture.

I think that all of this restriction made these men better photographers. This doesn't mean that the formula for a good photograph requires that it be in black and white, deny autofocus, be shot at a constant shutter speed, or be shot at high ISOs. However, I do think that the more restrictions I put on my camera the easier it is for me to make emotionally meaningful photographs.

How am I applying this? I've talked before about how fast lenses make me worse at photography. Fast lenses encourage me to focus on getting awesome blurred bokeh-rich backgrounds instead of finding interesting things to photograph.

In a similar vein I'm starting to think that shooting at low ISOs and keeping even my f/2 lens somewhat open is making my pictures worse. I like to shoot at low ISOs so that my pictures didn't have a lot of noise — so that they will be technically perfect. But then the results is that I focus on technical details instead of creating interesting photographs.

An Experiment

So I spent a day shooting at ISO 2500 and around f/8 with high shutter speeds. The results were incredible. Instead of thinking about how each picture would be executed on a technical level I was free to look for the best content and composition.

Below are two similar pictures shot with different methods. The picture on the left is at ISO 500 and f/2 with a 1/750 second exposure. The picture on the right is at ISO 2500 and f/8 with a 1/125 second exposure. I applied minimal editing for exposure levels and applied Lightroom's default "Black and White Red Filter" adjustment. There were no noise or levels adjustment.

Is either photo better than the other? I don't think so. The photo on the left has the aperture wide open and lacks noise. The photo on the right has the aperture closed all the way up and is noisy. No one can tell these details without viewing the pictures very large.

I think that both of these photos are effectively the same in emotional depth — they are both fairly lacking. I also think that it's more obvious that the photo on the right shot at f/8 lacks depth because there is no technical wizardry to distract a viewer from the bad composition and subject matter3.

Thoughts

Each time I make my camera more simple to use my pictures improve. Shooting with prime lenses taught me how to see in fixed framelines and walk to get pictures. Shooting in manual only mode taught me to meter for exactly the part of the scene I cared about. Shooting at narrow apertures and in black and white further improved my photos by really making me focus on subject matter and composition — not fancy color and selective focus tricks. You might like to try this as well.

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  1. Sebastião Salgado did in the past use Leica R film SLRs. As far as I can tell he now uses Canons. Much of his older work seems to have been shot on Leica M cameras. 

  2. A note about aperture: almost every lens looks fantastic at f/4 and beyond. The money we pay for fast lenses first goes to letting them take shots wide open and then goes to making the wide open shots look good. But there is practically no difference between a $100 Canon or Nikon 50mm lens at f/4 and a $2,000 Leica 50mm lens at f/4. So why shoot Leica? Most people shoot Leica because the ergonomics are better. 

  3. I'll also mention that the noise I'm concerned about seeing at ISO 2500 isn't a big deal at all. The Leica M9 is notorious for being noisy at anything above ISO 1000. I think the extra noise here looks fine. 



Let's Never Forget This Moment

Pictures of people taking pictures.

Sun 24 August 2014

We are obsessed with capturing and sharing our lives.

I'm guilty of this too. In fact I'm far more guilty of this than most people. I joined Instagram in it's first week. I took a selfie every day for almost a year, compiled it into a video, and uploaded it to Facebook. I worked on the Facebook photos analytics team and figured out how to get you to upload more pictures. Then I quit that job to travel around the world and work on a photo book. I often laugh out loud when a friend suggests that I put my camera away and "savor the moment."

Finish line of the 2013 America's Cup. San Francisco, California.

Still, after five months on the tourist track in Asia it really feels like we, as a planet, are taking too many pictures. Almost everywhere I go there are selfie sticks being deployed, there are people posing in mock imitations of statues, and if the sight is good enough there will be crowds of people pushing to the front with their phones and SLRs, snapping photo after photo, trying to capture the perfect moment.

Not photographing the Forbidden City. Beijing, China.

The reality of tourist sights is that they are never as empty as we depict in our photos. If the light's good and something interesting is happening there will be a throng of serious looking amateur photographers stepping in front of each other to get the perfect shot. There will be another crowd walking directly to the front, ruining everyone else's shot, and standing next to the memorable object — either taking a selfie or posing for someone else.

It's hard to tell these days if someone is taking a selfie or taking a normal photo. Is it more polite to walk in front of them or behind them?

Why do we take so many pictures? My strongest feeling is that photos are the new souvenirs. We don't want to buy things — we own far too many things — so we take pictures of them instead. Taking a picture is a lightweight way of owning something. Taking a picture is also the easiest way to feel creative without necessarily creating anything — we just capture the beauty of things that already exist.

Remembering Hong Kong, China and Mt. Bromo, Indonesia.

How many photos do we take? Almost 1 trillion in 2014, that's roughly 141 photos for each human on Earth. Many of the seven billion people on earth don't even own a camera, so the real number of shots per camera owner is easily over 500. A modern computer can store hundreds of thousands photos. If you have an Apple Device, iCloud will store 1,000 of them for you. Most people I know blew past that iCloud limit ages ago.

We definitely don't need this many photos. The world can be described with less. For comparison, The Ansel Adams Gallery sells a special collection of Ansel's best photos of Yosemite: there are only 24 of them. Sebastião Salgado's epic seven year photography project Genesis yielded only 520 pages of photos.

Again, I'm guilty of taking too many pictures myself. My collection of "keeper" photos from my trip to Asia is 3,587 pictures. It's over 75 gigabytes. When famously prolific photographer Gary Winograd died he left around 130,000 exposures. My whole personal archive is already about 26,000 exposures, so I'm already 20% of the way to Winograd territory.

A man stops to take a picture of the Buddha before kneeling and praying. Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Often when I'm in the thick of things at a tourist sight the most obvious subject isn't what everyone is taking pictures of — it's the process of taking pictures itself. It's the crowd of people, the selfie poses, the forest of cameras on up-stretched arms, the pushing and shoving to get to the front of the queue. I rarely see tourists behave more savagely then when fighting to remember a moment.

So it's fascinating to me to take pictures of pictures being taken. Afterwards, like any good photographer, I push and cajole my way to the front to get the same picture that everyone else is taking.

Even when I'm fully aware of the absurdity of standing in a crowd with dozens of people taking the exact same picture — I just can't overcome that urge we all feel. So I pull out the camera and snap away.

P.S. If you liked this, I'm working on some more serious photography projects in Southeast Asia and would love it if you subscribed to this blog or bought some everyday products from Amazon.

Entering Angkor Wat. Phnom Pehn, Cambodia.

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Pictures from Ubud's Monkey Forest

Sat 23 August 2014

The Monkey Forest in Ubud, Indonesia is a nice place to hang out. It's swamped with tourists, just like every other sight in Ubud, but for 30,000 rupiah per person (<$3) I don't mind going in and feeling like I'm inside a primate exhibit.

Adults and baby monkeys are everywhere inside. The babies are alarmingly cute. The adults get a bit aggressive and I had one bare his teeth at me when I got too close. Another stole a cigarette from my friend and then bit my friend when he tried to get it back.

You can see all pictures from Indonesia.



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Other Recent Posts

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  2. Caching WikiVoyage to your laptop and phone Aug 2014
  3. A One Person Magazine Aug 2014
  4. Getting started in photography for under $1,000 Aug 2014
  5. Latency isn't so bad Aug 2014
  6. Expenses for flexible long term travel Aug 2014
  7. What I Saw in Indonesia Aug 2014
  8. Your Job Doesn't Suck Aug 2014
  9. In Defense of Travel Aug 2014
  10. How many photos are keepers? Aug 2014
  11. How low can you go? Aug 2014
  12. Mt. Bromo and Ijen, Indonesia Aug 2014
  13. How I backup photos on the road Aug 2014
  14. Using the Synapse 19 for Around the World Travel Aug 2014
  15. How to survive long airplane flights Aug 2014
  16. A Practical Review of the Leica 50mm Summilux f/1.4 Pre-Asph Aug 2014
  17. 24 hours in Mumbai Aug 2014
  18. Smiles in Beijing Jul 2014
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  20. More great writing from Maceij Ceglowski Jul 2014
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  33. Excess and Minimalism as a Traveler Jul 2014
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  36. Motorbikes of Hanoi Jun 2014
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  40. Photography tip: Taking Pictures of Waterfalls Jun 2014
  41. The Biases of a Traveler. Jun 2014
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  47. Cars of the Future May 2014
  48. Travel Gear Update #2 May 2014
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  52. Cambodia Notes and Pictures May 2014
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  54. Learning the Camera Apr 2014
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  58. Travelogue #4: My Visit to Japan Apr 2014
  59. Travel Gear Update #1 Apr 2014
  60. Pictures from Japan Apr 2014
  61. Miyajima Island, Japan / Hiroshima Apr 2014
  62. Pictures from Osaka, Japan Apr 2014
  63. Tokyo in Motion Apr 2014
  64. Travelogue #3: The Kind People of Los Angeles Apr 2014
  65. Lifestyle Deflation Apr 2014
  66. Travelogue #2: Tagging and Vaccinating Calves Apr 2014
  67. Around the World Packing List Apr 2014
  68. Travelogue #1: Constraints Apr 2014
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  72. How I Sold Everything Online Mar 2014
  73. Why Travel Mar 2014
  74. Tomales Bay Oyster Company Mar 2014
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  76. Software I Love Mar 2014
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  78. LeMons Racer Feb 2014
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  80. Thailand Medium Format Dec 2013
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