Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Jul 09 2008

On photography

You’ve probably been there: you’ve stumbled across a new Flickr user. Maybe they added you as a contact, maybe you found their page from a link. You look at their snapshots and think: hmm…more mundane, boring shots. Not terrible, just very…ordinary. Then you notice that underneath each mediocre image are hundreds of comments, favorites and notes. They also have pages of glowing testimonials.

How does this happen? These people aren’t celebrities of any sort, but somehow thousands of people are fascinated by their pictures of the seaside, their cat and various flowers.

In all fairness, there are no doubt people out there who see my photography in a similar fashion (and some have been nice enough to tell me so in the comments section below). However, I’m not the only one to have noticed a distinct decline of quality photography in Flickr’s Explore feature. A couple of years ago it was a treasure trove of beautiful, meaningful, powerful shots. These days, it’s full of pets, kids and women. It was inevitable, though, when you consider the huge influx of people from places like Yahoo! after they purchased the site. I’ve come to the conclusion, unlike some others, that “success” on Flickr is actually becoming antithetical to the goal of achieving good photography.

Speaking of the pursuit of street photography, I recently re-read Chris Weeks’ 2006 downloadable book Street Photography for the Purist. It starts out in an interesting fashion, with forwards by photographers describing their view on the subject followed by examples of their work. Then comes Weeks’ actual writing in what seems like a stream-of-consciousness-fueled rant. Basically, it boils down to this:

Chris Weeks really doesn’t give a fuck what you think, because you don’t know. You. just. don’t. If you don’t use a non-digital rangefinder, preferably a Leica, with black-and-white film, just STFU. Because you don’t know, you neophyte. You probably don’t know what depth of field is. But Chris Weeks doesn’t care what you say or do or what you got on your SAT. He really, really doesn’t give a fuck.

The advice is conveyed in short sentences and phrases that are paragraphs unto themselves, so that a relatively small amount of words spans an entire book. Weeks’ photography is also featured, and I have to say, no matter how basic a writer the man is, he does take some nice shots. But I didn’t learn as much from the book as I had hoped to. Basically, I learned that I need to stop being hesitant to take people’s pictures.

It did, however, peak my interest in just what it’s like to use a rangefinder. I went down to the Leica store near the train station the other night and got to play around with some of their models, both film and digital rangefinders. The cameras seemed very large and blocky in my hands, and the focusing block in the middle of the tiny viewfinder seemed distracting and difficult to work, though I imagine eventually I’d get used to it. You have to hold the camera just so that your hand doesn’t block the view, and bring together the two tiny shadow images in the center of the frame at the point you want to focus, and then recompose the shot. With fast glass and a knowledge of lens dynamics you should be able to shoot from the hip, of course. The build, naturally, was as solid as the brand’s reputation.

I dug out an old Nikon FG body that I have from the old days, and was surprised at how good it felt in my hands. I’ve really missed the solidity, the texture and feel of the traditional cameras I used before the advent of digital forms. Even my 20D feels nothing like the old Nikon, which is also much better looking. That said, while the digital Leica looks retro, it still seemed unwieldy and oddly proportioned to me.

I took a few shots inside as well as on the street outside the store. The M8 is a nice camera, I suppose, if you can get the hang of it. There’s a great deal of debate on whether it’s a “real” Leica or not, but even the previously anti-digital Chris Weeks likes it, I found after Googling his opinion of Leica’s only digital M. At a price of over NT$160,000 for the camera and even more for each lens, there’s simply no way I could afford a single lens, much less the camera itself. I could swing a much-used Epson RD1, but a lens to go with it would still be out of reach. I could probably pick up a used film version for the cost of a couple of Canon 5Ds. But from my limited experience using the rangefinders, I simply can’t justify going into massive debt for the privilege of using a camera that I don’t even know I’ll end up getting used to, much less liking. It’s a great leap of faith. Yeah, I know all of the Great Masters of Yore used Leica rangefinders, but I have a hunch that if you gave a young Henri Cartier-Bresson a Canon point-and-shoot he’d still manage to come up with some pretty nice work. To me, Leicas are like Moleskine notebooks; great people did great things with them in the past, and they are fine tools for the job, but I don’t think not having them is a barrier to going said great things. If I had money to burn, sure, I’d buy one and see if I could get the hang of it. But I don’t.

I would like to investigate these aspects of street photography, though. Despite all of the cursing and insistence that he doesn’t care what I think because I just don’t know, man, and honestly I can flame him all I want because he’ll just delete my comments, etc.,Weeks’ book had a few interesting observations on the subject that aroused even more of an interest in the practice than I’d had before.

But getting back to the cameras themselves, DP Review has just added a new category to their camera review stats: pixel density, i.e. the number of pixels divided by the space they occupy. In other words, the higher pixel density you have, the greater chances that that point-and-shoot you bought with the huge yellow sticker trumpeting the fact that it has 12 MEGAPIXELS! is actually going to shoot crap pictures, especially in low light situations.

Will it work? I doubt it. In all honesty, it seems that consumers these days are so enamored of the megapixel myth that they will justify anything in order to keep believing it. Our standards of what constitutes good image quality have fallen over the past few years in deference to features like Face/Smile Recognition and My Sepia Vacation Mode. Photographers scour eBay in search of old Fuji F30s made before the company (and all the others) started cramming so many megapixels onto the tiny sensors that the IQ of today’s models is far inferior. Camera review sites mention IQ less and less, as if it’s an afterthought that photographers can do without.

And maybe they’re right, in a way. After all, what does saying “I’m a photographer” mean these days, when everyone is a photographer? It’s like saying “I wear shoes.” Perhaps that explains the need for a camera like the M8. It’s not just any shoe.

In any case, I hope to make more progress in my photographic endeavors, Leica-equipped or not. Luckily for me there are still some affordable cameras with decent image quality out there.

posted by Poagao at 1:43 pm  

16 Comments

  1. What a nice article! From what I know from your work on flickr, you don’t need a Leica. Some people argue that there are some kinds of photos that you can only take with a rangefinder, or that the experience of *having* to manual focus makes the whole process completely different. They might be right, but like you said, within the limits of a certain camera, a good photographer will take good photos. To each their own budgets and passions! If you’re happy with the final results, that’s what people see, and they won’t care how you got there.

    Comment by Pedro Pinheiro — July 9, 2008 @ 5:49 pm

  2. and lets say you could scrape together the funds to buy it. Would you really ever want to take it out anywhere? Could you actually bear to remove it from it’s underground vault, past the security locks, take off the micro-filament anti-static dust protection, and really use it anywhere outside of a hermetically sealed, padded, clean room?

    not me.

    Comment by zhara — July 10, 2008 @ 3:00 pm

  3. Yeah, it does appear Flickr popularity is often directly inversely related to photographic skills. I am an exception to that rule–I know I am no photographer.

    Also, a sure-fire way to become a Flickr star is to be a younger Asian female active in many pools.

    Or if you’re a guy, cheesecake photos of the babes.

    Comment by Prince Roy — July 10, 2008 @ 3:25 pm

  4. I know; all you have to do is take a look at the (However many thousand) Views groups. It’s bikini central!

    Comment by Poagao — July 10, 2008 @ 8:43 pm

  5. I know what you mean. I have one contact — a fly-fishing mountain climbing French bloke living in Scotland. Sure, he does take some cracking shots, but man! He posts some really crap shots too, yet every one has hundreds of comments, invites to groups, etc. He even tags his shots “don’t invite me to any more groups.”
    It’s not about photo skill, its about marketing.

    Comment by sandman — July 10, 2008 @ 11:41 pm

  6. I’ve come across a lot of people like that; PR notified me of one particular case. I was going to name names, but then I thought better of it. In any case, they’re not hard to find.

    Comment by Poagao — July 11, 2008 @ 1:41 am

  7. “In all fairness, there are no doubt people out there who see my photography in a similar fashion.”

    Exactly. Ordinary, very ordinary.

    Put a million monkeys in front of a million typewriters and they’ll make… well probably not Shakespeare, but a few good limericks, at least. And lots of ordinary prose.

    Comment by F — July 11, 2008 @ 1:51 am

  8. See? There you are. I just need more monkeys.

    Comment by Poagao — July 11, 2008 @ 2:21 am

  9. I’ve never actually held a Leica, but I AM curious– how much does the model you want cost?

    Have you looked at Feds and Zorkis? I’m looking for a good, used Fed because I like the basic Leica design. Should be able to get a good one for around $25 US. I had a Fed 5 a few years ago, and gave it away as a present. Feds and Zorkis aren’t as pretty as a Leica (and I’m sure they are strictly forbidden from joining genuine Leica clubs!), but they are basically the same machine: focal plane cloth shutter, M39 threaded lens mount. There’s a shop on 漢口街 (west side of the street, opposite the main post office..at least last time I was by there a few months ago) that has a few of the Soviet Leica “copies” in the window, but some of those may have too much “collector” value to be affordable.

    I have a collection of old rangefinders, mostly made between 1955 and 1962 that I use on a rotation basis; Minolta, Mamiya, Yashica, Konica and some other less well-known brands. About $45 US was the most I ever paid for a camera– and some of them I got pretty cheap because I had to repair them myself. I’ve got a very pretty 1960 Minolta AL (fast f2 Rokkor lens) that I’ll make you a good deal on. Let me know if you’re interested. I’ve never actually sold a camera before, but my gf keeps telling me I should start.

    Scott (in Tainan)
    Scott Cog (at flickr)

    Comment by Scott — July 11, 2008 @ 10:33 am

  10. Most of my favorite photos in my photostream end up only attracting a handful of views. Luckily, those favorites of mine sometimes attract the attention of a contact or two I have a lot admiration for.

    Comment by Todd — July 11, 2008 @ 10:59 am

  11. And maybe they’re right, in a way. After all, what does saying “I’m a photographer” mean these days, when everyone is a photographer? It’s like saying “I wear shoes.” Perhaps that explains the need for a camera like the M8. It’s not just any shoe.

    Cool. I can say I’m not a photographer and mean something.

    Comment by Mark — July 12, 2008 @ 12:57 am

  12. Zorki? It’s been a very long time since I heard that name. My first proper camera was a Zorki 4 with no light meter. I wish I still had it.

    Comment by sandman — July 12, 2008 @ 1:16 am

  13. Thanks, Scott, for the offer. I might borrow a friend’s rangefinder and play with it a bit to see if I can get used to it and then see what I want to do next.

    Comment by Poagao — July 12, 2008 @ 1:20 am

  14. I never heard of Chris Weeks before, but I just took a look at his article just now. What a pretentious and ego-inflated prick.

    Does he think he is radical and cutting edge just because he can find homeless people and stick his two-thousand-dollar camera in their faces? I hope one of them rips it off next time and pawns it.

    But, of course, I am obviously unable to fathom the genius and melancholic depth of his “work”.

    –scott

    Comment by Scott — July 14, 2008 @ 7:50 am

  15. your comments about flickr are well-taken. i would add that there is a class of point-and-shoot photographers that take a lot of highly-touted, out of focus, weird photos filtered/doctored up that garner a lot of comments. i guess it’s art.

    i use flickr to host my blog photos, period. i’m not a photographer; i’m a picture-taker.

    i like your photographic work. i think you’re real good.

    when i was back in the states recently, the only question that anyone asked me about my Nikon D80 was “how many megapixels?” even though there was a Sigma OS lens hanging off it. the answer “10.2” always elicited “really? wow!” but i think that’s the only specification people know how to ask about.

    Comment by MJ Klein — July 26, 2008 @ 11:36 am

  16. That’s true about the “art” shots, MJ…often I’m guilty of that kind of thing myself, though I need to hold myself to a higher standard when choosing my shots.

    When people ask me how many megapixels my Sigma has, I tell them “4.6.” If they ask how easy it is to use, I say “Not very; you’d probably find it very frustrating.”

    Comment by Poagao — July 26, 2008 @ 11:53 am

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