Has our almost complete adaptation to color imaging changed the way we shoot?

When I first undertook photography my perception was that most serious artists and aspiring artists used black and white film in their cameras and, by extension, in their seeing.  And, to my mind, there's a giant chasm between seeing in color and seeing in black and white.  When we look with a black and white or monochrome sensibility we tend to looks for graphic shapes and forms that are recognizable and not too finally detailed.  We look to recognizable forms that tell stories or describe objects.

But in color we tend to look for pleasing chromatic combinations or pretty pastels that can nestle next to one another in a pleasing and hue driven pattern.  Or the antithesis, a garish pattern comprised and composed of striking opposite colors which usually sit, glaring at each other from the opposite side of the color wheel.  Knowing what our final destination will generally be we select subjects and scenarios that aid our artifice.  If we know we're diving into the pool of color then the juxtapositions of colors becomes (consciously or unconsciously) our target and goal.  Conversely, when we know we'll be making images in monotone we look for content to carry the visual narrative and tickle the part of the brain that wants to know the story.

You can see this in image after image on the web.  And I'm not making a value judgement either way other than to say that I think B&W is being marginalized into a photojournalistic ghetto of photographic art and I'm hoping that, like the phases of the moon, that images about things and forms and textures come back into our perception of the orbit of art and start to re-assume precedence over the titillations of candy color.  

Soothing but empty.

A story I want to hear.....

My old camera can beat your new camera. I think. Maybe.

Back in 2005 I bought a Kodak SLR/n which, until the arrival of the Nikon V1, was the most villified DSLR camera ever introduced into the market (except for its predecessor...).  This was a camera with issues.  If you aren't familiar with it go back to DPReview and read the review of the Nikon version's Canon sibling here: http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/kodakslrc.  What you'll find is a flawed but somewhat brilliant camera for the times.  It was the direct descendant of the first full frame digital camera on the market, the Kodak 14N.  In 2004 the SLR/n delivered 14 megapixels of big pixel, full frame files and it did so for about $3,000 cheaper than the Canon 1DS that followed it onto the market.

The issue is that photographers aren't engineers.  In the film camera days you could press a camera into service to do just about anything.  But the Kodak engineers were building a camera that worked very well in circumscribed situations.  It was a great portrait camera with lots and lots of RAW file headroom.  And that translated directly into big time dynamic range for the time.  But the parameter that endeared it to me (and you'll notice it's one of the few cameras in my studio that hasn't been upgraded, traded away or resold over the years) is the fact that the sensor did NOT have an anti-aliasing filter over the top.  That means a great impression of sharpness all the way around.  In fact,  at ISO 160, in a head to head comparison with the Canon 5D mk2 at 21 megapixels I think you'd give the nod to the Kodak as far as impressions of overall sharpness go.

So why didn't it sweep the market?  Well, in the hands of studio portrait photographers who could control light and lenses, it was a hit.  But Kodak marketed it as an "all arounder"  and that's where the SLR/n hit the wall.  It was pretty well controlled for noise up to about 320 ISO but over 400 ISO and it fell to pieces.  It would take six to eight seconds to start up and, as the temperature changed, it would stop to recalibrate its electronics.  Kinda of a "turn off" when you are building up to that shooting crescendo....

The whole machine was based on parts from a less expensive Nikon camera body and the finder wasn't great.  But man, could it knock them out of the ballpark when it was working in the narrow constraints that described its strengths.  I routinely used (and should still be using) its special, low ISO menus.  Choose ISO 12, 25 and 50 and the camera turns into a detail machine.  The longer exposures let the camera do iterative exposures which are then binned and sampled and in camera crafted into noise free, high quality files.  I've done 40 by 60 prints of product for clients that brought tears to my eyes and those of the lab manager who printed them our for us on a Lightjet printer.

But as a low light, wedding/photojournalists/art camera in chancy available light.....it sucked.

The files it kicks out in RAW are true 14 bit.  They are also 4,500 by 3,000 pixels.  And none of the pixels sees the image thru a blurring filter.  If you shoot at the lower speeds or at 160 ISO I think you'd find the camera keeps up with the 18 to 21 megapixel wonder cameras of the moment.  And it does so with lots of dynamic range, its own very desirable color balance and palette and an edge acutance that most camera makers would kill for.  
I hadn't used it in over a year but I felt like taking a long walk all by myself today and just doing something different.  No small cameras with small sensors today.  No film today.  No agenda today.  I plastered a Nikon 50mm 1.8D onto the front, set the camera the way I like it and hit the long route through downtown.  Walking and looking and not feeling compelled to shoot too much.  But little by little I came to remember what I liked about this camera.  I did a quick shot of a leaf on a fence with the sun behind it.  And when I got back to the studio and looked at it at 100 % I was happy.  So I made a 100% crop to show off the structure of the leaf and the detail of the edges.

I have stack of batteries for the camera and I charged them all.  I find that digital cameras really need to have a battery attached to them at least once a month and I'd been negligent by about 11 months.  The attached battery allows the camera to suckle over time and keep small capacitors formed.  I'm sure it helps maintain other electronic needs as well.  For the first hour or so the camera was antsy.  It would give me random "card corruption" messages and tell me that a file couldn't be written.  But like a spirited horse it eventually took to the bit and calmed down.  By the end of my walk it stopped giving me messages and was writing every file to memory.  I've decided to pull out the A/C adapter and put the camera onto the adapter once a month (at least) over night.  I'm hoping that keeps it happy.

I spent the late afternoon just soaking up the newly re-emergent sunlight and spinning an ancient Nikon circular polarizing filter in front of the lens.  The files that emerged in ACR were wonderful right off the card.  Very punchy with solid highlight structure and lots of sharpness snap.  The colors need a bit of nursing but that seems to be endemic with all older digital cameras.

I'm convinced that the files (at ISO 160) are just a bit better and sharper than the files I get out of my recently (Canon) overhauled 1DS mk2.  And nearly as detailed as those from the Canon 5D mk2.  Not a bad performance out of a camera that basically died of marketing neglect and was sabotaged by reviews aimed at the great general marketplace.  Like just about anything else some of the coolest performances necessitate the greatest practice and skill.  

We all love the newest and greatest stuff to shoot with but I'm convinced that for studio portraits the Kodak is just about where most of us want to be.  Long tonal scale, great bit depth and wonderfully rich colors.  Just be sure you have some substantial lighting and tripod support standing by to take advantage of the strong points and to ameliorate the weak ones.  

I came back home as the light faded in the west.  The afterglow was beautiful today.  I chauffeured the child somewhere and headed back to the studio to look at what I'd shot.  Wish I had two of these cameras, in perfect condition, because I'd love to use them to make artful portraits.  As it is I ordered yet another battery so I could be sure of at least having the camera functional for another year or so.  If it finally gives up the ghost I do believe I'll have some sort of ceremony for it.  It was, after all, my first full frame digital camera.  

One morning I got up early to go to the Acropolis.

Security Guard relieving himself on the foundation of 
western civilization.  Canon TX camera.  50mm 1.8FD lens.
Tri-X film.  Scan from Print. ©1978 Kirk Tuck.

I woke up one hot and dusty morning in Athens, pulled on my running shoes, a comfortable pair of jeans and an tee shirt and headed out the door of my hotel to see the Acropolis.  I owned two cameras at the time.  One was a Canonet QL17 and the other was a Canon TX with a 50mm lens.  I took the bigger SLR.  And a couple rolls of 35mm Tri-X film.

As I walked through the city I took tentative photographs.  The Greek temperament seemed at odds with the laid back ethos of my native Austin, Texas.  I'd bring my camera up to my eye and in the finder I would find a scowling face and a challenge to the idea that photography was a universally welcome undertaking.  I'm sure a lot has changed in the last thirty years.  Except the Greek temperament.

On my first visit I found that most hotels were not air conditioned, no trains were air conditioned and no monument had yet been totally Disneyfied.  By that I mean that people didn't necessarily line up for entry.  The enjoyment of a monument or attraction wasn't constrained by velvet ropes, defined queues, or minders, or ticket takers.  If you got to the Acropolis early chances were you got there before the officials and the security guards and you were free to walk into the unattended gates and enjoy posterity in all of its glory.

I walked up the steep hill and into the general area.  In those days pieces and fragments of statutes and facia carvings dotted the general surroundings of the ancient building.  Blocks and columns lay splayed and revealed for all who might want to climb on them or run their hands over the ancient marble faces in wonder....or for good luck. 

The sun was climbing slowly above the horizon and it would eventually be another white hot day in early September.  As I looked down the hill I could see a rising but still thin curtain of yellow tinged dust rise up from the streets.  I was one of the first souls to climb the hill that morning.

As I walked around admiring the giant columns I turned a corner and encountered my first official of the day.  A security guard for this national treasure.  He was casually urinating on the foundation of the monument.  He finished, zipped up his trousers and then turned around towards me and, while fishing a cigarette and a lighter out of the pockets of his jacket, asked me,  "Ticket?"