If you’re reading this right now in the Northern hemisphere, odds are better than even that it’s flippin’ cold out; if you’re reading from the Southern hemisphere, bookmark this and save it for a rainy (or rather, freezing) day and come back when you need it. Today we’re going to talk about one of the most fundamental things for cold weather photography: keeping your hands toasty, since nice gear doesn’t count for much if your digits are frostbitten.
There are quite a few options when it comes to gloves for photographers; I’ll be listing a few and discussing the pros and cons of each.
Let’s start with Thinsulate gloves. These are great when it comes to keeping your hands warm in cold weather. When it comes to shooting? Well, now, that’s something else again. Thinsulate’s great when it comes to keeping the cold out, but it can also feel like your hands have turned to sausages. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to feel the controls under your fingers, and equally difficult to finesse things like function keys and touchscreens. Even gloves that are designed with fingertips that can work with touchscreens tend to be a bit too bulky to ensure getting it right the first time, and if you’re trying to catch a skittish deer or a bird in flight, you really don’t want to miss the shot because your gloves decided you’d rather adjust your white balance than, say, your exposure settings.
Another option are gloves or mittens that allow you to remove the top portion to leave your fingertips exposed. These work fine in principle, since it leaves your fingers free to manipulate dials and buttons. Problem is, you end up either having to yank them off every time you want to shoot or change a setting, or you just say the hell with it and leave that part off, in which case you’ve got cold, numb fingers. That won’t do either.
So you can try thin leather gloves. Some are insulated, so they’re warm. They’re also thinner than many cloth gloves (though they can be stiffer in some cases), but they can still be clunky and stiff unless you’re dealing with driving gloves, which aren’t particularly practical in the cold. So leather also may not be your best bet.
What to do? There are photographer’s gloves out there, but like everything else marketed to photographers, some can be a bit pricey. Luckily, unlike some things made for photography, you’ve got good — and inexpensive — alternatives. Case in point: a pair of Hatch Specialist all-weather shooting gloves that I recently received for Christmas. They’re designed for hunters and law enforcement. It’s a different kind of shooting, but the principle’s the same when you get right down to it; you need the gloves to keep you warm, but otherwise, you need them to stay the heck out of the way. The gloves I’ve got perform pretty well in both respects. They have a degree of touch sensitivity that allows me to be a lot more confident when I’m changing settings on the fly.
Three cautionary notes about these gloves: first of all, I don’t know where they get off calling these “all-weather.” Granted, they’re water repellent (not waterproof) and warm, but not quite as warm as my bulky Thinsulate gloves or my nice Isotoners (one or the other of which stays in my jacket pocket for the times when the camera’s not out). The Neoprene material feels like it’d likely be sweaty on a hot day, though at that point you’re not likely to need gloves for photography anyway. The palm and finger surfaces of the gloves also conduct cold. The other evening, shooting in what felt like low 30’s/upper 20’s (Farenheit), my hands and fingers stayed warm enough, at least until I had to actually use my camera, or open doors; in both instances, the rubberized parts of the glove reminded me in no uncertain terms that I was gripping something cold.
Second, regardless of the type of gloves you decide to use, make sure you wear them. Cold temperatures, especially if you factor in wind and/or precipitation, can do a number on your hands. No matter how good a day’s shooting you have, it probably won’t compensate for things like frostbite or nerve damage. Third, make sure the gloves fit. If you’re doing something — like shoveling snow — that doesn’t require much dexterity, a little extra bulk or tightness isn’t a terrible thing. But when the whole point of a particular pair of gloves is to make it easier to get your digits where you want ’em, even the right glove in the wrong size isn’t going to be your best option.
Any other suggestions or input? Sound off in the comments section!
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For years now, no camera discussion forum has been worth its salt if it hasn’t included a thread or two speculating about how neat it’d be if someone would stick a full-frame sensor into a crop-sensor body and slap an affordable price tag on it. Rumors have come and gone and come again, but now we’ve got the real deal with the Nikon D600, which was announced barely three weeks ago, and has actually been available in stores since its September 18 release date (if you’re even a casual Nikonian, you know this is nothing to take for granted). Read below for the results of real-world use (read: no test charts or silly photos of brick walls) from a real live photographer.
The D600’s $2,100.00 price tag isn’t exactly pocket change, but as full-frame cameras go, it’s enough to put this Nikon in the “affordable” category, relatively speaking. The price is held down by a few things; it doesn’t have the D800’s 36MP sensor or control surfaces, or a huge buffer, or the D4’s frame rate. Its body largely carries over from the D7000, from the remarkably similar design, measurements and weight to the use of titanium only for the back and sides. With all that being said, this isn’t a no-frills camera; there’s an awful lot of capability packed into a comparatively small package. Read on to find out more.
Sensor: If you’re the kind of person who obsesses over lab tests, the DXOMark score for the D600 is 94 (third only to the Nikon D800 and D800E, which came in at 95 and 96; more on that here). If, on the other hand, you’re concerned more with the resultant photos… Look, the thing’s got 24.3 megapixels. You can, in other words, crop like an overzealous barber and still get good shots out of this puppy. There are caveats, of course. Higher-megapixel sensors have a tendency to show the flaws of the lenses put in front of them (or of the photographer behind them), not to mention that the file sizes are much larger. Color depth is very good, and the dynamic range is… well, it’s a good reason to give this camera a close look if you hadn’t already.
Ergonomics and Controls: this is, naturally, highly subjective; one thing I’ve always liked about Nikon is that they feel right in your hands, and the D600 is no exception. There are plenty of knobs and buttons, which makes a huge difference when it comes to changing settings quickly (if it has, or can be assigned, a knob or button, that’s one less thing you’ve got to hunt for in a menu). Some of the buttons do double duty, controlling different functions depending on how you’re using the camera at the time; in other words, the buttons that control ISO and white balance will control your ability to zoom in and out on an image during playback. Some people see this as a major drawback… I’m not one of them. Like anything else, you adapt. The D600 is further helped by the inclusion of user-customizable menus, as well as two banks’ worth of user settings on the mode dial, which can be useful if you’re making lots of wholesale changes to your settings for certain situations. So if, for example, you’re doing product photography strictly for the web, you can dial in smaller file sizes, different color and ISO settings, et cetera, and recall them on the dial rather than having to set everything manually each time you want to shoot that way. As an added bonus, both halves of the mode dial now lock, so you don’t have to worry about accidentally changing from Aperture Priority to Manual when you take the camera out of your bag.
ISO: Native ISO spans 100-6400, with a “Low” setting of 50 and a “HI2” of 25,600 ISO. I was fully prepared to write off the HI modes altogether; on the D7000, 6400 was useable, but just barely, and by Hi2, it was as noisy as a bar band. Even without noise reduction, you can get useable prints up to 6400. Noise is very well handled in the upper ranges. The pleasant surprise here is in the reaches beyond 6400. It’s still noisy in the Hi modes, and there’s still loss of detail, but it’s held down much better on this camera than on the D7000. What’s more, even where there’s grain, it looks (up to 6400) like film grain. I’m not seeing the kind of luminance noise with the 600 that I’ve noticed with nearly every other camera I’ve tried – even in RAW, or in JPG with noise reduction turned off.
Metering: I’m finding the metering on this camera to be a tad more reliable than on the D7000. Left to its own devices (at least in matrix metering, which I tend to use most often), the 7000 had a tendency to slightly overexpose. The D600 blows fewer highlights in Matrix metering than the D7000, and also has visibly improved dynamic range (the inclusion of in-camera HDR is a nice touch, but I haven’t used it nearly enough – or used dedicated HDR programs like Photomatix at all – to be able to say exactly how well it does HDR).
Autofocus: 39 focus points with 11 cross-type sensors. While I don’t have the fancy gear of the folks at Popular Photography or DP Review, I will say that the AF is noticeably faster in low light, even with my finicky, screw-drive 105 f/2.8D mounted to the camera. The one thing that may pose an issue for you, depending on what you shoot and how, is the grouping of those AF sensors. It’s essentially the same grouping as on the 7000, and in the same amount of space. In other words, what gave you pretty generous coverage on a DX sensor instead gives you a relatively tight grouping toward the center of an FX sensor. If you’re used to shooting with a single sensor point (or coming from a camera like the D60, which has only three evenly-spaced focus points on a single horizontal plane), this doesn’t present a huge issue.
Battery: The D600 uses the same EN-EL15 that’s used in the D7000 and D800. It’s CIPA rated for 900-1050 shots. I haven’t shot quite that many frames (yet) with this camera, but my experience using the same battery in the D7000 bears this out. Other factors (overuse of the burst mode, lots of chimping, using the onboard flash, cold weather) can, of course, lead to your results varying.
Finder: 100% coverage, .71x magnification. It’s big and bright, with the option to overlay grid lines, plus a frame that shows the DX coverage area if you’re using a DX lens, or if you set the camera to shoot in crop mode using an FX lens. Unlike previous and other current Nikon FX cameras, the 600 carries over the square viewfinder found on the DX line (not that I mind; it means not having to buy another eye cup for the finder).
Lenses: You can use practically anything with a Nikon F mount on this camera, including DX lenses, from your old AI-S lenses, to the more recent 2.8D screw drive AF lenses (the drive’s built in, as it was on the 7000) to the newest VR G lenses. If you’re weighing the move from a dedicated DX camera to FF but have hesitated ‘til now because you needed the additional magnification provided by the crop sensor (and/or didn’t want to lose too much resolution), you’ll be happy to know that this shoots at a respectable 10 megapixels in crop mode, so you can still use that 70-300 like a 450mm at the long end if you need to.
Video: I’m a stills guy. I can count on my fingers and toes how many videos I’ve shot with any cameras I’ve used that had the capability, and would only need one hand for the number of those videos I’ve actually kept. I bring this up by way of suggesting you take this section with a grain of salt. Video quality was, to my eyes, pretty darned good in daylight, but not so much in lower light. The edge still goes to Canon (or Sony) on video performance, though Nikon’s improved significantly since they introduced SLR video with the D90. Audio’s spotty, but then again, I didn’t expect much from the audio to begin with; nearly any non-video camera that relies on a built-in condenser mic has poor sound quality, and picks up every whirr, click, and hum from the camera’s and lens’ guts. If you’re serious about DSLR video, get a shotgun mic. But then, if you’re serious about DSLR video, you already knew that.
Extras: A strap, which is the usual cheap, garish and and uncomfortable nylon Nikon strap; if you haven’t already, I’d suggest buying something more comfy (like the Crumpler Crumpler Industry Disgrace***), especially since your neck’s going to feel like hamburger if you’ve got anything larger than a 50mm on the camera for any length of time. There’s also a USB cable, the little thingy that protects your hot shoe, that other little doohickey*that you’re supposed to put over the viewfinder if you’re not going to be shooting at eye level, another slab o’ plastic that covers the rear LCD, instruction manuals in English and Spanish (which you probably won’t read, choosing instead to ask on the NikonRumors forum, you scallywag), one EN-EL15 battery (with charger) and a body cap.
Pros include excellent dynamic range, very good high ISO performance and color depth, good ergonomics, plenty of manual controls and buttons, quick buffering, and all the perks that go with shooting full-frame packed into a body with the form factor of the prosumer D7000. Cons** include a tightly-grouped 39-point AF system, slightly slower burst rate, and 1/200 flash sync.
Is this the camera you need? Well, that all depends. As with any other camera, a lot has to do with expectations. My last camera, traded in toward this one, was a D7000. That wasn’t an easy choice to make; the 7000 was an excellent camera, and if I had to do it over again, I’d buy another without hesitation. I heard gripes about the 7000 (notably, hot pixels, and sometimes gimpy AF, especially in low light). I didn’t have the same hot pixels that some early adopters had (one of the benefits of waiting), and given that I was coming to the 7000 from a point-and-shoot that could be poky in broad daylight, I found the 7000 a joy to use. If you’re stepping up to the 600 from an older generation of the D series (say, anything from a D40 to about a D80), this camera is a quantum leap.
Build quality is identical to the D7000, and the frame rate in burst is half-a-frame slower. If those things are deal breakers for you, plunk down the extra $900.00 for a D800 for the added build quality (and 36MP) and a more evenly-distributed 51 point AF. Or, for just (just?) an additional $3,800.00, you can get 10 frames per second, 51 point AF, and the build quality (not to mention concomitant weight) of a freakin’ tank with a D4.
I could easily sum up the D600 in two words: Holy shit. I’m a bit given to profanity as it is, but this camera had me cursing like a sailor on shore leave. Over and over again, it’s performed better than I expected: quick AF, jaw-dropping performance at high ISOs, the ability to crop with impunity, the lovely bokeh that’s the reason you buy fast lenses to begin with, and superb image quality.
If you’re on the fence because you’ve got a D90, D7000, or D300, all I can tell you is, put this puppy through its paces. Its controls are very close to those of the 7000 (with a couple of minor variations), and its dimensions and weight are so close that you won’t feel the difference in your hands. If you’re looking for the successor to the D700, this could well be that camera (keeping the caveats above in mind). If you’re looking for a backup body for your D800… well, that all depends. In terms of image quality, the D600 gives the D800 a run for its money, but the controls on both are very different, so unless your other camera’s a D7000, that could prove to be frustrating. With all that said, here’s the bottom line: if the compromises that come with this camera are the kind that you can live with (for me, they were) then this is a damn good camera for the price.
**Whether some of these things are “cons,” of course, depend on your needs and expectations.
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A note on the photos: The file sizes on the original photos, as you’d expect on a camera with a 24MP sensor, are enormous. The photos above have, therefore, been cropped and downsampled. The only one that’s had any processing applied beyond in-camera noise reduction (set at Normal) is the flower photo above.
The 2013 Photographer’s Market bills itself as “Everything You Need to Find Buyers for Your Photos.” By its nature, dust jacket copy tends toward the hyperbolic, but this is one instance in which they’ve got it about 98% right.
For years, I bought and used the Writer’s Market series of books, so I already had a fair idea of what to expect even before cracking open my copy of the Photographer’s Market. It’s thick — nearly the same size that phone books used to be back when people still used them — and packed to the rafters with information.* In addition to the listings of consumer and trade publications, submission requirements, and contact information that’ve been this series’ stock in trade since it started, there are also interviews with industry insiders, plus information on galleries, art fairs, contests, workshops, and agents/representatives.
The yearly updates ensure that what’s there is up to date. The other advantage is that, like the companion volumes put out every year for writers, illustrators, and others, a great deal of time and thought is put into where the industry is, and where it’s going. The upside — a pretty big one, as it turns out — is that you’re not stuck with a publication that assumes that photojournalism and editorial are thriving right now. The authors don’t just acknowledge that photography has changed significantly, but they’ve also laid out a number of tools, resources, and strategies to keep photographers up to speed on the current state of the market. There are segments dealing with everything from running and marketing your photo business to maintaining a healthy life-work balance. On top of all that, the print edition comes with a free 1-year subscription to ArtistMarketOnline.com (e-reader users are left out in the cold on that last bit).
There’s enough here that anyone — whether you’re looking to keep a professional photography business going, or just to make a few bucks on the side — should find something they can use. I’d especially recommend this book to people who’ve just bought an SLR and are now calling themselves “professionals” because they’ve gotten a few bucks here and there for head shots, or doing a wedding on the cheap. Even a cursory read of this book should be enough to let you know that there’s much more than that to being a professional photographer. For some people, no doubt, that’s going to be a discouraging prospect. For the rest of you, it’s a good thing, since if you’re willing to put in the work, there’s plenty here to get you off on the right foot.
Way back in the first ‘graf, I mentioned that the jacket copy got it about 98% right. So where’s that other couple of percentage points? Well, by its nature, a book like this can’t go into a great deal of depth on any one thing. If you’re new to making money at your photography, it’d be in your best interest to take one or more topics that this book only scratches the surface of, and doing further reading and research to build your skills and knowledge. That might mean picking up a good introduction to photography technique if you’re literally just starting with a camera, but if you’ve been shooting for a while, it’ll mean checking out other, more specialized books on the business (like David duChemin’s VisionMongers: Making a Life and a Living in Photography) or legal (like Edward Greenberg’s Photographer’s Survival Manual: A Legal Guide for Artists in the Digital Age) aspects of photography. But as a starting point — and as a comprehensive single-volume reference — I can’t think of another book that does what this one does, or that handles the job quite this well.
*Yes, I know books don’t have rafters. It’s a figure of speech, dammit.
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Since we’ve got a handful of new readers, and some of you giving our 365 Photo Project a whirl, I wanted to kill two birds with one stone today by reviewing The Photography Book, which is put out by Phaidon (the same folks whose other titles include The Art Book and The 20th Century Art Book).
Bird number one, as it were, is the book itself. Like the other two aforementioned titles, The Photography Book is arranged with its subjects in alphabetical order. This makes it easy to find a particular photographer (so it’s a cinch finding Philippe Halsman, provided you haven’t forgotten his last name), but it makes it something of a challenge to establish any kind of context. Nearly the entire history of photography is represented here, much of it by photographers whose work is on the obscure side, and that’s a good thing. Devoid of chronology, and with only bare-bones commentary, it’s up to the reader to go out and do his or her own research in order to find out more along those lines.
The book comes in two formats, one of which is… well, you know, book-sized (yes, I know, if it’s a book, it’s the size of a book by default… don’t get technical with me), and the other of which would fit neatly into a camera bag, purse, or large-ish pocket.
I’m still eyeing that other bird, by the way, which is this: whether you’re photographing just for fun, for the sake of a project (howdy, project people), for work, or just because all the cool kids are doing it, you’ll soon find (if you haven’t figured out already) that inspiration ebbs and flows… and when it ebbs, it’s often at an inopportune time. So The Photography Book is helpful not just from the standpoint of developing your visual “voice” and visual literacy, but also because it can be a shot of inspiration at the times yours is on the wane.
The copy of Freeman Patterson’s Photography for the Joy of It that’s sitting next to me is from 1977. As I write this, the book is out of print (though you can find used copies of the original edition and two subsequent reprints at the Amazon links below). It’s a shame, because even though it shows its age in places, this is one photography book I wish I’d picked up when I was first starting out.
The title isn’t just some marketing gimmick, a takeoff on the “Joy of…” (cooking, bicycle riding, chinchillas) titles that are so popular. Patterson clearly takes joy in his craft, and that joy is palpable both in his words and in his photos. Some of his photos stop you in their tracks for their creativity (be prepared for a lot of “What is that?” moments), but a lot of his advice does the same. Patterson lays out the rules clearly and concisely, but goes out of his way to affirm that they’re just rules, and that it’s okay to break them if it’ll make a better photo.
Too often, the books I’ve read on photography — especially when they’re targeted at novice photographers, as this one is — are weighted heavily, or entirely, toward gear and the minutiae of technique. You’ll find some of that — just enough of it, as it happens — but this book’s saving grace is that there’s plenty of philosophy and insight on design principles, the use of symbolism, and quite a bit else that you won’t find in a more typical introduction to photography… which is exactly why it’s such a good introduction, or even a good refresher on the off chance that you need one.
For as much experience as I’ve picked up along the way (which is by no means exhaustive, but still, it’s there), I was still able to learn quite a bit from this book; for instance, the section on Selective Focus would’ve been worth the price of the book by itself (it goes far beyond depth of field). And there’s plenty here to act as reminders or a call to mindfulness, which we all need from time to time as well, even in something as simple as Patterson’s injunction that “The most important thing you can do with your camera and lenses is to use them.”
Remember last week, when I said it’s all been done? Patterson’s work, for me, is a reminder that while it’s all been done, it’s still worth doing anyway. It’s good to have something to aspire to, a signpost or two on the road ahead that let us know we’re headed in the right direction. It’s also a reminder that we have a chance for us to “pay it forward,” giving a helping hand to those behind us on the road just as those ahead have done for us. If you are, or you know, a photographer who’s just embarking on their path, give this book some serious thought. Yes, photography takes dedication, discipline, and lots of practice, but Patterson reminds us time and again of all the joy it gives in return.
For all the talk (including quite a bit in The First 10,000) about mindful, even artistic, images, that’s not all there is to photography. Most photographers are snapshot shooters, and even the most diehard photo fanatic — the ones who obsess over every last setting and compositional detail, nearly every time — have times when they let their hair down, figuratively speaking, and shoot spontaneously. Just because.
There’s something vaguely voyeuristic about Taylor Jones’s Dear Photograph, which began life as a blog and now finds itself between covers. The idea works in part because it’s so simple; find an old snapshot, find the place where it was shot, and “reframe” the shot within a new photo.
The resulting photo is accompanied by a short blurb from the photographer, explaining the story behind the original photo, and the feelings that go with it now. In concept, it comes off a bit “meta,” as though someone’s sending postcards to postcards. In practice, there’s a poignance that you might not necessarily expect to come from looking over someone else’s shoulder.
As I’ve alluded to elsewhere, books derived from websites are a decidedly mixed lot, but this one works in a way that the book based on, say, Awkward Family Photos doesn’t. That’s not to say that I can’t kill an entire afternoon on Awkard Family Photos (I can, and very nearly have). It’s just that once you’ve seen the photo, the joke’s over. You won’t get quite the same effect the second time around. In the case of Dear Photograph, however, the photograph isn’t just a one-note joke or concept, and isn’t simply self-referential. We’re not just invited into someone else’s memories as if into their living rooms, in other words; we’re reminded first of the power of a photograph to preserve moments in time, then of the persistance of memory, then invited in some sense to think back on similar moments in our own lives.
This isn’t one of those photo books filled with gorgeously-exposed, perfectly composed shots calculated to give you goosebumps because of their sheer, improbable perfection. The goosebumps here come for another reason altogether. These photos are all too probable; they’re ordinary, and lived-in. And that’s fine, ’cause life’s full of “just because” moments, those times when someone does something silly, memorable, even poignant, and it’s up to the person on the other side of the camera to just put all the technicality to one side for a bit and get the darn photo. The power in a photo like that comes precisely from its spontaneity and imperfection. They’re moments captured one at a time from lives not as we wish them to be, but as we actually lived them, with all the complication and emotion and imperfection intact. There’s a palpable warmth to Dear Photograph, not despite those rough edges, but because of them.
This is, if we may be so immodest, the only buyer’s guide you will ever need for anything photographic, ever. Well, alright. We’re kidding. Maybe. In all seriousness, though, whatever you’re buying, the dozen questions below will help you to make a better decision.
1. What do I want to buy? If it’s something that fills a need, continue down the rest of the list. If, on the other hand, you’ve got a grand or three burning a hole in your pocket and just want a new gadget, wait on it.
2. Are there aftermarket versions of this item (hereinafter referred to as “thing”), and are they any good? Branded stuff is generally going to be of higher quality, but there are aftermarket versions that can be every bit as good. If it’s something you need (or just want) badly enough, you may decide that you’re willing to make some tradeoffs to save a few bucks. Bear in mind, however, that a savings isn’t much of a savings if you change your mind and need to upgrade later. Buying right the first time means a short-term hit to the wallet, but can also mean a savings (somewhat paradoxically) down the road. For just one example of what I’m talking about, check out this post by Thom Hogan. There’s also my own take on buying OEM versus aftermarket.
3. Is there a substitute for “thing”? From time to time, I get it in my head that I’d like a fisheye lens, and then I remind myself that I can get the same effect in Photoshop; the fact that I’ve never actually bothered to convert any of my images to look like they came from a fisheye probably reinforces the wisdom of passing up the lens in the first place. If, on the other hand, you find yourself spending countless hours of postproduction time doing that very thing, it might be worth your while to just get the right tool for the job. This is also true of other low-budget fixes (i.e. closeup filters in place of macro lenses).
4. Are there other things I need to buy to go with “thing”? Photography is a lot like shaving. Just the same as Gillette will sell you a razor for around ten bucks and then charge you $75 bucks a pop for blades (I know, I’m exaggerating… but not that much), many photography-related purchases rely on other “stuff” to put them to best use. If the filter size on that new lens isn’t the same as your others, you may need a new polarizing filter; if you’re buying a new tripod, you may want an extra quick release plate; if you’re buying an SLR, you’ll need memory, batteries, and other doodads. Buying a printer? You’ll need something to calibrate your monitor (and a new monitor if the one you’ve got can’t be calibrated). Make sure you take those costs into account.
5. Does “thing” have recurring costs associated with it? You’ve decided to spring for a new printer for your photos since you’re sick of taking them to the drugstore to be printed. Congratulations! You can now pony up for paper and toner cartridges for the life of the printer. Decided that digital is passe and you’ll shoot film now? Well, that film adds up, to say nothing of developing costs (and/or the cost of chemicals and paper if you’re going to roll develop your own).
6. What is the cost of “thing”, and is that money better spent elsewhere? Let’s be honest. This stuff doesn’t come cheap. Would I like a Leica M9 with one of those lovely Summicron lenses? You bet your ass I would. I’m also mindful of the fact that I could have about five more of everything in my current kit for that much money. The same logic applies to other, lower-priced gear as well. Comparing apples to apples, I know that there are tradeoffs between my 70-300mm and a fast 70-200mm, but I also know that if I’d bought the 70-200, it would’ve been the last of pretty much anything I’d bought for a very long time. Be practical, and understand that it doesn’t have to be the best (or most expensive) thing out there to be the best tool for right now.
7. What is the learning curve for “thing”, and is that time better spent elsewhere? Some equipment is pretty straightforward. A battery’s either charged or isn’t, and a memory card or camera bag’s either got space on/in it or hasn’t. But most of what you buy is going to require you to learn something about it if you want to get the most out of it. Lenses, software, camera bodies, hell, even tripods have a learning curve associated with them. The time spent mastering them can enrich your photography, but it can also frustrate the crap out of you if you decide you didn’t need the thing after all.
8. How often/for how long will I use “thing”? You’ve convinced yourself that you’ve missed one bird shot too many, and you now want a 500mm lens. After 625 trips to car shows and not a single one to an aviary, the last winged creature you saw was the hood ornament on a Thunderbird. How’s that lens looking now? Sometimes missing a certain kind of shot makes us want a certain kind of gear to remedy the problem, but if we don’t find ourselves in the kinds of situations that lead to those kinds of shots in the first place, it’s useful to reconsider.
9. Can I rent or borrow “thing”, and is that a good idea? Renting or borrowing (or, in the case of software, downloading a trial version) can be a great way to kick the tires before you buy, or to avoid buying altogether if you can’t foresee the next time you’ll need the thingy in question. Be careful, though; rentals don’t come cheap, and if you’re renting something often enough, the accumulated rental cost can rapidly add up to what it would’ve cost if you’d just purchased the darn thing, as Zack Arias points out in this post.
10. Might “thing” pay for itself (and if so, how soon)? Even if you’re not a professional photographer, there’s still a chance that the situations in which you use your camera might defray its cost (and if you’re a pro… well, duh). If the “thing” has the ability to earn its keep (here I’m thinking of product photography, real estate photography, and other circumstances in which someone who doesn’t consider themselves a photographer still needs to take pictures of something), that’s worth bearing in mind.
11. Do a lot of people use “thing”, and where can I find out what they have to say? Let’s say that you’ve considered all of the above, and darnit, you’ve just gotta have it. Narrow it down to two to three options; even if you’re dead set on one brand, make, and model, you don’t want buyer’s remorse later because you didn’t do your homework. Now, check out reviews from several sites, but don’t stop there. Get to your local camera shop and try out the different options. Sometimes the reviews (good or bad) are right, sometimes not. Your results may vary one way or the other, and you don’t want to find out the hard way.
12. Will “thing” make me a better photographer? The answer is a qualified “Of course not.” Good gear won’t save a bad photographer’s ass, and a good photographer will find ways to make even bad gear work for them; it’s your vision that drives the photo. With that said, having the right gear can sometimes make it much easier to translate your vision to a photo.* Just don’t mistake the gear for the vision, OK?
*Next time someone tells you gear absolutely doesn’t matter — and some people will, despite any evidence to the contrary — tell them to get a detailed shot of the surface of the moon with a disposable film camera.
“Tching prayed on the mountain and wrote MAKE IT NEW on his bath tub Day by day make it new” — Ezra Pound, Canto LIII, 1940
You could blame Robert Moses, which seems to be the fashion, or you could say it’s just the American way, that unique form of active amnesia we seem to have that means forgetting vast swaths of our history, and either painting over or demolishing the rest; either way, huge amounts of our urban landscape have been “made new” and made over, with much history — architectural and cultural — being lost along the way. We can see those faded fingerprints around us still, sometimes in lingering architectural details on the buildings that have survived one renewal or gentrification too many, and other times in the faded, hand-painted signs that cling stubbornly to those same buildings.
That brings us to Fading Ads of New York City, written by Frank Jump, the curator of the long-running Fading Ad website. I’ve lost track of how many websites have spawned books in the last few years, and how many of those books I’ve passed up because I couldn’t see myself reading them more than once, regardless of how many times the website in question made me laugh, made me think, or gave me goosebumps. With that said, I was very happy to come across this book, which takes some of Jump’s best shots and writing, and puts the lot of it between covers.
So what moves this book into the “buy” column? For starters, there are the photos. Yes, you’ll be able to see them on the website, but you won’t see them like this, in all their warm Kodachrome glory.* The signs, 70-odd of them, are captured in just the right light, and at just the right angles. These are not, in other words, half-assed snapshots from street level.
For another thing, there’s the writing, and lots of it, tying Jump’s own life story — including his struggle, and an uneasy truce of sorts, with HIV — to the project that’s become his life’s work. When he was diagnosed in 1986, he was told that he had perhaps four years left to live, but then he lived and kept right on living. That life, in all its ups and downs, informs not only the writing, but also the structure of the book, the sections of which are thematically grouped by parts of the body. There are also essays and reminiscences scattered throughout, some taking up bits of urban archaeology, some the long plague years of the AIDS crisis, and many of them exploring the intersection and similarities of the two, ’til the whole reads a bit like a cross between Luc Sante and Randy Shilts.
Fading Ads operates on several levels at once: personal history, urban exploration, archaeology, and reportage. And yet, it’s also much more than that, at once a witness to times and people long gone (some much too soon), as well as a testament to the longevity of a tenacious documentarian and his surprisingly tenacious subjects.
*I’ll spare you the whys and wherefores of this (for now). Suffice to say that photos reproduced on the printed page are of higher quality than those in your average e-book or on a website.
Photomontage, as Dawn Ades notes in her introduction to the book of the same title, is as old as photography itself. It’s evolved alongside the medium, sometimes engaging it in dialogue (as with William Henry Fox Talbot’s 1830’s work, which presaged Man Ray and others), sometimes confronting it (as with John Heartfield and Hanna Hoch’s cutting, politically charged work), and sometimes raising a funhouse mirror to the culture at large, as in Paul Citroen’s Metropolis.
Photomontage, simply stated, is the combination of two or more photographs to produce a third work. The composite that results can be something that’s very obviously cobbled together, or something that’s so seamlessly done that it looks like a single image that came straight off of a single frame of film, or a single image from your camera’s memory card. While that kind of compositing can be done with (relative) ease now in Photoshop, it was once an operation that was quite labor-intensive, involving literal cutting, pasting, and airbrushing… which makes some of these works that much more interesting and impressive (no clone stamps or healing tools here; try scissors, and rubber cement).
Ades’ work is heavily weighted to the first half of the Twentieth Century. This makes sense since this was the golden age of photomontage. It was also the first great boom both in affordable, easily portable cameras, which itself ushered in a golden age for photojournalism. Each of these things informed, and sometimes cannibalized, the others. However, Ades does not neglect the more recent history of the form, including its influence on Pop art and in such non-artistic forms as advertising. As if to reinforce this web of influences, the text occasionally circles back on itself, placing later works in the context of their earlier predecessors.
One reason this book makes for compelling reading is that it’s hard to imagine whole swaths of both high and low popular culture without photomontage as an influence or antecedent. There are plenty of obvious examples, from so much of advertising art and propaganda, to say nothing of Andy Warhol’s silk screens, Robert Rauschenberg’s “Combines,” or Terry Gilliam’s whimsical animation work with Monty Python. But there are less obvious examples, as well. Whole swaths of literature owe a huge debt to montage, including Barthelme, Pynchon, and Rushdie, while music — from the hallucinatory mashups of Ferdinand Kriwet or Byrne and Eno to the cut-and-paste esthetics of hip hop and techno — are practically unimaginable without it.
The great thing about this book, I think, is that unlike work that concerns itself primarily with “straight” photography, it encourages the reader to think of photography as something larger than itself. It becomes less a finished product than a jumping-off point, the initiation of something larger that treats the photograph as raw material to be manipulated, teased, or made to submit to some other artistic end. There’s something healthy in that, a reality check (or even, perhaps, a gut check) of sorts for photographers. Rather than viewing the print as an end in and of itself,an almost ritualistically charged object, we’re freed to view it from another angle. It becomes another piece of raw material, cut down to size (sometimes quite literally), but that also means it’s free to be something more than what it was originally. Even if you don’t practice montage, that’s a useful thought to keep in mind, because it can change and expand your sense of what your photography is capable of.
I purchased Graham Clarke’s The Photograph around the time that it first came out about fifteen years ago. At the time, I was more concerned with art theory, history, and criticism than I was with trying to make art of my own, and this book appealed to the side of me that, when I was a kid, would take things apart to see how they worked. I approached art in the same way; I wanted to take it apart, examine all those pieces, see how it all fit together, and what made the end result work (or not).
What drew me to art, and kept me circling back to photography ’til I finally gave in — and dove in — myself, is that it made sense to me in a way that, say, electronics or cars just don’t. I could take a radio apart, but I had no better idea of what made the thing tick by the time I’d finished than I had when I started. Art, on the other hand, made sense to me, even if I wasn’t ready or quite able at the time to use those same things to put those pieces — the theory, the medium, the history — together in a way that they’d work.
I’m not altogether sure whether this book was written for a layman or for more of a scholarly audience. It’s certainly not a light read, but neither is it so dense as to be obtuse; to my mind, at least, it should be accessible enough for a general audience, but thought-provoking enough that the academics shouldn’t get bored halfway through. Clarke explores history, genre, and theory, but also does something your average photography book doesn’t; he stops to consider the consequences of the still image, whether as fodder for art, commerce, documentary, manipulation or political purposes. Of course, these things don’t typically stay in their own fenced-in little areas, so Clarke gives the sometimes messy intersections of all these considerations their due as well.
If that sounds a bit different than your average coffee table book, that’s because it is. If you’re looking for a survey of photography that concerns itself mostly with the images themselves, and allows the images to speak for themselves, you’re likely to be disappointed in this book. But that would, I humbly suggest, be your fault rather than the author’s, simply because that’s not what this book is for. The author isn’t just uncritically presenting images; he is, instead, interrogating them, and inviting the reader to do the same. It’s an attempt to look at photography through a critical lens in much the same way that earlier works by Barthes and Sontag had done, but more accessibly (to this reader, at least).
The bottom line is, if you’re picking this up primarily for the photos, don’t; there are other, better, books for that. If, on the other hand, you’d like a deeper understanding of the history and theory of photography (without subjecting yourself to a degree program), this is an excellent place to start. And speaking of starting points, if you’re just starting with a camera, or haven’t even picked one up yet, I’d still urge you to give this book a shot. I can’t say this for everyone who’ll read this review, or the book to which it refers, but I know I can’t possibly be the only person for whom understanding the theory and/or history behind something — learning how to “read” the medium, however haltingly, before trying my hand at it — was a gateway, and permission, toward trying it myself.
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