In case anyone has the wrong idea, the photos that I show on this blog are not intended to be representative of my "considered work", if I can put it that way. They are simply what floated to the top from that week's picture-making, and seemed to complement whatever I happened to feel like writing about. When I come to select and sequence images with my "serious" hat on -- perhaps a year or more later -- different factors are at work, and different images will come to the fore.
The one above, for example, has resonances that will probably make it a candidate for several sequences that are forming in the back of my mind. It's a photograph from my recent visit to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. I was using the Panasonic GF-1 with the 14-45 f/3.5-5.6 zoom, a good lens but not ideal for dim interiors -- unfortunately, I'd somehow omitted to put the 20mm f/1.7 in my bag. Idiot! The only solution was to raise the ISO.
Now, I never work above ISO 400, for the simple reason that I'm the sort of fool who still thinks in film terms, and for me ISO 400 colour negative film was on the limits of usability, even in my medium-format Fuji rangefinder. But it was obvious that in the sepulchral gloom of a museum I was going to have to use ISO 800 and even, ulp, ISO 1600.
I had made my first pass through the galleries, and had got the feel of the layout, the light, the angles, the opportunities. When the attendants weren't looking, I steadied my camera by pressing the lens against the glass of the vitrines -- no point in being precious about optical quality when working hand-held at ISO 1600. When they were looking, I leaned against anything solid that wasn't 4,000 years old, and invoked the gods of photography ("Oh, Leica, Lord of Luxury, steady my hand in my
Now, that first pass is essential in any context : you flush all the obvious shots out of your system, get the feel of the place, start noticing the less obvious shots, and -- with any luck -- start to get "into the zone", that wonderful mental space where everything drops away except you and the camera and you finally start seeing.
When I reached the top of the gallery, I saw that attendant, draped against the rail of the stairwell, thirty feet away, through a showcase of ceramics on a mezzanine balcony. I dropped to my knees, pressed my back against a convenient wall, let the lens focus on the vase inside the cabinet, prayed ("Oh, Zeiss, God of Good Glass, let me be lucky"), and took the shot. ISO 1600, 1/50 second at f/5.4, zoomed to 33mm (66mm in 35mm terms), everything on "auto" but underexposed by one third of a stop. Click. And again, zoomed to 45mm and rotated to "portrait". Click. I only remembered I was on ISO 1600 too late to change it: the attendant moved away, and the moment was over.
Technically, the result is all over the place -- both under- and over-exposed, unsharp, and inevitably rather noisy. Here's a 100% crop of the image, converted from RAW but unmanipulated:
Notice: it's not that noisy. Compared to a scan from film, it's not noisy at all. In fact, that's quite impressive for an ISO 1600 shot, hand-held in available light. Well done, Panasonic engineers. And I like the image a lot, so it's worth some work to rescue it. In the end, I didn't do a lot of manipulation: just the usual adjustments to the levels and the colour curves and, above all, I ran the file through the Noise Ninja filter plug-in. If you don't already have any decent noise reduction software, I thoroughly recommend Noise Ninja --used carefully, it can rescue otherwise unusable photographs, and is indispensable for scans from film.
Here's that same 100% crop at the end of the process:
The image actually started out like this:
There's a lot to be said for the composed chaos of the rectangular image I originally saw through the viewfinder. Some people might object to that strong vertical bar on the left, but I think it balances the strong shape of the vase rather well, and "holds" the composition together. Nevertheless, my favoured square crop does simplify and calm the image down, and makes more of the interplay of the bold shapes, especially that trumpet-shaped vase.
Technically, this picture has little going for it, but I think its pictorial impact far exceeds any worries about focus, noise or "burned out highlights". It has a sombre mystery that would never be conveyed by a perfectly-captured picture of any of its elements, separately (though, obviously, I wouldn't have minded a perfectly-captured picture of all its elements, together). It's a good picture, if not a good photograph, and that's what counts.
Of course, if only I'd remembered to take the right lens...