Thursday, 28 October 2010

Picture vs. Photograph

In the light of recent remarks on "technical quality" vs. "pictorial impact", I thought it might be interesting to think out loud about the process of making this image:

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 hour fifteenth of a second of need..."). It's easy to bring out your inner pagan when surrounded by the pious detritus of human history.

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...


Tim said...

It's a heck of a lot better than that "surreal" fellow with a loaf of bread for a head, sleeping on the grass in SA. :>)

Bronislaus Janulis said...


Personally, I like the rectangular image more; the bar is important.

This is also an image that is "difficult" to read, initially, much like that contest winner for BJP.

My opinion.

A lot of the commentary seems to be looking for some "communication" from the images, ... but, if you can say it, write it, why make an image? A pedantic, explanatory text may actually "ruin" an image, because it directs the viewer away from the viewers view. Others see differently than we do as creators.In the several posts revolving about this topic at TOP, MJ touches on that.

And now, I think I'll go brush little strokes of pigment, egg and water on one of the paintings I have going ... instead of blathering.

Mike C. said...

Good grief, Bron, you do tempera painting as well? You're a one-man walking retro-craft encyclopaedia. Don't tell me, you've been thinking of taking up tintypes... ;)


Frank Harkin said...


It is indeed a good picture - and a good post. And I agree totally with Bronisalaus's comment.

Bronislaus Janulis said...


Retro crafts, indeed. Ancient in fact. Here, a great example of the connection of egg tempera, carving and gilding:

But I love the digital age, and here an example of the computer for one aspect of the craft of carving:

David Brookes said...


I have read that the noise produced by the Panasonic sensor is much more akin to film grain than the noise produced by other cameras. Your shot proves this and although I normally dislike noise I find this more than acceptable. Since I got my GF-1 (and G-1) I have not really used them above ISO400, but you have inspired me to risk it.

Mike C. said...


Yes, I must admit I'm impressed, and may start using higher ISOs more than I have in the past -- combined with Noise Ninja (or something similar) it's less of a risk than you might think.

I'm interested in the comment on its "grain-like" property -- it is certainly very even and nicely random, which gives Noise Ninja an easier job to do.


Steve said...

I'm probably in a minority here, and certainly in a minority if the consensus of flickr and the photo magazines are anything to go by. But I like grain / noise. There, I've said it - my name's Steve and I like grain.

I shoot film and it's the 800,1600,3200 stuff that gets my attention. Noise Ninja is to photography what Pasteurisation is to cheese! I love the grit, the grain, the way it can be exploited into a sort of pointillism. Sadly, the world is going the opposite direction.

Mike C. said...


I think there's quite a difference between digital noise and film grain -- if high ISO colour film inserted random rainbow-hued stripes into the shadow areas I suspect you'd be less keen. The nice thing about the Panasonic noise is that (as David Brookes points out) it's even and random -- film-like. Some cameras give horrible banded noise that's very hard to like or eliminate.

Used well, Noise Ninja needn't smooth everything into oblivion -- you can just remove the "chroma" noise, for example, and leave the "luminance" noise, for a nicely grainy but rainbow free appearance.