Sunday 3 December 2023

Loud Noises From Various Empty Vessels

It all started a couple of weeks ago when I decided I needed more colour in my digital work, and started playing around with ways of coaxing pure, saturated, and even clashing colours out of some perfectly ordinary photographs, in the process turning them into the sort of thing that someone who revels in colours for their own sake might want to hang on their headache-inducing wallpaper, right above their fever-dream sofa fabric. Zzzing!

This sort of project (if we can dignify a bit of experimental mucking about as a "project") always seems to work best with a theme, and I started out with the "Gates of Paradise" (beyond which everything turns psychedelic, as any fule kno) but really got into my stride with "vessels" of various sorts: bottles, jars, dishes, and so on. A trawl through the backfiles netted quite a few candidate images. What followed may have you reaching for the paracetamol, sunglasses, or perhaps even the phone to report me as having gone temporarily insane, if these hues are a little too much for you. But then you should see the ones I'm not showing: hey, we learn from our mistakes.

Most interesting to me, though, was the way various recognisable approaches to painting could be conjured from these entirely, um, photo-realistic photographs. Now, I'm sure I must have mentioned somewhere over the past fifteen years that I used to be quite a decent painter in my younger years. I was even entered for – and won – several national competitions for painting in primary school, and exhibited a few times in local shows in my teenage years. But, much as I like making pictures, I'm not one of those who revel in the paintiness of paints.

You've seen the people who do, I'm sure, in their paint-smeared overalls, the hands-on brush-wranglers who adore the textures, the messiness, and all the process and paraphernalia involved in getting pigment onto paper, board, or canvas. Above all, what I hated was that everything needed thoroughly cleaning up straight after you'd finished your session of dabbing, scraping, and splashing, which has to be one of the most tedious, mood-altering chores there is. Unless, of course, you have (a) a studio, and (b) an assistant or two. I have always preferred drawing, endured the darkroom, but digital photography and imaging truly hit the spot for me, in every possible way. But painting does still interest me, in the way sports might interest someone who used to be a natural athlete in their school years.

I find it fascinating how, if "expressiveness" and "colour" are given the upper hand, the tricks and turns of various conventional manners of painting and print-making can be persuaded to emerge from the shadows of an ordinary photo, as if they'd been hiding there all along. So much so, I'm pretty sure that some of these would stand a very good chance of success in many open-entry exhibitions, as they look just like the sort of thing that always does get selected.

Except, it's an interesting question whether the judges would regard these as "authentic" pictures: they're prejudiced enough against digital imaging and photography as it is. It's an interesting question, but one which I'm not going to explore again today: if it interests you, why not follow the link in the previous sentence? It is curious, though, that the one true provocation of "conceptual" art – that craft skills, however hard-won, are not in themselves the same thing as art – is somehow never taken on board by so many self-styled gatekeepers in the art world. A safe, derivative painting of a jug, something you've seen a thousand times before, is decor, not art.

But, listen, if you're not a squillionaire looking for a unique investment opportunity and just after something suitable to hang on the wall above that razzle-dazzle sofa, look no further! What size would you like? Would you rather have it in red? Not a problem here at Mikea...

Tuesday 28 November 2023

When Black Friday Comes...

This is not a Black Friday offer, obviously, Black Friday having been and gone, but I couldn't resist the Steely Dan reference. I imagine, like me, you were getting pretty fed up with being pestered over the whole dismal racket in the weeks preceding. No, thanks all the same, I don't want to "grab" any of your fake bargains...

But, if you had ever been tempted in the past to buy one of my books in hard copy but hesitated on the brink – somebody out there must have been, surely? – this latest discount offer from Blurb may be enough to push you over the edge. If nothing else, it should take the sting out of the exorbitant shipping charge:

Save 25% off in the Blurb bookstore with code: GIVING25. Offer valid starting November 28 to November 29, 2023 (11:59 p.m. local time). Valid only for books purchased through the Blurb bookstore. The discount is applied toward your product total with no minimum or maximum order amount. This offer has a maximum value of £410. This offer is good for two uses, and cannot be used for ebook or PDF purchases.

I make very little profit on these books – a couple of pounds at most – so from a financial point-of-view I really don't care whether you buy anything or not. In fact, I add the least profit onto the base price of the biggest, most expensive books, and make most on the incredibly cheap e-books and PDFs, but those are excluded from this deal (but then they're so cheap, who cares?). But, as I always like to say, the sincerest form of flattery is not imitation but cash purchase. I would be sincerely flattered if you were to buy one of my books. If you bought two or even more I might even start to believe you, you silver-tongued devil...

The link to my Blurb Bookstore is here:

Check out my books

Go on, at least have a look... Each book comes with a full preview of every page-spread. You're welcome to browse in my shop, with no obligation to buy. It's warm in there, we're open 24/7, the guy at the till is very laid-back, and you might even be astonished at how productive a lazy man like me can be, over the years. I have just counted them, and there are thirty publications listed there. Thirty! Crikey, I've gone and impressed myself now...

Worryingly, though, and seasonal opportunism aside, the increased frequency of these discount offers from Blurb might suggest a little desperation on their part. It may be a sign that the boom in "on demand" self-publication is waning. To repeat what I said in a recent post, the disappearance of a service like Blurb would be a serious loss for those of us who have come to depend on a risk-free "publishing" model, one that enables at the very minimum the production of a single simulacrum of an actual published book, with at least the potential to sell copies to third parties like, for example, you (see the post How Blurb Works). I'd better make sure I've still got copies and decent PDFs of everything...

Sunday 26 November 2023


A while ago, on another blog, there was an interesting discussion of forms of address. That is, what you call someone, depending on context, relative status, level of acquaintance, and whatever other factors come into play in social interactions in your particular cultural setting. For example, around here I might be addressed as Mike, Michael, Mr. Chisholm, sir (respectfully), sir (sarcastically), mate, "Oi you!", and so on, right across the spectrum that runs from terms of endearment to outright terms of abuse.

Despite our (utterly unwarranted) reputation for politeness in Britain, our language is fairly unsubtle in this regard, at least grammatically-speaking, especially since the loss of "thou" and most of the inflection of our verbs. In more highly-inflected languages – European languages, that is, which are as deep as I can go, linguistically – there is often a nuanced interplay between the use of second person singular, second person plural, and even third person expressions as forms of address. I believe in these less hidebound times such distinctions are eroding, but it would still be unusual and quite possibly insulting to address an adult stranger as "tu" in French, for example, rather than "vous" [1]. We do have more than a few ways of being rude to each other – in fact, we're pretty world-leading at that, and we've come up with some new ones lately – but I'm not about to wander into the voguish etiquette minefield of the "pronoun / misgendering" thing, you'll be relieved to hear. As it happens, I have used "they" as a non-specific pronoun all my life – I assume it was a standard-issue part of my native dialect kit – but I had retired from work years before people started routinely adding pronoun prescriptions to their email signature blocks, something I find very odd. But then I'll be seventy in the new year, which means I'll be entitled to shake my head, walking stick, or even my fist at anything I choose to with impunity...

Which reminds me of one of the things that came up in that discussion about forms of address, which was the use of "young man" to address obviously elderly men. In a post about haircuts and barbers that I wrote back in May (Something for the Weekend) I referred in passing to the way this infuriating usage seems to have become established in Britain. Typically, at the garage the youngster handling payment for a service will address an obviously elderly man (me, for example) as “young man”. Now, I'm an easy-going sort of bloke, but to be addressed condescendingly as "young man" by some actual young man really makes me bristle. If I were larger, younger, and more aggressively-inclined I might even choose to make something of it, starting with some form of address from the abusive end of the spectrum. But then, if those things were the case, I don't suppose any patronising grease-monkey would be calling me "young man", would they? Hilariously, though, I discovered recently that an even older friend had been taking this as a compliment on his youthful appearance, rather than the smirking ageist jibe it really is. I was happy to disabuse him. [2]

But the main thing raised by the American owner of the blog as a pet peeve was the way that in medical contexts address by first name seems to be automatic and universal. Certainly, in my experience this seems always to have been the case in the NHS, no matter what the official guidelines may say [3]. It starts when you’re a child, of course, so you don’t really notice until one day you have reached the age when you are older than the typical GP, and you think: Hang on a second there, young man… Certainly, every receptionist at every hospital, health centre, or GP surgery I have ever used has always used my first name as a matter of routine. Having carefully identified myself by reciting name, date of birth, NHS number, or whatever else they have asked me for, the inevitable reply comes: “So, Michael, how can we help you?”. So far, I have resisted saying, "No, madam, until we have been properly introduced I remain 'Mr. Chisholm' to you, and the use of my first name is an infuriating presumption upon the dignity of a senior citizen!", but it's only a matter of time before I do. Did I say I'll be seventy in the new year? I probably did. If I say it often enough I might even begin to believe it myself.

I have always suspected that this custom began as a strategy back in the earliest days of our National Health Service, designed to ensure that users of the new “free at the point of use” health service still knew their proper place in the scheme of things. Doctors had a certain godlike status in working-class communities, anyway, not least because our parents and grandparents had grown up in a world where a visit to the doctor was a rare, often humiliating and costly experience (here's a good description of pre-NHS healthcare in Britain by the Nuffield Trust). I can remember being taken as a child to see our family doctor in the late 1950s, in his custom-built New-Town health centre, when my mother would dress her best and use the highly embarrassing vocal manner she had acquired as a telephone receptionist ("Hellay, kennay hep yoo?"), both to show the necessary respect and also to signal that we, unlike some people we could mention, were to be taken seriously as aspiring, responsible citizens. She was "Mrs. Chisholm" in front of me, Young Michael, but doubtless she was on one-way, asymmetric first-name terms when being seen in her own right by the doctor.

I do wonder whether doctors in private practice also routinely use your first name? I have no idea: perhaps someone reading this would know? But, even if they do, there must surely come a point where one's status and consequent command of respect outweigh any strategic familiarity on the part of medics. I recall that Bob Dylan sang, "even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked" [4], which is doubtless true, but, when he does, I bet the doctor doesn't say, "Now cough for me, please, Joseph!" And I'm absolutely certain he doesn't get called "young man" by anyone... Not yet, anyway.

1. I read an anecdote somewhere (by George Steiner, I think), that related how a woman with whom he was about to have sex was outraged by his shift at the, um, crucial moment from "vous" to "tu"... As I say, it's nuanced. 
2. I should confess that I suffered a similar disillusionment when I realised that the women working the tills in the Students' Union shop who used to call me "babe" or "hon" were not complimenting me on my attractive appearance. Although I choose to believe they were...

3. One of the commenters on that Language Hat post referred to this document from NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence): Patient experience in adult NHS services: improving the experience of care for people using adult NHS services (Clinical guideline [CG138] Published: 24 February 2012 Last updated: 17 June 2021), in which, under "Communication", it states: "1.5.3 Ask the patient how they wish to be addressed and ensure that their choice is respected and used"Oh, really? I don't think I have ever been asked that, not once. I should get a copy to wave in the face of the next presumptuous medic I have dealings with. That will go down really well, I'm sure... 
4. "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" from the album
Bringing It All Back Home.

Wednesday 22 November 2023

Pentagonal Pool on Issuu

For whatever reasons, few readers of this blog seem to click through on the links to my Blurb book previews, and even fewer (for all practical purposes "none") ever actually buy anything. Now, I don't have any serious designs on your money – I gave up on the idea of generating income from my efforts a long time ago – but I do like my work to be seen in its most congenial and coherent form, that is, as a book. I enjoy having my best work to hand "curated" in hard-copy book form – in fact, I've come to regard it as essential – and I put a lot of time and effort into designing and sequencing these books. It seems a shame that so few others ever get to appreciate them.  

For which reason I thought it might be worth signing up for Issuu, the online PDF "flipbook" service. Using Issuu means that I can embed the PDF versions of my existing and future Blurb books into my webpage or blog posts as high-quality flipbooks. Also, given that selling hard-copy versions seems to be a doomed enterprise (as I'm afraid Blurb itself may be, if the increasing frequency of discounted offers is any indicator, which would be a serious loss for us vanity publishers self-publishers) it also means that I could start to originate new books and book-like objects as PDFs only, and make them freely available as Issuu flipbooks. The quality of these flipbooks is much higher than Blurb's previews – you're seeing the real thing, not a downgraded rendering of it – and when run as a full-screen display they can be very impressive.

How well this would work within the design constraints of the blog can only be seen by publishing a test post live, and this post is it. So, as a "proof of concept" I thought the PDF of the revised edition of Pentagonal Pool would work well, as the book was designed to take advantage of Blurb's "layflat" format, which is ideal for images that are spread across two facing pages (a "double truck", in publishing-speak). The hard-copy layflat format does make for a very attractive publication, but also one that is prohibitively expensive; the PDF flipbook should work just as well for a double-truck presentation, if not better, and at zero cost to you.

Want to see how it looks? Here it is: you can either run it within the the blog page, or – if you click the little circular device in the centre – you should get the full screen view. From full screen press <ESC> to get back to the blog.

Until this post is published and live, of course, I won't know myself how well it actually works. I'm still figuring this out, and I'd be grateful to hear of any problems you experience in using it.

BTW, I do have two spare copies of the layflat hardback of this publication, both of which come in an utterly OTT foam-lined presentation box. I'd be prepared to sell them to anyone interested for £65 each plus p&p (they're currently £85 each via Blurb).

OMG, have I just made an inadvertent Black Friday offer? Sorry about that... 😎

Saturday 18 November 2023

Up on the Downs

We were in Bristol last week, and for the first couple of days were more or less trapped inside our flat by successive waves of torrential rain and hail. I took to photographing the view of the Avon Gorge as seen through raindrops on the kitchen window, especially as in between the showers brilliant sunshine would briefly break out, making everything sparkle. Double glazing is not the ideal photographic filter, though, it has to be conceded.

The storms had passed by midweek, and I went for several walks along the Gorge, on afternoons when the quality of the light seemed to be changing from minute to minute. It is getting dark around 4:30 p.m. now, even in southern England, so the opportunities for "available light" photography are quite limited; it's also fairly hazardous stumbling along the narrow rocky paths along the clifftop in the gathering gloom. But I like nothing better than just being out there, getting a fresh perspective on some familiar views, perhaps on the way to scoff a sausage bap from the Mall Deli in Clifton Village.

If you turn round and face the other way, though, you find that you're on the edge of Clifton Downs, a level but bumpy 200 acres of grass partly occupied by football pitches that only see games on Wednesday afternoons (students' playtime) and at weekends; the rest of the week, it's the preserve of joggers, kite-flyers, dog-walkers, and anyone else in need of some fresh air and time away from city streets. It's a good back yard to have when you're in a top-floor flat without a balcony.

But, pleasant as the Downs are, I find the pull of the Gorge to be irresistible. As do others. Quite often as I walk the path along the cliff edge I encounter bird-watchers hunched over their telescopes, for example, keeping an eye on the resident Peregrine Falcons, who have their habitual his 'n' hers perches in separate trees on the other side of the gorge. But not this time. The weather probably meant both watchers and birds were inside with Netflix and/or a nice plump pigeon to snack on.

Looking south-east

Looking north-west
(that's Wales on the horizon)

The Gorge is not only frequented by walkers, photographers, and bird-watchers, of course. It's something of a nursery for would-be rock climbers, too, with well established (but still hair-raising) routes. It's the second time this year I've come across someone guiding a novice up the Sea Walls cliff, using the same tree as a belay, or whatever it is he is doing. The giddy 100 foot drop is immediately behind him.

Back in the summer I was crossing back over the Suspension Bridge from the Leigh Woods side, when I saw some lunatic in casual clothes free-climbing the 300 foot cliff next to the bridge. I watched for as long as I could bear to, and was inevitably reminded of the wheelchair-bound teacher I knew in my gap-year days as a school art assistant who, being late for a wedding in Ireland, had ill-advisedly decided to take a short cut up a seaside cliff. He didn't make it to the wedding, suffering what these days are referred to as "life-changing injuries". Perhaps as a result, and despite a love of mountains and wild places, I have never been even slightly tempted to take up climbing, even under the exemplary supervision of someone like our friend below. Just walking and looking is good enough for me.

(N.B. All these photos were taken on the iPhone 12 mini, FWIW).

Monday 13 November 2023

A Hunger For Colour

As if any were needed, heavy hints that Christmas is on the way are everywhere. Need any lights, perhaps? I know a place where you can get them by the yard. I expect you do, too. No-one need go short of lights this winter, although the actual energy cost of dressing up your house like a fairground attraction may give many pause for thought this year. It's quite hard, now, to remember the austere days when a few paper chains, some strategically-placed Christmas cards, and a string of lights on a tree in a bucket were what counted as "decorating" the house for Christmas. That is, the inside of the house; nobody used to decorate the outside of the house. Leaving the living-room curtains open at night to show off the lights on your tree was about as extroverted as it got. Christmas was a private, domestic festival, not an opportunity for a public display of flashing, multi-coloured, competitive vulgarity.

Things have changed, of course. Christmas has pretty much thrown off most of its association with the Nativity, and is now the midwinter explosion of conspicuous consumption that had always been trying to erupt from beneath and overwhelm the more pious festivities. Understandably, there is a hunger for life, light, and colour in these northern latitudes as the weather worsens, sunshine steadily becomes a scarce commodity, and the drab tints of seasonal death and decay start to predominate. So I suppose you could regard those light-decked houses with their gardens full of illuminated gadgets as a public service to passers-by and stimulation-starved neighbours. TBH it's hard to see what actual benefit they bring to the occupants lurking inside who are paying for it all.

Personally, I've always enjoyed the shortening days: walking home from school at 4:00 pm in the dark had more drama than the exact same walk in the summer months, boosted by the thrills of Bonfire Night just past (Hallowe'en? Nah, not back then...) and with the excitements of the Christmas break lying ahead. Later, there was also the promise of assorted teenage kicks under cover of darkness to anticipate. But I waxed lyrical about all this in the 2012 post Whatever Happened to Donkey Jackets?, and won't repeat my seasonal and sartorial nostalgias yet again.

Even the smallest hints of colour will attract the eye in the darkening months. There has been major disruption by road works in this part of town, as our water mains are gradually being replaced. I suppose we should be grateful, really: you are spoiling us, Southern Water! (Even though I'm convinced the taste of our water has changed, and not for the better). But the bright primary colours and bold shapes of the associated infrastructural kit and appliances have been adding some mood-lifting festive notes to the scene, at least for those of us looking for things to point a camera at.

But, should you be really hungry for more colour, the more garish and saturated the better, then I can accommodate you. Look no further... A little layering, some tweaks on the sliders (actually, quite a lot of both) and voilà! Hmm, I wonder if I've just made this year's Christmas cards? Maybe even a double A-side this time? [1] These should brighten up anyone's mantelpiece!

1. This may be a baffling reference to younger readers. Back when 7-inch 45 rpm vinyl "singles" were the basic currency of pop, a release would have an A side – labelled as such, and the side intended to be played on the radio – and a B side, usually some forgettable filler, especially in the days before track-packed albums became the norm for pop and rock acts. A "double A-side" was when a record was released with both sides being considered equally poptastic, and the expectation that both would be featured on the radio. The Beatles, naturally, were standouts in this regard, starting in 1965 with We Can Work It Out / Day Tripper. Heady days... When this old hat was new.

Wednesday 8 November 2023

Let's Acquire Accentuated Dynamism

Berlin, 2018

It is utterly unfair and in total contradiction of important core British values to mock foreigners for not speaking perfect English (What?? Whoever told you that? Ed.) but sometimes you can't help having a little dig, especially at the expense of anyone whose innate sense of irony is, shall we say, underdeveloped, and whose pomposometer needle has somehow got stuck at zero. It is especially unfair to laugh at words translated directly into unidiomatic English by, I assume, Google Translate's less fluent younger brother, Mangle. Doubly so when the original was written in one of those flamboyantly mystifying dialects, French or Italian art-speak. However...

I do recall having a little fun with the translated texts within what is one of my most revered photobooks, Kodachrome by Luigi Ghirri (see Postcards 4 and its antidote, Not So Fast, English...). Sadly, like so many of the best photographic books, it is not well served by the words that someone has seen fit to burden it with. It's as if, from a publisher's point-of-view, a book of mere pictures is not a proper book unless some explanatory verbosity has been tacked on fore and aft. As Alice didn't say, what is the use of a book without bloviation or obfuscation?

So I think this choice bit of puff I read in the Photo London Magazine is fair game, assuming that "fish in a barrel" are fair game [Not, according to Hoyle  but go for it. Ed.]:

“Florence Di Benedetto has total control of both the photographic and pictorial aspects and this allows her to obtain a dialectical synthesis of the two expressiveness in her works. Although photography is the starting point, it is the pictorial gesture that then intervenes decisively. The color illuminates only some limited areas and in this way the white and black acquire a greater fluidity, exalting themselves in a relationship between fullness and emptiness that makes the image acquire a sense of depth that is both visual and symbolic because it does not stop the image but puts it in a context where it acquires an accentuated dynamism.” 

– Roberto Mutti, historian and critic of photography

Say what, Roberto? I mean, I can sort of see what you're driving at – although how and why you make a distinction here between "photographic" and "pictorial" aspects is more than a little questionable – but is there a single sentence – a single clause, even – in that verbal effusion that actually enhances our appreciation or understanding of these (to my mind, rather sterile and static) pictures? Maybe it makes perfect sense in Italian? But let me see if I can render that into workaday English:

Florence Di Benedetto likes to stage photographs with no colour or detail in most of the area surrounding the isolated subject matter, which means there's little else to look at, giving a rather over-emphatic importance to whatever it is, like a brightly illuminated vitrine with a single dead mouse inside.

How's that? Close enough for jazz, I think. Now, young Google Mangle, translate it for us, please:

A Florence Di Benedetto piace mettere in scena fotografie senza colori o dettagli nella maggior parte dell'area circostante il soggetto isolato, il che significa che c'è poco altro da guardare, dando un'importanza un po' eccessiva a qualunque cosa sia, come una vetrina brillantemente illuminata con un solo topo morto all'interno.

Cool! So, now we've reverse-engineered some ornate Italian art-speak into blunt-instrument Anglo-Saxon and back again into Manglo-Italian, have we acquired some accentuated dynamism, too, or simply failed to exalt ourselves in a relationship between fullness and emptiness? Well, it's always been a tricky one, that, hasn't it? In the end, though, I'd have to say that the ironic gesture has intervened decisively.

Berlin, 2018

Saturday 4 November 2023

Dot Mask Replica

Playing around on Photoshop Elements the other night I stumbled into a new layering and masking technique; new to me, anyway. Someone once described a net as a lot of holes tied together with string (Who? Nobody knows!), and this dotty approach is not dissimilar. The end result was a dozen variations on the same pattern, of which these two seemed the most harmonious. There's nothing much to say about them, other than that I enjoyed making them, like the results, and will certainly be exploring further this new way of creating an eye-pleasing complexity out of simplicity.

If I pull the plug and let the colour drain out I get this, which has its own subtle charm:

And talking of subtle, I also made this one, which is not quite what it might seem to be at first glance, using some more conventional bits of layered imaging, but which also involves dots:

It has a certain "Dutch still life" vibe, I think. Except in this case it seems the subject matter has already developed "craquelure". Perhaps I should call it "Pre-Distressed Butternut Squash"? I like this approach, too, and it's useful to have an indoor genre to start working with, now that the wintry weather has started to arrive.

Monday 30 October 2023

A Bagful of Cameras

Inevitably, carrying around a bagful of cameras for testing purposes has produced a few photographs worth showing in their own right – four cameras are represented here – but it doesn't matter which camera took what, when, or where. Cameras have personalities and, like people, each has its own charms and annoyances, strengths and shortcomings, and the trick is to get to know them and let each do what it does best. Which is really what all that boring comparative testing is all about: does the new player bring something new to the team? Luckily, they usually don't, although I do still seem to have kept more cameras that a sensible person would have sold on years ago.

Actually, I did trying selling all most some of my film cameras [1] a while ago via Ffordes in Scotland, but to my surprise some of them were returned as (in insurance broker's terminology) "beyond economic repair". It seems a couple of decades sitting unused in a cupboard will lead to various sclerotic conditions: stuck shutters, cracked bellows, and the like. All of which could be fixed, but at a greater cost than would be realised by a sale. However, the demand for good film cameras is such that I still made rather more from those that were sold than I had expected. So if you've got an old Olympus Mju sitting around somewhere, for example, I suggest you sell it while the fad lasts...

1. I went through a phase in the 1990s of buying dirt-cheap roll-film cameras, mostly folders, whenever I came across one. I ended up with quite a few, some of which were real gems. The best of these – an Agfa Isolette folder with the exceptional Solinar lens – became the basis of a project photographing the river at Mottisfont Abbey, near Romsey, that turned into my first solo exhibition, "The Colour of the Water", displayed in the Abbey from March 2003 to November 2004, later collected in the book Downward Skies (full preview at the link). 

Thursday 26 October 2023

Shade On The Light

Uh oh, gear post alert! Beware: test images ahead... Diversion strongly advised if you have better things to do than read about cameras.

This is a sort of coda to the recent Convenience vs. Encumbrance post. In January 2021, I picked up a Light L16 computational camera for a good price on eBay, really just to have a play around with it, and to see how far the reality lived up to the marketing hype that had accompanied the (much delayed) launch of the device. I won't repeat what I have already written about the L16: if you're interested, I wrote about the nature of the camera and my initial reactions in the post Let There Be Light, put up some test shots in It's Getting Lighter, and my conclusions in Light³.

The fact that my L16 has been sitting in a cupboard for the two-plus years since those three posts tells you two slightly contradictory things. First, that I could see no point in persisting with it, having found sufficient negative issues not to favour it over a "proper" camera, or even, more recently, my phone. But, second, that I liked using it enough not to sell it on immediately: the touch screen interface is a real pleasure to use, and the ability to flip so easily through 28mm, 35mm, 70mm, and 150mm (35mm equivalent) lenses – real ones, too, not "digital zooms", and with no physical change to the whole neatly flat package – was simply brilliant. I  suppose I was hoping that someone, somewhere might take over the project, abandoned by its instigators, and in particular do something about the egregious, but unfortunately essential Lumen software. Sadly, this now seems increasingly unlikely ever to happen.

Aside from some curious shortcomings in the image quality, the core problem, it seemed to me, lay in the decision to "outsource" to the L16 user's own computer the processing of ten captured images into one final large image (using that truly terrible Lumen software), rather than carrying it out in-camera, on the grounds that this would have imposed a greater processing-power burden on the device. Yes, well... As I wrote in the post Light³, "Imagine if a proposed smartphone design offered great imaging capability, but only after uploading the files via a USB cable into some clunky proprietary software, still in beta, on the phone-owner's PC... The sales team would be checking their calendars: is it April 1st?".

But recently I had a thought. For some reason I remembered reading in the user's manual that a smaller, high-quality 13 MP image could be compiled in-camera from just five, rather than the full ten captured images. It had never occurred to me to explore this possibility: TBH I'd assumed these would have to be worse, if anything, than the images produced by Lumen. But, what if they weren't? I'm fairly happy with the 12 MP files from my phone: what if these 13 MP files from the L16 were as good or even better? Moreover, I also remembered that such images could be transferred as JPGs to a computer either via Bluetooth or using the intermediary of a flash drive. Hmm... Might such image files even be good enough to revive my interest in the L16? Time for some tests...

So, first, attached to a tripod on a very dim and rainy afternoon, here are some L16 vs. iPhone 12 mini shots of our noticeboard, both set to fully automatic, all images lightly post-processed:

iPhone DNG file

iPhone JPG

L16 JPG @ 28mm

From my iPhone, just to complicate matters, I get two rival versions of the same image: the usual out-of-camera JPG, plus the DNG "raw" file delivered by Halide, my favoured camera app. The iPhone JPGs are processed by the Apple software to be pure eye-candy when viewed on a small screen, but the Halide DNGs are the actual unprocessed data captured by the phone, and require some further attention in, say, PhotoShop. The L16 file is a JPG constructed out of five of the sixteen separate phone-style lens-and-sensor combos (see the picture of the device at the top). Comparing them, in this tripod test with a motionless subject, it's a fairly close-run thing, I think, with either rendering having its characteristic mix of good and bad features. The most striking feature of the L16 files, though, is the apparent absence of the blurry compositing glitches that marred the full-scale, 10-image Lumen versions.

The real test, however, is what would happen out in the real world, hand-held, taking the kind of photograph I would want to take in real life. I am not, after all, a tripod-using sort of guy. So, on another unpromisingly dull afternoon I headed over to Mottisfont Abbey with a bagful of cameras. I took the iPhone 12 mini, the Light L16, a Panasonic GM1 (16 MP micro 4/3 sensor), and my trusty old Panasonic LX3 (10 MP 1/1.63" sensor). The results are interesting, I think.

iPhone "raw" 12 MP

iPhone "raw" 100% detail

Light L16 JPG 13 MP

Light L16 JPG 100% detail

Panasonic LX3 "raw" 10 MP

Panasonic LX3 "raw" 100% detail

And from a slightly different viewpoint:

iPhone "raw" 12 MP

iPhone "raw" 100% detail

Light L16 JPG 13 MP

Light L16 JPG 100% detail

Panasonic GM1 "raw" 16 MP

Panasonic GM1 "raw" 100% detail

Again, a mix of good and bad points all round. Now, these things are subjective, and vulnerable to user error and conditions on the ground – an unsteady hand, a gust of wind, or a passing cloud can completely change the result – but all things considered (image quality, portability, reliability, ease of use, etc.) I have to conclude that the iPhone beats the L16 fairly easily (a tendency to blow highlights, for example, is a deal-killer for me), and even puts in a competitive performance with the two "proper" cameras. Which is not really a surprise, and confirmation of my impression that, outdoors and in halfway-decent light, the iPhone is a "good enough" camera, for my purposes at least, and that, although the L16 may be technically interesting and a pleasure to use, it is ultimately too unreliable as a picture-making device, and too far out of my normal workflow to justify it as a substitute for either a phone or a pocketable camera. So, back into the cupboard it goes, I think. Although I might still take it out now and then for a bit of fun.

I have to say, though, what surprised and pleased me most was the performance of that venerable pocket rocket the LX3, bought in 2008 and still going strong, despite its relatively small sensor and having the smallest image size. It reminded me that many of the best images in my notional "portfolio" were taken with it, back when I used to explore the university campus in my lunch hours, and I resolved to use it more, perhaps alongside the phone in situations where a bit of optical zoom could make a difference. Which means I should probably now test it alongside the similarly venerable and pocketable Fuji X20 as a possible "holiday" camera, particularly in low-light situations like museums and galleries where the phone struggles... But not today.

One last thing. I should emphasise that I do not use the standard iPhone camera app, but instead use the Halide app, which can deliver unprocessed "raw" DNG files. There is a vast difference between an eye-pleasing JPG and a carefully-processed DNG file. This is the native iPhone JPG of the image above:

As I say, this was an unpromisingly dull afternoon in late October in Hampshire, not a summer morning in the Dordogne. Doubtless, a lot of people would be pleased and impressed to see a result like this on their phone's screen, but it is a travesty, an utter Californication of the reality. Worse, much of the finer detail has been obliterated by over-sharpening and heavy-handed noise-removal; again, done in order to give that "wow" factor on a small screen. Which is why so many photographers are sniffy about phone cameras.

Admittedly, processing a "raw" image requires more work than even many enthusiastic photographers would consider necessary or worthwhile; in which case, sure, forget about the phone and carry on using a conventional camera. But, unless you're in the habit of carrying that camera everywhere and at all times, I think that would be to miss out on hundreds of fleeting opportunities for "good enough" photographs. Did I mention that I exhibited and sold an iPhone photo at the recent Royal West of England Academy Open? That's good enough for me.

UPDATE 30/10/2023: As this post may be found by curious L16 users searching for information about the device, I thought I should add this important update.

Here is the claim about 13 MP images processed in camera in the User Guide that provoked this post:

It turns out this is not true for anything made at a focal length other than 28mm, where the files are 4160 x 3120 px (13 MP).

At 35mm the files are 3328 x 2496 (8.3 MP)
At 75mm the files are 3872 x 2904 (11 MP)
And at 150mm they are 1952 x 1464 (3 MP!)

In fact, the 35mm image is a simple crop of the 28mm image, and the 150mm image is a crop of the 75mm image. At first I thought the whole series would turn out to be successively smaller crops of the 28mm file, but there's clearly a partial uptick in size at 75mm. Why and what happens in between those focal lengths I don't know and can't be bothered to find out.

So, should you feel inclined to go the route of in-camera processing, I'd recommend sticking to 28mm and 75mm focal lengths. Which is not so different from using many recent phones equipped with multiple focal length cameras, is it? Back in the cupboard it goes...