Thursday, 25 July 2013

Rome 2010, Plaza Nuovo


Headless in the Plaza
Camera : Leica M4        Lens : Summaron 35mm f3.5        Film : Ilford HP5        Developer : Ilford ID 11

The life of a street entertainer is a curious one. The passer-by sees only the end result; the singer and the portable amplifier / guitar / microphone, the juggler with his props. Hidden to the non-participant is the background organisation, the co-ordination, the transport arrangements for awkwardly-shaped-but-necessary pieces of equipment, the assistance from the assistants.

Setting up presents us with another range of opportunities. Most of us ignore these activities, preferring to wait until the finished product is performing in front of us before we pay any attention – and sometimes, not even then. Some of us are mildly curious. Particularly when it’s not absolutely clear what the finished product will be.

Here, the headless figure will, after a few more minutes of assisted dressing, become the Invisible Man. Encased in a framework of clothes, head and hands hidden from view, he will sit motionless in the chair, posed under the hat tied to the lamp post on the right. A pair of sunglasses suspended from the hat will help to complete the illusion. On the occasions when a passer-by is sufficiently impressed to stand, look and donate a few coins, the artist will make a novelty noise to signal his thanks. Throughout, he will remain still. Whether this is due to restrictions imposed by the clothing, posture or, perhaps most likely, the risk of becoming misaligned with the hat and sunglasses – thus ruining the “act” – is not known.

However, it’s not easy to perceive all of this just by watching the female assistant dress what appears to be an oddly proportioned very tall headless male. So we are given the chance to exercise our imagination and attempt to guess the end result, or, as someone did on this day, to simply walk by and wonder, just for a moment.


Rome, October 2010, Piazza Nuovo : Liberty breaks...

Liberty breaks
Camera : Leica M4     Film : Ilford HP5     Lens : Summaron 35mm f3.5      Developer : Ilford Perceptol

The Statue of Liberty was not something we had planned to see during our holiday in Rome. In the event, we were not disappointed – nor were we surprised to have missed the opportunity to see said Statue.

I arrived during a break. 

The gentlemen on the left of the picture is a “living statue”. Like all living statues, he stands, for periods, costumed and, for the most part, immobile. Occasionally, particularly when potential donors pass by, he moves; beckoning them closer for a photographic oppor-chance-ity.  Where such invitations are accepted, the guest is encouraged to a place close by the Statue. A brief comical moment ensues, where the Statue of Liberty takes on an unexpected and humorous pose for the benefit of the camera and the guest. Completion of the photo-shoot is followed by a gesture towards “the tin” with the unspoken expectation of a small – or perhaps a little more – remuneration for the time, effort and overall pleasure passed on by the experience. Lastly, but not leastly (?), there is a gesture of thanks for any donations received. All this is done with no spoken word, for as we know, statues rarely, if ever, speak (I leave the subject of statues moving within this context to your own thoughts). For reasons best known to himself, and certainly not shared with me, the gentlemen chose the Statue of Liberty as his ideal representation for the City of Rome.

However, the question of applicability of statue to city is irrelevant. Everyone needs a break – including Liberty. Obviously not a full “remove costume, make-up, props, pedestal etc” break, but a short period away from the hustle and bustle of stationary Statuary Life. That’s when I arrived; the Statue of Liberty was sitting, robes raised (though not in a way that would bring scandal to bear upon the original), props cast aside for the moment on the fountain rails and on the floor. Silver-painted tiara removed, leaving only the white-painted face as scant clue to his chosen occupation.

Then the gentleman in the suit turned up. He leaned for a moment or two on the concrete pillar before noticing the strangely-garbed figure on the left. Unaware of the remarkable resemblance to any famous statue that this person may take on with just a few deftly-placed additions and a strangely reminiscent pose, he looked, then looked away, thought, looked again.

I caught his gaze on the first look. There’s no hint of emotion in his face, no obvious immediate clue as to his thoughts – other than perhaps mild curiosity at the sight of a male in a white over-garment and with a white-painted face.

Like the old “candid camera” trick where one man looking skywards causes, eventually, a small crowd of passers-by to gather round, all following his eyes skyward, so the viewer is bound to follow the gaze of the man in the suit.
We live in the same societies that have existed for thousands of years.  Human groups gather together and set norms – anything outside of the norm is worthy of attention. Different groups set different criteria – these become the “culture” for that group and may be very different from other groups.

Is there something more unusual about wearing white robes and props than donning a dark suit? After all, only the shape and colours differ…


Estimating Exposure – A Little Light Relief…

Of the plethora of photographic subjects confusing both to the novice and experienced film photographer, few can be a greater source of torment than that of “exposure”.  “What aperture are you getting?”  “What shutter speed are you using?” “Will the Auto’ setting cope with this scene?” “What Zone should I put the shadow / light / mid-tone into?” All are commonly heard conversations between photographers of any standard.

In a bid to assist those of us who may have limited knowledge in the subject, I list a few of my own experiences in finding methods that have worked for me with, for the most part, some degree of success.

1. Manual estimation 
For outdoor photography, I use the “Heavy Overcast 4” rule. This is a seemingly simple method.  Take the ISO setting you’re using e.g. – ISO 250 – and set this as your shutter speed i.e. 1/250th. Then set your aperture to f4.   The result will be perfectly exposed pictures.
I should point out that this is a derivation of the universally-recognised and implemented “Sunny 16 Rule”. All I’ve done is to  calibrate it for the Scottish climate, where humidity often reaches 100% (or “rain” as other parts of the UK call it).
As a reminder, the “Sunny 16” rule states that, if it’s sunny, take the ISO setting you’re using e.g. – ISO 250 – and set this as your shutter speed i.e. 1/250th. Then set your aperture at f16.   The result will be perfectly exposed pictures.
In Scotland, adoption of the “Heavy Overcast 4” produces almost identical results, i.e. perfectly exposed pictures, but with less depth of field than those taken in a sunny country.

2. Phone Bill
No, not that dreaded envelope asking for money, or your latest contract update tariff details.  I refer to Bill, my BFF, photographic advisor and general all-around good guy. Bill has been taking photographs longer than I have. To be a little more pedantic, I have taken photographs longer than he has, but this was mainly due to those panoramic shots I had enlarged to about 36”, he’s never done anything bigger than 20” x 16”.  But he has taken photographs for a longer period than me (let’s not get into night-time photography and lengthy exposures, I’m confused enough by the first part of this paragraph).
Bill has an uncanny ability to accurately measure light values without the aid of any mechanical device.  If I’m in any doubt with regard to manual estimation of exposure (see 1 above) I know I can ask Bill for advice and he’ll fine-tune it to within a 1/3rd of a stop – very useful if I’m using slide film.  
Bill’s expertise became even more available with the advent of the mobile phone. Now I don’t even need to take him with me on photographic outings to get the benefit of his remarkable lux-calculating gift.
Bill’s capacity extends beyond visible light, too. I’ve called him from some remote locations in the USA when it’s been night time in the UK where he was and day time where I was and he’s given me some incredibly accurate advice re’ exposure and  light zones, even though he couldn’t see the conditions.  He also gave me some advice related to phone calls and world time zones (which I think was uncalled for – I don’t know how anyone could that angry so quickly, especially in the middle of the night).

I'm pretty sure he wouldn't object to me handing out his phone number to interested parties, so PM me if you're having difficulty and I'll get his number to you.  Expect a response as soon as he's completed his Anger Management course.

3. Organic method
Thread a natural quartzite crystal* onto some linen string. Holding the string lightly between thumb and forefinger of one hand, suspend the quartz pendulum-like over the palm of the free hand. Then state clearly your estimated exposure loud enough to register with the crystal’s harmonic vibrations e.g. “1/125th @ f8 @ ISO 200”.  The pendulum will swing in a clockwise circle if the exposure is correct, anticlockwise if it’s not.  Obviously, if it’s wrong change one or more of the variables and state the new exposure. Repeat the changes in variables etc until the correct exposure is indicated by the pendulum.
Pros :
  • Easy storage
  • Lightweight (depending on the size of the crystal)
  • No battery dependency issues. 
Cons :
  • Accuracy within 2/3rd of a stop means it may not do for slide film**
  • Needs concentration
  • String can sometimes get tangled
  • Upcoming Pagan Festivals can sometimes adversely affect accuracy 
  • Any area where Ley lines converge can cause underexposure (I normally allow +2 stops for this).
*Use quartzite for black and white negative film only.
**For colour work – especially slides – I use onyx and cobblers’ twine (waxed) for more accuracy.  For night photography, try moonstone (yes, I know that sounds ridiculous, but it’s given me consistently good results) and string made from the fibres of young nettle stems.

4. Homeopathic method
Drink up to a half pint of evening primrose anti-stress cure diluted in ion-free water at 1 part evening primrose to 1,000 parts ion-free water.  Your pupils may dilate a little initially – particularly if it’s dark – as they become more sensitive to changes in light levels. Allow at least 45 minutes to elapse before estimating exposure settings.  When the 45 minutes is up, go with your gut instinct for shutter speed and aperture (NB : set the shutter speed first, then aperture, for obvious reasons).
NB : You may suffer prolonged nausea and one or two severe rashes on various (unpredictable) parts of your body as a result of mild poisoning or allergic reaction from the primrose.  However, consider this a small premium to pay for such well-exposed negatives. 

5. Use a hand-held* light meter
Using a hand-held light meter opens up a whole new range of problems.  Do I point it at the subject? At the camera? At the light source? Do I calculate a point where all three intersect and point it at that? Do I measure reflected light bouncing off the subject? Do I measure incident light falling on the subject? Do I take a spot reading? If Yes, which spot?  A light spot? A dark spot? Both and divide by two?
In my opinion the whole thing  just isn’t worth the weight of one of these things in the bag. 
Personally, as far as light meters go, I have vast experience gained over a long number of years in estimating the light without one, and even greater experience in finding plausible excuses (many of them used more than once) re’ why I got it wrong, so I don’t usually bother with one of these contraptions.
*Other parts of the body may be used for gripping the device as a no-cost option.

6. Auto setting
Auto-exposure is good for 98% of the photographs I take.  Unfortunately, the ones I want to keep usually fall into the other 2%, where it makes a complete mess of the whole thing.
I had high hopes that this inability to predict what’s going to be good / not good would be somewhat diminished by the advent of digital photography and the availability of the preview / review screen.  Although I can now see what went wrong much quicker than I used to, I haven’t yet seen a corresponding increase in the quality of my output – a fact which I lay squarely at the feet of the digital camera manufacturers in a large box already near-full to capacity and clearly labelled “Broken Promises”.
The ultimate auto setting identifies scenes / people worth photographing and categorises them as suitable for magazine / journal / National Geographic / newspaper / stock photography / prize-wining competition / domestic use only etc etc. This would be really useful and I’m pretty sure would sell like hot cakes (although the “Hot Cakes Shop” in our local High Street went out of business recently, so perhaps that’s not the best analogy).  Of course, this degree of advancement of auto-exposure has yet to be achieved. Until such time, take my advice and leave auto-exposure well alone.

7. Bracketing
By far the best solution and available to all photographers at zero cost since the digital revolution.  Set your auto-bracketing camera to take 6 or 7 shots with 1 stop intervals either side of whatever it thinks is “normal”.  Your journey may be delayed slightly as your picture-taking will take 7 times longer – but it’s your hobby anyway, so no loss there.  Additionally, you’ll be able to tell all your friends – photographic or not – that you visited (place the name of country / city / event etc visited here) and took 700 shots where they would have taken 100 (or any other number multiplied by the 7 shots you’re now taking).  This automatically promotes you to their superior in the photographic world and, potentially, opens up the professional scene and a new source of income.
The downside, if it can be called that, is that you have to view all the shots and discard the under / over exposed ones.  However, I’m sure there’s a setting in Photoshop that can do that automatically while you get a coffee or something.
Pros :
  • Photographer thinking eliminated
  • May even be able to produce one of those HDR (Horrendously Digitised Rubbish) images from a merge of seven below-par images.
Cons :
  • Digital photography promises in general.
8. Lucky Dials
You’ll need a piece of stout card about 6” x 3” (150mm x 75mm), a pair of compasses for drawing circles, a pen, two strips of card about 3” long x ½” wide (75mm x 12mm) and a pair of scissors.
Draw two circles about 2½” (62mm) diameter on the card. Using the pen, mark a series of your preferred shutter speeds around the circumference of one circle (they don’t need to be in any order and you can repeat a speed if it’s a particular favourite).  Mark a series of your ideal apertures around the circumference of the other circle – again if there’s one or two you really like, repeat them a couple of times.
Using the scissors (NB : you may want to get a non-photographic person to help you) cut the card strips into arrow shapes.  Make a small hole about half-way along the arrow.
Now attach each arrow to the circles so that it can spin freely (one of those old-fashioned paper clip thingies is good, but, come on, you can improvise for this bit, you can’t expect me to do everything for you).
Load the camera with film, hold the card with the circles horizontal and spin each arrow. When the arrows stop, note the speed and aperture they indicate and set these on the camera (no need to bother with ISO for this method – that stuff’s over-rated anyway).
You can use these settings for the whole day or you can re-spin the arrows at any time during a photo session – entirely up to you.
Pros :
  • If you’re the lucky type, this is the method for you.
  • Eliminates worries regarding ISO settings
  • Works equally well for flash, ambient, incident and reflective light without changing position
  • No battery dependency issues.
Cons :
  • If you’re not the lucky type, this method may be prone to error.
  • Small amount of exertion in spinning the dials.
  • Waiting for the arrows to stop spinning means it may not be suitable for action photography.
  • If your handwriting is messy, there may be a bit of difficulty in reading the results on the dials.
  • In wet weather ink can run and the card can get a bit soggy. NOTE : There is a commercially-available carbon fibre set available (with titanium arrows) with inset-silver ring engraved with speeds and apertures which is lightweight and waterproof. Call me if you’re interested.
Results I’ve had from this method vary, but then again, what part of “Lucky Dials” didn’t you understand?

These are just a few of the methods I’ve used which I trust you’ll find helpful. As your experience grows, no doubt you’ll develop equally good techniques for getting that ideal exposure.

I wish you good shooting…


Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Rome October, 2010 Crossing header

Camera : Leica M4   Lens : Summaron 35mm f3,5    Film : Ilford HP5+ @ ISO400   Developer : Ilford ID11

I shouldn’t be surprised at what people do to make a little (or a lot of) money. One of the more unusual I’ve seen was a passing lorry bearing a nicely presented sign declaring the owner / driver to be in the “cattle foot trimming” business. I had, at the time, little awareness of the need for pedicures amongst the bovine breeds. However, the knowledge gained from this brief encounter means that, if ever I find myself the unexpected owner of a cow, I can rest safe in the knowledge that I can, at the very least, arrange to have its feet looked after by a specialist in the field (or the cowshed – dependent on where I decide to keep the beastie).

The gentlemen in this photograph had perfect timing. Not so much in his ability to head a football – I could never lay claim to even scant knowledge of nor interest in anything to do with such skills and I confess that I am completely devoid of any talent whatsoever when it comes to  “sports” such as football.  It was more his apparent perfect utilisation of the limited time afforded to money-making by a set of pedestrian crossing lights that caught my attention.

His modus operandi appeared to be :
  • Select a relatively busy street with a suitable pedestrian crossing.
  • Approach the pedestrian crossing and push the button indicated, signalling a request to stop the traffic (thus rendering the road safe for “pedestrians crossing”).
  • Wait until the crossing lights indicate that it is safe to cross.
  • Proceed into the road, in front of the now-stationary traffic, simultaneously launch the football into the air and bounce it on (or off?) the forehead.
  • Continue to bounce the ball off (or on?) the forehead as a public demonstration of hours of self-discipline spent practicing this little-appreciated skill (N.B. : Allowing the ball to touch the ground at any time during this part of the activity generally ruins the whole effect. Avoid this if at all possible.)
  • On reaching the mid-point of the crossing, stop the ball-bouncing activity and tuck the ball under an arm in a smooth, sportsmanlike motion (left or right arm is optional and only further demonstrates the ambidextrous nature of the perpetrator).
  • With the ball safely restrained under one arm, extend the other with hand open (palm uppermost) and approach the driver’s window of each of the lines of stationary vehicles.    (N.B. : This is a clear indication that a cash reward is expected in return for the entertainment already supplied.) Smiling is optional, but may well assist in allaying any fears on the drivers’ part as to the mental state of the person approaching.
  • Be fairly insistent, though not aggressive, since many drivers do not retain cash readily to hand within the vehicle and may need to be persuaded to make an effort to   a) search for it   and   b) part with it.
  • The pedestrian crossing warning lights / sounds will, at some point in the cash-retrieving proceedings, make it clear that it is no longer safe to stand amongst the vehicles (which may well be moving by this time). Discretion should be used as to exactly when this moment is reached, at which point it is desirable to beat a hasty retreat to one side of the road or the other.
  • On reaching the pavement (irrespective of the side chosen) push the pedestrian crossing button again and repeat the whole sequence until  a) carrying the weight of money received makes it impossible to continue  or    b) fatigue in the legs makes it impossible to continue   or   c) the blinding headache caused by bouncing a ball continuously on and off (or off and on?) the forehead makes it impossible to continue.

Whatever one thinks of this gentleman’s chosen occupation, is it better than relying wholly on a State Benefits System for an income?  Should such skills, perhaps achieved through pursuit of one or more hobbies, be used to generate income as a supplement to a State Benefits System?  Should income generated by this activity be declared to the Inland Revenue (or Roman equivalent)?   Discuss…


Rome, October 2010

Hunter and Hunted

He peruses the horizon, scanning constantly, searching for quarry.  Moving quietly, merging into the background, unnoticed, silent and without undue gestures, the only clue to his intent in his eyes; roving constantly, easily, over the ground ahead, darting amongst the light and shade, seeking shadows where potential prey lies waiting to be discovered. 

Suddenly he stops – quickly, smoothly, noiselessly.  Never shifting his gaze from the subject of his attention, he changes position slowly, gently, composing simultaneously both his inner self and his vision of the end that must result. 

He waits – to strike before the moment is right would waste energy and time  – shape, form, darkness, light will all play a part in the final decision.  He focuses wholly, completely, on the scene before him. Quickening now, and yet with no hint of panic, he raises his hands to his dominant eye in a deft movement which appears casual to an unknowing onlooker – belying the thousands of repetitions needed to develop this skill.  He knows it will be soon now and, in a few short seconds, the subject moves. Position, illumination, expression, gesticulation all come together – a controlled squeeze of his index finger and his task is complete. 
He has one picture of a Japanese photographer in Rome. 

Photography is a curious hobby. Amateur photographers are driven by the firm belief that more / better (i.e.  latest / most expensive) equipment will improve their output and the final image. The manufacturers of photographic equipment utilise this belief in the marketing and exploit it whenever and wherever they can.

Thus we see new camera models being replaced by even newer ones after just a few months. Obsolescence is now an expectation rather than something to avoid. Model numbers displayed prominently on the camera front and the strap supplied mark a photographer as a user of an out-of-date model (and therefore inferior to those with the latest…).

At least two camera bodies are a must for any amateur photographer – maintained in an ever-ready position at the side, or attached, with suitably stout strapping, to the wrist.  At least five frames per second capability is needed – any less may mean that a shot of a passing building would be missed. Zoom lenses are another necessity and must cover a range that would take in half the city on one frame to a close-up of a bluebottle sitting on the hands of the town clock on the next without moving from the same spot. Ideally, all equipment will include the word “professional” in its title and be marked prominently as such. The thought of anyone being able to produce anything resembling an acceptable photograph with less is laughable.

With a kit costing thousands, a purpose-built photographic equipment rucksack, back-up software, portable hard-drives, several lenses, a minimum of two camera bodies and a multitude of memory cards, the position of the sun is of little consequence.  “Obstacles” to the perfect picture, e.g. pylons, people, paper, clouds, colours, cables, skies, signs, sun can all be altered, removed, sharpened, softened and generally changed to remove all resemblance to the scene as it was photographed – at the touch of a few keys and the dragging of a scroll bar or two in the ubiquitous Photoshop. No reason exists that would let facts get in the way of a “good image” …

Other notes for interested viewers :

Camera : Leica M4*.    
Lens : Leica 90mm f4 Elmar C**  
Film : Ilford HP5+ @ ISO 400         Developer : Ilford ID-11.
Photographer : Eddie Butt***

*Made in 1969 :  no beeps, no bells, no whistles, no auto-focus, no auto-exposure, no light meter, no batteries, no charger, no LEDs, no LCD screen, no auto-wind, no shot preview, no shot post-view, no auto-bracketing, no histograms, no focus-check…. It will, very likely, last longer than me.

**made in 1960’s

***made in 1953


Trevi Fountain, Rome October 2010

Camera : Leica M4     Lens : Leica 90mm f4 Elmar C    Film : Ilford HP5+ @ ISO 400         Developer : Ilford ID-11

Self Portrait

She was alone - or, more accurately, given the number of tourists around Rome’s Trevi fountain on any October day, she was unaccompanied. The little black “dress” with the gold motif was eye-catching, stylish in a classical way, presenting a stark contrast in the bright sunlight.  It was difficult not to notice her in the crowd.

She waited for a little while until a space appeared near the fountain wall. Recognising that it wouldn’t be available for long, she stepped forward, at the same time peering at her phone – though no attempt was made to remove her sunglasses.

She turned her back to the water, stretched out her arm with phone in hand, smiled and altered the body position slightly before pressing the shutter button. The smile vanished.

She turned away from the sun to make the screen more visible and examined the result. It must have failed to reach her expectations.  There was no display of annoyance or any other emotion, only the turning of her body to the previous pose, the outstretching of the arm and camera. The smile appeared, the button pressed, the smile dropped.

Again, she turned her back to the sun and inspected the second attempt. Not quite right, still. Perhaps it was the composition, the content, too much or not enough background? Who knows? Was there a faint trace of impatience as she returned to the pose for a third time? Who can tell? No trace of impatience in the smile, though, as the shutter was pressed again.

A quick turn. A judgement made. A silent acceptance.

Then she was gone.