Rangefinder

Views on the photographic universe by Erwin Puts

January 2016

Progress on my new book

It has been quiet for some time about the progress of my new book about Leica optics. It proved to be a much larger task than I had imagined. Now I can say that the draft of the book is ready and I can no start with finalizing the content and lay-out. To give you an an impression of what the book will cover I have included a PDF-file which is a kind of introduction on the topics that the book will discuss. This is not a detailed table of contents, but a reasoned review of the content.
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Here is the link
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The next book (no date yet!) will discuss the Leica camera technique for silver-halide photographs and solid-state images. The two main cameras will be the Leica M-A and the Leica Monochrom II. The Leica M7 and the Leica M8.2 will also be discussed. There is evidence of an analogue revival as the recent announcement by Kodak of a new Super-8 camera and films can document. The main part of this book will focus on the silver-halide photography and the techniques for precision miniature photography. I know this is a niche domain but one that gives you direct control and enough insight into the photographic workflow and documentary approach. I will in addition look at the techniques of signal processing and image reconstruction to give sufficient background for the digital workflow to evaluate its advantages and black holes.

Vanishing photography

Why has photography vanished? There are two facts that undermine the belief in the phrase: new technique - old values.The first fact is the composition of a digital file: it is nothing more than a bunch of data, like any statistics data base. It is also accessible by the modern technology of Big Data. Face recognition is only one example. Many cameras have this feature and adjust focus and white balance and exposure to this data selection. Lightroom and the likes search the database of image data and select the files with the same face. Behind this process that seems to be a convenient feature lurks the algorithm. An algorithm is a mathematical set of rules that work autonomous and without human interference and are self-correcting. Many computer programs include software that can debug the program and correct it. In digital cameras many algorithms are active in focusing the lens, compacting the picture, enhancing the captured detail and the base sensor sensitivity. Even exposure is decided by algorithms. This is all very helpful, but the bad point is that we do not know what happens. We see only the result, not the original input and certainly not the manipulations during processing the file. This is the fundamental even paradigmatic change from old (documentary) to new (fluid experience) photography. It may still be called photography, because it is a convenient and recognizable term, but who now would call a modern automobile a horseless carriage? Algorithms correct optical aberrations (like distortion and vignetting), but do we have any idea what is happening. Programmers and their code are becoming even more important. The frequent updates in camera software are an indication. And almost every problem detected in cameras will be solved soon in the next update, is the standard response by camera manufacturers.
The algorithm is a powerful tool, but also a dangerous tool. This technology enables machine communication and automation 'under the bonnet'. We do not have a clue what programmers have constructed and we do not know how the many algorithms work inside a camera. In the past it was Kodak's slogan: you press the button, we do the rest. Now it is: you press the button and the program takes over. What the program does, we do not know and it seems that many photographers do not care. But a photograph as a fixed physical print, the heritage and genesis of which can be controlled and judged is gone. Now we have a data set that is fluid (continuously changeable) and can be manipulated by unknown algorithms. This difference may be downplayed and many experts in the field do dismiss it as useless philosophical musings far removed from the photographic practice.The photographer does take the picture and does upload it (current) or print it (less current) and therefore is in complete control.Technical details (the algorithmic processes) are irrelevant and not interesting. We are however burying our heads in the sand.

The algorithm threat



When the digital tsunami blew over the photographic landscape and killed Kodak, Agfa and many others (including Leica that hardly survived the storm) I concluded that the photography as we had known it for a century was dead. I was severely ridiculed for this statement and in hindsight I have to say that I was only half-right. Photography is not dead, it has simply vanished, like dinosaurs and Renaissance painters. Some relics and artifacts may be found, but in essence they are gone. So is photography. There are may persons who claim and indeed believe that current digital photography is simply classical (that is chemical) photography with new technical means. This approach is also visible in Leica's advertisements: old values can be renewed and rejuvenated in a digital coat.
Why has photography vanished? There are two facts that undermine the belief in the phrase: new technique - old values.The first fact is the composition of a digital file: it is nothing more than a bunch of data, like any statistics data base. It is also accessible by the modern technology of Big Data. Face recognition is only one example. Many cameras have this feature and adjust focus and white balance and exposure to this data selection. Lightroom and the likes search the database of image data and select the files with the same face. Behind this process that seems to be a convenient feature lurks the algorithm. An algorithm is a mathematical set of rules that work autonomous and without human interference and are self-correcting. Many computer programs include software that can debug the program and correct it. In digital cameras many algorithms are active in focusing the lens, compacting the picture, enhancing the captured detail and the base sensor sensitivity. Even exposure is decided by algorithms. This is all very helpful, but the bad point is that we do not know what happens. We see only the result, not the original input and certainly not the manipulations during processing the file. This is the fundamental even paradigmatic change from old (documentary) to new (fluid experience) photography. It may still be called photography, because it is a convenient and recognizable term, but who now would call a modern automobile a horseless carriage? Algorithms correct optical aberrations (like distortion and vignetting), but do we have any idea what is happening. Programmers and their code are becoming even more important. The frequent updates in camera software are an indication. And almost every problem detected in cameras will be solved soon in the next update, is the standard response by camera manufacturers.
The algorithm is a powerful tool, but also a dangerous tool. This technology enables machine communication and automation 'under the bonnet'. We do not have a clue what programmers have constructed and we do not know how the many algorithms work inside a camera. In the past it was Kodak's slogan: you press the button, we do the rest. Now it is: you press the button and the program takes over. What the program does, we do not know and it seems that many photographers do not care. But a photograph as a fixed physical print, the heritage and genesis of which can be controlled and judged is gone. Now we have a data set that is fluid (continuously changeable) and can be manipulated by unknown algorithms. This difference may be downplayed and many experts in the field do dismiss it as useless philosophical musings far removed from the photographic practice.The photographer does take the picture and does upload it (current) or print it (less current) and therefore is in complete control.Technical details (the algorithmic processes) are irrelevant and not interesting. We are however burying our heads in the sand.

new films and more

Tarantino’s newest movie (Hateful eight) is shot on film and additionally also in widescreen (70mm). The film is already famous for its impressive views and colourful images. There is one film on the market for 35 mm shooters that comes very close to the famous Hollywood impression. This is the Cinestill 50Daylight Xpro C41. The speed is ISO 50 and its emulsion is Kodak’s 50D cine-emulsion. Today I ordered a handful of these films at FotoFilmFabriek in the Netherlands, but there are very many worldwide dealers around. This film might be able to revive the classical look of Leica images from the 1950s. I just put fresh batteries in my M7 that will be used alongside the M-A and the Canon VI-L. The next few months I will abstain from the digital capture technology and concentrate on analog picture taking. For BW I still use Ilford ISO100 and Kodak ISO400, developed in FX39. A very classical but also very potent combination. Printing will be done with the Heiland LED module on the V35.
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The German photographer and blogger Jörg Langer (Digitaler-Augenblick.de) has posted an interesting comment on the fact that in the blogosphere (for photographic themes) everything will be commented upon and everything will be discussed in most cases in a negative sense. The current hype around the new Nikon D5 and D500 is the proof. You can read the blog yourself (if you can read German). My point is this: the blogosphere discussions are (with a few exceptions) totally superfluous and selfishly pre-occupied. There are millions of hours wasted every year that could be used for more productive activities. The world might be a better and more prosperous place.
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A number of years ago a Dutch scientist and cultural researcher said that the demographic shift in the Western world with its sharp rise in the ageing population would introduce a major shift in cultural trends and values. Basically he said that most 40+ persons are mainly occupied with risk-evading activities and are looking at the future with distrust and a bit fear. This attitude invites a tendency to negativism and nostalgia, which can be clearly seen in the hopelessly confused discussion in Europe about how to handle the stream of refugees coming from war-torn areas. This is a problem that we have since the 1960s and the politicians have not learned how to cope with it. Nothing learned in 60 years! The discussion in the blogosphere about the respective merits and (more often) defects of photographic equipment (what is new is always better, but always not good enough!) reflects this lack of a serious learning curve. Impressive and innovative photographs can be made with many cameras, old and new. Why the Leica SL gets many thumbs up and the Nikon D5 gets many thumb downs is a riddle. But basically both discussions are irrelevant. If you wish to buy one or the other, be my guest, but stop arguing about your choice. Enjoy and give evidence that you are worth one or the other.
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By the way: this text has been written while listening (in the background) to the new album by Roger Waters: The Wall

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The well-known Law of Moore about the ever shrinking and ever fasting microchips is at its physical end. A microchip with the size of a finger nail has 10 kilometer of copper wiring producing much heat. The path of progress will be slowed down and for the first time in a long period designers do not have to find new products that enable the power of the new smaller and faster chips. The new period will be one of much slower technological progress that, as paradoxically as it may sound, will give real innovation a boost. Perhaps the age when product cycles were measured in decades instead of months will return. A new book by professor Robert Gordon (The Rise and Fall of American Growth) argues convincingly that the last twenty years have seen no serious technological breakthrough that has improved the productivity of the economy. Life may be easier because of the smartphone and the associated gadgets, but easier is not the same as more productive. The same can be said about digital photography: it is cheaper and easier, but not more productive. Prices for photographs have been reduced and the average photographer is not more productive than previous generations. Thee is a difference between taking more pictures and adding value to the photographs that have been made (value in economical and perhaps artistic sense).