Monday, December 17, 2012

The Bigger Picture

I've never liked the 50mm lens. I've tried. I even own a few and put one on a camera now and then.

I know, it's the 'standard' lens. So many of the legends have used it to great effect. But I don't like it.

Our natural human vision takes in more, sees a wider angle of view than a 50mm lens allows. I want that wider view in my images. I'm a 28mm shooter because that's the way I see things.

I shoot wide and close. I try to keep my subject in a proper context by shooting this way. It's natural to me. It feels right, it looks right. That's my vision.

Photo: ©2012 David W. Sumner

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Workshops 2013

“Defining Your Vision” January 12th 2013

As a photographer, defining your personal vision is much more than finding a style. Both vision and style take a long time to develop and only find root in the fundamental understanding of what we are actually seeing when we view the world around us.

A long practice of focused, critical seeing is the way to discover what attracts us to a particular scene or image. Only when you understand the attraction can you begin to shape your personal vision.

It is this process of critical seeing that we will begin to explore in this one-day, six-hour workshop, “Defining Your Vision.”

We will begin this exploration by spending some relaxed time viewing photography and painting in the galleries of SFMOMA. You’ll experience a method of seeing that will help you identify the elements (emotions, color, light, line and form) that resonate with you. As we look at the imagery, we will make brief notes, often a single word that describes the essence of the piece, an emotional response to it, an impression of its graphic impact or its use of color.

Next we will meet for a guided discussion of our experiences with the art and our responses to it. With this information, we’ll take to the streets to spend two hours freely shooting images as we make our way from the Financial District to North Beach.
Meeting up in North Beach, we will talk about our experience shooting on the streets: What scenes we were attracted to, how we saw them, what influenced our seeing, and what we observed that was new to our seeing.

What you will learn:
- The difference between looking and seeing that will define your vision.
- Identifying the essential elements necessary to help achieve your vision.
- How to better express your personal vision through a practice of critical seeing.

January 12, 2013
11:00am – Meet in the atrium of SFMOMA (151 3rd Street). Introduction & brief instruction
11:30 – 1:00pm – View art to make notes of impressions or inspirations
1:00 – 2:00pm – Meet on the 5th Floor Roof Top Garden for discussion & brief instruction
2:00 – 4:00pm – Photo walk (individually or in groups)
4:00 – 5:00pm – Meet up at Caffe Greco for discussion & wrap up

What to bring:
A camera – film or digital, SLR or point ‘n shoot
A small notebook or sketchbook
A San Francisco street map
(You may want lunch during the ‘photo walk’ portion of the workshop so be prepared to buy your own lunch along the way or better yet pack a brown bag)

$70.00 per person (Includes admission to SFMOMA)
Fees are refundable up to 48 hours prior to the workshop.
(Space is limited to 5 people per workshop)

To register for this workshop email your name and address to:
Your registration will be confirmed once your payment is confirmed. 

Use the Buy Now button below to secure your space in this workshop.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Where Do Projects Come From?

That's never an easy question to answer, regardless of your chosen media or your personal work style.

For me projects usually come about as I start to recognize a body of work developing as I go about shooting day after day. I'll notice something on the street or shoot from a perspective I've not tried before. As I explore this new subject or point of view I may see some sort of story or narrative developing, and that usually happens as I start asking my self the "I wonder" questions.

"I wonder why that woman is in such a hurry?"

"I wonder if other people around here are in a hurry?"

"I wonder what this street corner would look like at lunch time through a 20mm lens?"

"I wonder what kind of images I would get shooting through the window of a moving bus?"

That's actually the project I'm working on now: "Through the Bus Window." In a previous post, "An Old Dog's New Tricks," I talked about exploring the various program settings on my auto focus cameras which I had always thought less than favorably of - the settings not the cameras.

My first experiment was shooting pictures through the window on the bus ride home one afternoon. It was the light of that time of day that inspired me to shoot just then and I happened to be on a bus so there was little else to do but shoot out the window. Once the film was processed and I saw the images I was satisfied that the program settings worked well enough, but I was really excited by the images themselves. 

I started looking for opportunities to shoot pictures through bus windows and I started hearing the "I wonder" questions.
"I wonder if I can find a window with just enough grime to shoot through and not lose the image?"

"I wonder where those people on the sidewalk will all end up tonight?"

"I wonder if those people are tourists from Europe or Idaho?"

So, "Through the Bus Window" is starting to take shape and I'm having a blast doing it. I'm also taking pictures in a way that's new to me and there is a lot of chance involved and a lot of not knowing how it's all going to come out, which I find quite refreshing.

Best of all I'm getting those "I wonder" questions, one of which may actually turn me on to my next project.

Photo: ©2012 David W. Sumner

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Light: The Defining Factor

Robert Adams has said that light is the fundamental element central to our understanding of life and our response to it.

As light is fundamental to photography and our visual interpretation of society, I would go so far to say that as photographers, photography defines our understanding of life and our response to it.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Alternative Editor

It's hard to edit your own work. It’s too easy to get stuck on the images you like and mistake those for your best work. That doesn’t mean your favorite images will never be your best work, but selecting your strongest images for a portfolio or a presentation often means letting go of many of those favorites.

A good practice is to have someone else take a crack at editing your images. However, it’s not always easy to find someone who has the time or inclination to help edit your work. This is where joining a Flickr group can be a big help.

If you’re a Flickr user you can join any number of groups that range over a huge variety of interests. Some groups are very serious with very specific criteria that must be met in order to post images to the group’s page, while others may have a single criteria as simple as the type of camera used to make the images being posted.

Some groups are juried. In other words a moderator will select images from all those submitted and decide which pictures will actually be posted to the page. This is in effect a seriously practiced editing process. Over time as more of your work is selected for posting to the group you may find that those are some of your strongest images and a good representation of your over all body of work.

Of course it depends on the group you choose to join as to the results you can expect. But if you join a group that is seriously dedicated to presenting the very best of the type of photography you’re interested in pursuing, chances are you will have chosen a good editor.

I joined such a Flickr group some years ago and since then more of the images I have submitted have been rejected than selected for posting. But I have enough images in the group that I can now step back and take a look at what someone else considers by strongest work. And frankly I’m impressed.

I’ve been planning to submit a selection of images to a publisher of post cards, but dreading the selection process. So the other day I went to my Flickr page and went to the group Film is not dead, it just smells funny. On the left side of the window there is a list of the top contributors and at the end of that list is always the word YOU. Click on YOU and all of the your images that have been selected for the group will be displayed with the most recent post first.

Doing this I can see that I have successively contributed 92 images to the group. A quick look tells me two things, first that indeed my strongest images are represented and second that the moderator has a soft spot for pictures of pretty girls. Be that as it may, I now have access a to a well edited selection of my work from which I can now select images to submit to a publisher with a greater level of confidence than if I had tried the entire editing process on my own.

To preserve a copy of this record I simply go to File > Print and than select “Save as pdf.” Now I have an easily accessible thumbnail list of all 92 images to refer to when making my selections for the publisher.

I can’t tell you how much time and anxiety this has saved me. It really is very hard to be a ruthless editor of your own work. Fortunately image sharing sites like Flickr provide a variety of editing options that can help you move your work to a new level.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Finding the Image

When you see a scene that appeals to you you make the photograph. But sometimes you look at the print or the image on you screen and it doesn't look like what you remember or you see the scene as you first did but the friends you are showing it to don't see it the same way, they don't see what you were seeing when you made the image.

These are clues that the final image contains more information than it needs to convey the true message of the "Image" as you perceived it.

Take a look at the overall composition and ask yourself, "Where is the image in this? What was I seeing that attracted me to this?"

Often you will find that the real image is only a part of the composition and the solution is getting closer to the real subject of the image or choosing another lens or focal length when photographing, or actually cropping the image in post processing.

Here's how I deal with this situation…when I'm out shooting. Recently while photographing in the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park I came up to this statue of a Buddha. I've photographed this statue many times, but I've never been satisfied with the images I've come away with. This day I took more time to work with it and figure out what really attracted me visually to statue.

 I made this frame of the statue and its environment, but I knew this wasn't a defining image.

I moved closer looking through the view finder and the 28mm lens. I stood back and switched to a 55mm lens and made this, the second image. Looking at the statue from this perspective I realized that it was the gesture of the Buddha's hand that attracted me most.

I looked more closely, turning the camera to compose a horizontal frame. Here was my image. I knew now that I had it. I saw the folds of the statue's robe flow into the gesture, guiding the eye to the hand and tips of the fingers. I moved a bit to the left including some of the trees in the background to provide context that wouldn't distract from the graphic power of the overall composition and made the image.

This whole process took much less time than has taken to explain it. The most time consuming part of making the image was the one lens change. Finding the image and making the final frame took only seconds. This is what comes with practice and making photography a practice.

Photos: ©2012 David W. Sumner

Monday, September 24, 2012

An Old Dog's New Tricks

Back when I was shooting for stock and editorial content I was intent on being in absolute control of every frame I shot. Like many photographers in those days I insisted on using only the manual exposure settings on my Nikon F3. While the F3 is capable of stepless shutter speeds in its aperture priority automatic exposure mode, I was convinced I would get better exposures if I controlled all options for manual settings myself. I photographed that way for years and did quite well exposing slow transparency films.

It was some time after I stopped trying to make a living from photography that I ventured into that gray area of aperture priority exposure. Turning the shutter speed dial on my F3 to “A” I soon realized that the camera’s meter was going to give me virtually the same exposure reading regardless of which mode I had set. The Nikon F3 has an exceptionally good center weighted meter, it’s consistent and accurate. I had for years trusted it in manual mode so why not thrust it in the “A” mode? It wasn’t long before I was shooting the F3 exclusively in “A” mode.

Trusting aperture priority exposure gave me a certain freedom when shooting. I figured the camera was build to do this so why not let it do what it’s meant to.

Later technology created even more insecurities to be overcome. The introduction of “Program” exposure was just too much, no self-respecting photographer would give up that much control, both aperture and shutter speed selection. If you did use it and anyone else found out you would be mocked and ridiculed.

It’s different today. The new technology is indispensable. Digital cameras won’t function without advanced electronics, so today photographers rely on the micro chips even more. But when the FA and the F4 came out people just looked at that dial, saw “P” and said, “Don’t go there.” Well I have to admit I finally did it.

Earlier this year I was looking for a way to get a little more drama into my images and texture into my negatives. Film technology always advanced in the direction of finer grain and smoother tonal gradation. I shoot chromogenic black & white film so I don’t have to work with chemicals any more. (Labs don’t process B&W silver films worth a damn these days unless you want to pay extra charges.) So my negatives are virtually grainless and have an exceptional range of tonality as they are processed in C41 chemistry, which is very consistent. So I experimented.

I put a roll of Kodak BW400CN in my F4. I selected the center weighted meter function, set the exposure mode to “P”, attached a 28mm auto focus lens and hit the street. I was walking around with one of the most sophisticated point ‘n’ shoot film cameras ever conceived, and man was it fun. I certainly got more drama into my images, letting shadows just go while keeping the highlights under control, and I didn’t have to think about it. I could concentrate on composing for those shadows and I didn’t worry about what was moving in the frame. I had a blast and I liked the results.

Going through this process reminded me of something a friend of mine once told me. He was a mechanic in the Air Force and worked on B-52s. He said when those planes came in they immediately drove big air bags under the wings to support them and the planes started leaking fluids and they had to work fast to get them in the air again, because they were built to fly, not sit on the ground.

The same can be said for auto exposure cameras: they were built to “fly” in all modes. They do work as advertised. “Program” exposure works, it can be trusted. It may not be right for every situation, but use it and you’ll probably get good results more often than not.

Photos: ©2012 David W. Sumner (Images on this page were made with either a Nikon F100 or a Nikon N90s set to "Program" exposure mode.)

Friday, August 3, 2012

Naoya Hatakeyama at SFMOMA

Man’s relentless efforts to master the environment. That’s the underlying message I took away from my visit to SFMOMA to see the current exhibition of photography by Naoya Hatakeyama. But there is a twist.

The first images in the exhibition are of expansive landscapes featuring dramatic mountains. The mountains, other than being pretty held no obvious message, they are just “pretty.”

The images I found more appealing were of abandoned and working quarries and were photographed as grand landscapes and had a definite message. From an anthropological point of view they tell a dramatic story of the consequences of the archaic notion, so persistently maintained by human kind, that nature can and should be conquered. Hatakeyama’s work so clearly shows us that the fact that the earth will never bend to the human will is lost yet on another generation.

Hatakeyama demonstrates how this quest of humanity to dominate the very environment that gives it life, is carried out by every means that is violent. The irony is dramatically evident in his imagery of the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan. These images share a gallery with a sequence of photographs of quarry blasting, images that capture the brutally violent reality and consequence of the explosions. But still, what these images tell us is that despite every effort by “man,” nothing will ever match the violence of which nature is capable. Nature is the master and there is no such thing as conquering the environment.

Photos: © Naoya Hatakeyama

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Food for Thought


"Conditions for photojournalism have changed dramatically during the last decades. It has receded practically completely into the background as a source of primary information. Gone are the days of the great picture essays like the funeral of Winston Churchill in February 1965. Life magazine rented houses along the parade route especially for the purpose of covering the event from various angles, and an aircraft was chartered to transport the exposed films. One can already recognize the motion picture principle in these reportages, i.e. sequences of still pictures. It wasn't much later that the mass medium of moving pictures - global television - made such reportages superfluous. We now expect pictorial information at the time an event is actually occurring, in other words, live. Life magazine, along with nearly all current picture magazines, has disappeared from the market. War reportages as part of photojournalism were able to survive only because some daredevil photographers venture further into combat zones than the more cumbersome TV crews. Reportage photography must therefore devote itself to other subjects or change its tendencies. This is already clearly evident in photographic competitions. Photographers are developing a more artistic approach or they describe their topics in a very subjective manner. This type of work is finding less and less of an adequate forum in magazines. Often the appropriate form of publication of large works is a book, which will then be reviewed again in magazines. But the style forms of reportage photography have also inspired other categories, for example fashion- and sports photography. In doing so, this type of photography restricts itself entirely to formal depictions. Naturally, the explanatory nature of classic reportage photographers, who for a time devoted their lives to showing certain events to the world, no longer plays any role."

- Horst Moser
(From: "Astonish Me, Surprise Me! by Horst Moser, Leica World 2/2002)

Photo: ©2011 David W. Sumner

Monday, July 23, 2012

Retouching Digital Prints

    One of the reasons I shoot a chromogenic black and white film is so I can take advantage of the Digital ICE feature built into my film scanner. Digital ICE works to eliminate imperfections in a scan such as those caused by dust or small defects in the film’s emulsion. ICE works with film that has a color base, in other words, not with a silver based film. The silver in traditional black and white film scatters the infrared layer created by ICE making it impossible for the scanner to read the image on the film. Consequently, you can expect so see dust spots and fibers on a scan from a silver negative. This often requires a considerable amount of time spent “retouching” the file in PhotoShop.
    When I go back into my archive of silver negatives and select images to scan I usually end up with files that show little white impressions of dust and fibers. No matter how much I clean and blow off the neg, there is usually a good amount of retouching still to be done in PhotoShop.
    For a variety of reasons it is often impossible to get every annoying little spot retouched in PhotoShop. In many cases I don’t even notice these lingering white specks until I’ve made an archival pigment print. Hence my years long quest to find an adequate method for retouching a physical digital print.
    I’ve tried various indelible pens and waterproof and smudge proof inks, but nothing has ever come close to the way Spotone worked with photo paper emulsions. Until today, that is, when I pulled out my set of Faber-Castell grey scale Pitt artist pens.

    These pens are actually brush pens with soft, felt brush like tips about one quarter inch long. The ink in these pens is a water proof, smudge proof, lightfast India ink. The grey scale set includes both warm and cool tones. So far I have found the Cold Grey VI 235 pen the most useful, but the lighter cool grey pens come in very handy as well.
   It takes a very light touch to administer just the right amount of ink through the fine brush tip. But if you have ever done traditional “spotting” with a brush and Spotone you know it takes a steady hand and a good eye to nail that little glaring spot with one delicate tap.
    I use only very matte paper, so I’m not sure how well this will work on glossy or luster papers. I suspect with a little practice it could work just as fine as on the matte paper I use. 

Photos: ©2012 David W. Sumner

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Photography is Power

Photography is a skill and a tool that puts a considerable amount of power in your hands. Be conscious of that, use it wisely. A photograph is powerful.

Photographs have the power to shape our social environment. Not every photograph will or even have the potential to change the world. But the sincere pursuit of the medium, with the intent to examine, document and shape our social and cultural world has potential to succeed.

It doesn't take elaborate, expensive equipment or relentless travel. It does take determination, dedication, passion and a compassionate heart. Photography is a practice, a way of life. In much the same way one practices Zen, one practices photography.

The photographer who follows the practice has a social responsibility as a documentarian. He or she understands this and preserves their images; whether they are of images of war, the streets of the neighborhood in which they live or the flowers in the local park as the seasons change.

The photograph is the single most enduring document produced today. Images are remembered when texts are forgotten. Images are reproduced across all media. The power of the image does not diminish.

Photo: ©2011 David W. Sumner

Monday, May 14, 2012

Lee Friedlander at the Fraenkel Gallery


Friedlander's images are distinctly graphic in their composition and typically imbued with sophisticated humor and satire. A few of the compositions are simply brilliant. It's also important to note that the images are fun.

His mannequins were photographed very much the same way fashion was photographed in the 50s and 60s: extreme angles, well thought out graphic lines making up dynamic backgrounds - no small task considering that most of the backgrounds to the mannequins were composed from the buildings and structures reflected in the windows separating Friedlander from his subjects.

The prints are well made. They are rich and contrasty - possibly another nod to fashion photography of the last century.

I've never been a big Friedlander fan, but this exhibition, Mannequin, is impressive and a significant body of work for the artist.

Monday, March 26, 2012

A New Spring

Spring ritual, Waverly Place, Chinatown, San Francisco, California. ©2012 David W. Sumner

Thursday, February 16, 2012

It pays to troll the KEH web site on a regular basis.

I've been looking at older, non-AI, Nikkor glass for some time. These lenses tend to be quite rugged and the glass elements have a single coating as opposed to lenses made today which have multiple coatings that reduce lens flare and other "undesirable" effects. However lenses with single coatings often render a range of tonality and color temperature that's impossible to achieve with contemporary multicoated lenses. Multicoated lenses also tend to render images much higher in contrast than single coated lenses.

Lately I've been interested in early 105mm and 135mm Nikkor lenses. I've been carefully watching the stock at KEH for some months, looking for pieces in good condition and within my almost nonexistent budget. KEH's grading system: Like New to Ugly, is very reliable. There are times when an item will be rated at the bargain grade because of cosmetic imperfections. The item is actually flawless mechanically or optically but the price is low because it isn't really pretty. Other pieces that are rated bargain grade may indeed have some flaws other than cosmetic but nothing that would compromise image making quality. (For example a while back I bought a bargain grade Nikkor non-AI 28mm f/3.5 for $30. Optically it's beautiful, but the aperture ring is squeaky.)

The other day as I scrolled through the KEH stock I found this Nikkor-Q 135mm f/3.5 lens, with an AI conversion, in Excellent condition for $39. Now here's the key, there were other identical lenses in excellent condition listed that were more expensive, but the fact that a previous owner had performed his own custom AI conversion on this lens made it less than perfect. (AI conversions usually require the milling or cutting down of a portion of the lens' metal aperture ring to accommodate the little tongue on the Auto Index cuff surrounding the lens mount on newer auto exposure capable Nikon cameras.)

For me the AI conversion is a real value. It means I can put this lens on my F100 and it will couple perfectly with the camera's metering system. It took less than a minute of thought for me to click the "Add to Cart" button.

I knew I wanted a lens hood for this lens as I use lens hoods to protect the front elements of my lenses and the hood will help reduce the possibility of lens flare which single coated lenses don't handle well. With a few more clicks I found the appropriate lens hood also in Excellent condition for $7. (A few months ago a camera shop owner here in San Francisco offered to sell one of these lens hoods to me for $15, saying they were rare. His offering was rather beat up and didn't fasten securely when attached to a lens. I'm glad I saved my money.)

This lens was manufactured between 1961 and 1966. It is one of the cleanest lenses I have ever seen, the glass is flawless. The focusing and aperture rings are smoother than those of some of my newer lenses.

Yeah, I'm excited. Vintage Nikkor glass for $46. Not bad.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

"...too complicated. And obsolete."

Paul Melcher hits the image licensing nail on the head.

Read Paul's latest comments on the industry here at Thoughts of a Bohemian. I think he's right on every count.

I'd like to hear what you think. Read his entry iTune it, and let me hear from you.

Photo: ©1989 David W. Sumner

Monday, January 9, 2012


Prison in Bukhara, 1907, Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky

" the 1970s, at a time when William Eggleston and other artists were pioneering the use of color photography." - PDN

don"t misunderstand statements like this. William Eggleston didn't pioneer color photography. By the 1970's color photography dominated the worlds of fashion, travel, industrial, medical and sports photography, to name a few. Color photography was pioneered in the late 19th century. Kodak was producing Kodachrome as early as the 1920's. The Office of War Information and the FSA documented much of America's struggle through the depression and the war effort on color film beginning the early 1940s.

1940, Russell Lee for the FSA

When people mention William Eggleston as a pioneer of color photography they are referring to the fact that Eggleston was one of the first photographers using color film to be recognized by collectors of fine art photography. Collectors of art must be marketed to, as very few of them have a true and deep understanding of art, creative vision, process, craft and what it means to live the creative life of an artist.

William Eggleston, untitled, ca. 1960

color photography is accessible. Despite whatever complexities may be behind his calculated imagery, his work is marketable. Eggleston's photography helped galleries and dealers move collectors toward the idea that color photography was worthy of the label "fine art photography." Indeed a pioneering move in the industry, but no real significant contribution to advancement of the medium.

Friday, January 6, 2012


Dale Erickson's studio, San Francisco, CA.

"Creativity takes courage." - Henri Matisse

Photo: ©2010 David W. Sumner