Limited Editions

“Limited Editions” by Jonathan Bourla (www.jonathanbourla.com)

'Eroded-girder'-by-Jonathan-BourlaHello again! I want to talk a little about Limited Editions today.

Early on in my fine art photography journey, I wanted to address the issue of limited editions for my work. I knew that some of the photographers whose work I was inspired by had editions of one hundred. Locally I had also seen editions of just two or three.

The concept of limited editions came from printing techniques such as screen printing, where the materials used in the printing would degrade after each use, and so only a certain number of prints was possible before quality suffered.

Having limited editions for photography is a way of saying that the photograph isn’t mass produced. But I see photographers with editions of three hundred and fifty, or even five hundred. This clearly really is mass production, and to my mind calling them limited editions is just plain stupid.

In fact, when I discovered that my favourite photographers had editions of one hundred I had the same feeling. But at the other extreme the editions of just two or three are really limiting for a reproducible artform. Photographers’ printing styles change over time – often one can tell a print of a subject from late in the photographer’s career from one produced earlier on. This is true of traditional processes such as silver gelatin photographs, where what I call the Interpretation stage takes places as part of the printing process. With today’s Pigment Ink prints, known widely as Archival Pigment prints, although the Interpretation has taken place before the actual printing process, it is still quite likely over time that the photographer will want to adjust the look of the photograph as his/her techniques and skills mature, and materials change.

The opposite of a Limited Edition is called an Open Edition, where there is no limit to the number of photographs produced. An Open edition has no maximum. Despite no stated maximum, some photographers number each photograph produced. I was quite surprised to discover that one of the great Ansel Adams’ photographs, in an Open Edition, resulted in over a thousand prints – making it far from the exclusive photograph I had thought it was.

I settled on an edition size of twenty five for my limited edition photographs.

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How to buy fine art photography, Part 1

How To Buy Fine Art Photography

By Jonathan Bourla (www.jonathanbourla.com)

 

Part 1

I want to look at fine art photography from the other side, the side of someone looking at purchasing a fine art photograph. I will cover matters of technique, limited edition numbers, pricing (and whether a photograph can be found for a lower price in one retail outlet than another), purchase guarantees, print longevity, and other issues.

Years ago when I attended a workshop in Ann Arbor, America run by the excellent photographer Howard Bond, I and the other participants were treated to viewing of works by a number of diverse Master photographers. They were quite different but they all had some technical characteristics in common. The first is they had excellent shadow detail, and the second they had an attractive tonal scale, otherwise known as Tonality. When these two attributes are lacking, it is often down to poor technique. Lets have a look at them in turn:

Under-Cornwallis-Wharf-by-Jonathan-Bourla

Better-shadow-detail

poor-shadow-detail

Above is a small jpeg of my photograph “Under Cornwallis Wharf”. You can see detail everywhere, including in the dark roof of the structure.

Below this is a cropped view of the underside of the structure. The picture beneath this is a simulation of what this shot with poor shadow detail would look like. In general, unless the photographer is aiming for a complete silhouette of the subject against a completely black background, it is desirable to be able to see detail in the dark areas of the photograph. However, in general we have become accustomed to black and white photographs with poorly rendered shadow areas, as one must be technically proficient to do this well, and sadly this often isn’t the case.

The second issue is of a photograph’s tonality. Or in computer terms, the greyscale. Poor quality black and white photographs are often just that: black, and white. With little in the way of a scale of grey tones. This often goes hand in hand with the shadow detail issue I raised a moment ago, and is also related to technique.

So these are two things to look out for when buying a fine art photograph. Can you see detail in the shadow areas where you think there should be some? And is there a nice range of tones in the photograph, not just a semi-featureless dark area and a washed-out light area?

I hope this has been of some help. Next time I will look at limited editions. Bye for now.

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Yearning for a new camera – a modern condition

YEARNING FOR A NEW CAMERA – A MODERN CONDITION?

by Jonathan Bourla (www.jonathanbourla.com)

'Approaching-storm,-Muriwai'-by-Jonathan-Bourla

I’m sure it’s very common amongst photographers to hanker after a new, better camera. Is this yearning for something better the same now as it was when the photographic world was dominated by film cameras? Or is it different today?

I was thinking today about a typical professional film photographer who used a Hasselblad medium format camera. The decision making that may have gone into his decision to use and invest in a Hasselblad system may have been seeking better quality than 35mm could offer, yet offering more convenience and flexibility than a large format camera could offer, – large format users will attest to the slow, methodical operation and dedication needed. Would he hanker after an improved camera to satisfy his photographic needs? I doubt it

What about today’s digital world? This photographer would probably be using a medium format digital single lens reflex, like the rebadged Mamiya Phase Ones, with a medium format digital back. These backs are regularly superceded by similar models with incremental improvents in megapixel rating. I read of photographers who go through a sucession of upgrading of their medium format digital backs. Have you seen the prices of these backs? It must cost these photographers a fortune, and will there come a time when they say “enough is enough”? Professional cameras – well, all digital cameras –have much in common with technology purchases, such as computers. Every year or two we are faced by new models with increases in processing power, and through marketing we are encouraged to discard our “ageing” computer in favour of the very much better one on offer. I wonder if this equipment we are buying, including cameras, are made to a much inferior standard to what we used to enjoy, as the manufacturers know in a year or two we are more than likely to want to upgrade anyway.

Having written the above, which must seem quite negative, I have my eyes and heart set on a new camera to join my Mamiya 7 medium format arsenal. Although I am sorely tempted by a digital solution, the costs are great. I would love to have “front rise” movement of my big Gandolfi camera in the smaller Mamiya 7 size. I have come across a camera made by the firm of Plaubel called the Proshift. It’s an unusual looking camera, down to the shape of the integrated film back, which is very similar to Mamiya backs from their old 6×9 press cameras. The Proshift also has the 6x9cm format, with a fixed Schneider 47mm Super Angulon lens, which has the same field of view as, if I recall correctly, a 17mm on a full frame 35mm camera. The Plauble has a clever viewfinder, which tilts up and down to mimic the effect of the rise dialed in. Originally these cameras came with a centre filter, which is quite important, but sadly lacking from many being sold online. I will keep my eyes open.

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Tutorial – Diffraction, that little known factor in image sharpness

Tutorial – Diffraction, that little known factor in image sharpness

by Jonathan Bourla (www.jonathanbourla.com)

When I was a teenager, shooting 35mm colour slides, I didn’t take diffraction into consideration. In my later school years I had heard of diffraction in my Physics class, but for some reason didn’t think how this applied to my photography. It was only in my early thirties, using a large format camera, that I learned again of diffraction, and that I should certainly take it into account when seeking to achieve as sharp photographs as possible. This was at a workshop I attended run by the brilliant American photographer Howard Bond.

Lenses don’t perform equally well at all apertures. At large apertures, lenses are typically affected by aberrations, which degrade the optical performance. There are different types of aberrations, but in general their effect is reduced as the lens’ aperture is stopped down. At the other end of the aperture scale, at small apertures, the lens’ performance is adversely affected by diffraction.

So, the consequence of this is that somewhere in the middle of the aperture range the lens will perform at its best. Typically this is at f8 or f11, and this explains why the lens manufacturers quote their lenses’ performance at these apertures. Photography is a balancing act, with aperture, shutter speed, depth of field, etc all needing to be assessed, and coming to what the photographer considers the best compromise. Now I’m saying to be mindful of the optimum aperture as well.

For large format cameras, like the one I use, the lenses typically have maximum apertures of f5.6 or f8. So the optimum aperture is close to the maximum. However, the demands of achieving focus throughout the image, which tends to be a convention amongst large format photographers, often results in using smaller apertures than the ideal. This is sometimes called being diffraction limited.

Now for a small format camera lens, such as 35mm (film or digital), this optimum is some way from the lens’ maximum aperture, and along with achieving the necessary depth of field should be considered when selecting the aperture.

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Photography Composition Tutorial

Tutorial – Photographic Composition

by Jonathan Bourla (www.jonathanbourla.com)

Photographic composition is a funny thing. It’s something that comes intuitively to some, whilst others rely on widely held rules.

Years ago, when I was a teenager, I was a member of my local photographic club. Regular competitions were held, both within the club and with local “competitor” clubs. There were very firm rules on Composition, and I found if I wanted to do well in these competitions I would have to abide by these rules. The rules were absolutely set in stone, with no room for interpretation. One of these rules was The Rule of Thirds, which stated that the subject had to be located a third or two thirds into the frame. Placing the subject centrally was a big no-no. Blindly following these rules led to competition success, but later to disatisfaction.

Another no-no was cropping. Amongst the club-mates who printed their own pictures, several followed the custom of filing out their enlargers’ negative holders. When printed, this made it clear that the entire film area of the negative had been used. I thought this rather silly – painters produce paintings in a variety of different formats: square, mildly rectangular, very long skinny rectangles, even circles. Why then should photographers be limited to the format of their particular camera? It’s a good thing to try to use as much of the film frame as possible, but surely some images suit a square format, while others suit different degrees of rectangleness (if that’s a word?)? At the time I was shooting 35 millimetre colour slides. In one competition I had a slide that I felt strongly suited a more squarish format than the full 35mm frame, so I cropped out the unwanted element of the slide with a piece of tin foil. The judge hardly looked at the image itself in his disapproval of the fact the slide had been masked.

In 1997 I attended a fabulous workshop by American photographer Howard Bond. Howard recalled an occasion when he showed to a group of students a collection of fine art photographs by master photographers, including Ansel Adams. The students were horrified and bemused to see photographs by these master photographers which clearly flouted their strongly ingrained rules of composition. One photograph had the subject placed centrally in the frame, and the students couldn’t believe this highly revered artist would do such a thing. The fact that this composition was effective just caused more confusion.

I have a book by photographer Bruce Barnbaum which has a section on composition. In it he breaks down the elements which contribute to good composition. It was a good read.

Clearly, however, composition is an intuitive act for good photographers, and the risk of providing rules to follow for less confident photographers runs the risk that their photos look formulaic.

I think it’s a good thing to look at the work of the photographers you like or admire. Have a think if you would compose the photos in the same way as the photographers? If you find shots where you think “I would do that differently”, I think that’s a positive thing. That’s part of developing your own photographic “voice”.

When looking in the camera’s viewfinder or screen, or later on, say, the computer screen, be aware of where your eye looks when it views the photo. Does it, perhaps, get sidetracked to some distracting element on an edge of the frame. If this is distracting because it is lighter, perhaps, than the subject, maybe this can be corrected in Photoshop or similar image editing software. Or maybe it should just be removed by reframing the camera, or by cropping in Photoshop. You want the viewer’s eye to “enter” the photo, move around the different elements and stay interested.

I think a big issue is seeing a subject from afar, and taking a photo at that moment. Obviously it depends on the circumstance, but in my opinion you are far better to approach the subject and take the image with a wider angle lens.

Do see if you can get the Bruce Barnbaum book I mentioned, maybe from your local library?

I think my composition ability improved when I started using a view camera. The reason will probably sound strange to most non view camera using people. The image on the camera’s viewing screen is upside down, and left/right reversed. We’re not used to seeing the world like this, and it has the effect of making the scene more abstract. I read a long time ago of a photographer with a regular camera who had a special prism finder made that mimicked the view camera look. Obviously for most photographers this isn’t possible – the best advice is to try to be aware of how the eye moves around the image/photo, get rid of distractions by changing camera position, or other controls, and keep the eye interested in your photo.

Good luck

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Fine Art Photography: Technique and Effort.

By Jonathan Bourla

www.jonathanbourla.com

'Dead-Leaf'-by-Jonathan-BourlaFine Art Photography: Technique and Effort.

To my mind, a Fine Art photograph must be both artistically inspired and also technically excellent. To be technically excellent, I think there should be excellent shadow detail, and the photograph be tonally excellent too, with a wide scale of grey tones. This is quite unlike the ‘soot and chalk’ tonal distribution which is quite common in black and white photography.

I use the Zone System to calculate appropriate negative exposure and development. The famous photographer Ansel Adams used the Zone System to great effect, and wrote about this technique in his book ‘The Negative’. Unfortunately many photographers who tried to get a handle on the Zone System from his guide books found this a very difficult task. I understand that many gave up, and then rejected the Zone System as impossible, and even unneccesary. There was also criticism that photographers using the Zone System produced similar-looking photographs. There is some truth to this last criticism as the photographs of photographers using the Zone System do tend to have very good rendition of details in the shadow areas, and they tend to have a nice tonal distribution. Looking at the photographs of the ‘greats’ such as Ansel Adams, John Sexton, Howard Bond and others will reveal the tonal distribution that I am talking about. Having a grasp of technique allows the photographer the capability, the freedom, to create photographs according to their unique vision. Instead of it being down to luck. I think of it as akin to needing to learn a vocabulary and grammatical rules before writing a novel.

I was one of those photographers who found it hard to understand the Zone System from Adams’ writings. I thought I was doing well, muddling through, until I attended a workshop run by photographer Howard Bond. The attendees at this workshop had the treat of being shown a good number of photographs by Master photographers. Then, showing our own prints to the group, it was clear to me that my own photographs really were lacking. Thankfully I then learnt from Howard Bond how to make sense of the Zone System. As with difficult things in general, once I understood the system it all made sense, and since then has been central to my photography.

The Zone System was important because photographers tended to make overdeveloped, and consequently overly contrasty, negatives. These negatives didn’t suit the printing papers available. I remember reading a recommendation from Kodak that countered the prevailing film speed/film development data given by all film manufacturers, Kodak included, but obviously they didn’t make enough of it to cause a change from the standards that were leading photographers to create negatives too high in contrast, and lacking in shadow detail.

I use a one degree spot light meter, to measure the light values of the different parts of the image, and consequently determine film exposure and also what development to give to the negative. A view camera using sheet film is ideal for this, as you can give the optimum development to each negative, as each negative is a separate sheet of film. You can use a more limited version of the Zone System with roll fim cameras, which make you develop all images on a roll for the same time. Some have two or more film backs for their camera. Ansel Adams, later in his life when he changed from the larger, more cumbersome view cameras to the smaller Hasselblad camera, used quite a number of backs with his camera, each destined to receive different development times. For my second camera, a Mamiya 7 rangefinder, I recently added a second camera body to give a limited Zone System flexibility.

So what use is the Zone System in my hybrid process of film negative, followed by scanning (and then followed by ‘interpretation’ on the computer)? Well, by chance, like traditional printing papers, film scanners work best with negatives of low or moderate contrast. So the Zone System is still useful for me.

My style of fine art photography is to some extent self-defeating. One aim of what is known as “straight” photography is that any changes or tonal manipulations made in what I call the “Interpretation” stage should be invisible to the viewer. In other words, if the viewer says “has that building been darkened?” or “I can see where the photographer has lightened that tree”, then the fine art photographer really has failed. I say self defeating because you may have been really creative and technically proficient in the interpretation stage of a particular photograph, but it isn’t allowed to shout to the viewer that all this effort has gone into it. I had an instance I remember when I was showing some of my fine art photographs to a gallery owner, someone apparently knowledgable about, and familiar with, fine art photography. Looking through my collection of photographic prints, he stopped to pause on one in particular. This photograph, like all of my photographs, was the product of considerable work to interpret from the camera negative to the finished fine art photograph. He studied the photograph, and then asked me something to the extent that the photograph looked very simple, and there clearly wasn’t much effort needed to produce it. I was really quite taken aback. And did the wrong thing – I started mumbling about the techniques that had gone into the making of the photograph. After talking for a few seconds, I think I realised I wasn’t getting anywhere. My opportunity was lost. I should simply have just thanked him for thinking the photograph had looked simple to produce, and taken this remark as a measure of my success. It’s easy to say that after the event, but at the time I was quite frustrated that all my work I had done to create this photograph was so easily dismissed, and by someone so supposedly knowledgable. And what of the not so knowledgable viewer? To quote my brother-in-law, pretending to hold an imaginary camera in his hands, “what’s involved in making a photograph is …click”. The average person has no idea the interpretative work that goes into the making of a fine art photograph. Strange to be producing artwork where the apparent difficulty is inversely proportional to the actual difficulty.

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Photography as Fine Art

By Jonathan Bourla

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Photography as fine art

'Muriwai-colony'-by-Jonathan-BourlaPhotography as fine art. To some, this statement just doesn’t add up. Consider this – take an average person, give them an easel, some paints and brushes, and ask them to paint a picture. Would they consider themselves a painter? In fact, most would produce something similar to that of a two or three year old.   But  give that same person a modern automatic camera, and they would probably feel comfortable calling themselves a photographer.

With the proliferation of 35mm compact cameras, and then more recently their digital counterparts, focusing and approximate exposure seem to have been demystified. Of course, the photographs produced by the average snapshooter are just that – snaps, mere records of family groups and holiday destinations, not photographs of artistic merit.

Some seventeen years ago I attended a photographic workshop run by one of America’s top fine art photographers.  He recalled an experiment he had taken part in with his circle of artist friends. They had a go at each other’s chosen media, be it painting, sculpting, photography and others. The non-photography artists had expected photography to be easy, but were surprised how difficult it was.  Of course, this wasn’t snapshot photography; it was fine art photography of the highest order.

So what is fine art photography, as opposed to other forms of photography? Well it refers to photography pursued solely to fulfil the creative, artistic vision of the photographer.   Compare this to Commercial photography, whose raison d’être is to sell a product or service. Or Photojournalism, which aims to record events or activities. Here the shot is usually a direct representation of the action being photographed, with no artistic element, and where technical quality is not paramount. Fine art photography, however, needs technique to be excellent, so that the photograph is fully capable of capturing the artistic vision of the photographer. Fine art photography has traditionally been in black and white, but more recently has grown to encompass colour.

An extremely important fine art photographer of the twentieth century was Ansel Adams. His photographs and teachings have been the inspiration for many aspiring fine art photographers, myself included.  Adams coined the term “previsualisation”, which takes place before the camera’s shutter is released.  It refers to the process of visualising the desired final print, and then exposing and developing the film accordingly.  This method particularly suits photographers using large format cameras with sheet film, as each sheet of film can be developed individually. This is in contrast to the shots on a roll of film, which all receive the same development. A large format view camera, in principle, is like the plate cameras of a century ago, and although not a common sight, are still the camera of choice for those who aim for the highest in quality. Incidentally, these cameras are highly suited to fine art photography, as despite the difficulties posed, they encourage a slower, more contemplative process from the photographer.   My camera always provokes interest from the general public, and one young boy asked me if I had a proper camera hidden inside!

I digress. The fine art photographic process can perhaps be split into two parts: the negative and the ‘performance’.   Adams, a highly accomplished pianist, had an analogy between photography and music, saying that the photographic negative is akin to a musical score.  The musical score has the musical notes, but the final interpretation is left to the musicians and conductor involved. Likewise, the negative is the start of the photographic performance.  If the photographer has done his/her job well, the negative will contain all the information needed, in a form that is easily accessible.

The ‘performance’ has traditionally been carried out in the darkroom, but more recently is being carried out on a computer. The basic techniques are the same, and some of the computer tools even have the same names as their darkroom counterparts. Dodging and burning are two such tools.  Dodging refers to making an area of the photograph lighter, while burning makes an area darker. This ‘performance’ is where the main creative, artistic input from the photographer comes in, and the process can be lengthy, taking several hours or often days to complete for a single photograph. The finished print, however, should look natural and seamless – if manipulations are obvious to the viewer, then the photographer has failed.

I know that some people think of this ‘performance’ as cheating, but they fail to understand that fine art photography is a creative process – the photographer is not aiming for an accurate representation, but rather a creative, artistic interpretation.

The American market in fine art photography is well established. Numerous photographers and galleries have contributed to this over time, but I think Ansel Adams played a significant role.  His images of Yosemite and Yellowstone were used to promote conservation of these areas, and became American icons.  He was also a great educator in photography, teaching workshops and writing a series of technical instructional books.  Although the books were aimed at photographers, and some concepts were hard to grasp, they gave an insight into the creative and technical processes involved in making a fine art photograph of the highest standard.  The galleries, and then the photography-buying public, became aware that the photographic process was complex, both creatively and technically.

Adams wrote a book called “The Making of Forty Photographs”. Although aimed at photographers, it is worth getting a copy from your library. Even if you do not understand the techniques described, the book gives an insight into the photographic process. If you ever get to travel to San Francisco, take the opportunity to visit the Ansel Adams Gallery.  Inside you will find that his photographs in the flesh are visual masterpieces.  With your newfound insight into the photographic process, you will know what technical and artistic masterpieces they are too.

 

 

 

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