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Filters and child's play

October 29, 2016  •  6 Comments

[A couple of weeks ago]

Walking past a vehicle from the Bayerische Motoren Werke, I ascended the sandstone steps from the carpark. A man was on the headland with a camera aimed at the lighthouse. His impressive tripod was on the invisible X that marks the spot where most people stand to photograph Tacking Point lighthouse. As usual, I was toting my tripod and attached compact system camera on my shoulder. The sun had risen but was filtered by a blanket of stratus cloud.

"Good morning." I said. "Just passing through or are you a local?

He pressed a couple of buttons on his top-of-the-range DSLR—worth about $9k for the body alone—turned to me and said, "I've been coming here for years. I did a shot of the lighthouse for a job about 20 years ago on Velvia and thought I'd do it again in digital."

Velvia® was a daylight balanced colour reversal (transparency/slide) film from Fujifilm Corporation. I knew of it but had never used it; Kodachrome was my poison when I did work for magazines. In the years when digital photography was coming of age (say the first half decade of the 21st century) I read forum posts from die-hard film photographers asserting that digital would never surpass the quality and resolution of film, and that digital could never emulate the beautiful colours and gradation of Velvia. To some it was the Holy Grail of film for landscape photography. I'll leave it at that...for the moment...except to cough a muffled 'bullshit' a la 'Top Gun'—the movie.

The man fiddled again with camera buttons; checked the composition; said something about exposure. I wondered if he was trying to impress me; the mention of Velvia having established some kind of credential. Was he waiting for me to take the bait and ask for more information? I'd noticed his dismissive glance at my equipment. I'd been measured.

I didn't bite, despite sensing an old schooler's red tie being waved in front of me.

Outside the man's field of vision, a few hundred metres offshore, two dark shapes pierced the surface. Their black bodies arched in unison, with long pectoral fins held out like arrow barbs, and collapsed in slow motion, sending out shockwaves of white foam.

"Humpbacks!" I enthused, pointing to the aftermath.

He turned to the sea and then back to me. "I've got a 500mm lens in the car. I'll go and get it if they keep that up."

I wished the man good luck and headed off on the next leg of my walk, down the steps and past the bimmer encasing the 500mm lens.

'You'll need good luck,' I mused, '500 is never going to be enough at that range. But you just had to tell me, eh? Not that you'd know it, I've got the equivalent of 840 on my shoulder...and even that is not enough!'  

Some photographers feel the need to establish gear pecking order. I won't engage on the subject of 1apparatusmanship. I'm more interested in what is produced than the tools used. Pictures are a better indicator of a photographer's 2wetware credentials than the hardware employed.

1 With just a couple of exceptions that I can recall, apparatusmanship is a gender-specific affliction, a bloke thing. Apparatuswomanship? Nah, I don't think it's a thing. Most women don't care about it, nor should they. They're more attuned to wetware.

2 wetware is brainpower, insight, contemplation, reflection, imagination, synaptic plasticity...creativity—the most important tools of the artist.
[A couple of weeks later]

Roy parked his car and we (Roy, Des, and I) got out and headed along the sandy path to Zenith Beach with our cameras. Friends with shared interest in imagery, learning and teaching, we had converged on Port Stephens for a couple of days of fellowship and photography. It was new geography to all of us and we were feeling our way, scouting locations for day and night time work. The sun was rising. The tide was high and would be again in about 12 hours at dusk. The southern end of the beach looked promising for late afternoon work and some play with artificial light sources at night. We each did our own thing for the morning session and then left with a plan to be back on the beach at 1800.

Arriving back at Roy's car, we discovered that another photographer had just arrived. He was taking a camera with a long lens out of the back of his BMW. I measured it at 300 with mental callipers. We got to chatting. My penny dropped, 'Mr Velvia 500 has a 300 too. As you do.'

"Didn't I see you a couple of weeks ago at Port Macquarie?" I asked.

He looked at me, paused, recognised and said, "Yeah!"

Out came the smartphone. 'Here we go!' blipped in my brain.

"This is the one I got of the lighthouse. Beautiful clouds. And here are some surf shots I got around here (Port Stephens) yesterday. A couple of double exposures in the camera, and some straight shots. I don't go in for all that filter bullshit, making the water look like a smoke machine...and..."

​And so on. The red old school tie was waving in my face again. Again I behaved myself. I assumed his scorn was aimed at neutral density filters that allow long exposures in bright light, with the potential to reveal the movement patterns of water. I like 'em. My friend Mr Beaujangles calls the effect "schwoomy water" (I don't think Beaujangles likes the effect either, but we're mates and we understand each other).

Soon enough, thankfully, we bid Mr Bullshit Filter a good day and were on our way. If Mr Bullshit Filter thought he was talking to fellow old school luddites with similar prejudices—our ages range from 60 to 76—he was wrong. As a trio, I think I can say we're progressive, inquisitive, experimental, and prone to taking the mickey out of each other trading banter. The​ bullshit filter encounter gave us plenty of fodder for the remainder of our sojourn.

​So what?

​Why am I writing about these encounters? My aim is to encourage photographers to be free spirits and try new things as a pathway to continuous learning. Ignore the naysayings of old schoolers or 'upmanship of photographers with GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). Here are some counterthoughts to those expressed by Mr Bullshit Filter.

Velvia. I call it the most dishonest film of all time, and my reaction is akin to choking on a sandwich when I hear old schoolers extol its virtues and in the next breath decry modern techniques as dishonest or cheating (e.g. software and/or hardware filters to enhance imagery). Velvia is the wannabe precursor to Photoshop in the image enhancement stakes. The extreme colour saturation afforded by Velvia is not a holier form of manipulation than Photoshop. Anything Velvia could do Photoshop can do better (in skilled and tastefully restrained hands)...and then some.

Long ago I stopped buying how to​ books on photography (I now prefer to read about photographers, their work and philosophies). Below is an excerpt from a how to​ in my collection. How's this for sanctimony...?

"The colours and nuances of natural light are so various that it seems almost criminal to alter them in any way, so I have not used filters for the images in this book (save for a skylight 1B and the occasional polarizer)."

Photographing Changing Light-A Guide for Landscape Photographers
Ken Scott ​Photographers' Institute Press 2004

Oh, so some filters are holier than those miscreant bullshit software filters? The hypocrisy of the quote above becomes evident when one turns the pages and reviews images and captions. The author used Velvia and other high saturation [untruthful] emulsions.


Some analogue old schoolers decry the digital darkroom because they haven't risen (or won't rise) to the challenge of learning to use the new technologies. It's the sour grapes principle: if you can't do it (or are jealous of those who can) knock it.

I love the digital darkroom and emerging technologies that open doors for new ways of doing ways of seeing...imagining. In some cases these developments facilitate things that I couldn't dream of doing, or afford to do, when I worked in the analogue paradigm. Digital technologies are liberators. If I can imagine something, there's a fair chance that I can realise it in a visual image (as opposed to a mental image) that I can share with others. How wonderful.

[Later that evening on Zenith Beach]

Roy, Des, and I got some fair mileage out of filter bullshit banter for the rest of the day. In the last hour of sunlight, we were back on the beach photographing and sizing up a rocky and wooded slope at the southern end with a view to some experimentation after dark. A stiff breeze animated the banksias and casuarina branches and I played with some long exposures (thanks to a neutral density bullshit filter) to express their movement juxtaposed against the immobile rocks and trunks of the larger trees. With my camera on a tripod I shot multiple images of the same composition as darkness fell. When it became dark enough to see stars above the treeline I shot more images from the same tripod set. I hope to blend the range of images, bullshit-wise, into something that only the passage of time can reveal. No analogue, in-camera multiple exposure can do that with the same finesse, Mr Bullshit Filter.

Roy and Des experimented with LED lights twirled on a string against the backdrop of rockface and trees. The results were striking and could be imagined as vehicles for aliens. We were playing like kids. Good fun.

Note: Hover over images for details.

Spaceship orbLighting art by Roy. Photo by Des. Double alien orbLighting art by Roy. Photo by Des.

Before we left the beach, I asked Roy and Des if they would indulge me while I tried something with a LED light. No problem. I stood in the dark on the spot marked X in the sand that was the distance at which the lenses had been focussed. Both cameras were set to make 30 second exposures so that was the amount of time available for me to do my thing.

"OK, gents, count me down 3, 2, 1 and open your shutters," I instructed.

"OK. Three, two, one, open."

I worked quickly to write my mirror-reversed image in the air, obscuring the light with one hand, at appropriate points, to avoid spurious tracings of light that would make the whole unintelligible. I doubted that either Roy or Des would be able to make out what I was doing with my fugitive scribblery. It didn't take 30 seconds to complete the work and I ran back to my friends and waited for their cameras to cook the long exposures and display the images on their LCD panels. We laughed like little kids when the message flashed into view, forgetting that we were supposed to be mature, conservative, old school luddites: two retired academics—professors, no less; and one science graduate with honours—the lowest postgraduate lifeform.

HahaIt doesn't take much to amuse me! Image captured by Des Crawley.

On a roll, I tried another message with Des's flashing red LED. A 30 second failure! Due to the on-off nature of the light, the gaps in the letters made the message almost unintelligible.

PHOTODidn't really work, did it? Sans flashing would have been better. Image captured by Des. Never fear, switch the red LED to continuous mode. Another 30 second failure...not enough time to write the whole message. Continuous learning.

BEEF SUSHIWrite faster, Rob! Image by Des Crawley.

"OK, give me one more go. I'll just have to go quicker."

"3, 2, 1, open."

I wrote with urgency and fervour, jumping sideways to the left between each letter to ensure they were legibly spaced, and finishing with a flourishing crossing of a terminal 't'.

Perfect (well almost).

THE ULTIMATE MOTION...and final word on filters. The crossing of the 't' has contaminated the 'll's. Buttshit. Never mind , it still works!

More laughing like school boys as we trooped back to the carpark.

We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing. — George Bernard Shaw



Thank you, Des, Denise, David, Giang, and Geoff.

Des, I remember someone [!] once saying words to the effect that, "There's no point in owning a full frame camera if one possesses a half frame personal vision".

Great to hear from you, David. Have fun and expand your visual horizons with your new camera.

Denise and Giang, as one member of our club likes to say, "Rule Number 1: Have fun. Rule Number 2: Have more fun." And so on.

Geoff, I recently answered the same question from another photographer as follows...

"I like the techy aspects of photography: knowing my gear; solving problems; understanding the science. But I don't get hung up on things like 'perfect' white balance, colour casts etc. As I'm not a commercial photographer shooting products that MUST be rendered in faithful colour, I use seat-of-the-pants reckoning to correct my images. If they look good to my eye, I'm happy. My audience will not care. They don't care what camera, lens, or other stuff I use. They care about the images...or not!

Some things that I've discovered/reasoned...for you to consider...
• Using the same filters on two different cameras...I get a ghastly green colour cast with D800 images but neutral images with my OMD. So it's not all down to the filters.
• I don't stress about colour casts in D800 images. It's a trivial matter to adjust white balance in Lr to get a look that I'm happy with. Can create a preset for D800+ND filter images if I want to. Haven't bothered.
• I stack ND filters if that's what it takes. I use Hoya Pro ND64, ND400, and ND 1000.
• I've tried vario-ND filters and don't like 'em. I WANT to know the exact exposure factor, not some approximation.
• I'm happy to stack ND64 + ND 1000 to get 14 stops reduction. That's plenty for the kind of long exposure work I do in daylight.
• You can pay a lot of money for ND filters. I don't accept the marketing claims that some manufacturers make about theirs being better...perfect neutrality... (to justify ridiculous prices). Again, it's a trivial matter to adjust in Lr and go from there to make wonderful pictures...against the odds!!! ;-) ®
Geoff muscutt(non-registered)
How true Rob. As an old school technically minded photographer you have opened many of us to images that inspire thought rather than a comment like "that's nice". After seeing your superb fairy wren image I just had to go back to the previous blog and now have a technical question. Some neutral density filters give a colour cast so does the ND Bullshit filter give a brown cast?
Giang Duong(non-registered)
I love reading your postcards, Rob. Beautiful and eloquent writing. You remind us again to have fun in what we do. I can imagine the laughter and fun you all had! Wonderful!
David Ashton
So great to be getting the postcard again Rob. And brought back some memories. I too loved Kodachrome (especially 25!) for its fine grain and natural colours. Never used Velvia but used other Fuji films and hated them for their larger than life colours. And your LED capers brought back memories of being on a ship outside Cape Town, used the last of a roll of film just zigzagging the camera vertically to fill the frame with the line of lights. Got a couple of great results. And just got the new Nikon all-in-one that I msgd you about some time ago. That'll give me something to play with till I get old :-) GBS got it in one!

Thanks again Rob, I really appreciate getting the Postcard, it always makes my day.
Denise McDermott(non-registered)
You showed great control and restraint with Mr Bullshit Filter. Well done. I agree with your statement that we now have new ways of imagining and I am so fulfilled by those imaginings. You three photograyhairs have proved that photography is child's play! :)
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