Monday, August 17, 2009

Digital Convergence and USB powered scanners

Reviews of equipment that make imaging, in all its forms, easier and better.

The ideal of convergence in digital imaging continues unabated. Today one never considers buying a digital still camera unless it also shoots quality video, preferably in high definition (HD). And video cameras are not immune to this idea, being expected to shoot respectable quality still images as well as quality movies - standard play (SD) video is no longer enough. With the public’s growing acceptance of HD television, both subscription and free to air, HD video is fast becoming the standard expected by the consumer - whether with dedicated video cameras or digital still cameras. This marks a real convergence, both privately and professionally of the two mediums for today’s photography. And with newspapers now publishing both still and moving images in their online publications, these new cameras fill a genuine need. Remarkably, this is not confined to high end camera models such as Canon’s EOS 5D Mark ll - relatively inexpensive cameras such as the recently introduced EOS 500D DSLR now offer both sides of this imaging coin. Consumers are clearly the beneficiaries of this evolution. One camera might now be all you need for covering important family occasions - or professional events.
It is also a measure of how quickly these cameras are evolving that the quality of imaging continues to improve - especially in areas such as shooting at high ISO speeds in low light.
The Canon 500D is a camera to pick up and take with you when larger, heavier digital cameras seem simply too bulky for carefree picture taking. And you can be sure of quality images with a 15 megapixel CMOS sensor, Canon’s proven DIGIC image processing and the ability to shoot RAW and jpeg simultaneously, if required. The 500D is also another camera where a brief look at the manual sets you up for handling this camera intuitively. That this DSLR comes with the extremely modest Canon 18-55IS lens should not cause too many any visual inhibitions. I read somewhere that no human hand was involved in its making - so automated was the process of manufacture. I had modest expectations until I saw the pictures - it is a clearly well designed 11 element 9 group aspheric lens, capable of sharp images with visual aberrations kept well under control. I naturally prefer the 17-85IS for its longer range, more robust construction and proven performance - but the prospect of a lighter, stabilized 28mm-90mm (equivalent) lens for little more than $150 is hard to resist. This modest but well performing lens cannot be bought separately, coming as part of the 500D’s basic kit. The difference between the cost of the camera body alone and the kit, with 18-55IS, lens is only $150. There are also evolutionary improvements in the camera's design. The LCD screen on the camera’s back is larger, at 80mm wide diagonally, with extremely fine resolution, being composed of 920,000 pixels. Higher resolution is helpful when viewing a picture's small details or inspecting several thumbnail images at once. The detail is simply much finer than previous DSLR’s whose screens usually run to 300,000 pixels. The shutter release also seemed more responsive than on the earlier EOS 40D DSLR.
And with the 500D I found myself only referring to the instruction book when I needed precise shooting parameters such as discovering the new experience of shooting HD video with a DSLR. Other frequently used controls, ISO settings, white balancing, reviewing pictures and AE lock were easy to read and reach. And shooting HD is simple - turn the rubberized control wheel on the top right camera panel to align the movie camera symbol. Press the button with the camera symbol and red dot (just to the right side of the LCD screen) to activate the live view. When you wish to start filming simply press the red button again (a red dot will appear top right in the LCD screen telling you filming is taking place.) All features of the camera and lens function as normal, except AF, which must be activated using the AE lock button (*) on the top right of the camera’s rear panel. From experience this technique provoked the AF mechanism to hunt a little until it found sharp focus. Correct AF was then registered on the LCD screen by a central white, vertical, rectangle (delineating the autofocus area) turning green. Readers might try filming using manual focus for a change. But the resulting vidoes were uniformly excellent. Once HD filming has been selected, darkened crop marks suddenly appear, automatically revealing what is being filmed using the 16:9 format. I took the manual’s advice and bought a 4GB fast-writing SD HC card. HD filming devours memory capacity with filming at 1280 x 720 and 30 frames per second allowing only 18 minutes on my 4GB card. Fast-writing, larger capacity cards are mercifully coming down in price with these wafer thin devices also being more compact than the chunkier Compactflash CF cards used on cameras such as the EOS 40D.
In conclusion the EOS 500D is the kind of camera that invites being used. Being compact and easy to operate, it promises quality picture taking as fun, even if you may be planning for your pictures to be used professionally. HD video capability is a huge bonus, effectively allowing the owner to have this important capacity wherever you go. The EOS 500D can be attached to a High Definition television for viewing both video and stills via HDMI cable (HTC 100 - purchased separately from the camera) using a socket concealed in the left hand side of the camera (behind a durable rubber seal). Still images were uniformly fine in colour, resolution and freedom from intrusive digital artefacts up to and including ISO 1600 (note the still life with mandarins) At ISO 3200 in the picture of waitress Monika at Maggies of Potts Point, results were coarser but certainly useable - and therefore publishable. The Canon EOS 500D Kit also includes an equally sharp, optically well designed, 55-250IS zoom. Together with the 18-55IS most photographic bases are covered for a recommended retail price of $1999.
Other standard features of Canon’s digital SLR’s are included, such as sensor cleaning, an extensive choice of picture taking modes from sports and landscape to nature in closeup, with the camera having a durable battery life. Even after days of inactivity Canon’s LP-E5 Lithium Ion battery retained most of its charge. A separate input for a stereo microphone would help.

Canon LiDE 700F Scanner with 9600 dpi scanning and USB power
Another product with the potential to make photographers' lives easier is Canon's elegant LiDE 700F scanner - the only scanner I am aware of that is solely powered by its USB cable. Mains power is not even an option.
The 700F flatbed scanner builds on the successful design of its predecessor the LiDE 600F, being also powered only by USB. Capable of scanning flat images on its platen as well as 35mm negatives and transparencies using the film holder supplied, the 700F goes a step further than the 600F in being able to scan at an astonishing, optical 9600 dpi. (it's timely that portable hard drives are dropping in price.) This elegant silver and black machine sits on the desk next to my black HP notebook, looking, at first glance, like a second silver laptop. The lid is double hinged, making copying and scanning objects of different thicknesses easier. Where the lid closes at the front edge the 700F has two small surprises - recessed silver rectangles about the size of hearing aid batteries at each corner. Looking closer revealed Canon had added two magnets with which to hold the lid flatter. A small but impressive design feature which suggests the scanner is well thought out.
This scanner departs from usual Canon scanners, such as the 5600F which have hinged plastic film holders illuminated from a light source contained within the lid. As there is no room within the 700F’s ultra thin lid for a light source, the Canon designers found an ingenious solution. The bottom half of the film carrier sits close to the platen surface, registered in alignment by two hollow spaces - one square and the other rectangular (so they can’t be misaligned). A strip of six negatives literally sits on this ‘half’ film carrier, emulsion (dull) side upwards. Once a strip of negatives have been positioned (an awkward task to manage with large fingers) a small, moveable, diffuse light source is positioned above, making direct contact and illuminating a single frame of 35mm film. (This light source, with diffuser, is powered via a cord which plugs into the left hand side of the scanner.) The light is then moved along manually, to cover and illuminate the frame selected for scanning. For such a simple device the results were impressive. To test the scanner in a practical way, I chose a sharp, rather ancient medium speed black and white negative from my archives of a woman I was asked to photograph forty four years ago. Posed against the setting of a derelict, vintage Rolls Royce, this photograph was commissioned for the front cover of CENSOR newspaper by its publisher, Richard Graham. Photography was to take place in the Haberfield home of a Sydney identity who shall remain anonymous.

My subject, however, was a woman of rare grace named Angelica. After scanning this negative, taken on medium speed film all those years ago, I was impressed by the fineness of detail the scanner resolved. Strands of the woman's hair on her forehead were clearly defined. Nothing appeared to be lost and the film’s grain structure was clearly visible - all one could ask for, especially when scanning 35mm negatives using a flatbed machine - generally a lesser option when compared to dedicated film scanners. With Canon’s proprietary ScanGear software, all major controls for scanning were easily detected and accessible. Once I had loaded the software CD and completed the scanner’s simple calibration procedure (found in ScanGear's Preferences) I established resolution and basic image controls and decided to scan in greyscale. After years of supplying pictures for newspaper publication, I routinely scan using the combination of resolution and output size - 300dpi at A4 - most commonly requested by publishers. For finer book reproduction I will, of course go higher. I normally avoid applying unsharp masking or tonal ‘curves’ if the negative is reasonable to start with. Only after the first, basic scan will I apply more detailed corrections. If I wish to sharpen an image, I will sometimes employ Photoshop’s ‘smart sharpen’ to a degree that leaves the image sharper, but not obviously so. Image manipulation is fine as long as you don’t notice it. My main reservation about the 700F was its film holder, in which is sometimes difficult to align the negative accurately beneath the light source sitting above. Transparencies can only be scanned individually and unmounted. Perhaps future generation scanners will address this.

Though my prime interest was scanning B&W negs, I also scanned several Fuji RTP transparencies I shot in 1993 of actors Cate Blanchett and Lech Mackiewicz (L)in a memorable professional stage performance of Timothy Daly’s austere, beautiful play “Kafka Dances” at the Griffin Theatre in Sydney’s King’s Cross. Again, I achieved fine, reproducible scans. In case you thought I only scanned negs and trannies, I also used the 700F to archive some tiny family snapshots sent to me by my cousin John Chaplin recently. Taken sixty years ago during a childhood holiday in Tasmanian snow, these credit card sized snapshots were able to be scanned and enlarged to A4, with revealing effect. I am the timid soul seen on the right of frame. My mother, Poppy, now 93, is in the centre of the group holding my sister Helen. My late father, Bill, is on the left of the picture, cradling an ever present cigarette.

While the Canon LiDE 700F is not the scanner for all seasons, its results were uniformly good. Readers should know that I have little interest in what the dmax of this scanner might be (Canon don't quote it anyway) Practical testing proves that, with care, the 700F is capable of making excellent film scans as well as being versatile.(there are individual buttons for PDF, email attachments and copying documents) Its very reasonable price ($249 RRP) makes it an ideal travelling companion for laptop users; it also promises using one less power cord for accessories.

Copyright Robert McFarlane 2009

Sunday, August 16, 2009

New Visions

"Phantasia" at the Samstag Museum of Art, Adelaide

Recent exhibitions in both Sydney and Adelaide suggest there is an accelerating change occurring in Australian photography - away from familiar forms of narrative, observed imagery to new ways of creating staged, magical reality before the camera. This is not necessarily new for Australia. It is only two decades since Tracey Moffatt kicked the door open for manipulated, staged photographic tableaux with images like her startling, now iconic 1989 colour photograph, “Something More #1”. This picture may be seen, together with much of Moffatt’s body of work, at
But something is definitely moving. The remarkable new Samstag Museum of Art in Adelaide recently played host to “Phantasia”, a touring exhibition from the Australian Centre of Photography where it was first seen in 2008. Looking at this exhibition for the second time in the large, concrete vault-like Samstag galleries, reminded me of the importance of the works of Simon Strong, Alexia Sinclair , Magdalena Bors , Andrew Mamo and Mark Kimber After a season in Adelaide at the Samstag, Phantasia is appropriately touring next, later in 2009, to the City of Light - Paris
There is genuine visual mystery in the works of each of these artists, with Kimber revealing his yearning, technicolor vision of prehistory, Sinclair animating famous regal women of history and Strong creating something altogether different - sombre, almost film-noir visual dramas that seem, to paraphrase Sam Spade in John Huston’s 1941 film “The Maltese Falcon” - fashioned from ‘the stuff that dreams are made of.’ I mentioned to Simon Strong that I felt there were fraternal references in his work to U.S. photographer Gregory Crewdson. Strong agreed and generously acknowledged the American’s influence.
“I love his work, but I am concerned with different things. But what I really like is that he pushes it to the edge. It’s so stylised - like Old Hollywood. He showed what you can do ... that this kind of work was possible. It (Crewdson’s work) is so considered, so perfectly lit and composed. And I could see that someone else was delving into the darkness of the imagination.”
Strong, however, more than holds his own with Crewdson in originality with enigmatic masterpieces like the Melbourne photo artist’s moody “Even if you leave, I’ll always be with you ...” made in 2007. This rather complex link supplied by Alexia Sinclair will take you to her website and an ABC ARTS television program on the Phantasia exhibition, conducted by Peter Lindon.

In Sydney I visited Tamara Dean’s exhibition at the Charles Hewitt Gallery and saw change of a different order. As one of our most gifted, evocative photojournalists, Dean has consistently observed youth culture, especially women, with great subtlety. Her pictures at the Hewitt Gallery however, were seismic in change to her better known, observational pictures - especially as seen regularly in the Sydney Morning Herald. This gifted artist has taken us to where the literal image cannot be trusted.
The central colour photograph in this exhibition - The Bride - exuded the same, irresistible attraction I felt when I was first seduced by Tracey Moffatt’s “Something More”. Both are visual microdramas pulsing with emotion. In Dean’s large colour image, a tattooed, nude bride is dragged, perhaps reluctantly, through high grass towards an unseen, but clearly imminent ceremony.
“I had the skeleton of this picture ... before I started. When I ‘imagined’ the image, I had Carol Jerrems’ “Vale Street” in mind for its intensity. My picture represents contemporary youth now,” says Dean, “but I didn’t set out to challenge notions of beauty or power. A certain amount I leave to chance ... the subconscious takes control.”
This is an unforgettable, uncompromising image which asks many more questions than it answers, while still managing to convey an urgent, kinetic mystery. When I first saw this image I knew this photograph would become famous. And it will.

PETER SOLNESS - Illuminated Landscapes

There were other pleasant shocks to be felt in exhibitions in Sydney. Another of Australia’s accomplished photojournalists, Peter Solness, showed a selection of his illuminated, nocturnal landscapes at the Storm Gallery in Surry Hills. These were also imaginative and radical in their execution. Instead of relying on natural light falling on the landscape, Solness chooses to physically (and selectively) light every centimeter of his subject’s foreground with a small torch during long, nocturnal exposures. For a technique so rooted in artifice, his stylised naturalism was easy to accept. Each chosen landscape (Solness only works at night when there is moonlight to see with) pulsed with subtle, non-directional light emanating from within the scene. The result is eerie - but also comforting. Though using a high end Nikon digital SLR, Solness drew a surprising analogy with making silver prints in (wet) darkrooms. “It is only after leaving the shutter open for minutes while you paint the landscape (with light) that you can get to see what the camera has recorded ... rather like waiting for the image to come up in the developing tray.

Solness’s pictures invite the viewer to share kinship with the sometimes threatening nocturnal atmosphere of the Australian bush, finding a unique balance in portraying the densely detailed world occupied by Australia’s flora and fauna.

RICKY MAYNARD - Portrait of a Distant Land
At the cavernous Museum of Contemporary Art at Sydney’s circular Quay, indigenous photographer Ricky Maynard is showing “Portrait of a Distant Land” thoughtfully curated by the MCA’s Keith Munro. I caught up with Maynard and Sandy Edwards during a panel discussion chaired by Munro. Within the inclusive space of the MCA it proved a funny, candid, serendipitous dialogue with spirited questions from a large, knowledgeable and

Indigenous Ph
otographer Ricky Maynard with his large format Wik Elder portraits at Sydney's MCA
enthusiastic audience. Maynard, Edwards and myself each shared the experience of having worked on the massive 1988 documentary project, After 200 Years. Brilliantly organised by Penny Taylor of IATSIS, this project became an enduring, well designed book that documented life in indigenous communities, urban and remote, in Australia's now distant Bicentennial Year. Twenty years on “After 200 Years” remains Australia’s largest, orchestrated photojournalistic project. It was also the practice of After 200 Years for the community to experience the pictures each photographer produced. Maynard’s portraits from two decades ago of his Tasmanian Mutton Bird Community (as seen in After 200 Years) form an important component of Munro’s curatorial arc at the MCA, as did the Tasmanian photographer’s unsentimental, bleak, portraits of dispirited indigenous men and women marooned in prison. For admirers of documentary photography there was much to absorb, including extended captions explaining cultural context. However, there was another bonus to this show to be found upstairs at the MCA where Curator Munro had gathered together seminal works by photographers Maynard had named as his important influences. As I stated in my Sydney Morning Herald review, it was like entering a room full of old friends - from luminous, planetary landscapes by Ansel Adams (Moonrise, Hernandez New Mexico was there) to Lewis Hine’s tragic early 19th Century child workers and W. Eugene Smith’s afflicted mercury poisoning victim Tomoko in Minamata. An unexpected, thought provoking reward after viewing Maynard’s carefully fashioned portrait of our Southernmost state.

LUKE HARDY - Yuki Onna
While in Sydney I also attended the opening of Luke Hardy’s exhibition at the new Meyer
Gallery in Darlinghurst This new body of work by Hardy was inspired by a traditional Japanese ghost story - the legend of the snow witch, Yuki Onna. (Woman of the Snow). Gallery Director Mary Meyer has clearly created an important new space for lovers of photography to visit. Opened by the eminent fashion designer Akira Isogawa, Hardy’s suite of pictures took yet another step away from photography’s literal strengths. By giving life to a Japanese myth with a series of delicate colour images, Hardy skated effortlessly on thin artistic ice - exploring what might seem alien mythology - but ultimately leaving the packed opening with an understanding of the beauty to be found within such stories. In a brief conversation with Isogawa I mentioned casually how curious it was that both America and Japan had been redefined artistically on occasion by outsiders - the U.S. by Swiss-born Robert Frank on his Guggenheim Fellowship in 1958 which led to the remarkable book, The Americans (Aperture 1978) and Japan in 1978 by Australian photographer Bob Davis in a book little known in Australia - Faces of Japan (Kodansha 1978) The quiet, elegant Japanese listened politely to this idea and made a note of the book’s title and its Japanese publisher. During the opening it was also hard not to notice how vibrant and knowledgeable the community of photographers and admirers of fine art photography had become, with the Meyer Gallery being densely packed for the opening.

While I was in Sydney I was contacted by an accomplished young advertising photographer who was the source of a seemingly manipulated series of landscapes - using the female nude as their focus. In his “Fallen” series Toby Burrows featured suspended, agile female nude figures tumbling into an Antipodean landscape. When I first looked at Burrow’s immaculately rendered images at Sun Studios I thought I detected the hand of Photoshop, so seamlessly did each woman’s form dissolve into the landscape. Not so, revealed Burrows. Computer manipulation played no role in these disturbing, dreamlike images declared the young photographer. As to visual secrets, Burrow was guarded.
"It was actually a very organic process. It was the landscape that first drew me. I found the form of the landscape uplifting ... and very natural . I found a strength in that imagery . But was it was always about shape - (and) to see how a woman’s form felt like (within the picture). It was (also) about learning ... it was uplifting and all done physically. The woman was taken to her place in every scene, and never moved around. It was important to make clear (at the exhibition) that all those figures were (photographed) where we trekked (to) through the forest with our equipment. They were never shifted around ... it was quite confronting ... a real learning process of working with the girls ... and growing as an artist... allowing it to happen.” In an aside Burrows added, “I went to Sydney College of the Arts the other day and a girl walked past who was saying, ‘ I wish I cared about something enough to make a theme about it in my art.’ That’s what I am (now) exploring ... and enjoying it.”


Sydney Photo Artist Tony Peri won the Kirribilli Art Prize in June with a bromoil print of a dog sitting outside the 'Kirribilli Wildlife' hairdressers shop.
Peri also won the photography section of the North Sydney Art Prize with a large (16x20 inch) bromoil called "Page To Stage", featuring noted actress/director Elaine Hudson in script rehearsals for a forthcoming Ensemble Theatre production. Peri clearly feels the 19th century printing process still has a role to play.
“My aim is to use Pictorial style printing methods using (the) modernist/1950s reportage techniques of contemporary 21st Australia. So by branching across photography's history I hope to make my own style and record history in a unique way.” Peri is also experimenting with making bromoils out of colour prints and negatives, and eventually from digital negatives. “I have been getting quite a few requests and commissions for work from people who want their own personal photographs 'bromoiled', but don't have the time or inclination to do it!” says Peri.
For the forthcoming “The Print Exposed” exhibition featuring alternative print processes, Peri’s prints will utilise a particularly rare process.
“I will be showing two Bromoil Transfers, another technique used at the turn of the 19th century ... It allows one to print on beautiful hand made papers (such as) the French made Arches and also Stonehenge papers.”
Information about “The Print Exposed” can be found at
STEVEN CAVANAGH - Masculine Bodies In Space
Sydney photographer Steven Cavanagh showed an interesting series of well observed colour images in one of the National Art School’s curved sandstone galleries scattered though the grounds of what was once a feared jail in 19th century Sydney. Cavanagh’s restrained, concise compositions, entitled “Masculine Bodies In Space”, concentrated on the unconscious body language of men in public, observed with an accurate and an unsentimental eye, creating images with enduring archival value.

While in Sydney it was my pleasure to award the Critic's Choice Award for the HeadOn portrait competition to well known Sydney editorial and advertising photographer Gary Heery for his elegant black and white observation of celebrated Australian actor Cate Blanchett. HeadOn again provided a barometer for contemporary Australian photographic portraiture, with occasionally a quite elastic definition emerging of what constituted a memorable likeness. Heery's portrait of Cate Blanchett was universally popular for capturing the actress during a moment of grace.

GREG WEIGHT - photographs on clay tablets
Portrait and fine art photographer Greg Weight, - one of the founding forces of the legendary Yellow House art community, is proving the Woody Allen homily correct - life is about (keeping) turning up. After creating his series of altered desert landscapes shown at the Australian Galleries Works On Paper gallery, Weight has recently exhibited colour inkjet images printed on thin clay tablets. “In a nutshell Lino Alvarez from La Paloma Pottery, Hill End collaborated with Garry Shead, Euan McCloud, Elizabeth Cummings, Adam Rish, John Firth Smith and myself to produce works for Australian Galleries Ceramic Triennale exhibition which opened at Mary Place Gallery, Sydney on the 15th July. All my works were 400mm x 500mm x 15mm clay tablets printed on a flatbed UV cured digital printer. It was trial and error for me but (eventually) the best results came from using as flat as possible (clay) tablets. It was appropriate to use these claypan images on clay tablets for obvious reasons. The ink from the printer was sucked up by the clay to such an extent we increased the intensity of ink ... to up to 80% at times. I discovered that a well prepared surface, sanded and smoothed, then coated with a few coats of matt polyurethane worked best (creating) colour saturation ... intense and deep. People loved looking at the edges as well as the surface and would tap them with their knuckles. They’re durable and appear to have become (art) objects as well as photographs.”

RECEIVED MOMENTS - Manly Art Gallery & Museum
Finally, I am deep in preparation with Curator Sarah Johnson for my touring retrospective exhibition which will open at the Manly Art Gallery on December 3. As this display will include both recent and vintage prints, I would like to hear from anyone with vintage prints who may wish to loan them for this exhibition which at this stage will be touring to eight regional art galleries (including Orange and Broken Hill)


New South Wales photographer Richard O’Farrell has won the $10,000 Olive Cotton Award for Photographic Portraiture with his haunting 2008 portrait of “Savitri” a blind albino Indian girl, made during a recent, extended journey to India. “I am both elated and humbled,” O’Farrell said when he learned of the award. “This will be good for Savitri and the Headmaster who got her ready to be photographed. To be recognised by this award gives me further confidence for continuing my silver-gelatin portraiture.” Originally exhibited in Sydney at Point Light Gallery in Surry Hills, O'Farrell's portrait is the kind of image that, once seen, is not easily forgotten.

Copyright Robert McFarlane 2009