Plugged In: Take time for photo shooting and viewing

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

In some respects, it takes more effort to look at photographs than it takes to take them. While at the Kenai Fine Arts Center the other day, I was reminded of how often all of us, as viewers, fail to make that effort.

The December exhibit at the Kenai Fine Arts Center consists of 40 photographs by 16 local photographers. Each of those 40 photographs was accepted between 2005 and 2012 into “Rarified Light,” Alaska’s most prestigious annual juried photography exhibit. It’s quite a diverse set of images, as might be expected of work produced by so many people and selected by eight different nationally prominent jurors. Surely, at least a few of those images should catch visitors’ eyes enough for them to linger and consider the image, at least for a few seconds.

Yet, I saw some visitors powering through those 40 select photographs as if they were on afterburner, moving through the entire exhibit in three or four minutes. That averages about four to six seconds per image, including the time spent walking between each photo. It’s hard to imagine that those viewers derived either benefit or pleasure from their brief exposure to these works. Doing so takes a bit more time and a receptive — shall we say, introspective — attitude.

Good work should produce some degree of useful emotional reaction and/or a deepened sense of personal understanding. In the best work, the emotional reaction or sense of understanding comes from within each viewer.

Perhaps I can illustrate this point using a photo from this exhibit. Although nominally a simple photo of an empty chair partially side lit by drawn curtains, I heard many different reactions from viewers. Some were reminded of happy childhood memories at home or while visiting grandparents while others saw death and loss in that empty chair. These are diametrically opposed reactions, yet all make perfectly good sense when considering each viewer’s own life experiences.

What do you see in this photograph, if anything, and how do you react to it? Email us at the Redoubt

"Dimond Hotel," courtesy of Joe Kashi.

“Dimond Hotel,” courtesy of Joe Kashi.

Reporter, redoubtreporter@alaska.net and we’ll publish some of the most interesting responses, anonymously if you wish.

High-quality work stimulates the receptive viewer into projecting their own life experiences and emotional reactions into the photograph, rather than simply being “told” how they should react, often a weakness of excessively realistic photographs. That’s also one of the major problems with cliched images — we’ve all previously seen dozens like them. In their passe familiarity, such images no longer stimulates receptive viewers to rich personal experience.

A photograph intended to have broad appeal should have some level of ambiguity or abstraction that allows viewers to relate to the photograph on the viewers’ own terms. In that way, really good photographs can become a source of introspective experience for viewers, rather than a superficial documentation of what others have done.

That’s quite enough on the topic. The show at the Kenai Fine Arts Center, 816 Cook Ave. in Kenai, open Wednesday to Saturday from noon to 5 p.m., runs through the end of December and is worth the trip.

  • DXO researches and publishes detailed objective image quality and performance data about digital cameras and their imaging sensors. Although rather crude, DXO also produces an aggregate score that combines low-light sensitivity, sensor noise and dynamic range data, the most critical factors affecting the image quality of every digital camera. I recently came across a most interesting chart that plots the DXO combined scores for every camera that they’ve tested over the years. You’ll find this master chart, along with an excellent technical article, on Luminous Landscape’s website at http://www.luminous-landscape.com/essays/dxomark_sensor_for_benchmarking_cameras2.shtml

Some startling conclusions, previously just whispered, jump out from this data. For years, Canon has failed to significantly improve the electronic characteristics of its larger sensors used in full-frame cameras, like the 5D series, and in APS-C cameras, like the T4i and “semipro” 60D and 7D. Although Canon fanboys will likely try to hunt me down and boil me in oil, it’s rather obvious that Canon’s image quality has stagnated even as others, particularly Nikon, continue to improve.

In fact, some older APS-C cameras, like Pentax’s K-5 series and Nikon’s D7000, have aggregate DXO scores comparable to Canon’s new full-frame models, like the 5D III and 1Dx. In fact, some midrange compact cameras built around smaller sensors, such as Olympus’ E-PL5 and Sony’s RX100, score higher than Canon’s recent T4i and 60D digital SLR cameras using larger APS-C sensors.

On the other hand, the sensor performance of Canon’s small-sensor premium compact cameras, like the S and G series, is distinctly better than most of Canon’s current rivals in this market segment, and continues to improve. I cannot fathom why Canon’s more expensive digital SLR cameras don’t show a similar improvement. Basic physics suggests that improving small sensors is more difficult.

The DXO scatter chart also suggests that Sony and Olympus have markedly improved the image quality of their recent, interchangeable-lens, mirrorless cameras. Panasonic’s comparable Micro Four-Thirds cameras have stagnated or, in the case of Panasonic’s compact GF5, noticeably declined.

There’s a common thread: Sony sensors generally have better image quality and continue to improve steadily. Canon, Samsung and Panasonic all make their own sensors internally while Nikon, Pentax, Sony and Olympus now use Sony-made sensors. When Olympus switched from Panasonic sensors to Sony sensors for its 2012 product lines, Olympus’ image quality improved dramatically.

  • Mirrorless, interchangeable-lens cameras, even improved models from Sony and Olympus, lack the wide variety of high-quality lenses available for more mature dSLR product lines. Sony NEX-series cameras, which are otherwise excellent, are particularly handicapped in this regard. Similarly, although there are many excellent wide angle and normal range lenses made for Micro Four-Thirds cameras, there are no really good high-magnification telephoto lenses native to this lens mount.

Recently, though, some surprising, and inexpensive, solutions have emerged. Sigma’s 19-mm f/2.8 and 30-mm f/2.8 NEX mount lenses are much better than Sony’s own somewhat pedestrian offerings. On the NEX’s APS-C sensor, the 19-mm lens is a fairly wide-angle lens, equivalent to a 28-mm lens used on a 35-mm film camera. The 30-mm Sigma is roughly equivalent to a traditional 45- to 50-mm normal lens. These same lenses are available for M 4/3-mount cameras from Olympus and Panasonic. Used with the smaller M 4/3 sensor, the 19-mm lens is roughly equivalent to a 38-mm, moderate wide-angle lens, while the 30-mm equates to a somewhat awkward 60-mm. These are small, sharp lenses that come highly recommended by some of the most discerning people in optics and easily surpass some of the camera makers’ more expensive models.

What’s the catch? None, really. Compact, interchangeable-lens system cameras, like NEX and M 4/3 models, shine when using small, sharp prime lenses. All flavors of the Sigma 19-mm and 30-mm lenses currently sell for $149 plus shipping from reputable suppliers, like Amazon, http://www.bhphotovideo.com and http://www.adorama.com. At these prices, you can hardly go wrong. For about $300 plus shipping, you’ll have two very nice prime lenses in very useful focal lengths.

At the telephoto end, there are no high-magnification lenses directly made for either NEX or M 4/3 cameras that produce consistently high quality images. There are a few very workable yet compact alternatives, though, if you’re willing to stretch your skills a bit and adapt high-quality manual focus lenses.

Leica, whose optical quality is legendarily high, made a series of extremely sharp 135-mm telephoto lenses between 1960 and 1998 that are surprisingly affordable on the used market, costing between $200 and $500 depending upon quality and age. More information about specific models can be found at http://www.kenrockwell.com/leica/lens-reviews.htm#135. The 1960 to 1965 135-mm Elmar (No. 11850) is the least expensive, while the more modern Tele-Elmars (No. 11851 and the later No. 11861) cost between $400 and $500 used. I found several in the used section of http://www.adorama.com. Avoid the Leica 135-mm Hector and 135-mm f/2.8 lenses. These are not as sharp or too bulky for convenient use.

Leica to NEX or M 4/3 adapters are available from Adorama and Amazon. These seem to vary greatly in price and quality, so check the customer reviews carefully before buying. Be sure that any adapter is matched to the screw mount or bayonet mount of the lens.

On a Sony NEX camera, a 135-mm lens is equivalent to a 200-mm moderately long telephoto lens while the same lens mounted on a M 4/3 camera equates to a 270 high-magnification telephoto.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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