Friday Inspiration: Michael Kenna

Looking at my notes I was surprised to see that I have never included Michael Kenna in my Friday Inspiration series. His minimal landscape work resonates with me in a deep way. I enjoy the space that he provides the viewer for their own thoughts. The range of subjects that Kenna has photographed is quite impressive from minimalist Japanese winter landscapes to a power station in England to his daughter’s kindergarten classroom. Quite an inspiration.

I was excited a few years ago when I saw a short trailer for a documentary following Kenna as he photographed in Shinan in Korea. Yet I never was able to find the full length documentary until recently. Check out ‘A Letter From Shinan’ below.

G.G.A.S.*: Canon 100-400 mkII


*Galloping Gear Acquisition Syndrome

I am generally happy to remain ignorant of the latest bells and whistles that the camera manufacturers have added in order to sell another piece of gear that no-one really needs. However, of late my head has bean turned by lots of new doodads. The latest in this parade of head turners is the updated version of Canon’s 100-400mm lens. I had the original ‘dust pump’ version of this lens which I eventually retired because it never saw much action and following it’s use I ended up spending a while cleaning the sensor on the body that it was used on. Having said that, there was a certain novelty factor to the way that the lens extended to change focal length. For the weight and number of times I used the lens I decided to leave it on my desk at home and make do with my very much lighter 70-200mm lens.

There are times however when the extra reach can allow you to make the photograph that you have in mind. The image above is a case in point. I’d tried with my 70-200, it really wasn’t working, click on the image below to see what I mean. Nixon_150115_6450

While getting closer was certainly an option I had an opportunity to use the new 100-400 lens and made the image below using the same settings as I had with my 70-200mm. Nixon_150115_6462

Immediately noticeable on the LCD screen on the camera was that the image made using the 100-400 was sharper than that made with the 70-200 even though all the camera settings and lens settings were the same. This in inevitably led me to wonder what if I dumped the 70-200 and replaced it with the 100-400 lens. That way I’d have a nice sharp lens capable of the extra reach when I need it. My only concern is the weight – a chunky albs. We’ll see how I get on!

Ohmu Breakwater

Nixon Water1

With all the snow that we’ve been having here in New England you would think that I would have had time to finish working on my images from Japan wouldn’t you? A reasonable expectation but I’m swamped here at the moment. More about what’s going on in a few weeks.

I’ve mentioned here before that I generally take a lot of frames when I’m out shooting, particularly when I’m photographing water. With flowing water each frame will be different and potentially offer something unique. Also worth exploring is a range of shutter speeds – I generally try to keep some sense of motion in the water rather than blur the water completely with a very long exposure.

I’m still working on the image above – I’m happy with this version but will now live with this for a while to learn what I like and what I like to change.

Wherever You Go There You Are

I doubt that I am unusual in having an almost continual running conversation with myself.  One of the topics of conversation with myself when I travel is is to manage expectations for the photographs that I’ll create.  ‘You take you with you wherever you go’, I told myself.

Playing with that phrase over the weekend I came to ‘Wherever you go there you are’, which felt too familiar for me not to have seen it somewhere else.  A quick search came up with the most likely place that I’d seen it before – the title of Jon Kabat-Zinn‘s book of the same name that deals with mindfulness.  Other sources were fun though, particularly Buckaroo Banzai, a cult film from the ’80’s.

The chapter in Kabat-Zinn’s book that is titled ‘Wherever you go there you are’ the problem that I was coaching myself through is described perfectly.  Namely this – we have a tendancy to flee from things, if it’s not good here it will be better there.  The problem of course is that many of the things that we’re running from have an uderlying root cause and that is us.

Not being happy with the photographs you’re taking at home doesn’t mean that the photographs you make when you travel to an exotic location will be too much different.  They will inevitably have your signature all over them, they will be you, that it if you’re doing anything right at all.  For me this means that I won’t suddenly channel Michael Kenna or Michael Levin when I travel to Hokkaido.  I may go to the same places and see the same things but the photographs will be different, either dramatically or subtly.

In fact you should be striving to take ‘you’ photographs, those photographs that are a unique expression of how you see the world, and being doing that whether you’re at home or not.  I, perhaps we, need to get comfortable with that, own it and milk it for all it’s worth. 

Permission to Play


I’ve been feeling overwhelmingly stuck and uninspired over the last few months, perhaps longer if I’m being honest with myself. That’s not to say that I haven’t had my moments but it’s been and continues to be hard going.

The usual advice that you get in these circumstances is to keep going. Work yourself out of the funk, make a lot of work and see where that leads you. My advice to myself was to play more.

After a bit of digging I realized that I was working within a particular sent of constraints that had provided a useful framework at one point but now were stifling. I needed to step back and break the rules that I’d established for myself.

Playing the camera on my iPhone has been enormously helpful in breaking one of my rules – always shoot on a tripod – it also forced me into using a single lens which made me move around and change my point of view to get the shot that I was interested in.

I also pushed beyond the boundaries that I am comfortable with in processing these images, often adding a lot of contrast, a texture, a tilt shift look, really piling stuff on until it was in a realm that was totally alien to me. I think that Brian Eno would do similar things in music production push beyond the limits but then retreat to a useful and usable position.

I’ve been enjoying playing and continue to do so. Here’s a question for you:

What ‘rules’ either acknowledged or not do you follow? How could you systematically break them.

I’d love to hear what restraints you impose on yourself.

Filters – Trials and Tribulations


There’s nothing that frustrates me more than being prevented from making the photographs that I have in my head than gear that doesn’t perform as expected or fails in one way or another.

While I’ve been in Japan I’ve been using my normal collection of ND filters but also experimenting with the Big Stopper. My usual approach to photography is to make exposures that I can then use to recreate the feeling that I had when I was there. Although much of my post-processing work has previously consisted of a few trivial moves in Lightroom, it is increasingly becoming a more substantial amount of work in photoshop.

For shooting moving water at the coast specifically I try to have the shutter speed be around 2 or 3 seconds, which is generally long enough to blur the water substantially while still retaining a sense of movement. At sunrise or sunset getting the right shutter speed is a matter of playing with ISO and f-stop, as it gets lighter and I can no longer decrease the ISO I will generally add a 3 stop neutral density filter. On this trip I’ve also been adding the Big Stopper into the mix to get even longer exposures such as the one above which was a 2 min exposure.

To make an exposure that is well exposed for the sky and the ground (or water in this case) I may use a graduated ND filter or take a bracketed set of exposures or both. I’m essentially collecting the raw materials to make the image later and not being stuck on getting ‘it right in camera’.

I have been using the 4 x 6 in filters from Singh-Ray, specifically the 3 stop ND filter and the Galen Rowell 3 stop soft ND gradient filter in a Lee filter holder. The filter holder attaches to the lens by means of a screw in adaptor ring.

Here’s where the fun began – I have UV filters on all of my lenses to protect them from the salt spray that I inevitably get covered in when I’m at the beach. We could argue about the value of those filters some other time and I will provide an argument below why I shouldn’t be using them. What I managed to do was to get the filter holder adaptor stuck on the UV filter of one of my lenses making it very cumbersome to use the filter system on any other lenses – not impossible just cumbersome. And annoying…

I tried all kinds of things to get the two separated, wearing rubber gloves so that I could get a better grip, putting a rubber band around the UV filter to help me get a better grip, heating with a hairdryer, all to no avail. At the suggestion of one of my new best buddies to warm up the UV filter by holding it and by doing so expand the UV filter slightly I did the following:

  • cooled the UV Filter/Filter adaptor pair by putting it in a cold draft, essentially on an outdoor window sill
  • sat the UV Filter on something warm, in this case my bare arm, taking care not to touch the upper adaptor ring, until it didn’t feel cold any more
  • put a rubber band around the UV filter
  • put on my rubber gloves and twisted

The whole thing then came apart with a little bit of effort. I was stunned given that I’d been trying for a couple of days to separate them. File this away in case you ever find yourself in the same predicament.

On a wide angle lens I will usually see substantial vignetting that results from the filter adaptor being stacked on the UV filter. In the past I’ve gotten away from this problem by hand holding the filter and not using the holder. Inevitable this means that I scratch the resin filters and move during the longer exposures or screw the shot up in some other way which is why I’ve started using the filter holder routinely. After a bit of experimentation while I was here I realized that if I take the UV filter off the lens then the vignetting goes away. The lens of course is still protected by the ND filter and all is right in the world. When I’m done with the filter holder I’ve been putting the UV filter back on the lens but can imagine that I will soon ditch the UV filters completely.