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Split-personality Shoot Today

Today, I had a group shoot with two models and several other photographers. We wandered around the streets of Georgetown, one of the oldest neighborhoods in DC and once a separate town but merged with DC in the early years of the Republic. Of course, I shot the majority of my images on my Rolleiflexes (4 rolls Ektar 100 and one roll Tri-X). But I also put my new iPhone 6 to the test. It is surprisingly good- these look to me to be as good as the shots I take with my Canon 5D. Look and judge for yourself:
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Neighborhood Walkabout – Alphonse Osteria & Market

I drive by this place every morning on my way to work. I watched them working on getting the place ready to open and kept telling myself I really ought to stop in and try it out. Well, this weekend, I did. It was my treat to myself for having sold four prints. The restaurant is right on U Street, and the space is not large – they have perhaps ten tables and bar seating for another ten or so patrons. The ambiance is classic Italian eatery, down to the red checkered tablecloths and the mid-century pop and light jazz (think Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and Tony Bennett) playing at just the right volume. And most importantly, the food is FANTASTIC. I had Bronzino with roasted beets, pears and almonds, and a Valhrona chocolate cannoli that was just to die for. I will be adding this to my roster of regular haunts.

Here is a streetscape including the marquee for the restaurant.

U Street, Twilight
U Street, Twilight

Alphonse has their own wood-fired pizza oven. One of their pizzas is next on my list of things to try. I had the Rollei with me as usual, and everyone on the staff was particularly appreciative of it. I was trying to take a shot of the pizza chefs working at the oven, but one of them caught me out of the corner of his eye, turned, and they both mugged for the camera.

Two Pizza Chefs
Two Pizza Chefs

This is the view of the restaurant from my table in the back by the pizza oven. As you can see, it’s a long, narrow space, but with charming atmosphere. The front of the restaurant has a small shop where you can buy desserts and Italian specialty grocery items like salamis.

Alphonse Restaurant
Alphonse Restaurant

With the sun down, the ambient light outside is pretty much equal to the illumination inside, which means that with the Delta 3200 film loaded in my camera that I was shooting, I could hand-hold pretty much equally well inside and out. You can see this in the shot of the market door – there is no brightness difference (and no manipulation of the image to equalize the brightness level between inside and out).

Alphonse Market, Door
Alphonse Market, Door

Neighborhood Walkaround – The Coffee Bar

As many of you know, I like walking around my neighborhood with the Rollei on my neck, photographing what I find. I went out this past weekend to put some Ilford Delta 3200 through the camera, to test how it performs as a low-light film. I wanted to shoot some interiors and some street scenes in low light, hand-held. Ilford Delta 3200 is really the last man standing in this game, as Kodak has discontinued their Tmax 3200 in any size, and even when available, it was only available in 35mm.

I was out to meet a customer who was interested in my photography – I made a print sale! (that will be a different blog post). In celebration, I was out exploring the neighborhood and took a different route home and came by this (relatively) new coffee shop, simply named, “The Coffee Bar”. It’s very cute inside, and they serve a really tasty chai. They did a fantastic job renovating the place and gave it a very inviting atmosphere. I love the sayings on the chalkboard menu – “decaf coffee is like a hairless cat – it exists, but that doesn’t make it right”.

The Coffee Bar, Menu
The Coffee Bar, Menu

One of the things that happens when you test out a new film is that you discover character quirks that help you decide how and when to include it in your palette of options. Delta 3200 is a high-speed yet (at least in 120) relatively fine-grained film. Since my Rollei has a top shutter speed of 1/500th of a second, the film’s speed severely curtails my ability to use it in daylight situations. In low light, though, that vice becomes a virtue and I can hand-hold photos that I would ordinarily need a tripod for. That was, as Donald Rumsfeld would have put it, a “known known”. A characteristic I did not know until I actually developed the film was that apparently Delta 3200 does not have an anti-halation coating. Anti-halation coatings prevent ‘blooming’ in highlights that give a “glow” to light sources within a scene. When you don’t want that, having it can be bad. However, in a scene like this, it really works and gives a warm atmosphere to the scene. This is a shot that I think when I make a silver-gelatin enlargement of it, I’ll sepia-tone the print to give it that extra warmth, and give it a real ‘coffee’ atmosphere.

The Coffee Bar, Interior, Evening
The Coffee Bar, Interior, Evening

The doors to The Coffee Bar were catching the last blush of sunset in the sky, and the reflection of the street lamp just starting to glow in the twilight. I love this kind of light at this time of day, where the sky is dimming to be just as bright as the landscape below. This is one shot where I wish I had the second Rollei with me and some color film loaded, as I would have liked to capture the deep blue sky, the patina’d green lamppost, and the orange glow of the street lamp globe reflected in the window, the gold leaf of the street number and ‘The Coffee Bar’ on the glass twinkling in the sun’s last rays. Another time – I know where it is, and I can always go back in for a good chai to warm me up on a chilly fall evening.

The Coffee Bar Doors, Evening
The Coffee Bar Doors, Evening

Teddy Roosevelt Island – single frames

Just some random thoughts from walking around Roosevelt Island. The south end of the island anchors one end of the bridge that carries Route 50 over the Potomac River. Looking through the arches of the bridge, you can see the Lincoln Memorial. Without a twin-lens reflex camera like my Rollei, I wouldn’t have been able to take this photo – to get the Lincoln to show more than a hint of a roofline, I had to hold the camera above my head, upside down, my arms outstretched. Doing this, I can use the waist-level finder to my advantage and gain an extra two feet of height. I’m sure it must look as utterly awkward to a third party observer as it feels when you’re doing it, but sometimes there’s no better way to see over a crowd (or a wall, in this case).

Route 50 Bridge, Lincoln Memorial
Route 50 Bridge, Lincoln Memorial

Turing around 180 degrees from where I was pointing the camera for the under-bridge shot, you can look up the estuarine inlet on the island, and feel like you’re a hundred miles from civilization. If you look very carefully you can see a snowy egret crossing the stream in the center background.

Estuarine Inlet, Roosevelt Island
Estuarine Inlet, Roosevelt Island

And then there’s the Roosevelt Monument in the middle of the island. It feels a bit like a Soviet Realist architect was designing a set for 2001: A Space Odyssey. White marble monoliths ring the perimeter with quotes from Roosevelt chiseled into them. Looking at them I half-expected to hear the strains of Also Sprach Zarathustra come wafting out of the woods if I stood there long enough.

Monoliths, Roosevelt Monument
Monoliths, Roosevelt Monument

And thinking of Ubermenschen, the statue of Roosevelt really feels like you could swap out his head for Lenin’s and nobody would even notice. This monument would be equally at home in Moscow. Of course, the placement within the natural environment and the environment’s intrusion into the monument belie its non-Soviet origins. When was the last time you saw something like this with so many trees and shrubbery dedicated to a Communist icon?

Vladimir Iliych Roosevelt
Vladimir Iliych Roosevelt

The bowl of this fountain is monumental in itself. It kind of reminds me in a weird way of Napoleon’s tomb at the Invalides. Fortunately nobody is buried in the fountain. But it is big enough to be a bathtub for William Howard Taft.

Fountain Bowl, Roosevelt Monument
Fountain Bowl, Roosevelt Monument

I saw this man sitting, reading his book, attended by his thermos. I think it’s a fitting image to close with as it re-humanizes the monument and makes a statement about how public places can have meaning and emotional resonance for the people who use them.

Reader, Bridge, Roosevelt Monument
Reader, Bridge, Roosevelt Monument

Teddy Roosevelt Island – Panoramics

As you’ve seen, I’ve been playing around lately with the panoramic head for my Rolleiflex, trying out some two and three frame panoramas. With each additional frame in the panorama, it gets harder to stitch together and keep aligned, and to match exposure. Not to mention the people who get caught at the periphery of a frame and then move so they’re missing a limb or something in the second frame.

I can’t explain what my fascination with traffic cones is, but this one, marking out the collapsed section of the middle of the observation deck, was just so perfectly positioned that it needed to be photographed, both as a single frame and as a panorama. This couple strolled in to the scene as I was shooting, and I decided that they added an interesting dimensional element to the scene, so I kept photographing while they were there instead of waiting for them to leave.

Marsh Overlook
Marsh Overlook

This is one scene where a three-frame panorama just doesn’t quite fit. I think the imbalance of the fountain basin makes it more interesting than having everything balanced and proportionate. What do you think? Do you like the way the imbalance pulls your eye back and forth across the frame from lower left to upper right? Does that feel natural or uncomfortable to you?

Fountain
Fountain

I’m getting in more practice with including people in scenes. My instinct is, for some reason, to photograph places without people in them. But now that I’m getting better at doing it, it’s starting to feel more appropriate to include them. It certainly humanizes the place, and helps give it a sense of purpose and utility, like this is somewhere that people actually want to go and do things, and not some empty monument to a long-dead dictator who, like Ozymandias, has no meaning to the people of today beyond his statue and inscription.

Teddy Roosevelt Monument
Teddy Roosevelt Monument

I didn’t photograph the inscriptions on the marble slabs around the periphery of the Roosevelt monument because I think that A: those kinds of photos make for very boring photos, and B: the rendering of those quotes into two dimensions grossly undercuts the meaning of the quotes and the experience of reading them in-situ. I would strongly suggest, though, that anyone interested check out The Theodore Roosevelt Center website for the full extent of the quotes. They are profound meditations on the nature of man and his environment, politics, and government every bit as appropriate and relevant today as they were when Teddy was president at the dawn of the 20th century.

Teddy Roosevelt Island – Infrared

This past weekend I took a hike on Teddy Roosevelt Island. For those not in the know, Roosevelt Island is an island in the Potomac River across from Georgetown in Washington DC. The island is accessed from the Virginia side of the river. I have driven past TR for the past 35 years but never stopped to visit because I was always on my way to something “more pressing” and/or I was on the wrong side of the expressway passing it at the time I thought about stopping (The parking lot is only accessible from the northbound side of the expressway). Well, on Saturday, I had no place I HAD to be at any specific time, I had the Rolleiflex with a bunch of film, and no better excuse to not stop. So I pulled in and parked and took a walk around the circumference of the island.

Bridge to Teddy Roosevelt Island
Bridge to Teddy Roosevelt Island

I loaded up the camera with some Maco 820c Aura infrared film. I’ve had this film sitting in my fridge for eight, nine years, (it outdated in 2007) so I wanted to try a couple rolls and see if it was still any good. I was concerned because other Infrared films I’ve used have NOT aged well. The infrared sensitizing dyes apparently are the bits that degenerate quickly and help build base fog (a bad thing). Obviously, this has not been a problem with the Maco IR.

One downside to the Maco is that it is a VERY slow emulsion. Using the Hoya R72 filter, consensus judgment is that it is best to set your meter to ISO 1 and use those readings, or if your meter won’t go that low, use the Sunny 16 rule and base your exposure on 1 second at f16 and go from there.

In this image, I was winging it on the exposure – my meter doesn’t have ISO 1 as an option. I was in some pretty deep shade, so I figured I would have a very long exposure, just guessing from overall lighting conditions and knowing that the film has very poor reciprocity failure – an indicated 1 second exposure needs two seconds, an indicated two needs four, a four second exposure needs eight, an eight second exposure needs 24 seconds, 15 seconds needs 60, and 30 seconds needs 180. I guesstimated this would require between 30 and 60 seconds, accounting for the reciprocity. Well, I overestimated by a good 50-75%. But as you can see that wasn’t that horrible a thing – I got a very useable image.

Boardwalk Path, Teddy Roosevelt Island
Boardwalk Path, Teddy Roosevelt Island

This is the view from the north end of the island, with Key Bridge and Georgetown University in the background. I took a gamble on this photo because there were two kayakers in the river and I would normally have expected them to turn into indistinct blurs with a two second exposure like I gave this scene. But I took a chance as they were in a spot in the river where they could effectively “hover” – and they did. So it worked.

Key Bridge, Georgetown, Kayakers
Key Bridge, Georgetown, Kayakers

What is it with me and safety cones? I keep finding them everywhere and photographing them. This time, in infrared.

Safety Cone, Marsh Overlook, Teddy Roosevelt Island
Safety Cone, Marsh Overlook, Teddy Roosevelt Island

Twilight Walkabout, Contax G2

A while ago a friend of mine asked me to shoot a roll of Tri-X through my Contax G2 so he could see how it performed in low-light situations, as he was thinking about getting one himself. I took a walk around my neighborhood one evening in the spring, put a roll through the camera, and these are some of the results.

One thing I notice about the shots I’ve been taking with the G2 is that my composition has been freer, less formal and less insistent on everything being nice, tidy, plumb and square. I’ve been shooting more off-angle shots and I don’t know if that’s because I’m shooting hand-held, eye-level, or because I’m trying out more ‘grab shots’ where the camera isn’t even really being brought to my eye, I’m just aiming and trusting the auto-focus. I know in the past I would have found a lot of these off-angle ‘grab shots’ objectionable and they’d have gone straight to the reject pile. But I’m reconsidering them now and I’m starting to like them. Well, maybe more appreciate them for what they are, and not reject them out of hand.

Etto Bistro
Etto Bistro

Cars at night are interesting. Depending on how you shoot them, they can be sharp, they can be blurred, or they can even disappear, leaving behind only the light trails of their head and tail lamps as proof they were once there.

The BMW was stopped fully at the traffic light when I started the exposure, but the SUV next to it was in the act of stopping, and the car turning onto 14th Street was in continuous motion.

BMW Convertible
BMW Convertible

Cars and people have to co-exist on city streets. Here a pedestrian follows a speeding car through the intersection, hoping to make the other side before the change of the light.

Le Diplomate, Twilight, Car
Le Diplomate, Twilight, Car

People in low light are a similar problem – they don’t ever really sit still. Combine that with needing to use large apertures with shallow depth of field in low light, and the requisite slow shutter speeds, and you have a recipe for blur. This was something else I used to always find objectionable; blurry people. Now, I think of it more as a sign of our humanity and our alive-ness.

Rice Restaurant, Interior
Rice Restaurant, Interior

This isn’t to say we always need to be in continuous motion – quiet contemplation in a sea of motion is often called for and a needed respite.

Sidewalk Patron, Rice
Sidewalk Patron, Rice

Architecture at twilight is in some ways easier to shoot because the subjects aren’t moving. But that still has challenges because the contrast range of dim exteriors and bright interiors, combined with hotspots from outside spot lights, can be just as difficult to balance.

Old Schoolhouse, 14th Street
Old Schoolhouse, 14th Street

The fun thing about these lighting situations, though, is that it sets up the viewer to make a psychological interrogation of the building- you are literally being pulled into the interior of the space to examine, investigate and interpret something illuminated from within that in daylight is muted if not hidden.

Bike Rack Store
Bike Rack Store

Photography, Alternative Processes, Really Big Cameras, and other cool stuff

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