Most people who grew up before the age of the selfie will have some memory of family group portraits taken using the self-timer function on somebody’s camera. Most film cameras had a prominent lever or an obvious button somewhere, to trigger a clockwork mechanism or an electronic delay. The camera would be positioned on a chair or table, while the group arranged itself, leaving space for the photographer whose job it was to frame the image, set the timer, and run to take up position and say “cheese”. Timers always took longer than you imagined, and you never quite knew when they would stop. The photographer, trying to avoid becoming a blur in the photograph, would arrive in the group flustered, yet by the time the shutter clicked, everyone’s smile would have been held a little bit too long. This photograph was taken with an Ondu pinhole camera on the beach at Low Newton in Northumberland. There is no timer on the camera, but the twelve second exposure gave me time to open the shutter, run to join my three friends, hold still for five or six seconds, then run back to close the shutter again. I like the effect long exposures create of being there, but not there; this is a record not of a moment, but of time passing, visibly.
When you get up early enough on a summer morning to see the sun sideways through the trees, and the mist still rising from the river, it feels for the rest of the day as if you have been let in on a secret. This is the river Rothay from the stepping stones, at about 6.30am.
I've just spent a week on the island of Sao Miguel, in the Azores, in the middle of the Atlantic. Unusually for me I didn't take a film camera, largely because the gear we took for whale watching and wildlife (including binoculars) was already quite bulky and heavy. Sadly, a heavy film camera and a bag of film was going to be too much.
Anyway, for general walking around I took the Fujifilm X100T, which is small, light, and unassuming, and therefore just about perfect for travel. This is especially true when the weather is warm, making heavy, bulky gear uncomfortable to carry. On one of our non-whale watching days we took a walk along the ridge of the giant volcanic crater above the village of Sete Cidades. It's worth noting that this crater is just the very top few hundred metres of a large group of volcanoes that rise from several kilometres below the sea. If it was all visible above sea level it would be on the scale of Mount St Helens, or Mount Fuji. This is a place of big skies and wide views, and even the fairly wide lens on the front of the X100T didn't really cut it: the answer was panoramas.
The X100T's in-camera panorama mode is an excellent, quick, and generally reliable way of making these wide photographs hand-held. The camera puts a line through the middle of the frame on the viewing screen and asks you to sweep the camera across the view, keeping a little arrow more or less on the line while the shutter chatters away. Lots of cameras can do this kind of thing, including (perhaps especially) phones, and the result can be seen above: it's a perfectly acceptable snapshot of the view, delivered as a jpeg with the dimensions 6400x1440 (the exposure mode is, obviously, automatic).
Of course, if you want to make a proper high-resolution panorama, you need to shoot a series of overlapping portrait oriented images on a carefully set up tripod. You also need understanding companions who don't mind waiting while you mess around with camera gear; it's not really compatible with a happy family holiday. But as a backup I did what we sometimes did back in the olden days, and took four overlapping images side by side, thinking I might want to do something with them later.
Back then we would get the prints back from the lab, and lay them out on a table to see the panoramic image, ignoring the different exposures between frames, and the jagged edges top and bottom from not holding the camera perfectly level. It was an amusing thing to do, but I doubt anyone did it more than once, which meant three or four prints from that batch were just badly-composed snaps of more or less the same view. Once they were mixed up, they made no sense at all.
Anyway, I backed up that day's photos to my phone, and thought nothing of it. Then after a while I received an alert of the kind that makes technology seem like magic: would I like to make a panorama? Google Photos had noticed those four images were a series, and had worked out what I intended to do. The resulting image, stitched together automatically from the four, is below. As you can see, it includes more of the scene than the camera did, possibly because the camera was being more conservative about cropping away from the edges.
The Google Photos panorama is better in several ways than the one created in camera, notably in dynamic range (less of the sky is blown out), and composition (I was able to choose with more accuracy where to begin and end), and in the overall proportions of the image. The fact that it was done automatically was a very pleasant surprise, but it also has some issues, which I'll come to in a moment.
Since I had those four files, I thought I would make a panorama for myself, and see how it compared. My preferred software for doing this is an open source, cross-platform (Linux, Mac, Windows) application called Hugin. This is free to download, and offers a huge range of manual options, but I've always found the three-step automated process offers a good balance of quality and speed. I have the RAW files of course, which should give a step up in quality if I put some time into it, but to be fair to the other two images, I used the jpegs straight from the camera. And looking at the result below, I'd say Hugin has done quite a good job.
Although Hugin also had to match the colours and exposures across the four images, it has done a better job than Google Photos of maintaining the Fuji colours across the panoramic frame (Fuji's Classic Chrome film simulation to be precise). The automatic Google Photos version is slightly desaturated, and has a strange vignette in the top right hand corner. Google's automatic panorama has cropped very slightly wider, resulting in some distortion and reduced quality at the extremes, while Hugin has provided a more natural-looking (to my eyes anyway) image, which is nevertheless very wide (7343x2080). Although it wasn't spookily automatic, it still only took a minute or two to create.
So what would I conclude from this? Well, I wouldn't print any of these on a large scale, but for larger display purposes, and possibly a printed family album, I'd say the in-camera panorama and the Hugin version are probably acceptable. The final, Hugin version is clearly the best of the three. The next time I find myself in this kind of situation, I'll definitely make sure to take four or five separate overlapping images, rather than rely on automatic panorama modes, however magical they may seem.
This winter has been one of the longest, and most miserable I can remember. What has been especially strange is the way the wintry weather continued even when the light was clearly indicating Spring. This was taken in March at Fox How, near Ambleside, in the Lake District.
This is a version of an article I had published in the January 2018 issue of Black and White Photography Magazine, to which you can subscribe here.
For the past two years I have been photographing a short section of the River Rothay in the Lake District, roughly between the eastern end of Rydal Water, and the historic Ambleside stepping stones. The project began in the aftermath of Storm Desmond, an Atlantic storm that delivered unprecedented rainfall to the mountains of Cumbria, and Northern England. I have heard passing tourists compare this stretch of the Rothay in summer to a Cotswold stream. But on December 5th, 2015, the Rothay transformed into a raging giant fifty metres wide, carrying branches and debris from miles upstream, smashing bridges, and sweeping away many of the stepping stones themselves. It peaked at a record 3.71 metres, a whopping two metres above the level at which the UK government’s Flood Information Service says flooding is possible.
I began by documenting the strange effects of the flood: fences tightly woven with grass and leaves, large stones flung across sheep pasture, and turf rolled up like a carpet by the force of the current. Since then, it has been the Rothay’s quieter moods that have held my attention. Over the course of a long project it is necessary to look at the same scene differently, not only because the scene itself changes, but also because you see it differently over time. While working on my Rothay project I’ve used both film and digital cameras to document the changing landscape, to capture the strangeness and unfamiliarity of the aftermath of the flood, and the slow return to normality.
After almost two years I am beginning now to edit my images into a coherent collection, but when I had the opportunity to visit the Rothay with Sigma’s SD Quattro H and 18-35mm F/1.8 lens, I wondered whether an unfamiliar camera might help me find a new perspective on familiar territory. In particular I wanted to explore whether it might complement my medium format film images. The answer rather surprised me. In an early morning experiment I pitted the SD Quattro H against my Yashica MAT 124G and a roll of Fujifilm Acros 100.
Allowing for the different sizes of imaging sensors, the Sigma at 35mm and F/1.8 (and cropped square) comes in roughly--very roughly--equivalent to the Yashica’s 80mm at F/3.5 in terms of field of view and depth of field. In theory, this should give a similar “look” regardless of the significant differences in sensor size. Of course, changing light, different characteristics of film and digital imaging, and lenses made 40 years apart, make direct comparisons pointless. But while the results from the Sigma are pleasing, it was while trying to frame to match the square aspect ratio of the venerable Yashica, that I stumbled on a feature that changed the way I used the camera from then on.
In the well laid out main shooting menu--probably the best menu system I have used--is an option to change the format of the frame you are shooting. There is a range of options, from 3:2, and 4:3 through square, 16:9, and finally 21:9, widescreen. Obviously these are crop modes, and of course cropping can be done in post, but I’ve always liked the immersive, square viewfinder of my Yashica, because of the way it forces you look at a scene in a particular way. Because the Sigma is a mirrorless camera, something similar is achievable in its electronic viewfinder. The camera still records the whole sensor, so you can change your mind later if you like, but this way you are making the decision at the point of creating the image, rather than reframing after the event. And unlike many other mirrorless cameras, the Sigma doesn’t have to record the cropped frame as a jpeg, but in the RAW data, so no data is lost and the full range of adjustment is possible. Actually being able to compose the frame in the aspect ratio you want, while on location, is very liberating.
While the square format was useful, what really caught my imagination was being able to shoot in 21:9 aspect ratio, similar to the legendary Hasselblad X-Pan film camera, and close to the modern widescreen cinema and classic Cinemascope formats. Being able to look through the viewfinder and see the widescreen sweep of river I was hoping to capture, or framing a candid portrait with acres of moody dead space, is a wonderful thing. And because of the high resolution of the Foveon sensor, even a cropped image like this has a potential size of 6192 x 2648 pixels: more than enough for large scale prints.
Many film cameras made changing aspect ratios possible, using masks to expose different areas of the film to give different aspect ratios, including pinhole cameras, and even the humble Holga. But as in so many other areas, digital cameras open up possibilities for creative freedom without the need to wait until you’ve used a whole roll of film. As I came to realise during the time I spent on the River Rothay last August, the ability to shoot in different aspect ratios, and to compose for them in the field rather than after the event, is a compelling creative opportunity.
By Chris Routledge