Monday, 12 January 2015

B&W 'Platteland' Structures

In December of 2014 my wife, Cheryl and I went on our annual photographic journey through the 'platteland' of South Africa. For a change we skipped the Karoo and instead decided to travel around our Southern border with landlocked Lesotho.

Our first stop was at Zastron and then we drove to Barkly East via Lady Grey. From there we drove to Matatiele and then on to the Sani Pass and finally Nottingham road. All and all we were on the road for seven days.

Barkly East, 2014

My usual goal on these photographic journeys is to make photographs of the people and the structures of the rural towns and villages. 

In this post I want to dwell on my B&W architectural images and how they were made and also the 'old' outdated camera I used....

The images in this post are of the old and mostly decaying buildings of our rural villages and towns. The platteland towns and villages are taking a lot of strain, having been largely abandoned by the previously all white and relatively wealthy inhabitants. Most of the old towns now have dysfunctional municipalities and a much reduced tax base, and with different spending priorities than before, resulting in potholes that are a common sight and municipal buildings that are very neglected and often in dire need of repair and maintenance....

One Camera and One Lens

Many photographers do a OC/OL/OY projects at least once in their photographic career. OC/OL/OY stands for One Camera, One Lens, One Year. The discipline of working with very limited equipment is very beneficial, even for seasoned photographers. Often we become just too comfortable and set in our ways using too much equipment and a good dose of equipment austerity works well to recharge one's visual batteries.

I inadvertently did this for almost two years when I purchase my Leica X1 a few years ago. The X1 had a fixed 35mm lens and I started using it almost exclusively for my personal photography.

The X1, although not in the same league image quality wise as my Canon 5D2, was just such a nice little camera to carry with me - it had an absolutely silent shutter and a small form factor with old film style controls which I quite liked. For almost two and a half years I used it almost exclusively for my personal photography.

unfortunately the focus was very slow with the result that I had to learn how to use the 'zone focus' whenever I needed faster focus.

Unfortunately I found that the 12mp sensor just wasn't detailed enough for structures and architecture .....

So even though I don't have a OC/OL/OY project going at the moment I have to a large extend come to realize that limited equipment and subject matter works well in defining my personal photographic style. Using one camera and one lens has sort of become the standard way in which I work...

Thus I have concentrated largely on the following subject matter:
Natural People photography & Portraits

& Documentary type Architecture, Structures and Landscapes

Travel photography incorporating both people, street, structures and landscapes

When it comes to equipment I prefer using this:

Canon Eos 6D plus EF 40mm f2.8 stm lens (plus occasionally the EF 85mm F1,8) for people, portraits and travel

Mamiya ZD plus Mamiya Sekor 50mm F3.5 shift lens for Architecture, structures, landscapes and even people.

Winburg, 2014

Wepener 2014

So lets take a look at this old medium format camera and its many technical challenges...and advantages

Mamiya ZD medium format digital

I bought this camera years ago but have largely stopped using it commercially once I got into the full frame Canon system.

I kept the ZD even though technologically its rather outdated and 'slow' to use.

Vanstadensrus, 2014

Winburg, 2014

The  ZD was Mamiya's first venture into digital medium format and their sensor expertise, imo, was not quite on par with the more established brands like Phase One etc. But at the time it was relatively inexpensive compared to the other brands.

The sensor is at its best only at 50 and 100 iso and anything exposed at higher iso's has too much noise to be usable and the same with exposures longer than about 4 sec. 

It is really best to use the camera on a tripod because the lens is a manual focus, manual aperture stop down only. This means that one has to use the aperture wide open to focus, and then do the necessary shifts, move the aperture ring (stop down) to the selected aperture, which is almost always F16. ( and at F16 the lens is too dark to see through or focus with, hence the reason why one has to focus first before all the other mentioned steps ). 

Zastron, 2014

On top of all this the sensor has a colour cast and another problem is that when dialing in heavy clarity or micro contrast the sensor shows a horizontal line...

Fortunately Adobe LR has a Flatfield plug-in that gets rid of the sensor colour casts and as long as one uses only moderate post processing techniques the center line remains invisible.

Zastron, 2014

The ZD 'only' has a 22mp sensor but it is almost twice as large as a 35mm sensor, 36 x 48 mm as opposed to a 24 x 36 mm! This results in very smooth and wide dynamic range images

The ZD's format is closer to that of the 4x5 view cameras in the days of film and also similar in the way they work...4x5 film cameras also having stop down manual aperture lenses. 

The buffer is limited to 10 raw files  before it slows down and it also takes quite while for the image to appear on the tiny and course 1.8inch lcd, so no pixel peeping! I only look at the LCD to see what the histogram looks like. Exposures have to be a lot more accurate than with my 6D and I find overexposure is a no no. 

On the other hand I can push the shadows a lot more than with my 6D  and they are also a lot cleaner than the Canon files. I sort of have an idea now what the Nikon and Sony owners are bragging about when they talk of their camera's superior DR!

Winburg, 2014

All this may make it sound as if the Mamiya Zd is the absolutely the worst camera ever! So why am I still using it?

I love using it for architecture and structures. I have never really found a need for another lens and the shift cappabilities makes it perfect for architecture. At f16-22 it's wonderfully sharp and almost everything is in focus. Being limited to slow 50 & 100 iso's remind's me of the days of film where we somehow managed to get by using one film at a time. 

Thus I find myself not only using one camera and one lens but also only one iso, one aperture, always a tripod, always looking at the subject matter over the camera and not through the lens. And because of the colour casts, even though easily rectified in LR via a Flatfield plugin, I tend to convert the colour files to B&W most of the time...

Winburg, 2014

Winburg, 2014

Only using one lens reduces the decision making process,. When I get out of the car and set my camera and tripod up I already have a very good idea of what I will see through the viewfinder, using one lens only does that to ones 'vision'...

The lens's shift facility works wonders for architecture and the 32mm equivalent full frame point of view just looks 'normal' and one doesn't notice the lens in the image...

I am forced to use a tripod and the stop down manual focus lens and slow buffer of the camera slows the whole process down with the result that I choose my subject matter much more carefully.

I also make a lot less exposures, less than 10% of what I usually make with my 6D!

Our light is very harsh here and the golden hour is very short in the Southern Hemisphere....travelling limits the time one can 'wait' for the light to improve so it forces one to accept and use the harsh light even when it is at its worst at midday, but the ZD sensor copes admirably with these harsh light conditions.

Hobhouse, 2014

Hobhouse 2014

thus the Mamiya ZD and 50mm shift has become my 'less is more' tool....its has many drawbacks but the drawbacks forces me to work in a slower more deliberate way and choosing my subject matter more carefully....I like to think this slower process helps me to make better images....

Vanstadensrus, 2014

Vanstadensrus, 2014

Post Processing

The B&W images here were all processed in Adobe LR. I use LR for the RAW conversions and then I use DXO Filmpack 3 to convert them to B&W. I use the Trix-400 preset. I play around to see what the effect of the colour filters will be, for instance the yellow filter will darken blue skies and lighten skin tones. I also reduce the grain of the Tri-X plug in somewhat, because after all this is a medium format digital, today's equivalent of the old film 4x5 view cameras.

I also dont do local contrast enhancement, because DXO Filmpack 3 doesn't have that facility. I sometimes use Topaz Adjust and Detail if I need a bit more 'clarity' for more highlight and shadow detail and texture.

I quite like this 'film' look and these digital images reminds me a lot of my B&W darkroom prints made from 4x5 negatives.

Zastron, 2014

Zastron, 2014

Regarding the images themselves, I don't really have much to say but that I am drawn to decay and structures with a 'patina' and tha I tend towards austere documentary style images.

A friend on FB had this to say about some of these images....

'your landscapes are so lonely, empty of people, they're definitely remarkable but there's such a strong tone of loneliness that pervades, this is the first time that I've seen people in your photos... I shudder inside thinking of being in these spaces as a human being. Your work is certainly exceptionally communicative and hauntingly sad.'

Barkly East, 2014

......what do you think?

Regards, Ivan

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