Life Photography

Lockdown Photography (Part One)

When this whole horrible COVID19 experience started—back when we thought maybe we’d be in lockdown for a few weeks, not a few months to a year—I thought to myself that at least it might be something worthy of documenting with my camera. I considered the world so changed and strange in this moment in time that no one would really understand it in the future unless people tried to capture the experience.

But the truth is, I’ve really struggled. The world generally doesn’t look transformed. It doesn’t even look abandoned in many ways. It’s more eerie than that. It just looks like a perpetual early morning before people are out on the streets. Or what Sunday afternoons used to feel like in England in the 1980s. For the most part, the visual reality of this situation conveys almost nothing of the experience of living through it. In fact, at times, while it feels desolate and strange and disconcerting—terrifying even—it looks almost idyllic.

A better photographer than I might be able to capture the feeling. But in the meantime, here’s some of the surface reality of San Francisco in April and May 2020. I’ll probably post some more in another couple of months.

One day, when basically overwhelmed by the state of things, I went for an epic walk from my home all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge and part of the way back. The walk was about four hours long, and very strange with all the streets abandoned and quiet. The Golden Gate Bridge itself was the strangest. It wasn’t deserted by any means, but compared to normal, it was fascinatingly empty.
Seeing friends has become a highly sporadic activity and everyone is being incredibly cautious. In the first time I’d seen him for at least two months, Matt suggested that we go up to Bernal Park one afternoon to play with his new drone. He brought alcohol wipes and I brought Purell so we could handle the controls without risk of disease spread. We both wore masks. It did not feel normal.
I don’t really have pictures of all the shops on Valencia boarded up. That was probably the weirdest thing – one by one all the shops disappearing, being put into some kind of suspended animation, knowing as they do it that some of them may never reopen again. It’s a hard thing to capture in a visually interesting way as well. But as time has spread, posters have started to appear that are better statements of how we’re feeling.
Dolores Park is normally packed with people, even during the week. And now it’s starting to get busier again, particularly on the weekends when the weather is good. People are taking risks in being out, and hoping that the openness will minimize the chance of contagion. For a few weeks though, it was pretty much completely empty.
Cliff’s Variety in Castro is sort of like a hardware store in drag. It sells all kinds of sensible practical things, plus feather boas and shiny chains and Bear Pride flags. Because it’s a hardware store, it counted as an essential business. But they still wanted to be really careful when opening up. There’s nothing less like the feel of the Castro than this sad, quiet, structured and orderly line. I found it deeply unsettling.
Ben and I decided we needed to get some exercise one afternoon so slogged up to Kite Hill in the Castro. At this stage, very few people had serious face masks and we were making do with scarves and pieces of fabric. The hill was busy but also really weird, everyone subdued and concerned and insular.
This *is* good news, and it’s pretty widespread around San Francisco. Some of them are really great. But it’s hard to maintain this level of positivity and optimism and it’s hard to read it and take it at face value. There’s a celebration of anything that we can do to make things feel more normal, but the desperation with which people reach for them actually makes things feel less normal, more bizarre.
Part of a long walk to get some of the anxiety out of our systems. I found this picture to sort of capture part of my feeling, part of my sense that my beautiful city is trapped in some kind of vice. I feel the same about my own heart and lungs.
Another trip up to Bernal to look at the view and exercise the demons. Looking out over the city it’s both hard to get a sense of how weird everything is but also you get this sense of hundreds of thousands of people hiding in all these little boxes. Insular, caged, worried people.
This took a while to interpret, but the short version is FUCK THIS NOISE. This particular wall was covered in anti-Trump posters, but this actually felt both clever and oddly mood-encapsulating. Fuck this noise indeed.

On buying a new camera…

While I’m on the subject of pretty things for a moment–and again in lieu of actual content and opinion–one of the main ways in which I’ve been distracting myself from work recently has been photography. A few months ago I bought myself a really nice point-and-shoot Leica and it completely transformed the way I thought about photography. As a result I’m now pretty much carrying a camera with me wherever I go–now a Flickr clichéd Canon EOS 400d–and seem to spend an inordinate amount of my time calming the storm in my head by intricate fiddlings in Aperture. Brief warnings on the latter – I’ve got a 2GB RAM’d 2.16Ghz Intel Core Duo MacBook Pro and it still runs like a wounded dog. But that’s another story.

Anyway, it occurred to me that other people might not have yet made the connection (as I hadn’t) between having a decent camera and taking pictures that you find exciting. It turns out that the quality of the photographer is pretty much irrelevant. You too can take fascinating pictures with an SLR and a few hours reading up on the subject on the internets. Here’s some of the stuff I’ve come up with recently. They’re not professional or anything, but they make me happy…

Clicking on all the pictures take you through to Flickr of course. What I didn’t mention through the rest of the piece is that for a while I was considering mortgaging my future to get a Leica M8 and a Noctilux lens as responsible for some quite beautiful pictures. But somehow I managed to resist. The ¬£6500 price tag may have had something to do with that. Not even I’m quite at the stage where I’m prepared to spend months in the office to fund one camera.


I need some advice on scanning negatives…

In the background of my overly hectic life at the moment, I decided that it would be a good idea to get some old photos scanned. I’d scanned them myself a while back, but only from the prints. They looked okay, but somehow I felt that there was detail lost in the process and that there might be more quality and lasting value in getting the negatives scanned. Inspired by this brilliant scheme, I wandered into Jessops on New Oxford Street and asked them how much it would cost to get my negatives scanned and put onto a CD. At the price of around ¬£10 a film, plus an extra ¬£5 to get them done at a high quality rate, I decided to only do eight films to start off with and see how they turned out.

The finished result has been … puzzling. So this is when I’m turning to you guys in the outside world and asking you whether the scans I’ve got back are reasonable, whether they’re sort of shitty, and whether there’s any way I could get better stuff done, or the same stuff done faster or cheaper.

The main thing that’s puzzled me about the photos I’ve got back is how noisy or grainy they appear to be. Most (but not all) of the photos are black and white. They are roughly 2500 x 3500 in size. And this is what most of them look at 100% resolution, as they have come off the CD they were supplied on with no edits to brightness / contrast / levels or anything.

Now I’m not expecting these images to be looking beautiful and shiny and sharp – after all, they were taken on film and by a mostly-incompetent man in his early 20s with little experience using a camera. But I am really surprised by the grainy look and feel of it. It seems to me that a piece of photographic film shouldn’t have such enormous colour variation at this resolution. If it did by default, then you’d expect it to be impossible to get decent negatives blown up to A4 or larger, which it clearly isn’t. So I’m asking you guys out there whether this is normal, whether this is reasonable, or whether (as I’m wondering) it’s actually a function of a scanner that’s been pushed to its limit or been poorly used.

The reason I ask is because it’s actually proving surprisingly difficult for me to pull out the detail in some of these photos. The first thing I’m doing with any photo in Aperture is turning the noise reduction up to eleven. This in turn means I lose detail through the rest of the picture. It’s really aggravating.

I’m actually rather more inclined to believe that my reaction is the result of a personal failing on my part to understand the complexities of scanning from negatives than I am to believe that I’ve been given relatively expensive and poor quality service. So that’s why I need your help. If you know about this territory – if you think that even a bad photo shouldn’t end up looking so … particulate … when scanned at reasonably high resolution, then I want to know! Leave a comment below or e-mail me at the usual address, tom {at} the name of this website. Thanks.


Reclaiming hard disk space from iPhoto…

A very quick microtip that I’ve just discovered since buying my new camera. When I’m taking pictures, I have the camera set to take a number of photos in a row. I do this particularly when there are low light conditions as then hopefully you can grab one shot where someone isn’t moving or your hands aren’t shaking too much from the DTs. The result of this is that when I open up iPhoto I get ten or fifteen versions of any particular shot, most of which are almost identical. I sort through them by hand, comparing them as appropriate and deleting those that are blurry or too dark to use.

However, I have just discovered that deleting something from the Library in iPhoto isn’t like deleting something from the rest of your system or even like deleting songs from iTunes. If you delete a photo it doesn’t get removed when you empty your main trash, nor does it prompt you about whether or not to delete the original file sitting on your computer anywhere. In fact, if iPhoto is keeping your originals, it will even keep a copy of photos you’ve deleted, clogging up your hard disk, pretty much in perpetuity.

The only way to get rid of the originals of photos you’ve deleted (which in my case can be ten or more two to four megabyte files for each photo I actually keep) is to explicitly use iPhotos inbuilt ‘Empty Trash’ feature, concealed nicely under the main iPhoto menu. This is a completely non-standard feature and nicely concealed. As a result it’s almost totally undiscoverable and means that if you’ve used iPhoto for a while you may very well be building up a completely unnecessary clog of large files. In my case when I finally found this feature, iPhoto asked me whether or not I wanted to delete over two thousand items taking up around eight to ten gigabytes of hard disk space. Needless to say, yes.

Design Photography

On the IA Summit, Vegas and the Leica D-LUX 3…

Tomorrow I’m going to be talking at the Information Architecture Summit in Las Vegas on a panel about Information Architecture beyond the level of the individual site. Myself, Margaret Hanley, Matt Biddulph and Lisa Chan will bet talking about the web of data, building data for reuse and all that kind of thing. You can read more about it in the IA Summit’s description of the panel: Real information architecture ‚Äì new mighty deeds. If you’re around at the event, I hope you’ll consider keeping us company and asking lots of scary questions.

In the meantime, I’m split about 50/50 between immersing myself in the conference and getting lost around Las Vegas with my new camera, the Leica D-LUX 3. I chose it because since I bought my first camphone I’ve been taking pretty terrible quality pictures, but I’ve also felt very little (if any) compulsion to take my IXUS around with me. The difference in quality between the phone and the IXUS just wasn’t significant enough to justify the extra space it would take up in my pocket. The Leica is a whole other story. It’s sufficiently good quality for me to take pictures that are dramatically superior to my phone and sufficiently powerful for me to learn about aperture and focal length and all of that stuff without having to carry around a huge SLR all day.

Which brings me to my photos. Being in Las Vegas is affording me some interesting opportunities to take some interesting shots. Here are some of the pictures I’ve managed to get together so far. You can see moreas usualon my Flickr stream:


Did I dream this photo scanner?

Like many of you out there, no doubt, I have a pretty substantial box of paper-based photos that I really never get to see for a range of reasons, but mainly because they’re made of paper and paper’s not enormously useful. As it is a large box, flatbed scanning would just take too long and be frankly much too dull to make sure that I did the whole process. But in my mind there is an image of a smallish scanner that you could feed photographs into and they would be scanned and then come out the other side. More like an automated production line. In my head they’re about two-thirds the size of a shoebox. I can’t see any of the damn things online anywhere though so I’m wondering if they’ve just stopped making them or if I have hallucinated the whole thing. Alternatively does anyone know of somewhere I could take a box of photos into and have them scanned for a not extravagantly ludicrous price? Somewhere in Central London – ideally Soho – would be preferred! Thanks web of experts!

Photography Technology

Paul Hammond has reignited Favcol…

So a couple of years ago Matt Webb made a little site called Favcol that you could e-mail pictures to. Once you’d done so, it averaged out the colours, and blended it all together with all the other pictures in the system in an attempt to find the web’s favourite colour. It was pretty awesome, actually.

Anyway, it’s back! But this time there’s a twist. In fact there are a couple. First up – Paul Hammond has taken up the mantle from Mr Webb. Secondly he’s rewritten the code and started to push the concept in an entirely new direction. Now all you have to do is tag up your photos on Flickr with ‘favcol’ to have them appear on the site. This is, frankly, pretty neat and pretty easy. Interestingly when looking for an earlier post on favcol, I stumbled upon this old post from the plastic past: On Flickr, Favcol and my experience of weblogging in which I sort of propose something similar, which just goes to show that – LazyWeb be damned – building something well is way way way more important than thinking about shit.

PS. Wow, has been trackback spammed to hell and back.