you've got questions, i've got answers

Wow. It's been quite an interesting day in this little corner of the web.

I appreciate the response to the NYTimes' Lens blog article on my work ... the kind words, the insight and goodwill, and yes even the critiques.
So a lot of inquiries have been made about the workflow and the imaging that happens to get these photos to look the way they do.

I'm more than happy to share because I'd be interested and maybe a little skeptical too if I was on the other end... (I am a journalist and not accepting things at face value is a blessing and a curse). Though I hope the irony here (of explanation) is appreciated (in a humorous way mind you) just slightly.

Back in the darkroom days you had to pick a paper grade to print on or if you were like me and used Ilford Multigrade paper with a numbered filter. I usually used a 3 or 3.5 filter for good contrast. Sometimes a 4 if I unfortunately underexposed the film.
Then there was the decision to using an RC (resin coated) paper or fiber based...glossy? matte? pearl?
My favorite was RC pearl. Glossy's too distracting. Matte too flat. Fiber too expensive for a college student and time consuming in order to dry it correctly to keep it from wrinkling too bad.

Basically choices had to be made back then. Choices have to made today. There's no escaping. With this project I decided to keep those choices to as much a minimum as possible.

Like many cellphones the Motorola E815 offers different color modes and white balance options. The contrast can be changed as well. But most importantly it also lets you change exposure slightly by adjusting the brightness.

The photo of the pedestrian walking through a shaft of light that lives on the front page above was made that way. Originally the whole scene was bright... too bright... flat... boring... uninteresting (to me). So adjusting the brightness to expose just for the center... the sides drop off to black in "camera." Same with the band and the hard-hats photos below. I went for the highlights and let the exposure fall away in "camera."

And that's where the description of "velour-like" blacks comes in. If you expose for highlights and let the mid-range tones go dark, the underexposure in the bottom of that range just takes on a very rich dimension.
So I usually shoot in the b&w mode as it's more forgiving in the pixelation department. Color works great in bright light, but degrades quickly in low light. b&w holds up better.
Now the b&w isn't true black and white. It's a muted color version and comes up as RGB in Photoshop. So I change that to b&w before I start toning.

So...these photos are not directly from the cellphone to the blog like Chase Jarvis does (I think...haven't asked him personally).
Like many, if not all of us, I do use Photoshop to tone them up.
Because I always use automatic white balance and sometimes that gets fooled. And sometimes that works out great, but if the color is way off the charts then I'll rope it in a little. And I hardly ever touch the "camera's" contrast option.
And in both instances it's because you have to go through menus to get to those options. The camera has enough of a delay (albeit not too bad) already besides having to change those parameters too for each shot. So choices have to be made and mine are to keep it quick and simple.

But my background is photojournalism where many of us photographers place a high standard on ethics and telling the truth about a scene as best as can be told... or in other words to not purposefully deceive our audience. Obviously with the decisions we make in terms of lens choice and composition and timing there is no sure truth and photos lie... all the time. (which is the true version of the building photo? all bright? partially bright?) but that's another conversation.

So I'm not heavy handed when it comes to toning an image. I'll use levels or curves and bring the black and white points in to where it works best for the delivery vehicle at that moment: ie... web or print.
Maybe a little dodging here, a little burning there. Unsharp mask as a final step. Nothing out of the ordinary for many photographers, and nothing that would be considered a breach of ethics at my paper at least. Though really, this is my project and I can cross whatever line I want with some greater degree of impunity. But that's not how I operate and it's not in the spirit of this body of work.

As for prints... by interpolating up in 10% increments in Photoshop I have printed a few of these up to 24x30 inches (and yes they were on display in a December 2008 show and had many people doing doubletakes as they walked by).
Now, I know there's software out there that probably does a better job of increasing file size. And yes, I have a feeling I could be doing this differently in PS for better results and I am experimenting with those. But the quality was actually pretty good using this original model. Pixelation wasn't a problem. And the print took on a kind of painterly aesthetic if you decided to get up close, real close.

If you're in the Raleigh area there are a few 16x20's hanging now in the Portraits of Raleigh exhibit at the Raleigh City Museum till August. They were printed at JW Photo labs and are wonderful examples of what can be done.

Obviously not all cellphones are the same. Not all of the E815s I have are the same, quality wise. That's one reason serendipity has played its part. I could have easily gotten a cellphone whose images weren't of a quality that got me excited to see what else could be done. And this journey would have been over before it started.

I truly appreciate the opportunity that VAE, Helios, 30Threads, PDN, Photoshelter, then LOOK3, and now the NY Times have afforded me. But i'd like to make something clear. This was and still is my way of scratching a personal itch, creatively speaking. There was no agenda. No destination per se. As I summarized in my LOOK3 presentation I started this for myself... a personal assignment. And within that regard it's been and will continue to be nothing but a success. And if it was to end tomorrow... no worries. I'm a better photographer and person for the experience.

Yet, the business I'm in... communications... is the business of sharing and, in part, success is based on the audience's ability to relate... to find that common ground in the vision you're blessed with the ability to share with them.

So if this work resonates for whatever the reason... what it is... how it was done... or what it represents, then that affords me a little insight to know I'm on some right path. And therefore I'm more than happy to share.


Dylan said...

I looked through the photos in yesterday's Lens feature and loved them. Your work definitely resonates, and on a emotional level. Yesterday I thanked you for the pictures and today I thank you for the interesting insights behind the making of.

patrick said...

I would see no reason to try and cheat the size of the file. It's like trying to make a 11x14 from a polaroid land camera or get a 20x40 from a holga. it is what it is. i adore the portfolio of black and white polaroids i snapped for a period of two years with my 60s era land camera. it is what it is, there's a whole of serendipity and involved and when something does come through, it makes it all the more interesting. To echo my comment yesterday, im interested in your work. I hope to get over to Raleigh to see some of it hanging. Cheers.

tomleininger said...

If you get a chance you should get a copy of Lightroom, if anything, for printing. Printing from Lightroom is amazing, and its black and white conversion is great.

Just a thought. Nice work.


Emom said...

So glad to view, and appreciate your work. Insightful thoughts, too. I miss the smells of the darkroom, but revel in the ease by which I can create in the digital world.thank you. Smiles!

ignacio.lpm said...

Gracias Shawn. Quite enjoyed the images, and the background stories.

fatliberal said...

You handled the comments well and your explanations are great. You have the admiration of many. Good luck.

Paul Light said...

Thank you Shawn for these wonderful photographs and your generous detailed explanation as to how they were made.

ignominia said...

hey thanks for the revelation that you do work a bit with PS that was my quasi-question upon looking at your shots. I know little of the technology behind cell phones I have a primitive b&w Nokia but I know how to work in the "forget technology let's just go fast and dirty and see what happens" mode of other mediums, like polaroid to name one popular these days. In the end an image is an image, either it works or it does not and the technique behind it is secondary to the final product. So welcome be the use of a cell phone, let's see what a web cam can achieve next!

shawn rocco said...

thanks for the feedback and comments.
@patrick...if you're able to get here, let me know. great little bar around the corner. we can discuss over beverage of your choice.
@tomleininger... it's on my to-do list.
@emom... at times the fixer seemed more potent than smelling salts!
@ignominia... technique v. final product. true, i agree. on the other hand don't discount technique as a journey in and of itself. sometimes that's what it's all about and the final product icing on the cake. my lighting techniques would make the strobist cry. but i learn something different everytime. now if i can just remember what i learned.

Nathan L. Walls said...

Printing on Ilford Multigrade IV was a great experience. That's probably the one thing about shooting digitally that I miss.

I hear where you're coming from on fiber-based paper, but I absolutely love the tones with it and split-filter printing.

Also, it's interesting to hear how working photographers treat self-assignments. You're doing something my brother-in-law does (at least for this series), picks up a completely different format than your "regular" work. The way he puts it, his Nikon means work. His Leica means pleasure. It's a complete mental shift.

Ted said...

I enjoy your photos and thank you for sharing them. The beauty of it is that anyone can do it, it's not just about having "the eye"... you make a picture based on what lies outside of the frame to tell the story within it.