This article discusses the making of the film Forty-Seven Photos of Rain, which was posted to this site earlier in the week. For those seeking to protect their index fingers from the wear of needless navigational strain, the film is also available at the bottom of this article.
New visitors to the ULTRAsomething site will likely expect me to jump right into the nuts and bolts of this undertaking, but veteran ULTRAsomething fans know better. They know my photos are rarely the result of a linear thought process, which means any article discussing these photos will contain enough character development, plot twists and story arcs to insure only the hardiest make it to the end. What can I say? Knowledge is pain.
So settle in — it’s going to be a torturous, agonizing ride.
I suspect most of my readers are at least tangentially aware of the Red Digital Camera Company and its Epic and Scarlet professional cinema products. I also suspect — given the fact Red cameras are bulky, expensive and marketed primarily to high-end filmmakers — that many of you haven’t burned too many precious web hours researching whether or not Red is a viable candidate for the coveted distinction of “next camera purchase.”
But for me, new or old, cheap or expensive, if it can shoot an image then I’m crawling all over it.
And the more I crawled all over the Red, the more intrigued I became by its possibilities. Not because I’m a filmmaker of any great repute — one viewing of my Pavement film should prove that — but because Red cameras are designed for both motion and still photography. Red even designates their cameras as “DSMC” devices, which is an acronym for “Digital Still & Motion Camera.”
It’s completely beyond the scope of this article to discuss they whys and wherefores of Red’s technology. What’s important is the end result — a camera that captures high-resolution RAW images at high frame rates. “Big deal,” I hear you mutter from the cloud. And “big deal” are the same words I first uttered, too — until I realized this technology completely obliterates a wall that’s always existed in the digital photographic world: the wall between still photography and motion photography.
Prior to now, photographers had to gather in one of two camps — either they needed a high frame rate (likely because video was the intended delivery medium) or they needed high resolution (likely because single, still images would be the intended delivery medium).
Video guys are probably saying “Hey, all my frames are shot in HD, so I’m already shooting at high resolution.” But all you still photographers know better. You know that any frame extracted from a video stream is limited to a maximum of 1920 x 1080 pixels, and that those are going to be some bloody ugly pixels. That’s because each frame, aside from containing only 2 megapixels of image data, is compressed, dithered and pre-baked into a quality level just suitable enough for the eye to view for a period not longer than 1/30th of a second. It certainly isn’t going to result in an image you’d hang in the Museum of Modern Art or deliver to Vogue.
Meanwhile, all you still photography guys are probably saying “Hey, my camera has a continuous shooting mode, so I’m already shooting at high frame rates.” But now it’s the videographers who know better. They know that a little 10 frame-per-second burst here and another 10 frame-per-second burst there will result in some rather lousy motion video. Scenes of only 1 or 2 seconds in length, shot at 10 frames per second, are certainly not going to result in a film that debuts at Cannes, Sundance, or even network television.
In the last few years, the advent of still cameras with built-in video capabilities has had a profound impact on the industry — finally, you could buy one camera to fulfill two purposes. But even then, the two purposes were separated within camera: either the camera worked in video mode, or it worked in stills mode. Digital Still and Motion Cameras (DSMC’s) remove these differences. They remove the need to compromise resolution for the sake of motion; or to compromise motion for the sake of resolution. The Red Epic, for example, has a sensor roughly 14 megapixels in size. That’s about 7 times greater than an HD video camera. It can expose all those megapixels at 120 frames per second (12 times greater than the Nikon D4). If you’re willing to drop your resolution to, say, 9.4 megapixels, then you can increase your frame rate to 150 fps. Want to shoot 200 frames per second? Drop down to shooting 5.3 megapixel images, which is still 2.5 times the resolution of HD.
For the video guys, the benefits are obvious — they finally get to shoot video that (on some levels) equals or surpasses the capabilities of 35mm motion picture film. But what of us still photographers? We’ve long had digital cameras that (on some levels) surpass or exceed the capabilities of 35mm film. What do we gain? Frame rate. Once again, I hear you mutter “big deal” at your monitor screen. And it is a big deal, because it means that a single push of the shutter can deliver a burst of images, hundreds possibly, rather than just a single shot.
This has numerous implications for the still photographer. For example, high-end fashion photographers and photo studios (such as Smashbox in Los Angeles) have already begun to incorporate Red cameras into their workflows. And why not? In a world where image is everything, the ability to shoot 120 frames per second and then select the one frame where hair, clothing, light, shadow and expression coalesce into their most potently marketable combination has tremendous financial benefits for all involved.
But what of the documentary photographers? The photojournalists? The lifestyle and event photographers?
The more I thought about Red, the more I thought about how this technology has the potential to fundamentally alter the way documentary photographers work. In a single forward technological leap, every skill I’ve spent a lifetime honing — the ability to spot, anticipate and shoot optimal instants — would become obsolete. The selection of so-called “decisive moments” would no longer occur behind the camera in hostile real-time conditions, but in front of a scrub wheel and a computer screen in climate-controlled comfort. The realization that I might soon become as obsolete as a telegraph operator in a railway station provided a certain motivational impact. I needed to get my hands on a Red. I needed to develop these techniques myself before the new breed of DSMC-wielding photographers sent me out to pasture.
There were only two problems with my plan: 1) The Red is a big, bulky, street-hostile camera, and 2) it’s freakin’ expensive.
In reality, for now, these are good things. Because as long as they remain true, the world won’t yet be powering up electric vehicles to cart my ilk off to the glue factory.
Canon, sensing the same paradigm shift as I, recently unveiled their new EOS-1D Cinema camera. It’s a sort of “mini” Red in a traditionally-styled pro dSLR body, which is capable of shooting 8.8 megapixel RAW files at about 24 frames per second. It’s still not small. It’s still not inexpensive. It’s not as well spec’d as the Red cameras, and it’s not even available yet — but it’s a harbinger of things to come.
“What if,” I pondered, “Leica were to come out with such a camera in a more compact, photojournalist-friendly, M-mount body?” The answer, obviously, is that it would change the world of documentary photography. So how exactly would I, a hard working documentary-type photographer, put such a camera to use? Since this product currently exists only within my mind, experimentation would require a bit of good old-fashioned ingenuity.
I suspect the majority of my readers are at least tangentially aware of Lomography cameras. I also suspect — given the fact they’re rather cheaply built, dubiously appointed and marketed primarily to hipsters — that many of you haven’t burned too many precious web hours researching whether or not a Lomography product is a viable candidate for the coveted distinction of “next camera purchase.”
But it’s this very cheapness that makes them ideal “guinea pigs” for photographic experiments. Besides, as I discussed in Shooting Through the Wormhole, I have a certain fondness for non-literal photography. This actually makes me predisposed to like various Lomography cameras.
Last year, Lomography introduced the LomoKino 35, a plasticy little hand-cranked film camera that could shoot 144 frames on a strip of 36-exposure 35mm film. I gave it the bare minimum of attention. “I’m not a video guy,” I reasoned… but that was before the Red obsession.
Digital video specs are less concerned with the number of pixels in the total frame than they are with the number of pixels in the width of a frame. That’s why Red cameras like the Epic are known as 5K cameras — their sensors capture a video frame that’s 5120 pixels wide. Canon’s new EOS-1D C Cinema SLR is known as a 4K camera since it sports a sensor that’s 4096 pixels wide. It soon occurred to me that the LomoKino 35 camera would essentially become a 3K camera once I scanned its frames on my flatbed. Considering that the entry price for a 5K Red system equals a high-end performance-oriented luxury car, and the entry price for some 4K Canon EOS-1D Cinema paraphernalia equals a nicely appointed commuter car, the fact I could get a LomoKino off Craigslist for the price of breakfast at my local diner made the decision entirely painless.
I quickly dubbed the LomoKino my “Green” camera — not because of its eco-friendly nature, but because of its wallet-friendly nature. In my hands, a Red Camera would result in nothing but red ink on the accounting logs. But a LomoKino? A field of soothing, pastural green ink. In fact, I just spent more on milk and cereal from the corner grocery than I did on the LomoKino.
PROOF OF CONCEPT
The idea was simple: I would walk around with the LomoKino, and when I wandered into the midst of something interesting, I’d simply start “rolling.” As luck would have it, Vancouver was belching rain on the day I decided to experiment — a perfect environment for the LomoKino’s moody plastic lens. I wandered into the middle of a crowd at one of the summer street festivals, and began to slowly crank the LomoKino’s film advance handle. Since my goal was not to make a linear video, but to find visually compelling “stills”, I would simply stop cranking when things got a bit uninteresting. I’d resume cranking when my eye liked what it saw.
Back home, after rather harshly developing the film in Rodinal to try and accentuate the grain, I cut the negative into 6 strips of 24 frames and scanned each strip as a single “image.” Using Photoshop, I then extrapolated each of the 144 resulting frames into single images. Now all I had to do was select one or two frames that “told the tale.”
You might as well have asked a mother to choose her favorite child — I simply couldn’t decide. Out of the 144 frames, I liked dozens. So I shifted gears, selected 47 of the frames and sequenced them into a slide show, which I thought would more accurately convey the day’s mood than would a single frame.
Ultimately, I think the experiment is a success. Not only did I prove I could find compelling images by scouring motion sequences for individual frames, but I think I might have inadvertently stumbled upon a new way of documenting certain events or happenings.
So, Leica, should you secretly be planning a 4K M-mount camera for a bold new era of photojournalism, please send one my way. Thanks to my little Green camera, I will soon be quite experienced in the school of DSMC shooting techniques, and I will have done it without going in the red for a Red.
©2012 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS: All rain photos were shot within a 2 minute period using a LomiKino camera loaded with Tri-X film exposed at ISO 400, aggressively developed in a 1:50 solution of Rodinal then scanned on an Epson V600 flatbed using VueScan software and sequenced in Final Cut Pro X against a custom score, which was improvised in real-time into Ableton Live using numerous software-based synthesizers. The LomoKino “product” shot was done with a Ricoh GXR, using the 28mm lens module.
If you find these photos enjoyable or the articles beneficial, please consider making a DONATION to this site’s continuing evolution. As you’ve likely realized, ULTRAsomething is not an aggregator site — serious time and effort go into developing the original content contained within these virtual walls.