Improve Your Practice Through Journaling

Improve Your Practice Through Journaling

This being my first Technique post, I thought the best place to start would be to share with you what I believe to be the most important tool one can utilize to improve upon most any aspect of their life, especially one that involves some sort of process or methodology, and that is the practice of keeping a journal.

Pictured above is my Film Development Journal in which I keep notes on chemical mixtures, development processes, results, and perhaps most importantly, reflections on what went right and what went wrong during a particular development run and notes on where and how to make improvements.

As a software engineer, I’ve always kept an “Engineer’s Notebook” where I record program design diagrams, code snippets, and other related material.

Engineer’s Notebook Page

Engineer’s Notebook Page

So when I wanted to up my film development game I started a film development journal.

Soon after I started the journal I wanted some way to better gauge results and progress over time, so I started printing small prints of my photographs, thumbnails I guess you’d call them, and pasted them into the journal adjacent to the process notes.

Film Development Journal

Over time, the images I pasted into the development journal began to help me with my composition and framing. I think it’s because a small image allows you to take in the whole frame, whereas a large image forces your eyes to focus upon certain elements within the frame. (If you step back far enough and squint, you can achieve the same effect with a large image.)

Film Development Journal

A typical journal entry begins with the date at the top of the page, followed by notes on the camera, film, and subject. ( I wish I had started keeping a development journal back in the early 80’s for these three lines of information alone.) I follow this with notes regarding exposure or anything else I think will help improve the development process. I then note the developer used and the development process step-by-step. Yes, I do this every time I develop film because although the overall process is the same (pre-rinse, developer, stop bath, fixer, rinse, hypo-clear, final rinse…for black and white film, anyway…), the chemicals used, stage times, and other techniques utilized during processing vary based on film type and temperature.

Film Development Journal

When the film has dried, I immediately cut it into strips and scan it using a Nikon Super CoolScan 9000ED. It’s the only piece of electronic computer-related gear I’ve ever bought that has appreciated in value.

Film Development Journal

If you don’t develop film, a journal can still come in handy. As I learned how to use Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop, and other photography related software, still an ongoing process I assure you, I keep notes on steps and techniques. There have been many times where I wanted to apply a particular manipulation but couldn’t remember off the top of my head the steps involved. Journal notes to the rescue.

So, if you want to improve your technique, regardless of genre, I think you’ll find a journal will quickly become the most important tool at your disposal.

Oh Those Iowa Skies!

Oh Those Iowa Skies!

Returning from a ride deep into the midwest with my friend Ricardo Serpa back in July of 2014 I stopped along an Iowa highway and took in the verdant, open country and deep blue skies with white, puffy clouds. Images really can’t capture the complete feeling of awesomeness and immenseness of the expanse but here’s a panorama that tries:

It wasn’t long after I took this shot that I came upon an Indian casino. Feeling peckish, I stopped in for a bite, but made it only as far as the craps table, where I found three sad souls leaning over the rail watching the dice roll and a pit crew that looked like they were ready to take a nap. I stepped up to the rail to observe. I never lay money down until I get a feel for the vide, and the vide here felt ice cold – I needed long johns.

“Seven out!” cried the stick man. The old woman came off the rail and walked around to the old man standing next to me…”Come’on, let’s get outta’ here. This table’s dead.” The old man picked up his three remaining chips and away they walked. That left me and a kindly old african american gentleman.

The stick man pushed the dice his way. He carefully examined each one and finally selected two. He picked them up, rattled them gently in his hands, blew on them for good luck, and rolled. “Six!, the number’s six,” hollered the stick man. I watched as the old man placed his bets on six and eight. He rolled again…”Seven!, seven out.” The stick man pulled in all the chips and the old man sauntered away. It was me and the table.

“OK, let’s heat this place up!” I said. I put down $500.00 cash and received my chips. Twenty on the Pass bar, and ten on the field. I could care less how the dice is set up so I pick any two and roll immediately. No ceremony. “Ten!” My field bet pays, and I remove the money, then take a deep breath and put down another field bet, then roll…”Twelve!, Field wins!”. I start betting on the sixes and eights, and throw a five on hard eight. I take a deep breath and skip the field…the dice slam against the back wall and settle down. “Eight! Eight the hard way!” Now the money’s coming in.

I played like this for thirty minutes and leave $375 or so to the plus. Have you even seen that Ikea commercial where the lady gets such a great deal she yells for her husband to start the car!

Hey, I don’t know about you, but $375 bucks is a lot of cash to me, and it was so easy, I felt like I’d robbed the place. I hopped on the bike and moved on down the highway, riding beneath those gorgeous Iowa skies.

Nikon FM Chrome

Nikon FM Chrome

The venerable Nikon FM is a mechanical camera whose batteries serve only to power the built-in exposure meter. I usually remove the batteries and go completely mechanical. If I do need an exposure meter I use the Gossen Digisix, pictured below, otherwise I estimate exposure using the Exposure Rule-of-Thumb.

Gossen Digisix

I like the heft and feel of this camera. It’s small, balanced, and fits nicely in your hands. Its feature set resembles a sparsely decorated apartment; there’s no clutter here. The shutter speed and film speed selector share the same dial housing, its film advance ratchets smoothly, reminiscent of winding a precision clock (and you are in a way), and its shutter release fires with reassuring certainty. You can definitely feel the mirror’s moment as it swings up and down. Its report is the sound of superior quality.

Balboa Park

I particularly like this camera because I’ve owned it the longest of all the cameras in my collection. I purchased it from a pawnshop in Norfolk, Virginia back in the early 1980s when I was stationed on board the USS Norfolk (SSN 714). For twelve years it served as a backup camera to my Nikon F3HP. In the mid 1990s when I started graduate school, I sold all of my camera gear with the exception of the FM, a 50mm lens, and my Contax T.

Balboa Park

Traveling with the Nikon FM is easy because it’s small and extremely rugged. It doesn’t depend on electronics to operate. It can take a beating and look better for it. It’s not fussy and doesn’t complain when the weather is too cold, too wet, or too hot.

When I travel with this camera I pop it into a Zing camera case and go. The Zing is made of neoprene rubber. It’s like putting your camera in a wetsuit. The Zing case slips easily over the entire camera and comes in different sizes to accommodate various lens lengths. My lens of choice for this camera is the Nikkor AIS 35mm f 1.4. (Although it is pictured with the 35mm f2. Both are excellent lenses.)

Twisted Trees

I like to venture meter-free into the world with mechanical cameras and exercise my brain by estimating exposures. It’s easy to do, as is anything given enough practice. I use the Exposure Rule-of-Thumb, which goes something like this: on a bright sunny day, the base line exposure would be an aperture of f16 and a shutter speed of 1/film speed. I round down the shutter speed. For example, if I’m shooting 400 ASA film, my baseline shutter speed would be 1/400th of a second, but since this falls between 1/500 and 1/250 I select the lower shutter speed. Given the baseline exposure I am free to adjust as I see fit based on the particular needs of the image. For example, am I using a filter, or do I want less depth of field.

What you must be aware of when using the Exposure Rule-of-Thumb is the location of your subject. If your subject is laying on the beach in direct sunlight and there are no clouds then you’ll get a good exposure with f16 and 1/250. The following table lists various lighting conditions and their associated exposure values (EV).

EV

Subject in...

16

Bright sun on sand or snow

15

Bright or hazy sun

14

Weak hazy sun or the full moon

13

Cloudy – bright  light – Gibbous moon

12

Heavy overcast

11

Open shade – Sunsets

10

Immediately after sunset

9

10 minutes after sunset

8

Times square at night

7

Stage shows – circuses

6

Brightly lit home interior

5

Night home interior

4

Candle lit close-up

3

Fireworks (time exposure)

2

Lightning (time exposure)

1

Distant view of lighted skyline

I keep a copy of this table in my wallet along with a copy of the following table on the flip side:

ASA 400

 

1/250

1/125

1/60

1/30

1/15

1 / 4

1 / 2

1

2

f 16

15

14

13

12

11

10

9

8

7

f 11

14

13

12

11

10

9

8

7

6

f 8

13

12

11

10

9

8

7

6

5

f 5.6

12

11

10

9

8

7

6

5

4

f 4

11

10

9

8

7

6

5

4

3

f 2.8

10

9

8

7

6

5

4

3

2

f 2

9

8

7

6

5

4

3

2

1

f 1.4

8

7

6

5

4

3

2

1

0

f 1.2

7

6

5

4

3

2

1

0

-1

f 1

6

5

4

3

2

1

0

-1

-2

Note that this table represents an ASA 400 speed film. When I find myself waiting for something and have nothing to read, I pull these tables out and refresh my memory on the different possible lighting situations and their associated exposures. As Ansel Adams said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

 

Higher Resolution Images

Nikon FM Black

Nikon FM Black

The Nikon FM is a 100% mechanical camera. Yes, it does contain a built-in exposure meter, but when using this camera I find it faster to estimate the exposure using the exposure rule. If I require more accurate exposures then I’ll use either my trusty Gossen Digisix or my Pentax spot meter.

Gossen Digisix

I especially like the Nikon FM because of its small size and extremely rugged build. It fits comfortably in the palm of my hand and doesn’t stress my neck or shoulders when carried on a long day of shooting. The lenses I like to use with this camera include the Nikkor AIS 35mm f1.4 or the Nikkor AIS 50mm f1.2. These fast lenses let me shoot hand-held in fairly low light situations with my favorite black and white films: Kodak Tri-X or Ilford Delta 400.

Morning Walk

The Nikon FM is fairly quiet as 35mm SLR cameras go, but this is only my unscientific opinion. It has a nice, solid feel to it when you trip the shutter. Its winding mechanism operates smoothly and overall the camera just feels good in my hands. It’s definitely a high-quality photographic instrument.

What I don’t like about the Nikon FM is its non-interchangeable focusing screens. It’s not the screen I don’t like; it’s the inability to easily clean out stray dust particles that bugs me most. Call me neurotic, but I like a clean, speck free screen when I look through the viewfinder.

Pentax 67

Pentax 67

First impressions encourage one to hand hold this mammoth but doing so is not for the weak or faint-of-heart. If you have a medical condition, I suggest you consult your physician before carrying this camera around with you on a shooting spree.

Great Falls, Virginia

Although it resembles a 35mm SLR on growth hormones, the Pentax 67 is first and foremost a studio camera. To give you some indication of its size I’ve photographed it together with a Contax T3, but even that image fails to convey the camera’s true bulk and heft.

Pentax 67 and Contax T3

I have toted the Pentax 67 with me on several Washington, DC walkabouts. When I do take it for a stroll I use a wide, springy strap and the attachable hand grip. Due to its weight, I find myself constantly rotating the camera from one shoulder to the other or from my neck to my shoulders. This camera too long hanging from your neck or shoulder soon causes pain. I honestly lift weights to increase my strength and endurance so I can effectively wield this behemoth.

Schmoogle

I get good hand-held results with the Pentax 67 but it takes finesse. It’s the mirror that concerns one most; it generates a significant amount of camera shake as it loudly goes “ker-thwap” against the viewfinder prism. In practice, I get good hand-held images when shooting at shutter speeds equal to or greater than 125th of a second; anything below that and I must use a tripod.

I sometimes employ another shooting technique to further improve hand-held image quality; I use the mirror lock-up feature to move the mirror up and out of the way right before taking the shot. This works best when using a wide angle lens as the camera inevitably moves out of place, if only a little, in the time it takes to lock the mirror and take the photograph. I always use the mirror lock-up feature when shooting with a tripod.

The Pentax 67 system boasts an incredible selection of lenses, more than any other medium format system. My favorites include the 55mm f4, the 105mm f2.4, and the 75mm f4.5 shift.