Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Against The Grain

I have never been one to conform to any particular fashion, I like to mix things up: a pair of polished brown 'oxfords', jeans and an Oswald Boateng suit jacket; an old triathlon T-shirt under a cardigan with a pair of chinos... There is a constant though, I like quality. That does not mean expensive, it just means 'right' : the right materials, the right cut and the right colour. It simply goes against the grain for me to wear something that I do not feel reflects who I am. Photography is the same, it does not matter what the technique is, what the equipment is or what the materials are - if they are the right technique, equipment and materials for the job in hand.

Over the years the big film manufacturers have launched many new types of film, there are even now new products appearing (though not nearly as fast as others are disappearing). Almost every time over the last 28 years that one of these announcements has been made, the phrase 'new finer grain' (or some variation of it) has been included in the marketing - and each time my heart sinks... What is wrong with grain? It is the stuff of photography in the most fundamental way. Grain is what we expose, it is the magic stuff that captures the picture that we have imagined - we hope. I always longed for the time when one of the big film companies would say "we have developed a new film that has a coarser grain structure but is just looks really good so we decided we would put it into production anyway"

Interestingly there was not universal acceptance of their 'progress', many of the old favorites endured despite new films coming out just because people liked the way that they looked in the final result. TriX and HP5 are still popular despite the availability of TMAX400 and Delta 400. Ektachrome 64 lasted for many years after Ektachrome 100 and Ektachrome 100 plus came out. That does not mean that the new films were not better, they were just different and change is not always what people want.

Now of course grain is disappearing for another reason. Digital photography does not have 'grain' it has two other things: pixels and noise. Pixels are not like grain in that they have symmetry, once they are big enough to see there is no escaping from them, their ordered rows become dominant until you 'process' them away. Noise is much more like grain, it is irregular and it increases as the light levels decrease but it is not as pretty as grain. No, for digital grain you need to launch Photoshop, to deliberately degrade your image with a layer or a filter to give the 'simulation' of grain. That, for me at least, goes against the grain.

These pictures here are totally genuine. I have used photoshop to adjust the colour slightly, the contrast slightly and the sharpness because if you don't they loose what they had in the original. I also 'spotted' them because my scanner gives me very spotty results. The grain though is Kodak Portra 800 35mm, shot with a Holga 35BC camera and processed by www.wedevelopfilm.co.uk. I cannot deny that when I looked at them I was both delighted and rather surprised at how well they had come out.

Grain is the

photo- grapher's friend. particularly when the subject is abstract, I have always felt that a photograph needs something sharp in it, this does not have to be the whole image but the eye needs something to latch onto before the brain can say "hmm that's a nice picture..." But just once in a while the sharp thing can be the grain itself, it takes a little bravery to show someone a picture that is not sharp but if you get it right there's no need to feel that it goes against the grain...

Sunday, 9 May 2010


I have been surrounded by polaroid pictures for many years, having sold both cameras and film since the early 80's. The 'Polaroid look', three narrow edges and a broad bottom as a frame around a square picture has become an icon of the times, instantly (pun intended) recognisable to everyone. It is only recently however that I have started to really take notice of this in advertising. In just a few weeks and without any effort I have seen a poster on the back of a bus advertising a recruitment agency, this leaflet from the Blood Donor Service and a bit of marketing on the back of the food we buy for my cat (of whom we will see more later).

I confess to having made my own 'fauxlaroids', images cropped into a frame in Photoshop, mine were required for the layout of my website which needed to have a polaroid angle to it.

It is clear that there is an enduring affection for this layout, it cleverly gives the designer added freedom to tilt images, to put captions on the white border, to stack them on the page, even to graphically 'paperclip' or 'staple' them to the page, overlaying all the other design elements.

It certainly makes for an eye-catching spread. I'm not entirely happy though, this is graphic design and it really shouldn't be confused with photography, I certainly didn't intend that when I designed my homepage, that was design.

Try Googling 'polaroid frames' however and you will see that the idea of putting digital images into polaroid frames returns 235,000 images. These range from simple SX70 style frames (with or without coffee stains) to the most elaborate and in my view hideous montages.

My two favorites (I am joking) are one that is made up of about 15 polaroid frames scattered over a page with a black background, each frame has a transparent square where the picture would be and you overlay this over a single image! It just looks silly!!! From the same source

'Vintage Effect' stacked SX70 shaped frames with deckle edges (the rough edges you get from handmade paper) and sepia toned pictures.

Those of you who have been reading my blog will know that I am no great fan of this sort of 'creativity' involving Photoshop. Photoshop is a fabulous programme in the hands of a commercial retoucher but for a photographer it is for sorting out colour, sharpening cropping and exposure, the fact that it can do all those other things does not mean you have to!!!

Anyway, back to 'Fauxlaroids' - but now a completely different interpretation of the word. I am finally selling Impossible Project's new PX100 and PX600 films from my website: www.minutefilm.co.uk. These seem to be universally referred to as the "new polaroid films" but they are so much more. PX100 fits in SX70 cameras and PX600 fits into Type 600 cameras. They are both black and white and require a little care in use but the results are really interesting, I have only taken a few pictures so far but I am liking what I see, this one is my son's cat.

I'm not sure that 'fauxlaroid' is right for these though, in the past they were Polaroids - made by Polaroid so should they now be Impossiblaroids...