April 16, 2013

The View From Here - April 2013

st helens

Mt. St. Helens. 1995. from With a New Eye: The Digital National Parks Project.

by Stephen Johnson

The Connected Photograph

For years I've been talking about the idea of a "connected photograph," an image that exists not only in its space as a visual, and hopefully heartfelt record of what seduced ours eyes into making a photograph, but also as a connection to the place, time and technology embedded in the image.

I find the idea very seductive of linking a photograph that I care very much about, with the surrounding information now automatically generated by digital cameras, and augmenting that information where possible. Time, date and means of exposure are useful, the technical information regarding lens, focal length, aperture, shutter speed, metering modes, exposure compensation, all of which are gathered automatically now. These data points can be deeply useful in trying to determine technical success of a challenging image, and should definitely be looked at when trying to analyze image quality, positive and negative.

Where We Were

I've long been intrigued by the GPS potential. Since the beginning of my project on the national parks, With a New Eye, I've carried a GPS receiver to log exact location. Early units had no digital compass as part of the data stream, so I carried a compass to record bearing as well.

The location and bearing can have all sorts of useful derivations. When used with good maps and mapping software like Google Earth, places and landforms in photographs can be identified and named better than the best note taking I've ever managed. This has proven deeply useful in as commonly traveled a place as Yellowstone and as remote as the Antarctic Peninsula.

In a recent essay, I also mentioned FlightAware as a way of knowing where your commercial flight aerial photographs were taken.

Where Were We

This information can be extraordinarily useful in rendering a better understanding of the geography of a space, both while present, which is becoming ever more possible, and later. Certainly, after the fact placing the photograph in time and space has some dynamic implications. I often use my photograph from the top of Mt. St. Helens as a great example of the photograph carrying its own aesthetic weight, but the context of the actual location dramatically deepening the power of the image.

The weather can often be determined later as well. Although much of environmental conditions might be obvious from the photograph itself, such as sunny or overcast. Temperature, wind direction and speed can also be aids in more fully understanding the scenes. For the most part, this information currently needs to be gathered independently and contemporarily with the image-making.

It is interesting that so much of this information is now automatically gathered by our cell phone cameras. Innovation often comes in the back door even as we lobby the big camera companies to build GPS into the professional cameras. Of course, for reasoning I don't quite understand, the first cameras with GPS built-in seem to be point and shoots rather than pro-bodies. Nikon has made connection with external GPS units as part of their strategy for awhile, Canon has made provisions in recent years.

yos class

As one of Canon's Explorers of Light, Canon will send in equipment to me through their CPS program, and I borrow equipment frequently for testing. I was most intrigued by their new EOS 6D and have been enjoying the built-in GPS and wireless connection. My iPad controlling the camera is fun and potentially useful.

In so many ways, I deeply believe we photograph to hold what we see, which is why I'm so conservative about photo manipulation and fakery. But frankly, it is a huge challenge to hold the wonder of the real world with our cameras. It takes very careful recording and a great deal of finesse in RAW interpretation and image processing to move the recorded view close to the experienced scene.

The Color of Light

One of the areas that continues to be a real challenge is getting the color right. I've talked a great deal about this over the years, and real progress has been made with better cameras, better White Balance controls and tools like the ColorChecker Passport and Adobe's DNG Profile Editor. But there is a missing component here that could be a great aid toward realism in photography, and that is the inclusion of a spectrophotometer in the camera itself.

I believe having a spectral measurement of the ambient light, knowing the real color characteristics of the camera, and being able to integrate those two real pieces of information into the basic interpretation of the photograph, could make real progress toward narrowing the gap between what we see and what we get. This won't fully account for the limitations of the single camera capture as opposed to the almost unbelievably sophisticated images our memory, eyes and brain can experience at the scene. But it could eliminate some big information gaps.


This is one of those issues where some companies have scoffed at the value of the added capability, but I believe some variant of this deeper color interpretation capability will not only come to be embedded in our cameras, but will make a big difference in our ability to be faithful to the wonder we see.

Of course, as I eluded to earlier, a spectral measurement of the light is just another useful piece of information. It cannot account for our own color adaptation to the scene and consequently what we actually "see," being a product of our eyes, our own internal "image processing" and our brain trying to adapt to different light conditions over time.

Mt. St. Helens View Rendered by Google Earth.

Rendering out photographic sites in software like Google Earth can give us an unparalleled sense of the geography of the scene. It is a remarkable tool, and of course, works best when you have the exact location of the image rather than just an approximation. However, it is amazing how close you can reason out your position by working with the software.

Interestingly enough, in trying to relocate to exact site of the photograph for this rendering, it appears as though it is no longer there, likely succumbed to the constant landslides we were seeing on the crater rim.

Flora and Form Workshop Coming Up

Check out the Flora and Form  Workshop April 16-18, 2013 or May 16-18, 2013 at Shelldance Orchid Gardens. Any and all cameras welcome.


Shelldance Nursery. 2013.

Latest Video Study: San Francisco Bay Bridge Light Show

Canon 1Dx video. 2013.

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