ILLUSTRATING "CITIES AND VILLAGES"


Elsewhere on the site you'll find two pieces on a possible future for cities and villages: Cities and Villages Part I and Part II. You'll also find a short story set in a possible future version of Moncontour. On top of that there are two pieces in which I imagine a time traveller from 1715 arriving in Moncontour in 2015, just to illustrate how life has changed: Time Travel 1 and Time Travel 2. I don't normally illustrate the short stories and I wasn't sure about illustrating Cities and Villages, but I thought that some pictures might help people think about how they felt when it came to the subject. Then I thought that some photographers might be interested in how and why I chose the pictures. So here they are, with captions and accounts. Some may find it useful if they have to illustrate their own writings (or those of others). What follows is a mixture of equipment tips, apologies and a philosophical ramble on the nature of illustration as distinct from reportage and fine art.



Household plastics. I chose this as the antithesis of the nostalgia that was to come. Cities are the natural habitat of what my grandmother used to call "heap for cheap" shops. A lot of these things are surprisingly useful, but they are very often surprisingly flimsy too, so they have to be replaced far too often. This was shot with a 50/1.5 Zeiss C-Sonnar on a Leica M8.2, as reviewed here.


A lot of the time, I don't actually remember exactly which camera or lens I used for a particular picture. I remembered that the one above was from a camera or lens test, probably shot with the C-Sonnar, but I had to check in order to find out that it was the M8.2 review. Because I was seeking to illustrate something I had already written, and where pictures were subsidiary to the text, I just hunted about on my hard drives for pictures that might work. I used only digital because I was too lazy to hunt through and scan slides. All were shot with the M8 and M8.2 because Moncontour was much newer to me them and I used it as a test site when I was reviewing the cameras. This legitimately raises the question of novelty. Some photographers (I am among them) benefit greatly from the stimulus of novelty, and find it hard to work with the familiar. Others are happier with the familiar. I do not think it is possible to make a defensible moral argument for exclusively adopting either position. 



Horse in the mist. This, of course, was chosen as the antithesis of the bright. colourful, artificially lit picture that opened the article.  I forget what camera and lens I used. I have a vague recollection that it was a 135/2.8 Elmarit-M on an M8, but I could easily be wrong. This is about 5-10 minutes walk from where I live, on the way up to the Donjon. One of the great advantages of digital cameras is that you get an instant "Polaroid" on the back of the camera, quite useful under difficult lighting conditions such as mist. I often shoot a couple of test pictures, with no particular subject, then set the camera appropriately so that I can use it quickly when a "real" picture presents itself.


Going through these pictures is quite a good illustration of... um... illustration. Of course I was trying to take good pictures when I shot all of them, and a few might pass for "fine art", at least if fitted into the right "series" or better still "body of work". The majority, though, aspire to little more than technical competence: it is more important that they fit the story than that they stand alone as pictures. I could probably illustrate the two pieces much better with specially shot pictures, or at least, by substituting about half my "stock" shots with specially shot images, but life ain't long enough. I earn nothing from this site and I have to devote some of my time to doing work that does pay.




Concert, Place Coligny. This is effectively the main square of the village and is the venue for concerts, markets, and even modest funfairs. We don't get the Rolling Stones but we do get a lot of very enthusiastic and often very good local and regional bands. More and more I suspect that the big thing about a concert is just being there, in the company of others: the actual music is often secondary. The camera was a Leica M8 at ISO 1250; the high-ISO performance was notoriously poor, even by the standards of the day, so this was as high as I cared to go. But consider: ISO 1250 was faster than any unpushed slide film, ever, and fortunately I have several fast lenses for Leicas. This was probably my 1,5/50 Zeiss C-Sonnar.



Super U, Thouars. The old centre of Thouars, probably a mile and a half/ 2 km from this building, is mediaeval. One of the main buildings is known as the Prince of Wales's Tower, because Thouars was an English stronghold until it fell to the French in 1476. The former Super U was an ugly, functional building, but although this one is a generic supermarket inside, it has quite a handsome façade. I wanted to make the point that even in La France Profonde, not everything is old fashioned, though sometimes it may date quite quickly. Here I used a Leica M8 at its base ISO of 160, probably with my 35/1.4 Summilux, "correcting" verticals in Adobe Photoshop.


Old digital Leicas don't tell you which lenses were used, unless perhaps they were coded for the optical reader in the lens mount (we have only one such lens, Frances's 50/2.5 Summarit) so it's often a question of guessing which lens I used. There are of course no zooms for M-series Leicas, though there are a couple of Tri-Elmars with three discrete focal lengths: there's a review of the 16-18-21 on our other site. 

And yet, how much does it matter? As I get older I use fewer and fewer focal lengths. Yes, I miss some pictures, but equally, I'm convinced that using fewer lenses (above all the 35mm and 50mm) makes me better able to compose with those lenses. And I'm always going to miss some pictures anyway, whether by sticking with a prime lens; changing lenses; or trying to zoom to the perfect focal length. I choose to lose mine my way; you can choose to lose yours your way. 



Road signs and warning light, Loudun. They mean "Controlled parking zone -- parking disk required" and "Attention: Children". And of course a 30 km/h speed limit. There are just fewer things that need signs in a village. M8; probably 1,5/50 C-Sonnar;  squared up in Photoshop. I shot this while Frances was waiting to see a physiotherapist: I was just looking for interesting shapes, colours and content.


Although the M8 and M8.2 are "only" 10 megapixels, they well illustrate that anything over about 6 megapixels is overkill for web use. Or for that matter, much above a megapixel. These images are 605 pixels on the tall side, in order to fit on the screen. This implies just over 900 pixels for the long side in a horizontal picture: rather less than 0.6 megapixels in all. For normal reproduction at 300 dpi this would however equate to 2x3 inches, 50x75mm. Yes, I know that pixels and dpi aren't the same thing but they can be treated that way when it comes to reproduction. 



Waiting for the July 14th parade. The lighting in the Place Louise Lesage in front of the Hotel de Ville fascinates me: I get the effect of an Old Master painting under yellowing varnish. The ISO on the M8 was cranked up to its maximum 2500 because noise just doesn't matter very much in light like this. The lens was probably my 35/1.4 Summilux.



Main street, Moncontour. This was taken in 2007 and it's entirely likely that the building has been somewhat restored since then: I don't recognize it, a decade on. The soft, romantic look is because I was just learning to use my 90/2.2 Thambar, a legendary soft-focus lens from the 1930s. I think it's a bit overdone here: nowadays, I prefer to use it at around f/6.3 to f/9 (it has the old scale) for just a bit of softness. On the M8, of course, it is equivalent to 120mm on full frame: inconveniently long.



Grotesques. It is surprisingly easy to get close to these, because the road is cut into the side of a hill and on the other side, you stand in the same field as I photographed the horse above. Then, they are pretty much at eye level. By the same token, you don't need a long lens. In fact, I could have used something wider than the 35mm Summilux I think I used here, which equates to just under 50mm on an M8.


Something I noticed when going through these pictures, most of which date from 2006-2010, is that I used ISO 160 (the base speed) quite a lot in those days. Nowadays, I tend to standardize on ISO 400, simply because it makes it easier to judge exposure. But when I first got the digi-Ms, I was used to ISO 100 slide film. Even with ISO 320 on the M8, though, quality losses at 1 stop above the ISO 160 base speed are negligible.



The Donjon again. Sometimes I think of doing a whole series of different views from different angles with different focal lengths. In fact I have done such a series, but only accidentally: it's one of my standard test subjects, from many angles, distances and directions. From the look of it this was the 35mm Summilux; I know I adjusted the verticals in Photoshop: not outstandingly well.



Hotel de Ville. Almost certainly shot with the 35mm Summilux; definitely on the M8; and once again "perspective corrected" in Adobe Photoshop. For some reason I find "perspective correction" a lot easier with a view camera or even a PC lens. Things never look quite right to me with an image "corrected" in post production, no matter what I do. Often things look better if I stretch the picture vertically, which I didn't here. Also, I'd have done better to shoot it with the camera on a tripod, carefully levelled, which again I didn't.


You might care to go through a bunch of your own pictures of a particular subject (note the technical Californian plural there) and ask yourself why you took them; what they illustrate; how you could have done them better (time of year, weather, time of day); and so forth. For example, as I was writing this, Amateur Photographer magazine ran a poll about whether its readers went out of their way for "great light". I'm not entirely sure this means a lot. Different types of light work with different kinds of subject: compare the overcast shot of the Hotel de Ville, above, with the sunny shot of the house a few pictures back. The mood in the two cases is completely different, and you can't really re-create a sunny mood on a cloudy day or vice versa. Or for that matter, a misty one, as with the picture of the horse.




Repas, Place Coligny. This is at a marché des producteurs or specialist farmer's market which, by chance, was due again the evening I was writing this. It looks like the usual Summilux on M8 (it was pretty dull). The ISO was cranked to the maximum 2500; depth of field is shallow; and there is some evidence of subject movement. Light sources were extremely mixed: in such a situation, I find that either I have to play around until most of it looks right, or use the "adjust for skin tone" in Adobe Photoshop. Something that almost never works in such situations is to try to use a "neutral" white: skin tones normally go very nasty indeed.



Audience, Place Coligny. This might well be at the same concert as pictured above, but fairly early in the day so that there was still sky light as well as street lighting and rock concert lighting. My own feeling is that mood is more important than colour balance, though of course I may be deceiving myself. Once again, skin tone is what's important. M8 and Sonnar, probably; ISO 1250 allowed a shutter speed of 1/90. The right of the picture looks a bit odd but it would have looked even odder if I had cut the girl's legs off.



Mill. This is on the Sentier des Lavoirs (path or walk  around the lavoirs, wash-places by the side of the river) and you'll find many more shots of the same walk on Misty Day, Sunny Day and Third Day. It looks as if I used a 21mm on the M8, where it is a 28mm equivalent: compare this with the shots in Sunny Day and Third Day, where I used 55mm and 35mm on full frame. As so often, you work with what you've got; what you can afford; and what you're happy with. Increasingly I'm happy with very simple but very high quality equipment.



Chimneys. Another Thambar shot (see above). I really have mixed feelings about this lens. I love the soft, romantic look but I don't think it really works when mixed in with sharper pictures. I keep meaning to try it on full-frame (M9) alongside my 50/1.2 Canon (very soft at full aperture and f/22, surprisingly sharp from f/2 to f/11), along with the softest 35mm I can find.



Bar football, Hotel Coligny. The young men of Moncontour are for the most part exceptionally polite and helpful. Once, when some bottles fell out of a box on the back of Frances's moped as I was riding it to the recycling point, a couple of them helped me pick them up and one, after noting how many were wine and beer bottles, added smilingly, "Vous avez trop bu, monsieur" (You have drunk too much, sir). Summilux 35mm, 1/45 at ISO 1250. The bar football is no longer there: a victim of fashion perhaps.


On my last trip to Arles, I eschewed very high ISO speeds for the most part because I wanted to see whether I got a more "vintage" look by using wider apertures and slower shutter speeds. Although I flatter myself that I have improved over the 50 years or so that I have been taking pictures, I know that I have some very good pictures taken in the past with much slower films and (sometimes) with much slower lenses, though some were taken with f/1.4, f/1.2 and even f/1 lenses. Can too much ease (especially ultra-high ISO) limit our creativity, by not forcing us to think harder and push our luck more? And what is the effect of shallow depth of field? This same picture shot at ISO 400 or even 160 might have failed completely; or it might have been rather more of a success.



Wires. What can I say? Another Thambar shot; but not one that works at all well, especially in the company of other, sharper shots. But it's what I had in colour. When you see a "non-picture" like this as an illustration, ask yourself what else might have been available



Citroen 2CV. I'd just got the M8 and was still playing with the very high ISO values: this is ISO 2500 at 1/6 second. I used the white shutter on the right to set the white balance in Adobe Photoshop. There are quite a lot of whites and greys here, but they are all lit more or less differently, quite apart from any "real" colour variations,. So I just tried the eye-dropper on several until I got a colour balance I liked. The "yellow" road markings are in fact white. Summilux again, I think.



The Donjon yet again. Sometimes the only function of an illustration is to break up a "grey page", too large an area of plain text. Its purpose is to break up the text without necessarily reinforcing any particular point the writer makes; though this fits the mood of the piece and reminds people of the importance of wood-fired stoves in rural France.



Interior of Donjon. As with Part I, I wanted to finish Part II with something quirky and historical. As far as I recall, I used my 15/4.5 Voigländer for this shot. You can see some purple ghosting between the two lower windows and in another I had terrible streaking either side of one of the windows. All in all, though, the 15/4.5 worked astonishingly well on the M8, where it is the equivalent of a 20mm lens on full frame. It also works well on the full-frame M9, though with significantly more vignetting at wide apertures. 


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Words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2017.