Mikkel Grabowski on Photography


Basically a photograph is a reproduction of an event that has happened in time. As Roland Barthes explains; “In the photograph, something has posed in front of the tiny hole and has been fixated”. This correlates very well with National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson who says: “If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff. Thats it”. This is especially true from a photojournalists point of view though an advice that is probably slightly simplifying the art of photography, as there are so many ways to capture a given moment of time with a camera and a lens. Yet generally it is so that at the time of exposure -the humans and artifacts of that given time and place will reflect a certain story, a historic significance, a culture or maybe a lack of culture if no humans or man made things are captured.

It looks like a deep steaming jungle, but it is just a narrow patch of indigenous forest left in between some of the big hotels at Nyali just behind Jomo Kenyatta Public Beach. An example of how photographs can eliminate parts of reality to focus on the details. Canon 6D with 24-70 mm f/2.8 L USM ll

At first glance it looks almost like a steaming jungle, but it is actually smoke filling the air, emphasizing the rays of sunlight. Also it is just a narrow patch of indigenous forest left in between some of the big hotels at Nyali just behind Jomo Kenyatta Public Beach. Canon 6D with 24-70 mm f/2.8 L USM ll. Photo © Mikkel Grabowski

The above image from Nyali illustrates the essence of what photography – namely drawing with light. The way it’s drawn – from naturalistic to impressionistic, the exposure, the softness of the light, the colors or maybe it’s black & white – it all adds up to the importance of having the skills to master the technique in order to create artistic and visionary images with your camera.

Kingfisher Lake Victoria

A Malachite Kingfisher at the shore of Lake Victoria flying with lightning speed and the camera barely manages to capture the bird from horisontal panning showing that photography really is painting with light. Photo © Mikkel Grabowski 2004. Nikon F4 with 300 mm f/4 on Kodak 100VS, scanned on Imacon Flextight ll

Obviously photography can document past moments with or without people being pictured and there are many genres of photography like portraits, reportage, fine art, commercial, nature, landscapes, animals. A photograph can be manifested on a vast variety of media; digital, slide film, negative film, color, black and white or monochrome, on silver print, inkjet print, on Polaroid, glass plates, photo gravure etc. The impression of a photograph depends on the technique; the choice of lens, focus area, aperture, shutterspeed, iso, film/digital sensor, APS-C, 35 mm full frame, medium format or large formats 4×5″ or 8×10″ and of course it also depends on the quality of light.

people photographing Nairobi

Photography is for everybody nowadays. Nairobi is to enter the Conference Center Building. Canon 6D with 24-70 mm f/2.8 L USM ll – photo © Mikkel Grabowski 2013

Maybe the light is what is most important when talking about great photographs, because when we see a really pleasing image, the light is usually a major part of that because it adds to the mood of the scene and to the image. The light and the postprocessing. Because the need for- and effect of postprocessing depends on the lighting of the scene and the way the chosen medium (film, slides, color negative, black & white and/or the sensor) interprets the scene. An extensive amount of Dynamic Range (DR) is therefor of great importance in order to capture also the extremes of the scene – deep into the shadows and at the same time recording all the highlights without “clipping”.

The quality of light depends on the direction of the light, the distance to the light source, the size of the light source, the angle of the light, the amount of diffusion (for example haze – and on overcast days the sunlight is being strongly diffused by the clouds), the amount of- and quality of reflection of the light (a white beach, walls etc.), the wave-length and the color temperature of the light. The latter is usually meassured in Kelvin degrees whereas 5500 Kelvin is considered normal daylight temperature and 3200 the equivalent of Tungsten light.

Photographers have been challenged ever since Nicéphore Niépce and Louis Daguerre succeeded with photography and modern digital cameras are often struggling with having insufficient Dynamic Range. Yet it took many trials and errors to make a perfectly exposed and printed photograph but in the 1960s the famous american photographer Ansel Adams – best known for his picture-perfect landscape photos in black and white of american national parks, invented the Zone System.

According to the Zone System the exposure is deliberately increased or reduced according to the light and contrasts of the scene and the film is then being developed accordingly, giving the photographer a tool to control the dynamic range being captured as well as full control over the output on the print. With digital photography the same technique can be performed by making HDR.

Yet analog film and digital sensors each “paint” the image in different ways, whereas the image produced by a digital sensor in its nature is clean and sharp with certain technical and expressionistic appeal to each sensor. Sensors though, are are digital recorders with all the benefits and faults associated while film has a less clinical way of capturing a scene. Also the color reproduction of a scene varies greatly according to which type of film being used. Hence the look of a Fuji Velvia slide film is more contrasty and with much more vivid colors than say a Kodak Portra 160 iso color negative film. And of course the grains in the film give it a more tactile, organic and “real” feeling. Maybe this is because we’re so used to look at analog photographs? And obviously a piece of film is a real object whereas you can’t hold and watch a file over the light-table.

steam train in Silverton, Colorado and organic forms of colors from film emulsion - photo © Mikkel Grabowski

Two images made into one: A steam locomotive in Silverton, Colorado and an image from a factory with organic forms of colors from film’s different layers of emulsion. Train shot with a Hasselblad 203FE with 40 mm FE Distagon. The image with the colored blotches is shot with a Nikon F3 with a 20 mm f/2.8 on Kodak 400 iso slide film, both scanned on Imacon Flextight ll – photo © Mikkel Grabowski

Of course a print from a digital image is just as real as a negative and/or an optically printed image from a film but the film is the original “first generation”, whereas the prints are second generation. Of course such technical/philosophical details should not affect us when we look at a photograph. Yet I believe it does! Analog film has a different way of rendering especially the highlights, creating a less abrupt tonal curve and an optical printing process (in the darkroom) yields a different rendering of an image due to the refraction taking place in the photographic paper under the time of exposure.

Shadow and rays of light from a wine bottle on the wall © Mikkel Alexander Grabowski 2003

Shadow and rays of light from a wine bottle on the wall. Hasselblad 203FE with 110 mm f/2.0 Planar, scanned on Imacon Flextight ll, processed in Photoshop © Mikkel Grabowski 2003

Yet digital cameras are nowadays so adept and can shoot in much darker conditions than film, making them capable of producing images that was never possible before. Also it’s actually possible to make a digital capture almost look like an analog capture on film by post processing in Photoshop and/or with other software like Silver Efex and DxOMark. Definately a DSLR also has many other advantages compared with a film SLR; instant view of the captured images, a much quicker workflow, no expenses for film -and the optical clarity of a digital image might be preferable to the film look -depending on what style you prefer. On the other hand an analog film SLR is usually much cheaper to buy and will retain its resale price much better than a DSLR. Also it is not dependant on having access to a place with electricity in order to charge the batteries and probably less prone to break down as well as having no issues with dust on the “sensor”! And in a world where digital photography have become mainstream the look of analog film is something that stands out more. Nick Brandt’s amazingly beautiful photographs of the African wildlife is a good example of this.

The above images display an almost other-worldly grace and beauty to the African wildlife, partly due to the technique Brandt uses (Infrared analog film). Photos © Nick Brandt

The above images display an almost other-worldly grace and beauty to the African wildlife, partly due to the technique Brandt uses; Infrared analog film combined with selective focus. Photos © Nick Brandt

Speaking about selective focus, the lens is probably the most important factor in photography. The lens is what actually creates and image. Distance to the subject, focal length and aperture are other factors to put into the equation. The focal length of the lens is something very important to consider when you want to photograph a given subject as a wide angle lens yields a fundamentally different image than a normal- or tele-lens. Also the depth of field depends on the focal length of the lens, the aperture and the camera to subject distance. This is where Bokeh (the quality of background blur) becomes something to consider. Also the contrast and color rendition of the image depends of the lens being used. For example a 200 mm f2.0 lens used at full aperture yields an image with a very pleasing Bokeh or subject isolation as a result of an extremely narrow depth of field whereas the same 200 mm lens used at f/5.6 will produce a less profound subject isolation. Other factors such as the optical formula of the lens, the shape of the aperture blades and more are also influencing the quality of the Bokeh. And of course the film format or sensor size and the corresponding focal length of the lens is of uttermost importance regarding the quality of Bokeh.

Boy swimming

Boy swimming across Omo river at Omorate to get to the Dassanach village on the other side of the river before the tourists in order to be there to be hired as a guide and earn a few Birr. It is an example of photography’s ability to freeze a moment of time. Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and many more are the masters of that. Pentax K5 and SMC-K 200 mm 2,5 on ISO 100 – Photo © Mikkel Grabowski

No matter the intent or the use – good photos that are telling a unique story will always spark an interest in other human beings and will always be in high demand as it is an extremely efficient way of conveying a message. The saying “A photograph is more than a thousand words” definately has a truth to it. And on the web, where many people have limited time and patience when looking for information, photography is becoming an increasingly important tool.

The power of photography

Photography can be used as a tool to both scientifically and artistically explore and capture our surroundings and it can provide documentation, legal evidence and information.

A man belonging to the Luo tribe and supporters of Kenya's opposition leader Raila Odinga sits inside a destroyed vehicle in the Western Kenyan town of Kisumu. (AFP: Yasuyoshi Chiba)

A man belonging to the Luo tribe and supporters of Kenya’s opposition leader Raila Odinga sits inside a destroyed vehicle in the Western Kenyan town of Kisumu. (AFP: Yasuyoshi Chiba)

But it seems photography is much more than that, as sometimes photography becomes icons of an event, a decade or an era – as the image shown below has become.

This photo (captioned "General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon") and film would become two of the most famous images in journalism and started to negatively change the American public's views on the Vietnam war. (Badger, Gerry, 2007)

This photo (captioned “General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon”) and film would become two of the most famous images in journalism and started to negatively change the American public’s views on the Vietnam war. (Badger, Gerry, 2007)

”There are many reasons to take photographs. More crucially, there are innumerable uses – some benign, some not so benign – to which photographs are put. Photographers take photographs to remember a holiday, to record the growth of their children. To express themselves creativily, to record their view of the world ot to change our perception of the world. Photographs can function as repositories for personal memories, as historic documents, as political propaganda, as surveillance tools, as pornography, as works of art. We think as photographs as fact, but they can also be fiction, metaphor or poetry. They are of here and now, but they can also be immensely potent time capsules. They can be downright utillitarian or they can be the stuff of dreams”. (Badger, Gerry; 2007)

National Geographic Magazine photographers explains the power of photography in these words: “Photography has the power to change people’s perspective on life, surprise people with something they had no idea ever existed, inspire, horrify, stop time for a moment, images are so powerful they can change the course of people’s life, the course of history, photography can change the world. It’s a universal language, it can cross borders and cultural boundaries and it can bring people together”.

As have been shown, photography is a powerful tool for visual communication and it can be used in many ways to document events, tell about the world, enlighten people on many topics and as such it is also extensively used for commercial use in advertisements.

It’s been proved many times in history that photographs are capable of having an immense captivative and communicative power, allowing humans to reflect over every aspect of life. Photographs can evoke feelings and create an emotional response as well as an intellectual and collective mind process.

In that last sense, photographs can reflect global recognition and meaning – transcending sex, race, nationality and time. As such, photographs can have-, reflect- and form a specific cultural identity depending on where it is from.

people walking in the desrt in Great Sanddunes National Monument photo © Mikkel Grabowski

People at Great Sanddunes National Monument in Colorado, USA – photo © Mikkel Grabowski