Photography - more than technology

by Heiko Englert, Siemens, Germany

My first contact with a camera must have been by the age of four. There is an image that shows me with a Kodak pocket camera in front of my eye and pressing the shutter. But I am sure there wasn't a film inside the camera because I never discovered the image I was supposed to shot with my father as a photographer. During my childhood and until the end of my school days, photography was something other people did. This changed with the start of my university life. As a student I had the opinion that a camera is a must have in the inventory of the apprentice engineer.

"Point and shoot" expresses the technique that I applied for a very long time. Never caring about the rings and dials on my camera. I tried to capture as much as I could in a single shot. Yes, of course I was aware about the correct setting of the distance - the so-called focus, otherwise I would have gotten a lot of blur. I was taking images during typical occasions - travelling and student parties. I thought this was the way to do it. To be honest, the quality of the resulting prints never convinced me, so I was glad that my girlfriend came across a Minox 35 GT with color positive film. With this camera I had to improve my technique in that way that I had to adjust aperture in order to bring the needle inside the eye view finder above a red limit also to avoid blur (I knew it was somehow related to exposure time.)  Yes, being able to make a major step in quality, seeing the slides with more dynamic colors and high details projected on the screen, I had the impression that I somehow improved my photographic skills.

Digitalization: After several years of practicing my "superior" point and shoot technique.  I was looking back at an archive of numerous slides and color negatives. With the advent of digital photography and the increasing possibilities to post process images, I had the idea how to digitalize my analogue archive. I tried out different approaches - from photographing the slides on the projection screen, to using dedicated scanners. The first approach was quite fast, but turned out to be of low quality (geometric distortions and color shifts.) The second was of higher quality, but was quite slow - scanning slides took many minutes.

As an engineer driven by the spirit of automation. I was looking for a more improved and efficient technique. After deep dives in background literature and best practices on internet sites I found a semi-automated concept to be the right process that fulfilled my requirements. It was a combination of a digital SLR with a macro lens mounted on a plate with a slide/negative holder in front of a LED lighting plate. During this project I got a lot of insights in optics, sensor technologies, non-linear inversion of color negatives (this is a real challenge) and at the end - I realized that there is something more important that makes a good image than all this technical stuff.

Essence of Photography:   What is the essence of photography? In 2012 after more than 30 years of point and shoot photography I came to the point that I have to answer this question for myself. It is not the technology - my first simple but for me correct answer. Pragmatically I tried to identify the differences between my photos and those of pros and renowned photographers. I began to study styles, to imitate and to practice. Like years before, I had the impression that I somehow was going to improve my photographic skills.

Equipment:  In the meantime I have explored a zoo of cameras. Let's say I have been an active supporter of the Japanese camera industry for some time. Currently I think I have been able to recover from the G.A.S. syndrome (gear acquisition syndrome.) Engineers are infected quite easily by the belief that you shoot better images through better equipment.

My favorite gear is a Sony A7 with a Leitz Summicron 40mm lens - for me an ideal combination of a stabilized 24MP full frame camera (2015) and a German legacy manual lens dated 1973. Together with a small set of different lenses I feel quite flexible at different situations. A Sony RX100 and my IPhone complement my gear for shoots out of the pocket during traveling or sports.

The Leica CL is a different animal. When I luckily bought the 40mm lens at eBay I had to take it as a set with the camera. I was not aware about potential consequences when I put a black-and-white film into this camera. Some weeks later I found myself in a red lighted dark room making prints. But that is a different story.

Workflow:  Efficiency is the key - we all know it from our daily business. The rule - the better the specification, the more efficient the project realization, applies to photography as well. So I try to invest in preprocessing rather than spending hours at the PC after the shots. That means investing the time to have the right composition, distance to subject, focus, angle, light direction, exposure and the right moment to press the shutter.

The manual lens helps a lot in this case as it slows you down by preventing from automated multi-shoots with auto-focus and auto-exposure. I shoot in RAW (we engineers know it is better to have a higher quantization rate for the RGB color channels), that leaves margin for color corrections if required.

For post-processing and photo management I use Adobe Lightroom - not more (Photoshop tweaking is for perfectionists and people with no other hobbies.)

Typically I select the best shots from a series in 2 or 3 iterations. That means I pick out those shots I like and repeat it on the selected ones. On those (hopefully few) I apply developing presets (my favorites are Kodak Portra 160 for color and Agfa Scala 200 for black-and-white) and do some local adjustments if required. These could include cropping, dodging or burning of certain areas. Also the tone curve is one of my favorite friends - mainly for contrast adjustments. These shots are exported to my NAS and can be accessed from IPad and TV.  Archive backup protection is very important for me - main 1, 2 and 3 versions of my archive are on different drives and physically distributed locations.

Preferred Subjects:  Of course my family - in the meantime is a really challenging subject. It turned out to be like photographing wildlife. I have to hide the camera, sneak and then in the right moment, press the shutter - I often feel like a paparazzi.  So I had to look for alternatives:

  • Street photography - people in the wildlife of daily situations. This is a typical subject during business trips. Thanks to the training with my family, I became a more successful hunter.
  • Shapes - natural or artificial, or combinations of both, captured with or without context, often in an abstract situation
  • I am often attracted by something special that comes along my way. Spotting around, observing all kind of things, and taking care when my eyes stop or turn back to something special. Then I try to analyze if the scene has an attraction or interesting feature to offer. It takes some time for me to get into this "sensitive" mode - at best into a flow that ends with a series of images

Style:  Black-and-white is definitely my favorite style. With its contrasts and abundance of colors (which may distract the eye) the emphasis is set on shapes, structures or the main subject. I use colors to some extent, when I have the perception it is required, but then I shift colors to an unnatural level.
This style of color typically corresponds with my preferred subjects of lonely places and scenes with people (in some sort of idle process) expressing a certain level of melancholy. Of course I try to exclude friends and family from this.

In my point of view powerful images attract the eye, and are even able to stimulate feelings.

For me images are a medium to preserve a situation, with that being able to recall certain elements e.g. the smell of the leather armchair in the room, my mood at that time or what I did before or after the shot.

From time-to-time a make prints from selected images. It is good feeling when you have an image as a physical result in your hands. In addition I post some images to Flickr (www.flickr.com/drachensaidla).
Conclusion & Next Steps:  Photography is one of my favorite hobbies. In contrast to my daily business which is characterized by analytic and strategic procedures, in photography I am able to cool down, ignore strategic approaches, just being led by the things I see in my environment.  Going back to the question about the essence of photography - my current answer - it is the ability to stimulate specific feelings or thoughts in the eye of the beholder. But I am sure there will be more answers to discover in the future. 

Biography:

Heiko Englert   works for the Siemens Digital Grid Business Unit. Since 2011 he acts as secretary of IEC TC57 and CENELEC TC57. He is member of several committees and WGs, and a chair of the German VDE/ETG taskforce. Heiko received the Dipl.-Ing., and Dr.-Ing. Degrees in electrical engineering from Saarbrücken University and Darmstadt University of Technology. After Darmstadt University of Technology in 2006 he joined Siemens in the field of IEC 61850 engineering and standardization.
Heiko enjoys his spare time with his wife and two daughters travelling by motor-caravan. As a passionate curry cook he loves to discover new recipes. Heiko usually has a camera in his pocket.

BeijingSifang June 2016