The Curse of Florence!

L1001995It’s been three months since my visit to Florence, Italy, where I spent a month last summer attending a black & white film photography course from Studio Art Centers International. I shot non-stop on the streets of Florence using my film Zeiss-Ikon and digital Leica M-E for the whole of July. Florence was unusually cool for summer except for a few days when it was baking hot. The city looked even better than the last time I visited a couple of years ago.

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In this past three months I haven’t touched my camera with the intention of actively seeking a photograph. This has never happened to me before, since I started taking pictures almost six years ago. I do not carry my camera every time I go out as I used to before. The feeling is not just restricted to photography. This distinct lack of interest pervades to almost everything I do. I do not feel the enthusiasm to dissect a menu and compile a meal to enjoy when I go out with friends and family. In fact I have reduced the number of times I go out with family and have altogether stopped going out with friends.

It feels like a giant void has been created inside me, by the people of Florence.

Call it the curse of Florence!

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Experiments in Cyanotypes

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Visiting Bottega Antonio Manta in Montevarchi, Italy was, for me, a defining experience. Antonio and his small team hand-crafts Platino/Palladio prints for some of the leading photographers and museums. I instantly fell in love with the idea of hand-crafted images. In a way it is taking back photography to its roots, where every practitioner can manifest his or her own personal style. As soon as I was back in Doha, I started researching about hand-printed images.

I spent the weekend creating a Cyanotype image and the result is posted here. I did a few more runs using different papers but the first image seems to be the best yet! There are too many variables to control – mainly sunlight intensity,  exposure times and emulsion thickness.

I am now planning to build a UV contact print frame and continue the experiments under a more controlled environment.

Florence Diaries. Day-30.

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Went for a walk around the usual circuit with the aim of taking pictures. Why is everyone’s face looking so sad today? I guess the people are okay. It’s just that I am seeing everyone as being sad because there are just two days left of my program and on the third day I would leave. It would be great to see family back in Qatar, but Florence that has charmed me for the past month will be away, far away. And so would be Romeo, Elisa, Walter, Jake, Anna and all the new friends. Ciao Firenze. I’ll come back.

Florence Diaries. Day-3.

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Day three and I decided not to travel to any nearby city as I had to visit the art school. Had a light day with minimal travel on foot. The art school will issue all students with a museum pass valid for one whole year. I’ll do all the museum visits after I get the pass. It means ‘Birth of Venus’ has to wait for a few more days. It also means I’ll not have to wait in long queues.

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San Lorenzo is the family church of the Medici family. You have to get in to see that the church and the surrounding family property (sacristy etc.) are embellished by none other than Brunelleschi and Michelangelo himself. The staircase by Michelangelo to the library is probably the most meticulously done short staircase in the world. The church crypts also hold the remains of Donatello.

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Modern day artisans of Ponte Vecchio are more green.

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Il Porcellino knows a way of two to keep people enthralled. L1000539

Are there superhumans? After seeing some of the works of Michelangelo this is the only thought in your mind. Lucky us that he lived to a ripe age of 89 in those days ravaged by diseases that had no medicines. He must have been superhuman!

Fort Al Zubarah

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Welcome to Fort Al Zubarah, Qatar, 2013

Fort Al Zubarah located close to the north west coast of Qatar is a hark back to Qatar’s past. It lies close to the settlement Zubarah, which is Qatar’s first UNESCO World Heritage site. The link to UNESCO’s site is here. I visited the fort for the seventh time in five years yesterday. I still remember the first time I visited the fort. I drove with my friend and the new road was yet to be laid. It took an hour of solid back-breaking drive. The North Road was one of the oldest roads in Qatar and had seen better days. Today, the drive is silky smooth as the North Road has been re-laid as a four lane highway with adequate runoff and numerous radars. I also remember the hospitality of the old Pakistani keeper of the site who used to make sweet tea for visitors to lounge in his ‘majlis’.

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I visited the fort with my friend Abdulla. It was the day after the National Day and the roads were quiet, after we crossed the city limits that is. A glorious winter sun was rising on our right. It is a great advantage to have someone drive.

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It was the day after National Day and all government offices were closed. The fort was still open and final touches to a three-year-long renovation were still being applied. And it was not quite 7 AM! The sun was out and bathing the whole place in a beautiful golden light. We had the fort to ourselves except for the security details and the archaeologists working on renovation.

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The inner pillars of the fort had been reworked giving the place a Louvre-like effect. It is like having the I M Pei built glass pyramid right in the middle of Gothic behemoths. The courtyard of Zubarah is like a geometry box surrounded by the traditional fort architecture.

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The stepping stone, Fort Zubarah, Qatar, 2013

Remnants of the makeshift improvisations done by the archaeological team were still very much in place. It was a great opportunity to see, first-hand, the workings of renovation.

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Although it is open, the Fort is not quite ready for visits yet. Some bits of renovation is yet to be completed.

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Two-eyed Monster, Fort Zubarah, Qatar, 2013

A visit to a site in Qatar is not quite complete without the modern-day desert carrier, the omnipresent SUV!

The ‘big dig’ is happening right behind the fort to excavate the sunken town of Zubarah. Satellite images show a rather large settlement and looks very promising as an attraction. It is where the oldest heritage of Qatar lies and I am looking forward to the day it opens, to visit and photograph.

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String of Pearls, Qatar, 2013

On the way back we were dazzled by a line of silvery clouds trying to race us. They were all quickly disbursed by the blustery winds.

All images on this post were shot with my Leica M-E using the Zeiss Planar 50/2. It is a remarkable combination to shoot. Sharp, contrasty, great color, and a relatively light-weight kit that doesn’t cease to amaze me every time I use it.

Thanks to Jay for the camera.

Al Jumail & Zubara

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Low tide on Al Jumail Beach, Qatar, November 2013

Made a short trip to Fort Zubara, a small heritage site; and Al Jumail, an abandoned fishing hamlet on the north west coast of Qatar last weekend. The weather was absolutely brilliant after the short rainy spells.

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Al Jumail, Qatar, November 2013

Al Jumail is a small hamlet, easily covered within 5 minutes on foot. For a moment one can image life here in the sixties and earlier when drinking water had to be stored from the scant rains. It is still a surprise that the lanes are wide enough for a SUV. Heritage or not, Qataris do drive their SUVs everywhere. It might have something to so with the rare sea snakes washed ashore when the tide goes out.

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Weekend, Fort Zubara, Qatar, November 2013

It is a pity that the Zubara fort is under renovation for over four years.

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All the way from Japan, Fort Zubara, Qatar, November 2013

The Japs (or is it Chinese?) are funny wherever they go. At least they don’t scribble on the walls of a pyramid.

Doha Primary School for Youth, Salata, Doha

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A week ago I got a call from my friend, Abdulla, that he has got something interesting to show. I was intrigued as he is not a big gear head. He is quite happy with his 5D-Mark III and the inseparable 24-70/2.8 bolted tightly to the front.

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His prep school! It was one of the earliest schools in Doha and was wound down many years ago. Now the building was going to be demolished and he requested me to accompany him, to take some pictures of the school campus before it was razed to the ground to give way, hopefully, to a new school.

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Mealtime is over!, Doha, September, 2013

Rubble was strewn all over the place and numerous different groups had taken possession of the campus.

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I can’t take any more of this abuse!, Doha, September 2013

One room was designated as the toilet and we couldn’t get to 10 feet within that room. The stench was unbearable. All this when the original toilets stayed unused and abandoned. Why bother walking all the way to the end of the campus when one of the old staff room is handy?

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Clean Bowled!, Doha, September, 2013

The playgrounds were being put to good use by the South Asian expats. Cricket, being the most popular sport of the subcontinent, took half of the playground and the rest was shared by football and volleyball.

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The rooms were glass galore, all coming from the windows and the doors.

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And some keys too! Not that anyone required keys to the vast halls and numerous rooms, all filled with filth and decay.

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The chemistry lab had been abandoned with utensils all arranged on the bench. Maybe as part of some last experiment.

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What amazed us was the luxurious thick coats of paint. They have dried up and neatly lifted, displaying the number of times a fresh coat was applied. The older (inner) layers tended to be colored plaster while the later layers seemed to be paint.

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After the bath, Doha, September, 2013

The ravages of time had neatly transformed a fallen bunch of electrical wires into a study in abstract!

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The school was also home to a few cats, of which one was bold enough to pose for an environmental portrait!

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Although the layout of the building was unmistakably a school, nothing proves it like paperwork!

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There is no e=mc2! This teaching chart shows where the priority was, and rightly so.

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The D12 breadline, Doha, September, 2013

My Leica M-E Review for street photography

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View from Untersberg, Austria, August 2013

Is the Leica M system the absolute best for street photography? Many street photographers swear by the M, especially the film ones, and I have been dreaming of getting my own digital M for a long time.

I have been a big supporter of the micro-four-thirds (MFT) format for most of my photographic life and the format has served me well. The main benefits for me was a small and lightweight system providing good image quality. Some of the lenses are first class. Four years later, after attending a couple of workshops conducted by Magnum photographers Nikos Economopoulos and Martin Parr, my photography has evolved significantly. I no longer worry about exposure or the right aperture. I now know when to trust my camera to make its own decision and when to override it. Each camera has its own quirks and signature.

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The outsider in pink, Tamilnadu, India 2013

The biggest issue for me with the MFT system cameras is the time taken to wake up from sleep and nail a shot. Even when it is awake, the time taken to focus and shoot is a wee bit too long. Most of the time it is not an issue, especially with the joyful Olympus OMD-EM5, which is really a complete camera in many ways, except when you want to wake it from sleep to shoot a fleeting moment. The other major hiccup is when shooting mobile objects. As I keep hunting for those fleeting moments, sometimes from inside a moving car, I started missing shots and sometimes don’t even bother to shoot knowing very well the shot is too fast for the camera.

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Anything goes on the road, Tamilnadu, India, 2013

One of the big strengths of the MFT format is the ability to use almost any lens with an adapter. I started experimenting with a lot of manual focus lenses. The Zeiss and the Leicas ultimately stood out producing absolutely sharp images with a kind of dramatic presence that was absent in other lenses.

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Nostalgia, Vienna, August 2013

During one of the Magnum workshops I learned Nikos’ technique to handle instantaneous shooting. He shoots at F/8 during the day time with his 35mm lens set to focus from 2.5 meters to infinity using hyperfocal distance. In fact Nikos has his lens’ focus ring taped at this setting so that it doesn’t change by accident. He does it on his Leica M9. I guess he should have upgraded to the new Leica M Type-240 by now.

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Waiting for pal to finish his job, Tamilnadu, India, 2013

My first introduction to Leica was through a National Geographic advert in my schooldays. I still remember the ad showing a hummingbird hovering over a flower, sparkling in all its multicolored glory. The ad proclaimed the silent shutter of the Leica (M6 I guess) that made it possible to shoot the picture without disturbing the bird. In fact, Leica is the only camera brand I remember from my childhood apart from Yashica. I have seen a few Yashicas in India but never a Leica! I have only read about them.

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I have catalogued all my shots from the past 5 years and most of them fall around the 50mm focal length. With every system I choose, the 40-50mm is the width that gives me most confidence. I like to be close to the action but not too close. After using the zooms that are bundled with the camera, I invariably mount the Panasonic 20/1.7 or the Panasonic Leica 25/1.4 for serious shooting.

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Daido from a distance!, Prague, August 2013

The 50mm angle of view also gives me the comfort to shoot quickly using the eye to frame. It is easy to make an assessment if a scene would fit within the frame. If it is too wide and if I do not have the luxury of backing up, I just enjoy the scene and walk away, knowing I have missed a great shot. I have learned that I can’t shoot everything that I see.

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Street Portrait, Salzburg, Austria, 2013

I made the lens moves for a M-system in the form of the classic Elmar 50/2.8 and the Zeiss Biogon 35/2 and have been waiting to get my hands on a full-frame Leica. I have been using these lenses on my MFT system with an adapter and they were churning out well-liked images. Jay (my wife) was wiling to buy me a Leica M and unfortunately (for me and fortunately for her) the Leicas were in extreme short supply. It is rumored that there is a 1-year waiting list for the M Type-240. The cameras have been out of stock for a good part of 6 months now.

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Looking away, Tamilnadu, August 2013

When we made arrangements for our summer holidays to Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Munich, and Salzburg, all extremely photogenic cities, I was making web searches for photographic stores in those cities. Unlike the American stores (online) from where I usually shop, two of the stores had the Leica M-E and also the M Type-240 in stock. Analyzing the financial as well as the CCD-CMOS options, I settled for the M-E. Luckily, Digital Store in Vienna had two cameras in stock by the time I arrived. Ever since, I have been shotting with my M-E non-stop.

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Jay, Salzburg, August 2013

I also added the Zeiss Planar 50/2 to my collection of lenses. It is a great all-rounder with all the desirable qualities. I weighed it against the Summicron Apo, which is completely out of my wallet’s range for many foreseeable years, and decided to go for it. I have been enjoying every single moment I use this lens with the camera. Now I shoot nothing but this lens. I sometimes use the Elmar for its classic swirly bokeh that adds a bit of magic to portraits.

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Japonaise, Salzburg, August, 2013

For my style of street photography I wanted a camera system with the following characteristics:

  • great image quality at ISO 800
  • sharp and fast lenses, especially at 35-50mm range
  • super-fast operation, especially after a period of idleness
  • Long battery life

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Bad choices make good stories, Salzburg, August 2013

The above image is a great example. All of my MFT cameras would have delivered the image in terms of quality. In fact, the quality of the lens and the noise performance is extremely unimportant for this image. It is all about swift action. In terms of swiftness I would have missed the shot with other systems. By the time I read the message on the t-shirt and realized the potential of an image, the subject was just about to vanish out of sight. The Leica does a great job getting these reflex shots like no other camera I have owned. The quality of the lens and everything else is an added bonus. Jay didn’t even notice that I took a shot as she was looking at the train timetable.

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Another example of a shot before the girl smiled!

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Olympic Park Tower, Munich, August 2013

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That one moment before the closing of the doors, Munich, Summer 2013

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Get away you little devil. Don’t block the door!, Munich, Summer 2013

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The little big mohican!, Prague, Summer 2013

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Boo!, Prague, Summer, 2013

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Too tired or she is not that into you, Prague, Summer 2013

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Can’t escape gravity, Prague, Summer 2013

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Little Princess, Prague, Summer 2013

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Reflections, Prague, Summer 2013

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Little Princess – II, Vienna, Summer 2013

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All grown up (my daughter Nivya), Summer 2013

I have been shooting with the Leica M-E for just under a month and my current thoughts are as follows:

  • Do not muck around with a Leica if you are still learning the basics of photography. The Leica needs a lot of discipline and once mastered it will reward with gorgeous images.
  • Build quality, fit, finish etc. is all better than any other camera. It is quite heavy for its size and is not for single handed use. Every other camera feels a little hollow after holding a Leica, but they are well made too!
  • Some of the electronics can be seen if you peep in the gap in front of the viewfinder. I guess mine is not some misalignment as focusing seems to be perfect.
  • The user interface is pretty straight forward. One niggle if you don’t read the manual is that you have to set ISO in two places if you are planning to use Auto ISO and set a limit. Thankfully Leica’s default options are just about perfect.
  • The LCD is prone to get scratched. Get a good HD-quality screen protector. Leica would do good to ship the camera with a protector.
  • If you wear glasses, stick to 50mm. You can’t see the 35mm frame-lines unless you remove your glasses.
  • The Zeiss Planar 50/2 is a bit wider than the 50mm frame-lines. You get more than you aimed for and so you may have to crop a little bit after shooting.
  • The LCD has lesser dynamic range and so shows the shadows too dark. When you transfer the images to the computer, the shadows look all right. It takes some time to understand this and stop compensating for underexposed shadows.
  • The shot is taken way before you think the shutter activated!

All in all, the Leica is a wonderful camera and I bought it with a leap of faith. Even in Qatar, the country with the largest per capita GDP in the world, there is no official retailer carrying the Leica brand and so I had no opportunity to try it before I handled it in Vienna. I was able to adapt to the system quickly and the pictures have been fabulous.

For street photography, it is absolutely the best camera where lightning reflex action, inconspicuous presence, gorgeous image quality, and a long battery life are all mandatory. Many other cameras deliver many of these features, but none of them deliver all. I am looking forward to many years of happy memories.

My long-term review of the Leica M-E with the gorgeous Summilux 50/1.4 can be found here.