Thursday, 13 January 2011

iMac 27 Inch Review

A version of this review was first published in Professional Photographer Magazine

As a trained Photojournalist I try not to judge or be judged. I have a sensible haircut, no tattoos, no Bling and avoid branded clothes. I admit to no allegiances, except one. I am a Mac Man. In 2002 I was sent on assignment to San Francisco by The Face Magazine to document a Mac convention. Computer geeks! I thought and was prepared to be unimpressed. Witnessing Steve Jobs casually attired in black long-sleeved top, washed out Levis and rimless glasses unveil the iMac G4/800 to a crowd of whooping disciples tweaked my interest. I trotted off to shoot a portrait of fellow Englishman Jonathan “Jonny” Ive, Apple’s then traditionally media-shy Vice President and chief designer. He was the personification of cool and gently imparted the merits of Mac with remarkable lucidity. By the end of our session, I’d been truly bitten by the Apple.

8 years later and I’m eagerly awaiting the delivery of a 27-inch iMac to my home. With a minority share of the market, Apple doesn’t want their computers to be seen as a luxury item. This is difficult to implement. I un-box the contents with the same jittery fingers that unzipped my wife’s wedding dress. I lay the contents out for inspection. There are 3; screen, keyboard box (also containing the mouse), plug. The thrill is comparable with being seated on a First Class flight anticipating the delights ahead. From delivery to start-up takes less than 10 minutes and I’ve taken my time. The Galaxy screen saver dissolves into view with pinprick clarity. I flinch for my shades. In haste I check the electricity meter. It’s clicking round at the usual daytime rate. I sit down, breathe in and click the 7th icon of the 22-icon tool bar. Aperture 3 bounces into operation.

The previous afternoon I attended an Aperture course at UK Apple HQ. Sitting in the waiting room I pondered if my review would be one of the Maccolades being flashed up on the wall. The Aperture Product Manager shadowed by an impossibly crisp Apple PR skipped with zest and fluidity through the MacAp combination. There was a tonne of information. I had difficulty absorbing the lunchtime drinks menu in the Slug & Lettuce but remained focused. I’m new to Aperture and am reliably informed it has 200+ new features including Places, a feature that allows you to explore your library based on where your photos were taken using an extensive Geotagging system. Reverse geocoding translates GPS coordinates into proper place names. Photos with GPS are automatically plotted on the interactive map. If your camera doesn’t have GPS it can be extracted from an external device including an i-Phone. Men like maps, Photographers like to travel. It’s the perfect addiction and one you can feed by constantly pinning where you’ve been and gloat to any ear that will listen. Places provide useful information when key-wording images for stock and searching the archive for a destination specific request from picture editors.

Clicking on Faces a corkboard flicks on screen with 3 Polaroid’s tacked to it that remarkably manages to placate every gender and ethnicity. I haven’t seen so much corkboard since my bathroom of 76’ and am comforted by the memory. Faces make it easy to locate people in your library using automatic face detection and recognition. Each face you confirm helps Aperture find even more photos of that person, in effect, becoming smarter and smarter the more you use it. Alternatively you can choose not to tag that tiresome Uncle or irritable Aunt. A welcome tool but one I’ll leave for the family album hobbyists.

Back home with a crammed head I decide on a streamlined process of evaluation. To set myself a project and test the MacAp combination to see if it really is . . . ‘THE ULTIMATE DIGITAL DARKROOM’ - from the point of assessing workflow, speed of use and output etc. Before I get to work my daughter interrupts “Oh my word Daddy, can I play Club Penguin?” She does and takes to the interactive world of Antarctica with aplomb. The volume is adjusted to 1 notch above half way providing the crystal clear surround sound of Penguins at play. I interpret her ‘coos’ as admiring the 16:9 aspect ratio of the environmentally friendly backlit 27-inch LED display and ‘aaahhhs’ as appreciation for the 1000:1 typical contrast ratio delivering sublime detail from every angle.

She’s off to bed and I’m back to work. Surveying the wireless desktop is satisfying. The keyboard, so often a fixture parked directly in front of the screen is pleasingly mobile, light and low profile. Not a consonant is dropped as I tap away from the sofa on the other side of the room. It’s apparently effective from 33ft away but I live in a London flat and would have to involve my neighbour to confirm. The Mac mouse feels a little clunky. The design is as you might imagine the prototype of a panty liner to be. It has the tactility of a shoe- horn I made for Mother’s Day at Secondary School in Design & Communication plastics but it does the job and the weight is spot on. As my time with the magic mouse runs up the clock it becomes a welcome accomplice.

Aperture 3 supports RAW formats from more than 150 digital cameras and backs. Disappointingly the previews are Pixelated. Even on the largest preview setting it’s difficult to assess which RAW file to edit for import. I might be playing the fool but can’t find a solution. Each file has to be double clicked to check clarity of content. The checked files are imported flawlessly and fast. Working on the files Aperture 3 begins to excel. You can flick seamlessly between images and the adjustment inspector. Enlarging RAW files up to 1000% gets you right into the lap of the image. Sharpen, saturate, curves, retouch, colour balance, brushes, job done. An image that usually takes me 10 minutes to tweak is halved. In addition to ready-to-use adjustment presets you can apply your own adjustments and save them as custom Adjustment Presets to shave off even more time. A nifty little feature worth a mention is the ‘Focus Points’ overlay which highlights the active point when the shutter was released.

The new non-destructive brushes are a revelation. 14 highly responsive quick choices can paint in an adjustment with a few clicks working on the tiniest area to the complete image with ease doing away with the need to master difficult filter and layer settings. You don’t even need to click OK to apply the adjustment, just adjust and move, adjust and move. I manage to eat my kebab with one hand while dodging, sharpening and saturating with the other. After a while enhancements become precise, intuitive and fast helped by the one click built in edge detection.

There’s a 17 choice list for exporting a version of the worked on file. Be sure to check Aperture > Presets > Export and set the dpi or it will be processed at the default 72dpi, one rooky mistake and an afternoon of work gone. The editorial client I was submitting to would not have been pleased. I turn off the radio and barely detect noise as the 64-bit processing on Intel Core 2 duo-based system running Mac OS X Snow Leopard goes to work processing the files.

Images mean nothing unless people see them. A photographer without an audience doesn’t exist. Fortunately Ap3 has enough quick ways to share your images and satisfy even the most combustible of egos. The omnipotent Facebook & Flickr are a constant corner of the eye screen presence waiting to be sated. For the more patient there’s the bookstore with a myriad of combinations to explore. I also had great fun with the multimedia presentation system where you can combine music, voiceover and location audio controlling the pace of your slideshow with the tap of a finger.

With the 27-inch iMac size does matter and what you do with it. Every inch is there to be taken advantage of and Aperture recognises this and gives your image every opportunity to access all four corners with minimum fuss. The combination has worked. This Pro is pleased. At the moment I’m in the moment and reluctant to return to my usual operating system. Is it he Ultimate Digital Darkroom combination? It’s pretty close. Time will make that judgement.

Talking of which, nearly time for the return of the Mac. The hand ticks round. The inevitable knock at the door draws near. Like the perfect escort, Mistress Mac’s performance has been impeccable. Working hard when required, discreet when the circumstance demanded, paying attention to detail and always looking immaculate. I caress the edges, run my finger over the DVD and SD orifice, finger the 4 USB hubs & 1 Firewire 800 connection, take one last look into the seductive vibrancy of that sumptuous interface, send any incriminating evidence of our dalliance to the trash and click shut down. It’s time to put the Mac in the box.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Bright Eyes - Street Photography

This interview was first published in the September 2010 Photography Monthly Magazine

Peter Dench likes to have fun, but doesn’t like to waste time. He enjoys getting out and shooting, but dislikes simply wandering around without purpose. He prefers instead to photograph events and places that, by their very nature, will guarantee colourful and arresting images. He’s not an obsessive photographer who always has a camera slung around his neck. In fact, he won’t get his camera out of its bag for weeks unless he’s being paid and before setting out he has to have a strong sense of what he’s trying to achieve.

Take for example the image of a boy diving into a swimming pool. This was taken in a small US town on the weekend of American Independence Day. Peter knew in advance there would be celebrations and situations that he could visit that would have the potential for some great shots.

“I have a very naive way of shooting and chase primary colours. I’ll run after a girl in red shoes or shiny pants or holding a yellow umbrella. It’s a simple, childish and boyish enthusiasm I have for shiny things. Never let me walk past a La Senza shop.”

Peter grew up by the seaside in Weymouth, Dorset, just two minutes from the beach, a setting he feels has had a big influence on his style today. Having studied photography as a teenager, he decided to become a professional photographer because he was fired from every other job, which at the age of 16 ranged from till boy in Asda to sales assistant in Top Man. He knew early on that he wasn’t particularly good at being told what to do by an authority figure.

­­It is perhaps this anarchic attitude that informs his work. His approach maybe targeted but his aim is to capture the funny side of life. “I’m always looking for humour in my pictures. Charlie Chaplin is a big influence and I often try to address serious subjects in a humorous way when appropriate. My aim is to make people laugh, make people think. Looking through the books of Elliott Erwitt and Martin Parr is the reason I got into photography. If you can travel the world making people laugh and making them think, then to me that’s a fine way to live.”

Peter was 14 when he started taking pictures, shooting things such as butterflies and plants. Eventually he turned the camera towards people and began to take it seriously as a career at the age of 18 after looking at photography books in the library of Bournemouth arts college.

“I knew in 1992 that I wanted to be a professional photographer, when I enrolled in a degree course in photographic studies at Derby. By the end of the degree Jonathan Worth and I were the only two photographers who didn’t photograph our friends or ourselves naked. It was that type of course where Cindy Sherman and Jo Spence were held up as the inspiration. It was very academic, which helped me enormously because all I wanted to do was get out and shoot people and see the world in photographs.”

This direction helped him to pick his subject. He had become class conscious for the first time at the age of 18 when he arrived in Bournemouth and realised that there were people in the world with double-barrelled names.

“I found this time fascinating and during the three years I spent in Derby I tried to visit as many public schools and country houses as I could. I got invited to the Duke of Devonshire’s tercentenary celebrations [at Chatsworth] because I told him I was doing my dissertation on historical representations of the aristocracy, but I just wanted a free lunch, some good quality wine and a great subject to photograph.”

In 1995, the week after he graduated, Peter headed to London and went straight to Reuters. His plan was to make it big. Armed with three portfolios he walked through the doors of the news agency expecting to get signed up immediately. The portfolio he left was immediately lost in the system; he was forced to sign on and spent the next two years on the dole.

“I soon realised the portfolio I had wasn’t up to scratch, so I started applying for press passes to events such as Ascot and Epsom, and turning up at Henley [for the rowing] – classic summer events – and I got picture editors involved quite early with what I was trying to do. I’d go and see Aidan Sullivan at the Sunday Times Magazine and he would reject everything I was showing him, but I’d take his advice on board and go back three months later to show him that I’d listened and my developments, which he’d also reject.”

This cycle continued until 1998 when Peter had finally progressed to a level where Sullivan was able to give him a commission. Shortly afterwards he was also asked to work for GQ magazine.

“I think there are two ways to become a professional photographer. Either you assist and then try to make it on your own or you try to make it on your own from the beginning, and that was the route I chose to take, but there’s no right or wrong way. It was two years of persistence and knocking on doors, which I still have to do.”

Shortly after getting this break, Peter joined the IPG agency for which Tom Stoddart was shooting stories on AIDS in Africa and Zed Nelson was photographing gun culture in America. Peter was encouraged to pick a subject as well and with the project drink UK he did exactly that.“There’s an underlying theme in my life. Drink is my passion. I grew up in a brewery and my family were all involved in the industry. My home town was a violent place to grow up in; there was a Navy base and 180 bars with holiday makers. It was a mess, but an enjoyable one too, so that’s the culture I wanted to document.”

Peter’s long-term aim is to document England and to understand the country. He does this by breaking it down into manageable chunks with a specific theme or title, a method which also mean he can raise money for his projects.

His drink UK project earned him a World Press Award and 11 pages in the Sunday Times Magazine, which really fired his enthusiasm. The next section he concentrated on was ethnicity in the UK, followed by rain UK and then love UK. Peter treats each subject in the same way and believes you have to be classless. He doesn’t have any tattoos, doesn’t wear any religious symbols and doesn’t even want people to know which football team he supports when on a job.

“I just try to be a blank canvas because it’s not about you when you’re shooting. I try to be as unremarkable as possible. When shooting I wear no logos, there are no allegiances anywhere, so the subject can project on to you what they want to be. The best asset I have is this unassuming presence where people aren’t afraid of me, I behave accordingly and they don’t judge. Generally people get on with me and let me shoot what I think I need to.”

That said, he makes no attempt to conceal the fact he is a photographer. Before switching to digital, Peter shot exclusively on Mamiya medium format cameras for almost 10 years. Shooting wide and as close as possible with such a cumbersome camera meant the last thing he could be was discreet.

“If I walked into a pub I’d either have people saying ‘don’t point that f***ing thing at me’ or ‘come and join us.’ I make no disguise about being a photographer. The thrill I get is shooting real people doing real things in a certain style that is very simple. There’s a drive to see things such as girls changing backstage. Who wouldn’t want to see that and who wouldn’t want to be there with a 6x7 camera? It’s the access to the ordinary, but for me they are extraordinary situations.”

His realistic approach is also the reason he is in demand with advertising clients. They like the fact that his work looks so natural. Even when it is all set up and every element and detail has been approved, Peter will try to make it look like a grabbed, humorous moment, because that’s what clients want him to recreate. They are looking for him to produce something that will make people smile.

In 2007 Peter was approached by FIFA – football’s governing body – to shoot a 15-month project, 26 stories across 20 countries. The choice was between two photographers. Both were asked if they shot digital. The other photographer said no, Peter said yes and got the job.

“I immediately ran home, bought one, called the photojournalist Marcus Bleasdale and he took me through the digital menu on the back, and it’s stuck. I still look at websites for 5x4 handheld cameras and I’ve still got film under my bed; in terms of commercial work film is a non-starter, but for personal projects I still shoot a few rolls.”

Today, Peter shoots on a couple of Canon EOS 5Ds but, as many professional photographers maintain, he believes that kit is not the key to success. “For me it was just what I was comfortable with and knew how to shoot, and then sticking with it, but in making the transition from film to digital I had to make sure I could continue with the style that I had developed.”

Hopeless at shooting in low light, Peter always feared that when it came to developing his shots he would see nothing, so he would blast them with flash or shoot only in bright sunlight so something would burn on to the negative.

Today he still uses fill-in flash, two stops under, with a Metz 45 flash gun clamped to the side of his camera. He works with two cameras, one with a 35mm lens and the other with a 28mm lens, but also carries a 70-200mm lens in case he needs to get a bit closer and is unable physically to do so. Peter always shoots on ISO 400 so he can move from outside to indoors and deal with lower light. He carries a light meter and takes a general reading, continually checking to see if there is any change. Usually he shoots at either f/11 or f/16 and dials the shutter speed to match.

“I can always recognise a good image of mine from just a thumbnail; I don’t have to enlarge it, because it’s so bold. Tom Stoddart once said to me that if you photograph a girl in a yellow dress you just see the dress, but if you photograph her in black and white you see her soul. I don’t buy into that, I just see a picture without colour and it depresses and disappoints me. I don’t think enough photographers consider the colours that go into their shots any more. It’s a real consideration of mine.”

Good street photography is about interesting lines, shapes and angles, and Peter is obsessed with clean lines, clean spaces and verticals.

“I live my life in a ridiculous way, any photographer does. You’re trying to make sense of the world through a rectangle. Composition for me is about roving your eye around the whole image and it just works, so first you look at the rectangle and then there are elements within it. I like regimented shots; perhaps it’s a rule I should break, but wonky lines upset me.” Take the shot of the elderly couple kissing in the bus shelter. The most important bit of that shot for Peter is that the ‘lost children centre’ display to the left runs parallel to the edge of the frame. Things have to work like that.

“With 6x7 and 6x6 you are more aware of what is happening at the top, bottom, left and right, but less so shooting in 6x9, where you read the image from left to right, so maybe the top and bottom aren’t so crucial. When you’re shooting 6x7 or 6x6 I think you have to be more disciplined. In 6x9 things can happen towards the edge of the frame and you can get away with a lot more, but when it’s penned in more every corner counts. That sounds like a game show for photographers, ‘every corner counts’. All my books at home are in alphabetical order and everything is square and I think this translates to the way I try to compose shots. Top, bottom, left, right, parallels, everything has to work where possible.”

Peter’s next project is a sort of road trip across UK, called Carry on England, which will look at the clich├ęs that may or may not exist. It sounds fun and he is clearly excited by the idea, and why shouldn’t he be? Photography is about enjoying your subject, seeing the world differently and capturing the not-so-obvious. He may not take his camera out of its bag that often, but when he does it is plain to see Peter is excited by the simple things, events and situations that have a universal appeal. This is the key ingredient to any successful story and the draw for people from all walks of life.

By being selective, Peter has succeeded in creating strong images that have elements familiar to everyone. By being unobtrusive he is welcomed into disparate worlds and invited to record those elements in an engaging, humorous and sympathetic way. What more could a street photographer want?


Based in London, Peter Dench works primarily for advertising and editorial clients. In 2010 he came second in the advertising category at the Sony World Photography Awards. His studies of international cultures have been exhibited the world over. Football’s Hidden Story, his project for FIFA documenting 26 stories across 20 countries, received six global accolades, including World in Focus, AOP Open and PDN Photo awards.


Tom Stoddart

Elliott Erwitt

Martin Parr

Cindy Sherman

Jo Spence

Marcus Bleasdale