Rhythm of the Road

There’s so many different worlds
So many different suns
And we have just one world
But we live in different ones
-Dire Straits

The most important skill of the photographer is to know how to see. Yes, one sees through one’s eyes, but the same world seen through different eyes is no longer the same world; it’s the world seen through that individual’s eye. With just one click, the lens captures the exterior world at the same time as it captures the photographer’s inner world.
-Germaine Krull (1897-1985)

Sifting through the thoughts that lead you on
Find the door that’s open, now you’re gone
We softly say to our-ourselves
If we could be anybody else..

It had been one of those days. One of those frantically busy days where you have a lot to do, a lot to cram into a short space of time. But it was done and the road home was calling. Three days in Christchurch, three days of catching up with friends, three days of taking care of business. But it was done, and the clamour was behind me. I was looking forward to getting back to the open-armed welcome of the Maniototo.

I stopped for tea with some friends just north of Oamaru. Kathryn asked me which road into the valley I would be taking and naturally assumed I would cross over the Danseys pass. No, I replied, I’m going up the Pig Root. I really enjoy the surprises on that road.

I left just after 7 p.m., and by the time I turned off the main road at Palmerston, the shadows were beginning to claw their way east across the landscape, filling in the hollows in the landscape, putting day on the back foot. Night was on the advance, and the brazen bowl of the day was in full retreat. Changeover is a fascinating time for a photographer, a brief period when night and day seem to be in balance. I think being a Libran really makes me appreciate this time.

The road winds in and out of small river valleys, rising around 2000 feet over the 60 odd kilometres it takes to break into the Maniototo. It begins in the lower section of the Shag River and follows it, keeping a respectful distance and then dropping in from time to time to see what has become of it. The last glimpse, somewhere near the summit, shows a wide expansive trout stream that has shrunk to a nervous jittery creek. Every corner offers a new perspective, a new take, a new angle, a new surprise to be considered. It’s a driver’s road, with sweeping cambered corners that coil, that compress, that slingshot you on to the next, that allow you to dance with and build up a rhythm for the road.

It’s a beautiful stretch of road at any time of the day, but in the early evening the pointing fingers of shadow give it a mystery, a magic that is quite unique. It’s not one of those roads where you drive for hours and, somewhere near the end, realise you can’t really remember any of it. It’s a road with a vocabulary you have to learn, it’s a road that builds upon itself and offers you something new you every time you drive it.

The road builds and builds and climbs towards the light towards the shadow end of day lying along the horizon, lying above the hills to the West. It rises to a crescendo then, offering another surprise, drifts softly and knowingly away. The Kakanuis off to the right reflect the tail-end of day, basking in the last fading remnants of daylight.

Now the hills, which have held me in for the last 40 minutes, which have made sure I kept my eyes on the road, fall back to either side as I slide down into the wide-open swoop of the plain. The diesel relaxes its shoulders and drops happily into overdrive as we murmur our way across the plain.

The long slow angle of the light is breaking up the landscape around me, disassembling it, showing me a component view of what is around me. I’m itching to make a photograph, because I have a new toy. Hayden, who cleans the sensors on my cameras, has given me a 50 mm Leica Summicron lens machined to fit on my Canon. As he hands it to me, he gives me a quiet smile and says, I’ll be interested to know what you think of this. It’s the end result of a series of discussions we’ve had about the resolving power of the L-series lenses I’ve used since I switched to Canon a few years ago.

One thing I’ve come to realise is that a digital sensor can resolve far more detail than film. At 100%, micro-detail is rendered far more precisely than film ever could. But there is a corollary to this. To get this detail requires rigorous picture-making technique. The old 1/focal length rule, where the slowest speed you should handhold is the next one above the focal length of the lens you’re using, just doesn’t hold true for digital. To get that super fine detail you need when you’re making big enlargements, you should use 1/2x focal length. You need to use a heavy tripod and, where possible, mirror lock-up. Good filters, if you use them, are a must. Because I want to make very large works, I’ve had to get fussier and fussier about my technique.

But there’s still not enough. Shooting in Raw and correcting my pictures, I’ve come to realise that the weak link in the system is the lenses. A 16-megapixel sensor is capable of resolving incredibly fine detail. Once you become aware of that, nothing less will do, but to get it you need the best optics possible. Ordinary optics just mush the microcontrast necessary to bring that detail out. The higher end Canon optics, to my mind, just don’t do the sensor justice.

So call me anal.

For some time I’ve heard rumours about photographers who use Leica optics, generally accepted to be the finest glass in the world, on their higher end Canon DLR’s. I know of one leading New Zealand landscape photographer who does this very thing. And I wanted to find out for myself.

When I began in photography, every camera you bought came with a 50 mm lens. Of course, the first thing you did when you bought your camera was trade in the 50 mm lens for a zoom or a telephoto or a wide-angle. It took me some 25 years to realise that the 50 mm lens is actually one of the most useful focal lengths. You just have to know how to drive it. In the right hands it can look like a tele, or a wide-angle or something in-between. I have heard that it was Henri Cartier-Bresson’s favourite focal length, and a pretty much all the great photographer Ernst Haas ever used. Using a single focal length is also incredibly good discipline and helps you understand the unique personality it can give to your photograph.

Somewhere on the hill between Kyeburn and Ranfurly the opportunity came. The sun was just touching the old man range out to the West in the shadows for as long as they would ever be. If I was going to make some photographs I had little more than a couple of minutes in which to do them. As I came round the corner, off to my right light and shadow played against each other like interlocked fingers. The sky had that serene quality peculiar to this area. I made maybe 20 photographs my final images included the road sign; the very last of the sunlight, skimming the road, had picked up the sign and made it glow against the green fields in the blue sky.

It seemed fitting and somehow iconic end to a magic drive.

Oh yes, the answer to the question I can hear a number of you asking. When I processed the file in Lightroom I was somewhat stunned by the results. Yes, the ability of the Leica lens to resolve microfine detail is to my mind, at this stage, streets ahead of any Canon optics I’ve used so far. Frankly it’s quite staggering-and I didn’t have time to use a tripod. What I found distinctly interesting however, was the way that it renders colour. The processed image doesn’t have anywhere near the saturation and contrast that my other lenses deliver, and I found myself reaching for the vibrancy and saturation controls and tweaking them up. What it does deliver is a smoothness of tonal transition that is quite analogue in its characteristics.

I’m impressed.

6 Responses

  1. john says:


    one of the great things about the blog is the writting style, each time i read it i find myself wanting to reach for my camera to make the picture yoru talking about. love it.keep us posted ont he new lense!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hi Tony

    A couple of questions this time.
    I made an emotive post last round to see what sort of response I got but it was zip, I guess I figure in the 85% of readers of your blog who have no qualification to comment on 1. art 2. photography, you are way out of our league and that’s why we come here. You are a teacher and good at it, it shows in the words you choose. I guess we all do this stuff for our own reasons but almost always it seems to be for the simple passion of making pictures. Some of us want to capture a precious moment, some of us want to produce art, some of us want to produce a product for a client. Who do you want to cater for with your blog? I know I made a comment at a very basic level, I don’t apologise for that, at least I made a comment and I thought it would be of interest to see what response there was. Obviously it was too basic to even say who the #@!! is this saying this. Maybe best to say nothing huh.
    Right, next question. This Leica lens deal. I know the guy you’re talking about with this Canon mount Leica lens set up. I have a good accusation with the P&V boys and they talk about this stuff. We’ve all known for a while that digital has trumped film in resolution and colour rendering, so does this mean the boundaries get shifted? Crikey. I buy a $10,000 camera so I can make huge, colour accurate files because I am a perfectionist and want to make the best, then my clients tell me they only need 2500 pixel wide images to make billboards! And the biggest fine art image I manage to sell are 20 X 30″ which my 1DmkII would easily cope with. I talked to a guy recently who used a digital back medium format and a 1DsMKII, turns out most of his work gets done with the Canon because his clients don’t need huge files. Why would we want to sell our cars and mortgage our houses to buy Leica lens when the customers won’t even know the difference? OK, that aside, why technically are Leica lenses so much better? Is it the quality of the elements or placement of the elements in the lens that makes the difference?
    Tony, I love the 85km image, the light is beautiful. Is it for real that the light skims the first fence post and misses the second? There is something about the light in Otago. I’ve spent some time there in the last two years and the light is certainly different to what I am used to on the coast.
    Thanks again for the good stuff.

  3. Tony Bridge says:

    A reply:
    Hi John. Thanks for the kind words. More as it comes to hand( or should that be sensor).

    Sorry if you felt ignored. It certainly wasn’t my intention to do so.You ask some good questions, my friend.
    As for the blog. Whay do I do it? Once a teacher, always a teacher. I beagn the blog to keep faith with my friends and students whom I was feeling increasingly distanced from because of my hypersonic life and whom I felt I was failing, who wanted the answers to questions I didn’t have the time to give them. So I started it to provide support. Over time it has metamorphosed into what it is now.
    I do respond to requests and comments and the things you tell me. But I want to put up stuff I know and which I feel you may not be able to get elsewhere. I mean,if I post on using your camera I am just duplicating stuff you can get anywhere on the Netor at a workshop.. I want to go betond that, to offer my insights on photography and picture-MAKING and here is why.Learning to use your camera these days takes little effort compared to the grind up the hill that was film photography.But once the basics of technique have been mastered, then what? A beautifully-crafted but boring picture is just that. Time and time again I heard my students asking me to give them some philosophy, to help them develop a philosophical basis for their work. and from that evolve a personal style that set them apart. And that is what I am trying to do.
    If I am being too esoteric, then I apologise( although a friend who is a Fine Artist rang me to say she thought the post was really well stated). If I am being intellectually arrogant, then you guys have to tell me.

    It’s probably a good time to re-evaluate the blog. So all of you out there are invited to get in and tell me what works for you and what doesn’t. Go for it

    I know what you mean about the camera file sizes. I shoot my weddings on my 1D MkIIn. To do so with the 1Ds is like using a truck to go to the diary. The clients never buy prints that big.
    But I am a fussy bugger and I want to make the best images I possibly can, to challenge and push myself. Don’t forget, I am making work to sell in galleries. Whether that will work is a question I will have an answer to in a few short months. For a client I probably wouldn’t bother. And as for the prices of the Leica lenses? Who wants to buy second-hand manual-focus lenses? Have a look on EBay.Plenty there at reasonable prices.
    Anyway, thanks for the comment. Might be time to give me a call( about time for that visit).
    +64 3 444 9963( away friom this afternoon til Wed Night)
    +64 21 227 3985

  4. Anonymous says:

    Hi Tony
    I like your philosophical stuff – it makes me think – I might not be able to ge to that level but it won’t stop me trying!

    And tucked away in there is always some useful “gear stuff” – like you mentioned the guy who cleans your sensors – is he a private chap or can we all who live in/near Christchurch contact him? And if the latter are you able to provide his contact details? ‘Twould be helpful to those of us who are scared to clean our own sensors for fear of ruining the camera! Or will he get “overloaded” and hate you forever!

    And Andrew – there are still people out there who refuse to by “photo decor’ (whatever its size) because it is “just a photo” ! yeeeeeeek – when we read and think about what Tony is writing and what we are doing – it is very definitely more than that – and we who make photos not take photos all know that!

  5. Tony Bridge says:

    Hi BB:
    Hayden is more than happy to do your sensors. There is a post way back in the archives( April I think) that has all his contact details.
    photo decor. mmm that’s a good description of it. What exactly do you mean by that? Can you supply an example for me?
    “get to that level” Eeeek! I’m starting to feel like some sort of academic! Are my posts too heavy-duty and therefore obscure????

  6. Anonymous says:

    Thank you Tony – I’ve found Hayden’s number – and shall give him a call. So you see, you have put useful stuff in your posts – and still do.

    Photo Decor – well it is a term that Ron Woolf coined way back when – but I see it as those images we do put on our wall and can live with for many years – they add to our enjoyment of our environment, they add to our memory playback, and they make us feel good – Examples – you will probably have a number on your wall at your Dunsandel exhibition! I have got heaps on my own walls – and I am sure many photographers also do have them – we get them out and display them – often – and if they are really great then all those who visit us also enjoy them.

    Alternatively they could be “generic” images of our “art” (oops – your last few posts have “touched” on that!) that we have created and love and want to see lots of – so we put them up on the wall. Or on the walls of big corporations – for a fee! (oh to be so lucky!)

    Get to that level – some people – like you (and a few other philosophical persons who comment on your blog) – have a better grasp of how to phrase themselves in the English language – than others. It’s a joy to read and absorb – some of us can do it and some can’t – and you are describing your feelings about your images – but others who admire your work might not be able to say what they feel but might have those feelings anyway but just can’t articulate them so well.

    That’s why we have essayists – and people who can write books – others of us create images – and might get the ghost writer to put the photographer’s thoughts into words . . .

    Oh, I am getting carried away – anyway you are not obscure – just make us think


    oops I am not sure if this already went or not – so if it has, and there are two – then Tony please delete one of them!

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