#324 – Book Recommendation – Looking at Photographs

I saw this book recommended recently on Andy Beel’s blog, just after I’d judged my first photographic competition. While the timing was unfortunate, I ordered the book nonetheless, and I’m pleased I did, not only on the off-chance that I get asked to do some more judging, but also as a concise reminder as to the elements of a good photograph.

Those of us who have experienced some erratic, if not arbitrary, scores and comments from visiting camera club judges will appreciate Ken’s comments around objectivity and consistency..

I’m glad to say that I took an objective methodical approach to the judging I did. Objective is perhaps the wrong word as photographic appreciation is such a subjective thing, what I mean is putting aside prejudices and preferences in respect to technique and subject matter, e.g don’t mark something down because it uses HDR, or because you don’t like studio portraits.

The book hits the nail on the head by saying that you are there to judge the image that is there in front of you. You shouldn’t be awarding extra points if you know that the photographer used gum bichromate or some other difficult or lengthy process to create the image, if it’s not a compelling image, then it might as well be a machine print from Boots.

In reading how to judge an image, I’ve got some ideas on how to better judge, or edit, my own work.

It’s a pity that the book isn’t available as an ebook, as the low purchase price gets bumped up by the cost of shipping which is a fiver if you’re not in a hurry, or £12 (!!!!!!!!!) if you are. Either way, this book is highly recommended. Really, this should be the textbook for all new judges coming onto the scene, of how to do it properly, but you don’t have to be a judge to get something out of this book.

http://www.blurb.co.uk/b/2932165-looking-at-photographs

 

EDIT – sorry to my subscribers for the blank title in the notification, there’s some glitch in the wordpress software whereby changing the title of a post in ‘Quick Edit’, automatically publishes the post, even if you’re not ready yet!p

#314 – It’s not about the space. Or is it?

I’ve just listened to a great interview on the Candid Frame podcast with Will Jacks. Over the past few years, he has been photographing the goings on in a Mississipi ‘Juke Joint’ a type of bar peculiar to that area of America. he goes every week,  has befriended the owner and clientele, and has gained their trust and friendship. This has resulted in some fantastic, inciteful images. In the interview, he describes how the bar is popular with visiting photographers although most are tourists who are just passing through.

Jacks notes that, Juke Bars were previously the subject of a book by Birney Imes in the 1980’s, although he describes the images as more architectural, with many being long exposures on a view camera, resulting in the people being blurred out. Jacks made the distinction (not in a negative way) that his photos were ‘not about the space’.

Two things struck me during this interview. The first was a re-iteration of the benefit that returning to a place or subject regularly enables you to see things in more depth. The nature of this depends on the subject of course – a social documentary project would be different to a landscape  of course, but there is merit in both examples as you repeatedly see new things, new light, subtle changes, new faces, different moods, etc.

Personally, I rarely go back to places (apart from my railway photography), usually due to time, but also due to the nature of urbex – access comes and goes, buildings get demolished or refurbished, etc. However, I do know people who have been multiple times to places like Whittingham Asylum, Pyestock, etc, so I guess it depends on how close you are to a place, and how much it inspires or moves you. Alan Clogwyn regularly posts on his blog photos from the Welsh slate quarries near where he lives, places I love to explore but are several hours drive away for me.

DSC_0289_7_8_tonemapped bw

A photograph of an empty space?

The other point was ‘it’s not about the space’. In urbex, it’s all about the space, as the people and the activities have all gone. On the other hand, what makes urbex photographs interesting, and a challenge to take, is how to shoot the space. It’s easy to take pictures of empty space. Anyone can do that. But in isolation (or for that matter, in repetition), it can get boring. However, it can be necessary as part of the story as an establishing shot – the vast empty space of somewhere like an abandoned steel mill or derelict car factory, or the weed ridden wasteland where something once stood can tell a story, however it may need a caption or an accompanying description. An empty space may be bereft of contents, but isn’t necessarily bereft of interest if it makes the viewer pasue, think, and look a little closer.

However, I’ve always found it more satisfying to take (and look at), photographs of the details, and the stuff that’s left behind. These tell more of a story than an empty space ever will. I’ve written before on how I approach things based on the Life formula – landscapes to put the place into context and it’s place in the surrounding environment, interior shots (sometimes of empty spaces), and then, if possible, the smaller stuff – signs, machines, paperwork, artifacts, etc. It’s almost big, medium, small. I don’t go with a checklist as such, but it’s a bit like the supposed rule of thirds – it becomes intuitive in situations where it’s beneficial to use it.

 Fletchers-6226bw

The large establishing shot – the mills position in the landscape.

DSC_6161

The medium internal shot – showing something of what’s left, and also the mills function

03-DSC_6209

The smaller details – this payslip had been left behind by one of the operatives.

#213 – style

I wrote about style a while back, and I was reading through my notebook last night when I saw this passage that I’d copied from an article by David Ward, the well known landscape photographer. Kind of echoes my own thoughts really.

“Style is the single attribute that proclaims the author of the image, yet strangely it is, like the photographer, invisible in any one example.

 Style is a trait that becomes apparent only in a series of images, despite the fact that what has been photographed may well have been shot on numerous occasions by numerous other photographers. The images may well have been made over a few days or over many years, but they are linked by the mind and vision of the creator.

 Photographic style arises from the individual photographers intellectual and aesthetic concerns. It reflects the substance of their work and isn’t simply a matter of surface appearance.”
David Ward

#210 – Using black and white, using colour.

It struck me recently that I probably convert too many of my photos to rblack and white. I got to thinking why that was and I remembered back to when I was putting my RPS portfolio together, and I was advised not to mix colour and black and white. I noticed as well that many photographic books, especially monographs, are either one or the other, and rarely both.

However, given the subject matter I am often photographing for theviewfromthenorth.org I find myself veering between the two. In the earlier days, I kept much of my stuff in colour, and often took along a film camera to shoot black and white. As I got more confident, I found myself just shooting digital and converting a few to black and white in post processing. More recently, since I’ve been using Nik Silver Efex Pro, my black and white workflow has sped up enormously, and I can see what an image looks like easily before making the decision to convert. Ironically, most of the earlier stuff still works best in colour for some reason.The turning point seems to be Fletchers Paper Mill – I’m not sure whether I perhaps started to ‘see’ in black and white or whether the lighting and subject matter really suited it. Later, I was encouraged by a number of well respected photographers to stick with black and white as my subject matter really suited it. Since then, I find myself more often than not converting the entire set I load online to black and white. It’s almost become my style now, although maybe I’m becoming a slave to it?

This got me thinking as to what works and what doesn’t, and when colour should be used.

Black and white

In this the eye is drawn along the length of the picture by the whiter areas to a vanishing point.

Harold Davies in his new book ‘Creative Black and White Photography’ writes:

The image should itself present a compelling visual reason why it is monochrome. Here are some possibilities:

• The graphic content of the image is clearer without the distraction of color.

• A great contrast is being presented between darks and lights.

• Shadows play a big role in the image.

• The subject matter of the image is in some way old-fashioned or anachronistic.

I have to admit that this is a good a list as any I’ve seen. John Beardsworth in ‘Advanced Black and White Digital Photography’ is of the opinion that a well composed picture will work equally well in black and white or colour. I tend to disagree slightly – they may work in both, but not necessarily equally well.

Of course, if you’re shooting black and white film, then you’re stuck with monochromatic images, and have to be more careful about how and what you’re shooting.

In my fairly limited experience of black and white, I’ve found that I tend to convert to monochrome when I see;

  • High contrast
  • Muted colours
  • Shadows – photo of frame in shadow at Ditherington.
  • Hiding burnt out areas
  • Some scenes that are already inherently black and white – wintry landscapes on cloudy days, whereas a sunset is obviously colour.

Shadows in Sardinia – so much of the scene was in shadow that it made sense to convert to black and white.

Ditherington Flax Mill, here, the shadows are far more delicate

However, there is more to black and white than a checklist of criteria!

Tonality

Tonality is more important in black and white than in colour as there are no hues involved, just different tones ranging through black to grey to white, thus the information in the image is delivered differently. Digital images (and film negatives if I remember correctly to my darkroom days) seem to come out inherently flat, so the magic happens in post processing.

Implication / Suggestion

One thing I personally use black and white for is when I want to imply something, such as setting the mood or tone for a collection of images. In my own photographs, I like to go for a stark, oppressive look with high contrast that is dark and moody, and is well suited (I think) for industrial decay.

What is this photo saying? It could say many things………

Similarly, my steam railway photos I convert as they’re a subject that people almost expect to see in black and white. I suppose that’s because steam engines are from another age, a time when all photographs were black and white. There’s also the fact that many of them are black to begin with. I remember reading a quote from I think O.Winston Link, probably my favourite railway photographer where someone had asked him why he rarely used colour. I’m paraphrasing but he replied “Engines are black, steam is white, what’s the point in shooting that in colour?” He was only half joking as he produced some exceptional colour images, but he has a point.

I consciously composed this to include the terraced houses and mill chimney in the background, to try and evoke the feel of a photograph from the 1960’s.

Here’s something you rarely see from me – people images. Yes, I do take them, but don’t tend to post them up on here as it’s not what this blog is about. But back to the point – how can black and white add impact to photographs of people? In these two instances, I like to think there is a strong air of mystery – in the first, the backlight is just revealing the profile of the subject, while the second the models (very small) black dress is barely visible, if at all, and as such is hinting at nudity.

Nude? Thankfully no.

Nude? Alas no.

 

Interesting textures / shapes

Sometimes in black and white you notice things that you simply didn’t in colour. Areas of a photo take on a new precedence. Colour can be a distraction. Take the image below of these cooling towers. It’s all about shape and texture, but the colour version is all about the blue sky.

Colour

Shooting colour should be easy, as we see in colour, and our cameras record in colour by default. Job done, yes? Well, yes and no. To make the best use of colour, then it’s not just a case of photographing what is there.

I’ll admit to not always consciously taking photos with black and white conversion in mind (the Duke Of Lancaster was a notable exception), although the beauty of shooting in raw is that you can in fact shoot in black and white, and indeed view the image in black and white on the camera’s screen, while actually saving it as a colour image. (If you’re a Nikon shooter you can use their proprietary NX2 software, and view the raw file in black and white if required. Personally, I’d rather saw my own leg off than use such a slow, clunky piece of software, and I much prefer Lightroom and Photoshop).

Eye is naturally drawn to the lighter, or highlight areas, which is why the edges of images are often burned in (or a vignette applied), so as to draw the attention to the lighter areas and supposedly keep the eye in the frame.

No need for a vignette here, the eye is drawn to the lighter colours automatically. I never figured out why the colour of the natural light was blue though……….

Could this work in monochrome? Probably not as well. The most striking thing about this image is not just the pipes but the predominance of blue, both in the pipes and in the sky.

#202 – High Dynamic Range Photography – A Substitute For Creativity?

Astley Green Colliery

Several years ago, I experimented with using Photomatix to produce High Dynamic Range (HDR) images. I reasoned that as a lot of the urbex pictures I was taking were in low light, then this would be the ideal tool to capture the full range of visual information, or something like that. However, I grew increasingly frustrated at the lack of control in the tone mapping part of the process, inasmuch as it makes global adjustments and you end up with a weird looking image. So I ended up spending as much time again in Photoshop making local adjustments to get the image looking how I wanted it to, plus there was all the artifacts, halos and jagged edges it created. In the end I got fed up with it, and when I changed my main camera from a Nikon D70 to a D700, which has a sensor with an improved dynamic range, I gave up Photomatix as I found that there was sufficient detail in the highlights and shadows to make local adjustments in Photoshop. I also found myself using a tripod less and less (essential for the exposure bracketing required to create the 3 or more images needed for HDR) as I can handhold the D700 in light where a tripod was required for the D70.

Prestolite Factory, Leyland

In looking at other people’s HDR images, I grew increasingly dismayed at the revolting mess the majority of people make of it. To my mind, people are using it as a substitute for creativity. Take a load of images, bung them into Photomatix, and then move the sliders up and down until you get something garish. Bingo. It’s the lazy way of image manipulation.

I then heard an interview with Trey Ratcliff on the PhotoNetCast podcast. Trey runs the stuckincustoms.com website and is a devotee of HDR, so much so that stuckincustoms is not just a nice looking website, it’s a business that employs 11 people. So I reckoned that it had to be worth checking out, and I was impressed with what I saw. To my eyes, this is how HDR should be done. OK, I don’t like all the stuff, some of it is still a bit too garish for my eyes, but light years from the majority of HDR images posted on flickr and forums. In the interview, Trey voiced some of my frustrations about the HDR workflow involving going back into Photoshop to finish off the image, and he reckoned that 80% of the time was spent in Photomatix and 20% in Photoshop.

Here’s my take on it – HDR has been described as a ‘world without shadows’, and my photography relies heavily on the shadows. I don’t always want every single detail in the shadows, and when I do, I prefer to keep my entire workflow in Photoshop. I’ve found that I prefer to use select areas of the image on individual layers that are individually adjustable to get the balance I want, rather than making global adjustments to the image then going into Photoshop to make local adjustments. I suspect that because I’ve spent time in wet darkrooms and hours in photoshop I can look at an image and see how I want the image to look, and know how to get it looking like I want to look, rather than rely on computer algorithms to make global adjustments without actually ‘seeing’ or understanding the image.

Will I be going back to Photomatix? I don’t think so. I think HDR and tonemapping is a useful tool in certain situations where you’ve got massive contrast and /or not much light, as it will provide an image that is a useful starting point for further processing. In other words, it should be used as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself!

#201 – before and after – articulating your vision photographically

“It is impossible for a photographic print to duplicate the range of brightnesses (luminances) of most subjects, and thus photographs are to some degree interpretations of the original subject values. Much of the creativity of photography lies in the infinite range of choices open to the photographer between attempting a nearly literal representation of the subject and freely interpreting it in highly subjective ‘departures from reality’ My work for example is frequently regarded is ‘realistic’, while in fact the value relationships within most of my photographs are far from a literal transcription of actuality. I employ numerous photographic controls to create an image that represents ‘the equivalent of what I saw and felt’ (to paraphrase a statement I heard on a number of occasions from Alfred Stieglitz – the great photographer of the early twentieth century). If I succeed, the viewer accepts the image as its own fact, and responds emotionally and aesthetically to it. It is safe to assume that no two individuals see the world about them in the same way.”

Ansel Adams, The Negative

Ansel Adam’s trilogy of books The Camera, The Negative and The Print are now decades old but while the darkroom techniques are now largely irrelevant to anyone using digital, the principles behind the creation of creative black and white images remain true.

For Ansel, the negative was just the starting point. In his book ‘The Print’ he describes how he printed his famous ‘Clearing Winter Storm’;

“During the main printing exposure of 10 second,, I hold back the shadowed cliff area near the right edge for 2 seconds, and the two trees in the right hand corner for 2 seconds…..After the basic exposure, I burn the bottom edge for 1 second and the lower left corner for 3 seconds. I then burn the left edge of the print for 2 seconds and the right edge for 2 seconds, in each case tilting the card to favour the sky.

Burning is required from the base of the sun lit forest areas, near the waterfall, to the top of the image, with three up and down passages of 3 seconds each. I then burn the sky along the top for 10 seconds, continuing with the 2 and 4 seconds at the upper left corner. Then using a hole 1 inch wide, I burn the central area (between the two cliffs and the clouds above) for 10 seconds, and then bring the hole closer and burn the smaller area of cloud for an additional 10 seconds.”

Phew!!! a testament not only to his vision (and being in the right place at the right time), but also his ability to translate that vision, using his knowledge of exposure, film, paper and developer properties and of course his printing expertise.

But the parallels are starting to become clear with the digital darkroom. Where before there was a negative, there is now a raw (or possibly a jpeg) file, while the variables of development and printing are practically eliminated.

The images of The Duke Of Lancaster that I’m using are ones I’ve used several times before in this blog, and I’ve even gone into my thought processes, but here I want to explore them a bit deeper, more the why than the how.

I started with some research – the internet is a godsend for this kind of thing! I looked at the location on Google Earth to get an idea of the topography, as well as look at loads of photos on flickr and Geograph http://www.geograph.org.uk/gridref/SJ1779. Photos on Geograph are rubbish from a creative perspective, but do give a good idea of the surroundings, whereas the flickr ones are more variable. While good from an inspiration perspective, none of them really moved me, although some of the night photographs are superb! However, on this occasion, night photography wasn’t what I was doing. While it would have been nice to have chosen the optimum time of day, light and weather conditions, I didn’t have that luxury as I don’t exactly live on the doorstep, neither do I have unlimited opportunities to go out and photograph.

So what did I have in mind? I wanted to interpret the scene as I felt it. How do you ‘feel’ a visual scene that you have no emotional attachment to? To me a scene is not just the sum of the elements you see before you, that’s just composition. So what did I see and feel? I saw a sad scene before me, a proud old liner slowly rotting away in a forgotten old dock. The paint was rusting, the flags weren’t flying and the happy travellers had been replaced with the occasional urban explorer. It’s future is uncertain, but whatever happens the old ship isn’t likely to be sailing very far, or to a happy ending.I felt quite sad that this graceful old liner was marooned here so I wanted to portray something dark and dramatic, that had a sense of place. This brings me to the coastal landscape – I’ve always found estuaries a bit weird. There’s something about places where the land fades into the sea that is slightly surreal. Maybe it’s because they’re the only landscape that is constantly changing, or the lack of people and buildings, I don’t know.

Creative choices started at the location – lens choice (16-35 to get foreground, 28-70 to get the wider scene) composition (placement of the ship in the frame, how much sky to include, how much foreground) and exposure (underexposed to capture some detail in the sky). I then took 30 or so different images of slightly different compositions to give myself plenty of choice later on.

When I got back, I uploaded them to Lightroom and viewed them all sequentially in a slide show, ranking them 1-5 as I went on, and then just viewed the ones with 4 and 5 stars. I then switched the computer off and left them for a few days and came back to take another look. It’s surprising how you see things differently once you come back later. I then made my final selections, based on what ‘looked right’.

As someone far wiser than I once said, every image contains a hundred others. I now had my starting point, but I now wanted to transform it into something which communicated what I had in my head. As the image was a raw file, it all looked a bit dreary and flat, so I had to start the processing in Lightroom. I had in my head a high contrast black and white with a dramatic sky, so I needed to recover some detail in the sky first of all. Thankfully, I’d underexposed so there were no burnt out highlights.

This left a muddy looking image, but you can only do global adjustments in Lightroom, so I had to move to Photoshop to start the buggering about with layers and making local adjustments to curves, sharpening, etc.

Once in Photoshop, I converted to black and white using Nik Silver Efex. There are loads of ways of converting in Photoshop, none of which I can be bothered with as I foind the Nik plug in both easier to use and provides a better result. In Photoshop proper, I made separate selections for the sky, foreground and ship, which are the three key compositional elements. The sky was adjusted using curves, as was the foreground. I also created a duplicate layer of the foreground and changed it’s layer type to multiply to give it the contrast I was looking for. I also adjusted the brightness of the ship slightly to make it stand out against the dark backgrounds, as well as giving it some extra sharpening.

Result: well if you read this blog regularly, you’ll have seen it before, but I’m most pleased with it, and recently got it put on a 30 x 20 canvas by Vista Digital in Longridge near Preston, who I can highly recommend, as inkjet printing of monochrome images is difficult and they did a superb job of it! My own print of it also came second in the Brownedge Arts Festival Photographic Competition, the prize money more than off setting the cost of the canvas!

DSC_7068-Edit-Edit

 

 

DSC_7062-Edit-2-Edit

So what are the lessons I learnt from this?

1) Think about how the scene in front of you moves you.

2) Think ahead when choosing your exposure.

3) Where possible, do some research in advance. Some photographers prefer not to view other images of the scene as they want the photograph to be theirs, not influenced by someone else. I can understand this point of view, but you’re missing out on potentially some great ideas for compositions. You don’t have to copy, the creative choices will always be your own!