#293 – Re-visiting photos 2

More reworked photos!

These are from Edenwood Mill, which if still standing, must be a pile of soggy wood and rubble as it was in a right state back in 2008.

This one hasn’t really benefitted much from the monochrome conversion compared to some, but the lens corrections have slightly improved things.

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The next photos are also taken In Edenwood Mill, in the brick building on the photo above. They are a familiar composition for me – looking out from an internal window, and although I use it a lot, there has to be something outside to actually look at for it to work.

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This first one possibly lacks a focal point, and the boarded windows at the top just seem to ruin the photo in colour.

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So here we have the rework. A square crop removes the distraction of the windows adjacent to the central window, and the monochrome conversion has lessened the impact of the boarded windows at the top. If anything, these are now more a part of the overall scene somehow. The possible lack of an exterior focal point is not really an issue, and you can tell that the dark are in the centre is still a river.

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Another square crop, and some tweaks to the angle and shape of the window have vastly improved this, in fact it works very well in colour as well, once I’d boosted the contrast and saturation. But the monochrome version has the edge, especially when part of a larger set.

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So there you have it, images that I initially discarded, but have managed to use. I guess that the lesson here is that, having some time apart from the images can lead you to look at them differently. Also, the judicious use of cropping has transformed the images – there’s still a train of thought which says get it right in camera, which is an admirable sentiment, but if I followed it, I’d need to carry round a square format camera with me everywhere, as well as an SLR.

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#292 – Re-visiting photos 1

I’m in the middle of putting some themed Blurb books together and went for a rummage round the darker recesses of my Lightroom catalogue. Lightroom is a great piece of software and I now tend to do much of my photo editing on it (apart form mono conversions and multi layer work), and it’s a vastly quicker and smoother workflow than cataloguing images in the clunky Adobe Bridge, editing the raw files individually in Adobe Camera Raw, and then Photoshop. As I’ve got more into Lightroom, I’ve begun to get my head round it’s capabilities, while the raw processing abilities of the software improves with each release. Black and white conversions are still done in the Nik Silver Efex Pro plugin in Photoshop though.

In re-visitng these images, the main changes were – lens corrections, cropping, tonal/curves adjustments, and monochrome conversions.

These images were taken at Old Lane Mill in Halifax, and were ones that at the time I thought had potential, but once I viewed them on-screen, could no longer see it.

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This has been quite heavily cropped and straightened up, definitely works better in monochrome. The crop has removed a lot of the extraneous aesthetic distractions, such as the ground, the silver pipe on the ground floor and the fire escape. The monochrome conversion has removed the distraction of colour.

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Now this one was one that at the time I thought would be a good idea, but couldn’t figure out how as the buildings in the background were just too far away. There wasn’t enough room behind me to get far enough back to use a telephoto that would have compressed the perspective slightly.

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This is marginally better. The biggest improvement has been the increase in the contrast in the stonework, but unfortunately that’s it really. It was worth a go I suppose.

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And for completeness, a couple from Fernhurst Mill. These are relatively recent images, so the edits were less radical.

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Only a slight tweak here to the verticals, and the monochrome conversion was more for completeness so that it fell in line with the rest of the set.

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As this was taken on the wide end of a 16-35, the converging verticals were noticeable. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much ‘headroom’ above the mill once corrected although I guess this could be cloned in if I extended the canvas in Photoshop.

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The monochrome conversion is more effective inasmuch as it seems to draw attention to the fact that demolition is iminent – the digger in the foreground is the first thing you see, then the mill and you start to understand the link between the two.

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#263 – Recommendation – DS Colour Labs

Given the cost of ink and decent Fotospeed paper, I tend to use my A3 printer sparingly and for applications where I need control over the end result such as for competition and exhibition work. For everything else I either get done at my local Tesco (6×4 prints) or Photobox (everything bigger).

Recently though I decided to try DS Colour Labs (DSCL) in Manchester again. I’d used them last 3 years ago as they were well recommended, but while the prints were good, I wasn’t blown away. However, for my FRPS project, I wanted a load of A3 prints doing as work prints and to see how they looked as a full size panel. Thing was, Photobox charge £6.50 for an A3, or £2.85 for 20+ 15×10’s, the next size down. This gets expensive if you’re buying 30 prints. So mindful of some recent recommendations for DSCL, I checked them out, and was heartened to see their price of £1.10 for an A3. After uploading the images, I was then sent email updates as to the progress of my order, and after ordering on the Monday, I was pleased to receive a large box of prints on the Wednesday. And the quality was excellent too. It’d be interesting to send the same image to Photobox and make a subjective comparison, against a home printed image and a DSCL one.

I still highly recommend Photobox as their online image storage is a valuable asset, as are their pro galleries where I have images for sale, but if you just want great quality, great value for money prints, I’d recommend DS Colour Labs to anyone.

#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!

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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!

#166 – pre-visualising an image

In the words of one of my personal heroes, don’t you just love it when a plan comes together? I’d been planning to go and have a look at the Duke Of Lancaster for ages as I had an image in my mind. And it was exactly like the one at the top of the post that you’ve just seen. It’s very rare that I do this, as more often than not when I’m out exploring or taking railway photographs, I tend to be spontaneous and react to what I see. However, I’d spent quite a bit of time beforehand looking at photos of the ship on Flickr, so compositions were forming in my head. However, the finished image needed to be high contrast with an ominous sky, as is my style.

Meanwhile, back on the beach, I took lots of different photos from different perspectives, at different distances and with different focal lengths. I don’t normally machine gun a subject, but I wanted to give myself plenty of options when I was selecting an image for processing.

My black and white workflow involves Nik Silver Efex to convert to monochrome, and in this I also use the ‘Wet Rocks’ Effect, and add a Tri-X filter to up the contrast. But any effects added in this are applied to the whole image (I can’t get on with the control points in Silver Efex), so In Photoshop, I selected the sky and tinkered with the levels then changed the blending mode to ‘Multiply’, then did the same with the foreground, albeit changing the blending mode to ‘Color Dodge’. There’s no rationale behind the blending mode choices, they just looked good. I then selected the ship and tweaked the contrast slightly as by now it was looking a bit flat in comparison.

The net result was this, something which exactly matched the image in my head. It’s something I’ve never managed to pull off before, and probably won’t ever do again due to the somewhat dynamic way in which I photograph, but it’s good to get an insight into how proper landscape photographers work.