Thursday, February 28, 2008


Photography is full of choices, from where to go to photograph, to what equipment to buy or take with you to how you compose the image to what you do with the images afterwards.

Wouldn't it be nice if there were a less painful way to make decisions about your photography.

Some decisions are obvious and I'm not talking about those. No, I'm referring to the tricky ones that seem to have down sides to both positions, no clear winner and everything is a compromise.

First, define your goal - you might obviously say it's better pictures, but is that really right, or is it really more pictures or more convenient picutres or bigger pictures. Knowing your goal is absolutely essential to making decisions of any type and certainly in photography.

Next, some down sides are worse than others. I'm guessing that you'd be reluctant to accept any decrease in image quality - though if you look at all the dSLR owners rushing out to get G9's, you might wonder. Is the G9 being purchased as a toy, to photograph where the dSLR would not have been taken, or is it merely a convenience even though the dSLR could have been carried.

I found that I was so much more successful with a dSLR than with a view camera that convenience really didn't enter into it - it was about the number of quality images.

Sometimes there seem to be somewhat similar downsides which ever solution you choose - If I include X in the composition I get more of the good stuff, but have to accept the bad - seems like either way I'm compromising the composition. I've written in the past that all things being equal it's better to simplify and reduce than add and complicate but can we actually use logic to help us decide.

Well, adding x is really good because it adds this really cool thing to the image - it might be a lovely s bend or an extra rock of intriguing shape or that part of the pool with the tree reflecting. It might be something fascinating in the background of a portrait or a really nice line in a collar. BUT!, is it there for itself or to support what's already in the image. If you have three of something and it would be nice to have a forth but it comes with a price, then how badly do you really need four in a row? If it completes the compositional pattern then it may be worth it at just about any cost and you just have to figure out how you can minimize the collateral damage in the post processing.

Let's say the decision is about which tripod to buy. You have narrowed your choice to two decent tripods. One has four section legs which are reputed to be less stable, but the tripod reaches a greater height, the other only three section legs. The 4 will fit in your suitcase, the three won't. The four is a little heavier. How do you decide?

O.K. - what was your goal? I presume it was to get the steadiest possible pictures - why the hell else would you use a tripod? Yes, but you'd also like to use it for the most number of possible pictures - so just how often do you need that extra height. I find myself using the extra height in about one picture in a hundred, more often doing landscapes than industrial because of sloping ground and getting above branches and so on. Just how important are those images? If you already have the longer tripod you can simply look back and see how many really good images were taken successfully only because you had the longer tripod. Without one, you really don't know but at least can ask yourself just how often did I get frustrated and not get the image because of lack of height? Do you really need your tripod in your suit case or could you like me use a duffle bag with socks and shoes and stuff padding the tripod - it takes my big tripod just fine thank you. Remember the original goal though, steady camera. You could just take it as a given that three section tripods are less steady, but hey, George Barr, Michael Reichmann and a number of other known photographers use four section legs, maybe the steadiness issue isn't as obvious as I had been led to believe. No sweat, you have a question - on tripod brand A, is 4 section significantly less stable than 3 - you need to go find out - off to your friendly dealer, camera and long lens in hand, and you set them up and wiggle them about, but even better you take them outside and shoot several slow speed shots - can you actually see a difference? A difference that you can't see is no difference at all.

So, we have our defined goal, we recognise that some down sides are worse than others, and so too some advantages are more important - is the advantage something you really need? Will it in fact help you make more and better pictures? A camera that shoots 6.5 frames a second when your interest is landscapes is no advantage at all. A camera that has loser noise at ei. 800 isn't much help unless you are doing sports, concerts or low light. IS on normal length lenses/cameras that sit on tripods is at best pointless and possibly image degrading.

A camera that can fit in your pocket isn't much of an advantage if you permanently stick on a lens shade that prevents it from doing so.

Sometimes you do something in the image processing - lighten the shadows a little - and you end up not sure which print is better. Well, odds are if you can't tell, no one else will either, in which case toss a coin, or even better leave the prints out and come back to them over the next few days - usually the problem will resolve itself nicely, and if it doesn't then the difference was too small to measire, and like I said before, if a differnce can't be seen, it doesn't count.

Sometimes you have a couple of choices and neither seems overwhelminly better, fine, go with instinct, or feel. In the case of a choice of two cameras, if the difference isn't obvious, then go with the camera that feels best in your hand and with your eye. There's nothing wrong with favouring the photographer (you) if it doesn't cost in other ways.

What if you have a list of possible choices - say for example the large selection of semi gloss papers now available for inkjet printing - from Crane Museo Silver Rag on to the latest Epson Exhibition.

I find that sometimes I can simply use logic, other times I actually need a scoring system. First, are there any deal breaking features of any of the papers. I remember one Innova paper was downright gray - didn't matter what else it was good at, that was a fatal flaw. One paper had bashed corners, but that might be bad luck, or poor packaging that could change, perhaps a temoprary fatal flaw - can you be a temporary fatality?

A paper might have a nice cream base, but if it looks downright yellow under the lights you use when displaying prints then that's fatal too.

A paper might have a deeper black but more gloss differential on your printer. So can you actually see the difference in the depth of the black? Compared to matte prints they all look pretty good, maybe picking the paper with the scientifically measured deepest black really isn't all that important. If only you can see the difference and then only in controlled conditions and with side by side comparisons of unmounted prints in a brighter light than you'd normally display your images, then who cares?

I generally find that scoring systems are both unneeded and never seem to reflect my instinct, just logic, and I tend to go with my gut in the end anyway. It's near impossible to assign weights to compltely different characteristics - camera a has 2 more megapixels, camera b has in body image stabilisation - what kind of point system is really going to help you decide here? You either need the IS or you don't, you either need the extra size prints that you can make from those extra 2 MP or you don't - and how much bigger was the print it could make anyway - 10% bigger - gee that's not much, is it. I was hoping to go from 11X14 to 16X20 and it turns out the extra two MP are nothing like enough to do that for me - turns out I'd need to double the number of pixels to do that - well, so much for that feature.

Anyway, that's how I go about deciding. Perhaps thinking about my twisted logic can help you with your decision making.

Oh, and when it comes to deciding about which composition is better, shooting both ways and choosing after trumps any decision making method in the field.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Why Make Photographs?

I can understand why people photograph - messing about with cameras is fun, it often gets you outdoors, it's an icebreaker to talk to people you might not meet otherwise, it's challenging and you get to buy neat gadgets. But that doesn't explain the need to make images. If we go back to before the internet, the average photographer never shared his work with anyone. Few if any prints were mounted on the wall - given the hassles of dry mounting and matte cutting, prints were difficult to make so the concept of sharing prints was largely foreign, giving a photograph as a gift wasn't generally thought of, and few photographers had their images pinned to their office walls to look at on a regular basis. No, the images tended to be stored in printing paper boxes (if even that), to be looked at somewhere between seldom and never. All this was done with considerable expense in time and materials and for what?

Clearly it wasn't for fame - in the days of the wet darkroom, few serious amateur photographers even considered submitting their work - there was one around to compare yourself to and most photographers just assumed no one would be interested. Even today, there are photographers discovered who have quietly been working on one or more projects for 30 years, amassing an impressive and important body of work without a soul knowing till some lucky fluke comes along.

You'd think that if it were for the love of the fine image, photographers would have their work pasted up everywhere, and if not their own work, then images from photo magazines - but few did.

this suggests that while many of us share our work these days, that isn't fundamental to being a photographer.

So why photograph? Some photographers spend their entire lives testing - for what I don't know since they never seem to move beyond testing. I read today of someone testing printing techniques for the new Sigma DP-1 - it isn't even out yet - give me break! Others say they photograph because they have to - but how helpful is that kind of comment? What is this, some little voice inside that says, before you are allowed to have lunch, you must take a photograph? I don't think so - these photographers can go weeks or even months between photographic sessions - some addiction that is.

More than a few photographers photograph in a way that reminds one of the big game hunters of the past - see what I bagged. I hiked further, higher, carried a heavier pack, suffered for my art and see what I got that you can't get - so there! They may want to impress but often it's the thrill of the chase that satisfies, the final image simply being a reminder of the conquest.

A few photographers are more specific, they say they feel the need to create. Now, in 30 seconds, your 3 year old can slap paint onto your clean living room wall (and carpet) so there must be more to creation than that - I think of creation a little bit like stategy in a game - whether it's chess or football. Gee, if I try this, then that, and what about the other? Instead of the conquest being the perfect weather/sun/light our successes often come when we find things that others either don't see or don't consider photogenic, then turn round and work with it to record and present it in a way that is unique, informative, pretty, interesting, curious, strange or whatever.

Some days we feel this need more than others. At times it can be satisfied by working on an image taken, but others nothing but going out hunting, plotting and scheming will satisfy the itch, rather like one of those serial murderers you read about in novels. Hopefully there's no transfer of itches.

In the end, does it really matter why we photograph? Well, I think it does. Knowing yourself better helps you scratch the itch more effectively. For the person who has to hike miles and find unique weather and lie in wet grass for hours - popping out to the local park at noon just isn't going to cut it. It might for someone else though who wants to create and who might enjoy the challenge of being given a subject, location or situation to photograph.

It also could help you figure out what to do with your images once made. It it's truly the hunt that is important, the images simply form a record of the hunt and are of no great importance otherwise and filing them is entirely appropriate.

Some of us need a test audience and for better or worse, you're it for me. It's not so much that I need an adoring public - Yuck!, it's that you act as a sounding board for my images, my experiments, my ideas. Am I on the right track, did I go to far, did I get my point across in an image or did I in fact miss the boat entirely.

For some, only cold hard cash sales are going to validate their work - it's all about sales, even if they actually don't make a net profit from their photography, the sales are the validation of their work, and perhaps worth.

The net is full of people who want to be known for their expertise, but not for their photography. They pontificate at length, but don't have the work to back it up. They often get really defensive when challenged - but given that they are talkers and not photographers, perhaps it's best if we put them aside as irrelevant to the current conversation.

It doesn't matter how good a tool is if you don't use it.

Do you really understand both why you photograph and what that implies about what you do with your image making?


Sunday, February 24, 2008

Being Ruthless

I think I prefer the close up image better - I really wanted to include those steel sheets but in doing so the main subject, the corrosion patterns on the boiler end lose out by being too small.

Sometimes it doesn't matter how clever your idea, if it weakens your original idea, then you can't have both. We need to be ruthless in our paring of anything that distracts from the reason we took the picture in the first place.

Heat Exchanger End Plate

I found this hanging on the wall of a shipping container being used for metal storage. It was dark in the corner and the ribbed siding didn't make for a pretty background. Fortunately there was enough steel sheet lying around I could find something suitable. I attempted to lift it down, only to find out that it was 1 inch thick steel, and just a little heavy. Anyway, with a bit more effort I laid it on top of steel lying on the bottom of the container and next to a large opening in the side of the container supplying light.

Do click on the image to see it full size - there's lovely detail in the corroded inside end, contrasting the bright cut of the copper showing. Wonder how long it took for the end to show rivulets of corrosion like this.

In a 'made' image like this, I could have placed the circle anywhere and more to the point rotated it to any position I wanted. I could have lined it up with the slants on the sheet, I could have made the sheet horizontal but that seemed a bit too much, I could have balanced the angle of the steel one way with the lines in the boiler end the other way. Sometimes too many choices actually makes things difficult - in the end this is what I decided, though I don't suppose it would be difficult to rotate the boiler end in Photoshop if I decided another angle would be better.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Visit 13

And still having fun.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Lenses For Landscapes

Addressing myself to some of the newer photographers or those contemplating buying their first dSLR, here's some things to think about.

Assuming that 90% of what you do is landscapes, then I raise the following points:

1) Anyone serious about landscapes uses a tripod - too many shots need f16 and a slow shutter speed to manage without one unless you are limiting yourself to dreamy narrow depth of field or even motion blurred images.

2) once on a tripod, the only reason to be concerned about shutter speed is a) wind and b) water. The former needs either patience or a moderately high shutter speed, the latter requires slower speeds to get nicely blurred flowing water.

3) very few landscapes need shallow depth of field so paying for wide f stop lenses is both a waste of money and extra weight to carry round - unless the lens is demonstrably better than the slower one - I replaced my f4 70 - 200 L lens with the 2.8 LIS because on a full frame camera the f4 just didn't have it at the edges never mind the corners. the new f4 IS is I understand just fine in this regard.

4) resolution wide open is rarely an issue and while it's true that stopped down variations in lens quality are less, sometimes they are still very siginificant, especially at the edges.

5) while many kinds of photography de-emphasize corners, landscapes typically have important information right into the corners and seeing fuzzy branches in the upper corners or blurred grass in the bottom ones is disturbing - so lens resolution in the corners is important, much more so than say in portraits or fashion or sports where centre sharpness is more important.

6) for most but not all photographers, extreme wide and extreme long lenses tend to be used less commonly in landscape work and all things being equal it makes more sense to pour your money into better glass than longer or wider glass. Once you determine a strong preference for wide or long images, you can get a second lens to cover the extremes.

7) these days zooms can sometimes be as good as single focal length lenses so avoiding zooms isn't necessarily needed and given the issues of framing and cropping, good zooms are perfectly reasonable for landscape work.

8) all things being equal, extreme range zooms (> 5X) are walk around snap shot lenses, not ideally suited to landscape work.

The perfect lens would be 10X zoom, F1, light weight, cheap and extremely sharp at all apertures, oh, and it would be nice if it had no barrel or pin cushion distortion.

There are no perfect lenses, not even close. Whatever lens you buy, even if you eliminate cost as a factor, is going to be a compromise in speed, size, range and so on.

Let's look at Canon equipment for a moment, simply because I know the most about it. Let's say that you are on a budget so you are buying a reduced sensor size camera, and probably not the top model even at that - so you decide to get a Canon XTI (400). Nice competent camera, good enough for the vast majority of even serious photographers. Remember, I'm limiting my look at Canon and am more concerned about lenses than camera features, so:

I'm an aspiring landscape photographer on a budget. I have just graduated from a consumer type point and shoot digital camera and for whatever reason I have purchased a Canon XTI.

The camera comes with a budget 18-55 lens that isn't IS, isn't fast, and isn't terribly sharp (I'm hearing there is a new model out but haven't seen reviews of it yet so can't comment on just how good it is). I could spend a bit more and get the 17-85 lens, no faster but it has IS and is decently sharp at the centre. Corners are fair but hardly wonderful, the lens is small enough for a walk around lens but that isn't all that important to me.

The 17-55 f2.8 IS is reputed to be very good, though larger and faster, the latter unneeded for the kind of work I do, and it would have been nice to go a bit longer on the long end.

I could get the 24-105 - good lens, a little soft at the long end but on a reduced frame camera, not even an issue. It is heavy though, rather like the camera sits on the the lens rather than the more typical other way round. Still, in one lens it has a decent range (remember the 1.6X multiplication factor) so it's better at the long end than the short. 24 mm. X 1.6 = 38.4, barely into wide angle territory. I can see getting frustrated at the wide end pretty fast. Still, Canon makes a reduced sensor lens, the 10-22 which is very good and not all that expensive, but now we're looking at $1000 for the 24-105 and then pay for the 10-22 - not ideal.

I could look at the fixed focal length lenses but by the time I get a decent range of them, and live with the limitations of fixed lenses and the hassles of multiple changes and sensor dust, I'm thinking that is not looking very attractive.

One option that could work for most landscapes is to forego the really wide and use stitching of multiple images when I need wider. With a bit of care, this is an entirely viable option, now that 24-105 is looking to be a better choice, the 17-85 a decent option if on a really tight budget.

Is it possible to really save money and shoot good landscapes - sure it is. You could limit yourself to a single lens - say the 50 mm 1.8 which is dirt cheap, fast, light, and very sharp when stopped down. It's a little longer than normal with the 1.6 X factor but you could stitch for wider - definitely an option for the financially challenged photographer who needs top quality.

Having said all of the above, a good photograph is infinitely more important than an image with sharp corners. The image you get is infinitely better than the one you don't.

In the end, were I tight on funds and starting out in landscape photography, I'd probably get the 17-85 and live with the limitations. If I were a bit more flush, I'd plan on a two lens system asap and go with the 24-105 (which would still be a good lens if and when I upgrade to a full sensor camera) along with the relatively inexpensive 10-22.

The 24-105 is a good walk around lens, if you have a Sherpa, but the 17-85 ain't bad and makes a very nice walk round lens and keep in mind that you might not always be a landscape photographer, if it's painless to explore other venues.

I remember seeing a full page magazine image of a beach shot with the 75-300 Canon lens, a remarkably mediocre lens, but the image was every bit as sharp as anyone could want, and besides, the guy had it published - what more does anyone really need. In the end you have to read reviews, including this one with a large grain of salt. It's where you point, not what you point that counts.

Viewing Our Own Work

I'm sitting in my office and surrounding me are 33 prints, one a gift from a friend, one of mine framed nicely, the rest simply pinned to the wall. I've tried rails but my standard paper (enhanced matte or whatever they call it this week) is too flexible and won't stand up on a rail without either falling forward if the rail is too narrow or slumps if it's wide enough - pin holes are easy to fix.

Do you immerse yourself in your work - can you visit your prints several times a day, even if just in a glance?

Interesting things happen when you expose yourself to your images this way. Minor flaws start to really bug you, images that wowed you at first, after a few weeks you wonder what you saw in them, other images that were kind of so so start to appeal to you and a select few grab you just as much as they ever did.

I'm convinced this repeated viewing of our images is important to our development as photographers.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Hole In One

Once again I'm going to borrow from golf for a photographic analogy. Hole in one is not a phenomenon limited only to the best professional golfers. I'm sure in fact that the vast majority of holes in one are made by amateurs who's only requirement is the ability to occasionally hit the ball long enough to go in the hole, there being so many more of them than of top professionals. Of course, the ability to once in your life make a hole in one does not make you capable of competitively playing Tiger Woods, at least not at golf.

So it is with photographers. The vast majority of 'Wow' images are made by amateurs. If you doubt this, check out one of the photo sharing sites. On the other hand, few of them are able to go the equivalent of 18 holes. Some part of their photographic game is really strong, but they don't have the skills or creativity to be well rounded photographers who can make creative images in a variety of situations. Their images tend to look all alike, well beyond any style to simply downright repetitive. They may win contests but are unlikely to make a meaningful body of work.

So what's the relevance of this analogy? Well, if you see yourself as being one of those specialists or lacking the ability to really work with a project or see that your successes have more to do with being there than creativity, then you might want to work on your weaknesses. You don't get to be a good golfer by only working on the driving range - even though you can make some pretty impressive shots.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Definition Of Interesting

"Photograph what interests you"
"Interest Comes First"
"Look for something interesting"

Sounds like this "Interesting" thing, whatever it is is pretty important so I thought I would talk about it.

Let's see if we can figure out what interesting really means. We could start by describing some things that are interesting, then we might have a better idea of what it means, keeping in mind that we are talking photographically.

It could be something:

1) unusual
2) out of it's normal context
3) near something else which either complements it or completely contradicts it.
4) we have an interest in
5) dramatic/spectacular/best of
6) with emotional connections
7) photogenic

Any of the above could lead to a good photograph, though you might want to ask - good for what?

You might also want to ask - where do I fit in?

Is it my sum contribution to get up early enough, hike long enough and wait patiently enough to capture the best of, the dramatic or the unusual? Apart from reflecting my perseverance it doesn't really say much about me and I think one could make the argument that fabulous sunset, gorgeous beach and incredibly cute baby pictures would fall into this category yet most of us wouldn't think of these kind of pictures as being art - great calendars perhaps but mostly suited to family albums and camera club beginners.

Think about it - how many fabulous sunsets do you see hanging in the Louvre? How many 'hunks' did Rembrandt paint? - not many. Painters had complete license to create images showing the fantastic yet they typically didn't and don't. Perhaps there's a lesson there for photographers.

If we go back to each of the above types of intersting and look at how much we can contribute, we get something like the following assessment.

Photographing something
1) unusual may reflect well on our abilities as a detective but after you have seen it once, it's a 'so what' kind of situation. Interest wanes quickly. Doesn't mean you shouldn't photograph it but images like these are best presented in a book where you can quickly look at an image, go wow, and move on.

2) out of it's normal context - images like these can be very funny or sad, they can easily create emotions and have the possibility to make you think - this has a lot more potential for powerful images. I think of the work of Gary Winogrand as often fitting here. You run the risk of the humour being slapstick and cliched. Often these are ordinary scenes in which the 'fish out of water' is not noticed by most of us.

3) near something complementary or contradictory - another of Gary's strengths - think of the small dog/huge dog image shot from the ground - very ordinary subjects but interesting for it's viewpoint and for it's juxtaposition. Again the realm of the super observant. The response is often not, wow, never seen that before, it's gee, why didn't I see that?

4) something we have an interest in - certainly this is the main advice of most books - shoot what interests you. Problem is, it may not interest anyone else. This venue has the greatest chance of you actually saying something meaningful, but do be prepared for a limited audience. Even landscapes have their 'rocks and roots' detractors, especially when it isn't a calendar type photo but that is a problem for the viewer, not the photographer, unless the photographer has unrealistic expectations.

My work with Indepenent Machinery is a classic example. The place and the people fascinate me (though it was luck that I started the project, it's interest that has keep me coming back). The number of people fascinated by machinery is undoubtedly limited - even if I were the best photographer in the world I would not expect this to be the next coffee table hit book. I'd like to think it might interest those who like form and light and shape and composition regardless of the subject, but again that's a limited audience.

Not everything that each of us is interested in is necessarily good subject matter - it needs to photograph well on top of being interesting. Some subjects have near universal appeal - beautiful grand landscapes, kids, the female form (well for half of us anyway), others are of such limited interest they really need to make up for their limited appeal as a subject with how well they are photographed.

4) dramatic/spectacular/best of - certainly the venue for many landscape photographers who seek only dramatic skies, incredible lighting or the outstanding scene - often shot in exotic places like the badlands, mountains, tropics or whatever. I find images of this type to be of limited appeal but clearly I'm not in the majority as usually these are the images featured on the covers of magazines, both because they are popular and because they catch the eye and amateur photographers want to be able to do the same - so they buy the magazine. How much of yourself is in this kind of image - they are often superbly composed, so there's that, they often leave people disappointed with the real places which look nothing like this when they visit them - one could even think of them as being a little bit of a fraud. Still, it's Ansel's grand landscape images that are most famous and usually feature on the covers of his books and sell calendars. It might explain though why so many calendar images start to look just like each other. Images of this type speak again to the perseverance of the photographer more than his artistry. For Ansel, his artistry was in the making of the prints rather than the capturing of the grand landscape which certainly represented perseverance - hiking through snow bound passes, climbing peaks with 50 lb. of equipment, freezing and boiling and bugs and all.

6) images with emotional connections - well - puppy pictures qualify but most of us wouldn't think of them as great art - on the other hand Dorothea Lange's Migrant Farm Family both generates emotion and tells a story without words and even if were shot today and thought of as a bit of a cliche, it has endured as being the ultimate in that kind of photograph. The skill in the photographer is to recognize the power of the scene and to capture it in a way which shows this power off, often with a split second to react and shoot. Emotions in extreme circumstances may be easy to capture - just go to Africa and photograph some AIDS sufferers or starving children, but to do so within our own milieu and not be a cliche is extremely challenging, rewarding and interesting.

7) photogenic - well some things just photograph well and photographers return to them again and again - the human form, things that are wet, ice, S curves, repetitive patterns, and so on. The trick is to make the image a lot more than just a picture of something that photographs well - through posture, positioning, context, framing and so on.

It's my hope that even if you disagree with me (good chance, I stuck my neck out on this one), it will give you something to think about and might even change your thinking about what you photograph and how you approach said interesting thing.

I'm interested in your immediate feedback but would be even more interested to hear if it changes anything. I suspect that like most of my images which really don't change the viewer, most of my writing is similar, but I think this one might just be important.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Independent Machinery Images

I have given all the black and white Independent Machinery their own web album, click HERE to go directly to all 78 images (so far).


Saturday, February 16, 2008

Something The Hubble Would Have Shot

In fact this is simply the burn from welding on the side of a platform. I removed the rebar in the centre by combining two images. The colours were there if a little more pastel, but none the less really cool!

Options, Lots Of Options

The image above is a good example of what can happen when you have a well exposed image with good detail in the highlights and shadows (typically either from HDR techniques or because of soft lighting. The result is that you have many choices for what to do with the image. Almost any part of it can be lightened or darkened dramatically to create different output.

In this image, I was able to take the dark round cylinders and make them quite light with real highlights. I was able to darken the long hinge till it didn't jump out at you. I could lighten the wood slats in the background and alternate dark and light in the circular washers.

You can take a landscape image and take a dark rock and make it both lighter and give it highlights so it really stands forth. You can take a medium gray rock and make it look wet.

Point is you have a lot of control over the ultimate look of the image which may have little to do with how the image was captured or seen - this is creativity.

The down side is that without that creative input - an idea of where you want to go with the image and its parts, you are left floundering.

YOu can get ideas from other images you have seen but given you don't know what they started with, you really have no idea of how much was done or in what direction. I remember seeing unadjusted images of Wynn Bullock and the end result with it's mystical, moody, perhaps scary atmosphere was entirely created in the darkroom - and he didn't even have Photoshop.

Great composers write music to sound as absolutely perfect as possible regardless of the interpretation put on it by the conductor. In photography however, the raw file can be simply the building material with no real sense of it's greatness until the print performance is played out.

If you know the mood you want to present, then you probably have a good idea of contrst and brightness of the overall image. You can use tonality of the individual parts to strengthen composition.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Photoshop Techniques

Charles Cramer has a useful tutorial for use of curves over at Luminous-Landscape. If you are not an expert user you might want to check it out. I do have one disagreement though which also applies to a number of other expert Photoshop users.

Many experts teach you to use selections to isolate where you want the effect to be applied. Sometimes those selections can be tricky though in the examples Charles uses they are quick to make.

I do think though that there is still two disadvantages to using the selection technique compared to what I do which is to paint into a black mask for the curve.

With their method, you can tone down the effect by using the layer slider, but you cannot control just how much of the effect you get in all areas of the selection. by using the painting to mask method and selecting say 30% opacity for your brush, you can control the amount of effect within the selected area, anything from 30% to 100% if you use more than one stroke of the mouse or pen.

The second advantage is that you can quickly apply the same effect to multiple areas of the image so the same curve may be useful in half a dozen areas. You could of course have selected all half dozen areas first but I find the idea of experimenting with the application and simply undoing what I don't like, or painting black at a smaller opacity to undo some of the effect if I overdid it very easy and effective.

Givn a choice bewteen making a selection and paining into the mask, I use the mask technique every time.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Concerted Efforts

Whither t'is more noble to focus hard or let the moment be, that is the question.

In the process of working the scene, I have implied in the past that it is actually work, there you can't simply wander round in a daze and expect the image to jump out at you, perfectly composed and ready to be captured - well sometimes you can, but more often you have to work at it.

So, is there a time for dreamy wandering?

Well, yes, I think there is. Working the scene comes after you find something interesting to photograph and it is better before you find that thing to be relaxed and receptive, rather than running around like a blood hound, nose to the ground, holding up your viewing frame and waiting for something to fill it.

So, what state of mind is best for seeing that interesting thing in the first place?

Well, I can tell you what isn't - if you are desperate to find something good to photograph, you are less likely to be receptive to seeing something interesting. I think we can make this rule 1:

1) you need to be relaxed

Something else that doesn't work is having a preconceived idea of what might look good - there are two problems. First the odds of finding what you anticipated would be good are not that great - even if it is there, the weather or the lighting may not be right or the wind is too strong or the water level is too low or... The other problem is that if you have a preconceived idea of what you are looking for, just how original do you anticipate the results are going to be? Not! O.K. I think we have rule 2 here.

2) Leave your preconceived ideas at the door - or at least get them out of the way so you can enjoy the moment.

Desperation leads to failure, failures aren't fun, so better to out with the idea that being there is its own reward. If photographing football games, then unless you are being paid big bucks, then you'd better enjoy the football experience. If outdoors and hiking then the hike itself should be enough reward. If shooting portraits then you'd better like people and chatting with them and learning about them.

3) Enjoy the experience as much as the results.

Nothing breeds success like success because it takes away the pressures from the next trip or two. If you only photograph a few times a year, apart from the lack of practice concerns, you have so much riding on each event that it puts a lot of pressure on you to be successful. Perhaps you can only afford one African safari a year (if that) but you could go to the zoo, visit a farm, photograph local birds, shoot a horse show. Have some sucesses under your belt before you go to the big event.

4) Don't put all your eggs in one basket, especially if you are prone to tripping.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

LAB Compared

I have finished watching the two series of LAB videos on and I tried an interesting experiment. At the end of the series are some images from others he applies his techniques to. After seeing his work on the first one I decided to try working on the image on my own (they supply many of the images). I stayed in RGB, did an Image/Adjustments/Auto Colour to the image, then used Akvis Enhancer and voila, I had a better result in two steps than Margolis had in 20 or so. Might be luck, so I did the same thing with the second image after only watching the beginning of his process. This time I had to do a bit of saturation adjustment in addition to the above three steps, but still, we're looking at 3 vs. 20 steps. For the last image I did my adjustments before watching the video and the results were very similar - 3 steps for me, 20 for him.

So, does this mean that L.A.B. is a crock? Hardly, but it's like I say to my patients, if you see a gall bladder surgeon with abdominal pain - there's a good chance he's going to recommend surgery - it's the only tool he has, and he's either going to make that tool work, or admit he can't help you. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail, even a screw. Well, seems to me that by embracing L.A.B. you run the risk of being the carpenter who only has a hammer. Great tool but sometimes a screwdriver is what's really called for.

I think this means that we need to learn where L.A.B. excels, where it can do things not possible other ways and Margulis certainly shows that - his blurring of a and b to reduce noise was nothing short of miraculous. Some of the manipulations which only apply to the problem areas of an image without messing with the rest of it through 'blend if' and 'apply image' are very impressive. His showing me how to down play the damage to light tones in my sharpening routine is really important to me. Other techniques, well just maybe a screwdriver is sometimes the better tool.

Jura Canyon

Basically a re-edit of an image from last year. I used Dan Margulis techniques from LAB Frontier on and then decided to see if I could recreate it in RGB using my usual tools - in fact it wasn't difficult using RGB and Akvis Enhancer to come pretty close to the same and every bit as good and frankly a whole lot easier.

What was interesting is that compared to my usual dozens of curves masked layers, I think I only used one, and a couple of hue saturation adjustments to fine tune the orange in the rocks (it had been a rather ugly yellow/green without help). Am I getting better or just going too far - time will tell.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Photoshop Techniques

I've been watching the two video tutorials by Dan Margulis on L.A.B. on and while I will comment in the future on L.A.B., I wanted to comment this evening on the whole business of technique within Photoshop. In truth, there are many ways to get where you are going and lots of tricks to get there faster or easier. Sometimes though the tricks actually get you there better.

Though many people are delighted with Photokit Sharpener and I continue to use it for output sharpening on all my matte prints, I normally use Smart Sharpen built into Photoshop after doing some preliminary sharpening with Camera Raw's latest updates (4.3?).

Anyway, Dan was mentioning using 'Darken Blend' as a way to control what your sharpening does, suggesting that toning down the white fringes would be a good thing and this rang a bell with me as I had always been bothered by the light colours that get pushed to white when sharpening.

I decided to try a little experiment, which I present below. Here are three 100% sections (if you click on them) from an image, showing the image as output from Camera Raw (using 100, 1.0, 25, 25 as my sharpening settings in Camera Raw). The next image is the normal smart sharpen applied to the whole image, and the third image shows the result of doing the smart sharpen on a separate image layer, then doing a Darken Blend at 50% opacity - that is, the unsharpened image below will show through wherever it is darker than the sharpened image - thus protecting those light tones, all be it only at 50%.

Decide for yourself how you like the result but remember to click on the images to see them at the real 100% in their own windows else you may not see the real difference.

Now, there is a further refinement that he recommends and that is to do your sharpening only to the luminosity but I haven't experimented with that yet.

Now, it's been my philosophy to learn only a handful of tools and virtually no tricks and simply get good at using those tools. 90% of my image editing is done with masked curve adjustment layers and it's worked well most of the time. I can see however, that there are areas where I have been painting difficult masks (because of needing fine control, or because of edge problems) which various Photoshop tricks, like using L.A.B. and 'Blend If' and working with channels and using channels to create masks for image adjustment. These tricks seem to be very powerful - the problem is that none of them works all of the time or even half the time - in order to take advantage of Photoshop Tricks, it seems as though you need perhaps 20 or more tricks up your sleeve and you need to know when each one is suitable to use, and perhaps more importantly, when it can get you into trouble.

Frankly, I'm in photography for the images, not the efficiency (and many of these tricks are mostly about efficiency). I don't want to be a Photoshop Guru.

I think though that what I'm going to have to do is go through the various tricks (ie. I've got some studying to do) and select out those tricks which produce a better image and not bother with those that are simply easier. After all, it's only easier if you can remember it.

Modern physicans tend to use EMR's, that is electronic medical records (ie. computers) for their note taking. Not all doctors can type and some software instead provides templates where you can simply point and click, but often those templates get so complicated it takes considerable time to go through it and select all the options apply to your situation.

I can click on fever, sore throat, runny nose, cough not productive, had it for 5 days, I can click on throat red. Don't forget I have to differentiate between normal findings and didn't actually look - so I have to click on ears normal, neck not swollen, chest clear, doesn't look deathly ill and so on.

Frankly, it's a hell of a lot easier to simply type sore throat 5d, no cough, OE (on exam) throat red, neck not swollen, chest clear and ears fine Tx swab and rx penicillin.

The shortcuts become so complicated that for the majority of users they are not practical. Perhaps if I only ever saw sore throats I could whip through the template really fast and actually save time over doing it the hard way typing, but that's not real life.

So it is with Photoshop, sure there are tricks but they take time to set up and you have to remember them, their keyboard shortcuts, when they are helpful and when not - kinda takes the fun out of the shortcuts.

The ideal is for each of us to use only a handful of easily remembered short cuts that help us make better images, ignoring the dozens if not hundreds of other short cuts, no matter who recommends them or how enthusiastically.

I don't expect to use most of what I learn but I would like to know a handful of tricks and shortcuts that can lead to better images, not just easier ones.

So far, I am impressed that using the darken blend for 'smart sharpen' is a significant improvement in image quality - and if further experimentation with it confirms my initial findings, I'll be using it on a regular basis.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Workshop Reminder

Don't forget, I'm teaming up with the outfit from OutbackPhoto, Uwe, Bettina and Brad Polt-Jones to hold a weekend workshop in San Francisco April 12 and 13. We're going to start by looking at some classic images and discuss what makes them work and go on from there to talk about searching for images, then composition. The second day we tackle refining the images you do get and there are two street photography sessions.

I'll be bringing prints to show so you can see if I can back my words with images.

Check Here for details.

Raymond Maxwell Interview On Luminous Landscape

I've already commented on the interview with Jay Maisel, but another interview on issue # 17 of the Luminous Landscape Video Journal is with Raymond Maxwell, a colour expert. He nicely explains the difference between perceptual and relative colorometric rendering. Perceptual compacts the whole colour gamut to fit within the colour space of your output device (printer) while relatice colorometric simply flattens the colour range beyond the maximum gamut of your output device to the limit of the device.

He further talked about colour spaces and addressed whether one should be using Profoto Colour Space or Adobe RGB 98, the previous standard. He points out that the vast majority of images don't get near the limits of even Adobe RGB 98, especially landscapes and that if you use a much wider colour space, you have to divide that space up into the same number of chunks as you would divide the smaller space into, and thus images using the bigger space have bigger chunks, more distance between steps and coarser gradation of colour, which can on occasion be a problem.

He suggested that if you have a purely 16 bit workflow, then it might not be a problem, though as currently all Epson printers use 8 bit, perhaps this means we should be thinking about going back. Problem is, for that occasion when Adobe RGB isn't as wide as the colour we have and the ability of the printer to make it, we're screwed. It sounded like hadn't convinced Michael to switch back.

I'm still using my Canon 5000 with the 16 bit driver, so perhaps I can continue to work in ignorant bliss. Perhaps this is more theory than practice and not to be noticed by us mere mortals. Time will tell. I suggest you watch the video.

Thursday, February 07, 2008


I've been watching Luminous Landscape Video Journal # 17, the interview with Jay Maisel. You could argue that a tour of his 'junk' collection is irrelevant but you get a strong sense of who the person is. Near the end of the interview they discuss having confidence in your work, the belief that you are better than most. Jay goes on to say that he feels photographers should be arrogant, they need to feel that when they show someone one of their images, the person will never quite look at the world the same way again.

I've written about emotional impact of images but I like this as a definition of a good image - one which will in some small way (or large) change the way the viewer will look at the world.

One might be excused for thinking this is pretty grandiose and impractical for all but a small minority of images, perhaps of famine or war or suffering, but what of a picture of a hand that makes the viewer look at his own hands the next time he's sitting on the can, perhaps turning his hands around, looking at the aging spots or wrinkles, the scars of a life times experience. Maybe it's one of my machine shop images which if I'm lucky will change the way a viewer looks at machinery in the future - as not just functional but as something with shape and curves and lines, something even to be enjoyed, perhaps touched or picked up instead of walking past.

Clearly not every photograph is going to to that for every viewer - it's clear from the images I have shown on this blog over the last couple of years that many images are only liked by some people. There are people who 'don't get' Pepper # 30, who cannot see beyond something that belongs in a salad.

So it would in fact be arrogance to believe that every one of my images (or yours) is going to affect every viewer, but the best of our images, for some of our viewers - yes I do believe we need that confidence or arrogance to feel we can change the viewer.

Is Photography Too Popular?

As I glanced at to see what the latest picture of the week was, I saw an image which had it been made in the old film days, I would have really thought Wow. Now, with the ready image editing tools, there are literally millions of correctly exposed decently composed images. There are hundreds of thousands of dramatically coloured images with incredible skies capturing images at just the right moment - this used to be special, now it's the routine.

Undoubtedly digital has made all this happen. Instead of a few enthusiasts known to each other meeting on a Saturday morning at the local Camera store, now you can't find parking and lineups at the counter are normal and you can hardly hear yourself speak.

With thousands of photographers out hiking the mountains at dawn, no wonder there are lots of images with dramatic lighting, god rays and whatever. Of course, the other thing is that many of these people who did shoot in the old film days, had wonderful slides that no one ever saw because there was no internet, printing from slides was never ideal and certainly a hassle and work just wasn't seen.

But lets face it - there are a huge number of people who own and use SLR's now compared to 15 years ago. In the past, having an SLR was a sign of a really serious photographer - not any more.

The net result of all this exposure is that any time you look on the web, it's quite easy to find an image just as good as yours, perhaps better or at least more dramatic and it's easy to be discouraged.

What's a person to do?

Well, several things.

1) who ever said it was a contest, does it really matter that other people have nice images, get over it and enjoy your images and stop comparing.

2) if you must compare - then compare their entire portfolio to yours - many's the great image that was a photo of the week but which either was one of many images looking all the same or was in fact the only strong image in their portfolio.

3) Maybe this is telling you that your work isn't personal enough - that perhaps you have been working towards an ideal that was set for you by other people, through your reading and looking at images. If your work looks the same as every one elses, then something is missing.

4) If you want your work to stand out you could make your images more dramatic, but given the competition, you'd be hard pressed to do so and almost certainly shouldn't go that direction anyway. You could pick a different subject, but they've all been done. You could try being different just for difference sake, but I suspect it will look forced or fake or simply lack feeling. Probably the most practical answer is to simply to continue to look at the world through your unique eyes and hope that you see and can show things differently without actually trying to do so, by coming up with ideas from left field and thinking, wouldn't that be interesting, or important to me, or just cool, and following your instinct. It will be interesting or stand out or be unique, or it won't, but either way it will be the best work you can do, and that's all anyone can ask.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Art In Editing

I have been working on the next book, and in writing an introduction, needed to deal with global controls (applied to the whole image) and local control (applied to just parts of the image via painting into masks or adjustment layers.

This got me thinking about photography as an art and a photograph as a work of art. One can use Photoshop or other editing tools to correct an image to what was seen by the eye, often involving taming highlights and shadows, increasing colour saturation and adding local contrast one way or another so that textures show better in the image.

These are technical skills, learned and practiced until competent. You might think of this as craftsmanship.

It's beyond this point that artistry becomes the primary mover - making changes to the image to interpret reality through not just the eyes of the artist but the imagination.

this doesn't necessarily mean going way over the top - on the contrary skillful subtle changes to an image can dramatically affect how people 'read' the image. A serious look can be turned into scowling, a calm landscape into mysterious, a dramatic image into a brooding one.

It's the difference between having a computer play the notes as written and having a conductor and orchestra interpret the work. That's what fine art printing is about.


Makes No Sense

I like the image above. It doesn't make any sense. It has too many things going against it - the blurred back of the machinist, the odd dangly thing at the top, there's a pop bottle there and a shiny new looking helmet against what otherwise looks, well; shop worn. I kept telling myself it was grounds for the waste basket, but I didn't want to throw it away. I'm sure it's not a good photograph, and possibly no one else is going to see anything in it - but something made me take the picture despite all the things going against it and I show it to you to generate a discussion about liking images despite logic telling us the image shouldn't work.

Any thoughts?

Sunday, February 03, 2008



Weathered doors are another cliche but this one was so nice I couldn't resist.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Gripper and Bucket

A bit more complicated than my usual image. I don't suppose there is a direct connection between the two devices but they were standing together next to a giant lathe and I liked the shapes and so you see them together.


More On Camera Insurance

Had a talk with my Insurance Man - very helpful fellow but an interesting conversation - he never did say that the cameras wouldn't be covered if I intended to sell my images, but did suggest a home business policy.

As it had a $5000 limit on away from home, that wasn't going to fly but he persuaded them to up the away from home to $25,000 which started to sound practical. I asked him to send over the 'fine print' but he couldn't do that and instead sent me the basic one sheet specs for the policy.

In order to get this much, he'd had to go to the underwriter who had to go one level up - doesn't sound like they are 'geared' for photographers.

The first thing I noticed was that it won't cover me outside of Canada - given that I'm going to San Francisco in April for a workshop for OutbackPhoto, that is enough to 'ground' the policy.

Back to the drawing boards.

I'll talk to the local camera store and see what they know.

Of course, it's my impression there are a lot more photographers in North America carrying around $10,000 plus in camera gear and any policy that would cover breakage, dropping, losing, as well as theft would have to be pretty darn expensive. I personally don't care about dropping - if I drop one piece of equipment, I'd rather just cough up and pay to replace it, what scares me is losing the whole kit and kaboodle to a thief, or perhaps a house fire.


Friday, February 01, 2008

Working Hands

Three images combined as layers, aligned on the fixed part of the machinery then blended to taste using the opacity slider then a bit of masking for local control.

Guess Where I've Been

No prizes for figuring out that I was back at Independent Machinery today. The portrait is of Greg, interesting fellow, welder, machinist, water colour painter. He was very tolerant as I asked dumb questions as he worked machining various bits and pieces.

I brought in a studio strobe but with the high ceilings and far walls I wasn't able to brighten things like I wanted and the results so far do look very 'flashy'. Clearly more work needs to be done. Frankly it would have been easier to work with floods to simply augment the available light already present - I have much to learn about artificial lighting.

For this shot I took advantage of some nearby fluorescents to light the scene and turned off the flash. I tripod mounted the camera but kept the ball a little loose so I could aim but hold reasonably steady. I used IS and f4 at 1/15 second at 153 mm. on my 70-200 2.8 on the 1Ds2.

The shot of a pail looks like it has some sort of reptile sitting in it but I loved that curved shadow and the hose and the shaded sides of the pail. I deliberately went for a light image, though suspect in the end I'll darken considerably - experimentation is essential to growth.

Rechecking The Files

A couple more images from Independent Machinery, shot months ago and seeing a new way to crop and edit them, perhaps with success.