Aimlessly Pontificating on Photography

Techniques

The making of . . .

My blog has moved, see the new site at http://blog.badlightgoodlight.com

Toddler Angst

My original intention when doing these “making of” posts was to present a tutorial, whether that tutorial gave the technical details of a particular photo, or how to achieve and effect, or even how to duplicate my results; it didn’t really matter. The point was to give a reader the “formula” of the creation of the photo.

What it has turned into instead is the recitation of an anecdote of how the photo came to be. I will eventually start producing proper tutorials, but the anecdotes are a lot easier to write and a lot more fun for me.

The headline photo has become one of my favourites since I took it. I suppose it doesn’t hurt that it is of my son.

We were about to head off to the wedding, Kiran was well dressed and becoming quite restive, he didn’t really like being dressed up but not going someplace. I couldn’t resist taking a few pictures of him, so I asked him to pose. This is often a hit or miss exercise. Sometimes he enjoys posing for the camera, sometimes he seems to feel an unwanted obligation. And sometimes he simply won’t do it.

This I think was one of those occasions where he felt obligated, but didn’t really want to oblige. I think you can tell from the expression on his face, he was quite annoyed at daddy’s request. I am pretty sure he was quite full of himself at being so dressed up too 🙂 I certainly didn’t ask or encourage the specific pose, I just asked him to stand in the slightly ajar door.

I had done a previous shot in this spot and I liked the defining line created by the dark interior of the house and the largely negative space provided by the white door. I hadn’t gone quite this far with the previous shot though.

As far as post processing (I use Adobe Lightroom) goes essentially, what I did was to ramp up the exposure 1 3/4 stops, increase the brightness to 68 (out of 100) and desaturate the photo. I usually prefer to use Lightroom’s black & white process as it tends to produce a nicer tonal mix than simply desaturating the photo, but in this case I wanted just very high contrast black against white.

I also increased the blacks to 40 (out of 100) which is very high for an accurately exposed photo. I also used a lot of fill light to lighten the shadows. The final step was to crop the image slightly to get rid of the security grill. The high contrast processing hadn’t blown the grill out (like it did the white door) and I felt it unbalanced the image to have another evenly weighted element opposing Kiran.

The bottom line is, as you can see from the completely unprocessed photo below, I had something good to start with and made real drama therefrom.

Angst Begins.


Attempting Infrared Photography.

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What it is.

I’ve been trying a new (new to me) photographic technique recently. It is referred to as infrared photography. Most of the people who end up reading this post will probably know that what we see as white light is actually composed of a number of different colours. You can see those colours every time you see a rainbow.

When you see a rainbow the colours you see go from red at one side, to violet on the other. Beyond red is a part of the visible spectrum (of electromagnetic waves) that our eyes cannot see, called infrared (strongly heated metal, like the heating element of an electric stove produces lots of infrared). For the curious, beyond violet is ultra violet which can cause sunburn and eye damage if you go out into the sun unprotected. But to avoid misunderstanding, the infrared photography I am discussing is not thermal imaging, which is photography or videography of radiated infrared. What I am discussing is reflected infrared light.

It is the reflected infrared light that photographers are usually interested in, either trying to block it out completely or to make use of it to provide some very interesting photographs.

The visible spectrum, what you can see in a rainbow, runs from 400nm to 700nm approximately. If you want the gory details, see here. The part of the infra red spectrum that photographers are interested in runs from beyond 700nm to approximately 1400nm. This is sometimes referred to as near infra red.

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Editing a photograph.

My blog has moved, see the new site at http://blog.badlightgoodlight.com

NOTE: This is republished from a note I posted on Facebook on April 22, before I started this blog.

People are always asking me if I edit my photos. The answer is a qualified “no”.

To a photographer, editing a photograph means altering the image to either put something into it that was not there, or removing something that is in the scene, but unwanted.

Even then, it is a matter of degrees. Famous portrait photographer Ann Leibovitz (pregnant Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair) often produces composites.

She takes the photo of the person in front of a neutral background while her assistants look for and photograph suitable backgrounds. The portrait of the person is then placed on the background. There are opinions that while the result might be art, it is not a photograph. Opinions are divided.

The vast majority of my photographs are processed, but not edited. The images that are produced by my camera are in a special format called “RAW” or digital negatives.

Digital negatives, like negatives from a film camera, cannot be used as is. They have to be processed, like a photographer would have to process film from a film camera.

Serious photographers, in the film days, would have had their own darkrooms (and there are still a significant number of photographers who still use film and have darkrooms) and done their own processing and printing.

I use software to process my digital negatives (called “Lightroom” in a brilliant bit of naming by Adobe). The process is entirely analogous to the “washing” of film to produce negatives, and subsequent printing of the negatives.

A modern digital cameras, that you might carry around in your pocket is more like a Polaroid instant camera than a regular film camera. The processing of the image to produce something you can put online, on facebook or print is done within the camera. So you have a usable image milliseconds after releasing the shutter.

All the things that I might do in Adobe Lightroom or a film photographer might do in his darkroom are done for you, by the camera itself.

Because all the decisions as to how to process the image are done by the camera itself a lot of the flexibility is lost, but you get an image that can be used immediately. The convenience of having the usable image immediately, outweighs the processing flexibility of having the digital negative, for most people.

Even professional photographers, sports photographers or photo journalists, often prefer to have the finished photo straight out of the camera as deadlines have to be met, and the subtlest nuances of a scene are not of great import. Their need is to have a usable image as quickly as possible.

When I photograph a scene I will often take a significant number of photographs that have only the subtlest differences in composition and lighting. I then take all the images into my lightroom see which one(s) I think is best. If more than one I then process them to see which looks best as representative of what I want the photograph to say. And it is that final selection that I might print or put online.

Processing decisions I might make include adjusting the contrast, cropping the image, changing the white balance (if the camera got it wrong, or if for aesthetic reasons I prefer the image warmer or cooler), sharpening the image (this is a requirement for digital images because of the way the sensor captures the image) or converting colour to monotone.

I’ve seen negative reactions when I have tried to explain this to people in the past. But what I do is no different from what the average camera does automatically in order to produce a pleasing JPEG. The difference is that I make all the decisions myself for reasons of control, whereas most people prefer the speed of allowing their camera to make the decisions automatically for reasons of convenience.

I’ve had people look at a monotone image of mine (black and white) and commented favourably, then looked at a nicely saturated colour image and asked if I’ve “edited” the image. I’ve always wanted to ask if that person sees in black and white and how come I didn’t get the dreaded “edited” question when they saw that photo?

Most, or all of the processing that I might do in lightroom were (and still are) done by film photographers save that film processing is a lot more difficult, time consuming and expensive.

I do edit (by my own definition) my photographs from time to time. I have no easy way to check, but by recollection, of the fourteen or fifteen thousand images I’ve taken over the last four years I’ve edited less than five. The edits usually consisted of removing (cloning out) electrical wires from a scene.

Unedited

I’ve put two versions of a photo I took yesterday, below. The first one [to the right] is the original straight out of the camera without any additional processing by me. The top of the image is overexposed because I exposed it for the reflection in the water. You can see the result of the overexposure in the City Hall tower. It is very white and little detail of the windows or the wood can be seen (its “blown out” in the parlance). The white balance is also incorrect. This was after 4 p.m. so the light was very warm, golden afternoon sunlight. What is white in the image, should really be yellow.

The second image results from my processing [below right]. I’ve applied a -1ev gradient (graduated darkening, more darkening at the top, less darkening towards the middle), raised the black clipping point (made the deepest shadows pure black rather than just shadowed, very subtle) and some slight sharpening. This processing was done in less than a minute and the result more closely matches what I saw through the lens.

Although the white balance is inaccurate (the camera made the wrong choice), for aesthetic reasons I’ve not corrected it.

Edited

I’ve also edited the image. I cloned out the electrical wire at the top right.
I take photographs for strictly aesthetic reasons, I am not an archivist and not overly concerned with accuracy. What I want to achieve when I take a photograph is to convey the impact that the scene made on me. Usually, in order to convey that impact it is necessary to compose and/or process the image in creative ways.


The making of . . .

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Colour

This is more of an anecdote than anything else, and just goes to demonstrate how much of a part luck or happenstance plays in getting a good photo, for me.

I made an unusual move on a Sunday, going with my parents to a memorial service for a former president. This is not the type of event that I would normally even think of attending.

On the other hand, it was being held in Berbice which is significantly off the beaten path for me. So this was more about a photographic opportunity, than the self-congratulatory and self-praising event that these memorials tend to be.

About 2/3 of the way there, in Corentyne, we stopped to have some lunch and relax for a while, as we were quite early. We found this open bar/restaurant called Future Line Restaurant and went in.

In these less populated areas of Guyana, far out of a town or heavily populated area, you can have either of two things happening; either there will be a significant number of very small “bottom house” rum shops, or what we had here, a big entertainment facility catering to be all things to all people.

This was a restaurant, nightclub, bar, pool hall and cafe. All things to all people.

So I walked around the place for a while taking pictures. Got some decent shots, but nothing special. I was quite disappointed as this was likely to be the last particularly interesting place I was going to be that day (“they” are so right about assumptions). After sitting down for a bit my son ran around and escaped the clutches of his handlers and ran into a closed off and partially hidden section of the bar. This as it turned out was the “bar” section of what I have been calling the bar.

Absolute beauty; green painted stools with multi-coloured leatherette covered seats, set against a partially red and partially green painted walls. But so dark, and there I was without a tripod. The entire bar, a very large space at least 1,500 square feet, was filled with photogenic nooks. But so dark.

As it turned out, none of my photos came out right except this one. Either I screwed up the exposure or I didn’t hold the camera steady. It was very distressing when I was reviewing images to see well composed images ruined by hand shake.

This photo (above) was taken in a shaded area exposed to the outside. Even so, it was also fairly dark.

The photo is cropped square. This is deliberate, and while I didn’t take the photo with this precise square framing in mind, I did intend from the beginning to have a square image and photographed the scene accordingly. I tried my best to cut precise diagonal across the tiles on the floor, while keeping the circular vent blocks visible in the image.

I believe in being honest about my photographs. I think if it is a good photograph, then it is so whether you arrange it or not. This doesn’t hold true for all types of photography, but I in cases where this is not true, then you shouldn’t arrange anyway. Anyway, I moved the yellow stool from the front of the scene to the back. It was between the blue and green stools in the foreground. I didn’t like the gap at the back. This was the only arranging I did.

In the end it worked out quite well, the square format was a good call as it maintains a fair bit of geometric tension with the tall rectangular stools and the circular vent blocks, while echoing the square tiles on the floor. And in addition to the angular tension, the image has a very strong colour contrast.

It looks good in a monotone too, but the colours were simply too dramatic to go that route.


The making of . . .

My blog has moved, see the new site at http://blog.badlightgoodlight.com

Water in Egypt

I decided to chose an easy image to write about in today’s making of post. It isn’t a brilliant image, certainly not one I would count as my best, but a great deal of effort went into its creation.

Lots of people have taken these types of images before and you can find lots of guides online, but I thought I would add my bit to the tower of babel. I got the idea having seen this Shooting Challenge on Gizmodo a little while back and always intended to try it for myself.

If you have read any of my similar posts before you will know I don’t really give a tutorial on how to do these images yourself, I just give a description of what I did to achieve my photo.

If you do want a proper tutorial, this is the place to go.

Anyway, I decided that I wanted something more than simply a drop of water, and one of the images on the Gizmodo challenge was of water apparently on an exercise book. There were a lot of entries but that one really caught my fancy.

I have this framed image on papyrus, bought in Egypt a few years ago. I placed a dish of water on it and “borrowed” one of my daughter’s medicine droppers. The camera was on a tripod and I used an off camera flash placed on the side of the dish opposite to the camera. Unfortunately, the framed picture was so large that I was unable to place the lens at a shallow angle to the dish, at least not initially.

Because of the awkwardness of the placement of the camera, and the fact that I had to hold the medicine dropper it was necessary for me to use a wired remote to trigger the camera shutter. It would have been very difficult for me to press the shutter release on the camera itself. Had I set things up differently I may have been able to eliminate the remote. As it is, I am glad I had one.

After a while of getting fairly blurred drops I decided to switch to manual exposure so that I could up the shutter speed and hopefully “stop” the motion of the drop a little more effectively. In order to use the flash with a higher shutter speed I needed to use high speed sync on the flash. This allows you to use a higher shutter speed than the native sync speed of the flash. Unfortunately, you cannot use the flash off camera if you want to use high speed sync.

I placed the flash back on the camera, but since the camera had to be fairly close (I decided to use a fairly wide lens, a 31mm) the flash would no longer point directly to the water. So I pointed the flash to a white paper placed opposite the dish, in order to bounce the flash to the water.

I did get a few good shots that way, but curiously enough the shot I chose to put to upload is one of the first ones I had taken. The reason is that the drops were fairly even and well focused (plus no motion blur) and the lighting was a lot more even than in later shots. I did prefer the way some of the other drops were placed, but it would have taken too much work to even up the lighting satisfactorily. If this tell you anything, it is that luck has a part to play with these types of photos also

I’ve put some of the failures below, and you can click on the image above to see the larger version on my photo site. In all I must have taken 50 shots to get that one above. Like most other things you have to keep trying until you are happy with your shot (or too tired to try anymore 🙂

Failure, fig. 1

Failure, fig. 2


The making of . . .

My blog has moved, see the new site at http://blog.badlightgoodlight.com

Unlike my last “making of” post, this one wasn’t particularly complicated. Again, unlike the last post this one is a decent photo.

On Monday I went to some extent to explain what I though a photo should be, at least by my judgment. One of the consequences of my position is that I keep my eyes open for scenes which may not be inherently interesting to most people, but which I believe will make an interesting photo.

This is one such. Taken fairly late in the afternoon, I was fairly desperate for my photo of the day for my project. Curious how it seems like I get some of my favourite photos when I am taking a photo out of desperation.

There isn’t much complicated to this one. It is a knotted cord set against a diamond pattern lattice screen. The composition was very carefully done so as to make the pattern in the background as symmetrical as possible while simultaneously placing the very unsymmetrical knotted rope so that it would not obscure the diamond pattern behind it. It is entirely coincidental that it happens to conform to the “rule of thirds“.

I used my very, very sharp, but cumbersome to use Vivitar Series I 105mm macro lens. It is a manual focus lens, which also weights about 2 pounds and requires what feels like about 6 turns from infinity to close focus. It was made in the 70s or 80s back when lenses were made of metal and glass.

The fairly narrow telephoto field of view of the  lens prevented too much of the pattern behind the rope from being visible, thereby reducing complexity to a pleasing level, while compressing the perspective to reduce the apparent distance between the rope and the background.

The other major aesthetic decision I made when taking the picture was to open the aperture to the maximum (f/2.4 in this case). The reason for this choice was to blur the background sufficiently so as to enhance the over picture and to avoid distracting from the actual subject.

Lest I give the impression that this all happened in one shot all taken by a flawless hand, I actually had to take about half dozen shots before I got it right. All part of the process.

This is only half of my process. The other half began after import of the RAW onto my computer system. I would say that I’ve done a moderate degree of processing to this photo. The first, and major process, was to convert the image to monotone. I never intended it as anything other than a black & white. For this photo it was always about form and not colour.

In addition, I added a significant amount of film grain. The original photo was quite smooth and detailed, and thanks to the lens, superbly sharp. A significant degree of sharpness was lost due to the addition of grain. As I said, this photo was from the time I saw it about form and composition.


The making of . . .

Apple Exposed

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This is one of the very early images in my project this year to take a photo every day for the year.

It was taken on 17th February this year while I was sojourning in Canada.

Only a month and a half into the project I was lost for inspiration with the scenery around me. It was the middle of winter in suburban Canada and I had no one to take me to any of the interesting places.

There was good and bad in that situation, I wasn’t guaranteed a good picture, but I was forced to step outside my comfort zone.

The setup for this shot should have been fairly simple, but to compose it I needed a tripod ideally, as this is a long exposure. Didn’t have one so my big heavy DSLR with a big heavy 105mm macro lens attached had to sit precariously on a plastic storage container with the lens cap under the lens to keep the camera level.

I had seen an article, I can’t now recall where, on a portrait photographer who took long exposure photographs of her subjects in total darkness, while selectively lighting them with a handheld flashgun triggered manually. Her photos were very interesting so this is what I wanted to try (except without a breathing subject to annoy).

I placed my camera to compose the image, set it in manual mode, stopped down to give me the maximum exposure length without going into bulb mode (shutter remains open until you determine it should be closed). It was evening, but not night, so there was still a degree of ambient light and lots of clutter in the background. Stopping down radically to f/20 also helped obscure the background clutter. So the settings were, manual exposure mode, f/20 aperture and 30 seconds shutter speed. Manual flash, handheld, triggered via the “Test” button on the flash.

The reason for the long exposure is to have maximum control of the lighting via the flashgun. Unfortunately it is a trial and error process. I can’t remember now but I must have taken at least a dozen shots, fine tuning the exposure.

If you look at the apple, you will see three highlight spots, I didn’t manage to aim the flash at the same spot each of the three times I triggered it. This matters on a highly reflective surface like the apple, but may not matter as much if you are taking a photo of subjects that are not shiny and reflective. I also didn’t particularly care for the straight line of light cast by the flash in the foreground. Another flash exposure aimed at the counter in the foreground with the flash set at low power would have probably eased that harsh line.

After importing the images into Adobe Lightroom, I had to boost the black levels a bit to hide the background completely and fiddle a little with the exposure and contrast, not much was done.

The technique is a very intriguing one, but requires a fair bit of patience. While my image might not be great, it is sufficient to see that the technique has some merit and is worth some additional experimentation.