Tag Archives: Photoshop

Relaxing in the sun

Ngoni relaxing in the winter sun

Ngoni relaxing in the winter sun

I’m not going to create a new blog entry for every image of Ngoni that I process, but this is one of my favourites!  There is something rather mad about being out in the snow in a bikini, but she continually assured me she wasn’t too cold (I was in my thermals, standing in the stream to capture this!).  Before you think I’m a sadist who enjoys inflicting cold on my models, one thing you can’t see is that Ngoni is not really sitting in the snow, but on a hot water bottle wrapped in a white cotton bag – her bum and thighs were probably the only part of her that was really warm!  I’m beginning to put together some images for a little gallery here, but in the meantime I thought it might be interesting to describe a little some of the processes behind making this image.

Trying to capture her naked skin against the mass of white snow was not completely straightforward, partly because (for the camera, at least), the snow dominates the scene.  The camera’s white balance (set to ‘shadow’) still managed to make everything look rather blue, and the snow overwhelmed the camera’s meter, even though I metered for her face (in camera, I didn’t use a lightmeter as I was trying to be as fast as I could to prevent her from getting too cold!  Key settings were ISO400, f4.2, 1/60s, the aperture being designed to create a relatively shallow depth of field).  But because the camera struggled a bit with the dynamic range, along with correcting the white balance and other general edits in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, I needed to carry out some editing just on her body, and others just on the background, involving a tedious selection process (Photoshop’s magic wand etc. found itself being rather confused by the white bikini and the snow, and Ngoni’s legs and the bridge, making a totally manual selection necessary).  Still, this allowed very precise edits to be made for Ngoni and the environment.

Also, although she is, of course, the main feature of this photograph, she occupies a relatively small portion of the overall scene.  I felt that her rather pale makeup, which worked so well in the other shots from the day, got a bit lost here, so I made some adjustments to her makeup as well, which in the small image here is most noticeable in the form of much darker ‘lipstick’ being used.


I love using Lightroom!

Ngoni at the window

Ngoni at the window

I do love Adobe Lightroom’s “Develop” module!  This image of Ngoni was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.  The Photoshop edits were fairly minimal, and should probably have been done in Lightroom too… this would no doubt have speeded up the editing.  The most substantive changes (from cropping to colour HSL settings, clarity, saturation, etc.) were all done in Lightroom, and I really like the end result: I think it almost looks like a pencil drawing.  Lightroom makes this kind of processing so fast and simple, I would recommend it for every photographer.

Ngoni is actually standing in front of a door here; I’ll be putting up a gallery of images of our shoot together fairly soon, but for now, this image on RedBubble shows the context.

Event photography: Africa in Edinburgh!

Directors with Jean-Marie Teno

Directors with Jean-Marie Teno

Photographing at my first wedding in May, I found it a very pressured experience, but this last week I’ve been engaging in a different kind of event photography.  Together with my friend Mabel Forsyth I’ve been photographing for the Africa-in-Motion film festival, one of the largest African film festivals outside Africa.  This involves us photographing at selected events (the organisers have not booked us for every one of the myriad events that make up the festival) and ensuring images taken in the evening are available for press use by the next morning.  There is a pressure in doing that, because there are usually a substantial number of images that need to have quick edits performed on them and made ready within hours of the event happening – no 15 months for edits allowed here!!

I have found all this (a kind of photojournalism, I suppose) to have a certain appeal: composition and ‘getting it right first time’ are important here, as is the need to quickly assess an image as 1) good, 2) good enough provided it’s edited a bit, or 3) not good enough/rubbish (hopefully not too many in the third category!), and then thinking about which edits are needed to improve each image.  Having edited more than several hundred images in a couple of nights, I realise that the only edits that I have really been performing are related to cropping, occasional red-eye removal, adjusting/lifting exposure, and noise reduction.  For sorting, editing and exporting large numbers of images very quickly, Adobe’s Lightroom 3 has been simply invaluable: I haven’t needed to open Photoshop once (Photoshop will be used for editing a selection of images for high quality print usage after the Festival, of course).

The reception

The reception

One of the interesting things about my crops that I have noticed is that most of them have automatically become 4×5 crops.  Without consciously realising it, I have made this my default crop size for portraits; I was aware I was doing this (or going with completely square images) for landscapes, but I’ve been shooting just (environmental) portraits these last few days.  The standard 6×4 size that SLRs produce (for historical reasons, it’s the size that 35mm film went with) is too long and thin for me and I generally prefer squarer shapes.  That much I knew.  But after editing over 200 images in one evening, I realised that most of them had ended up in 4×5 format too… an interesting little development on my part, I think.

The festival is still going strong at the time of writing, ending next week with a fashion show – I’m looking forward to that!

There is a gallery of images here from the festival that I’ll occasionally add to as time goes by (especially from the fashion show), but the festival Facebook page and (I think) the website are showing more images, including ones by Mabel – so check out the photographs and if you are nearby, go to some of the excellent events being organised in the festival!

Lightroom 3’s lens correction feature

It’s bit geeky, but I’m very excited by the arrival of Adobe’s Lightroom 3, which was delivered this morning (although Adobe clearly got very confused about delivery – they initially said it would come yesterday, then it was predicted for the end of the week at the earliest!).  I know that many people have been trying out the pre-release beta, but I didn’t have the time to play with that and hope to make it all work consistently, so I’ve been waiting for the full release.

I installed it this afternoon and tried out a couple of new features, and the most impressive for me so far is the lens correction facility.  For a whole series of lenses (mostly Canon and Nikon, of course, reflecting most people’s usage) there are pre-programmed profiles, and for my Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G VR DX the correction really seems to get it right!  I’m sure more lenses will be added over time; it’s also possible to create your own profiles for less common lenses (this doesn’t seem too complex, but I haven’t yet tried it).

I would offer a couple of my own images here to demonstrate how it works, but this short video from Adobe does a better job of explaining it all than I could.  The crop tools are the same as in Lightroom 2, so if you know that you might want to skip the first little bit, but from about 5 minutes in, the video does a great job of showing how buildings (for example) can quickly and easily be ‘re-straightened’.  Of course, this has always been possible in Photoshop, but doing this in Lightroom in this way is so incredibly easy: not least since multiple images can be dealt with at once without opening each image in Photoshop.  And because all Lightroom edits are non-destructive, it is easy to undo/adjust any changes (incidentally, I almost always only ever make changes to virtual copies of my images – that way the original is readily accessible in case I want to take a completely different developing approach).

I don’t expect this to be perfect in all circumstances, but it will work in many.  The nice thing is that this will go some way to ‘rehabilitating’ my 18-200 zoom, which I was beginning to only use at around 24mm because that is the only time when straight lines really come out as straight.

So for me, the lens correction alone makes the upgrade to Lightroom 3 worth the investment!

Photography or image capture?

I’ve just been at a seminar led by David Rodowick of Harvard University on historicising virtual images in a cinematic context.  Whilst most of this is way beyond my own academic field and most definitely not something I’d want to pursue in any meaningful way, I had a brief conversation with him afterwards about photography.  He doesn’t talk about movies that are digital as ‘films’, arguing that there is something essentially chemical about film which is not present in digital imaging using a digital video camera, for example.

In a similar way, he said he doesn’t talk about ‘digital photography’, but about ‘image capture’, because ‘photography’ involves a chemical process, whereas digital cameras are recording data.  The data is manipulated and eventually turned into something analogue, otherwise we couldn’t see it (a screen is, after all, an analogue device).  Film, once treated in the appropriate chemicals, can be held up to the light and the image can be seen without this kind of manipulation (though of course, how the chemicals are applied, in what concentration, temperature and for how long has a profound impact on the resulting image).

Is it important to make this differentiation?  It is if we are thinking about how we visualise what we photograph and then compare it to how we see the end result.  In Torridon Bruce Percy described his workflow from taking the photograph on his film camera: he develops his film, and then scans it in on a high quality scanner, producing very large digital files which he can then manipulate in Photoshop.  These files essentially become his negatives, he said.  Thinking about Rodowick’s comments makes me wonder about the way they become his ‘negatives’ – after all, the tangible pieces of film are still the ‘real’ negatives (which I presume he keeps somewhere very safe!), and all there is on the computer is a collection of data – zeros and ones that can be re-converted into an analogue form in the right circumstances.

Half Dome, Blowing Snow - by Ansel Adams

Half Dome, Blowing Snow – © Ansel Adams

Ken Rockwell talks about ‘Real Raw’, meaning film, and if we think of the ways in which some of the great photographers have used film, we know that this is qualitatively different to digital image capture.  For example, we know that Ansel Adams used film, and so this famous image by him (‘Half Dome, Blowing Snow’ – click it to go to the Ansel Adams site where you can buy a print), is a digital scan of a piece of tangible film – the very same piece of film that was actually at the scene where this image was taken, in Adams’ camera. In a very real sense, the film ’saw’ this scene, which we couldn’t say about digital cameras!  The conversion of the analogue image to digital loses something… and many people feel this also happens with digital cameras, which is why so many people – myself included – still like film so much.

We can see this more obviously in the cinematic context: I recently bought a DVD of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ – originally shot on film, of course.  However, it has now been scanned into a computer in order to make a DVD – a digital method of reproducing a film (or perhaps I should say: a film-like experience!).  As digital technology improves, the archived film strip will be scanned again and again to obtain ever higher resolution and improved sound… but the ‘negative’, if you like, is still a tangible analogue substance – ‘Real Raw’.

Although for day-to-day photography thinking about all this is perhaps largely irrelevant, I think it is important to always remember that images coming from a digital camera (especially so-called ‘raw files’) are like a negative, but are not the same as a negative, which is a different kind of process and a different way of recording images.  So David Rodowick is right, I think, to talk about ‘image capture’ rather than ‘digital photography’ in contrast to film photography.  But for all practical purposes, it is perhaps simply something to be aware of when choosing the medium for capturing a particular scene (‘how will this work best?’), rather than necessarily employing this language in the everyday context of creating images.

P.S. None of this is to say that image capture on a digital camera isn’t a form of art – it’s just a different way of doing it than happens with a film camera.

P.P.S. I think I now realise more acutely why I dislike Adobe’s use of the word ‘negative’ in the name for their archival format for the raw files generated by digital cameras: DNG, for ‘digital negative’.  Of course, I still use DNG for my digital images…!

Torridon – the art of adventure photography part 3

We were out again early this morning.  The day looked like this:

  • 6:30 meet in hotel lobby, out to location
  • 9h return for breakfast
  • we then had time for washing/packing up (we needed to check out of the hotel room)
  • 11h image critique
  • followed by lunch and departure.

Bruce took us to a new location, near Shieldaig (upper Loch Torridon), overlooking water, with quite a steep hill rising up from the shoreline of Loch Torridon.  My first reaction was to think: ‘Why did he take us here?  Those trees are in the way!’  I realised I was a bit disgruntled about this, and wandered around at first not finding anything I could imagine as an image.  I find I often do this: pace up and down looking for an angle, a view, something that is unusual and stimulating that will grab me.  But I wasn’t finding it on this occasion.  I went down the hill and to the right to avoid the trees, but the view just felt bland – another set of grey mountains with water in front, so very typically postcard Scottish, and at that moment for me, completely boring.  So I headed left, nearer to the shore, and this brought me closer to the trees.  I was trying to look through them at the view behind, to see if there was any point in climbing up the hill again and looking over the trees.  Nothing.  As I was stumbling about looking through the trees and muttering away to myself in frustration, I suddenly realised that looking through the trees was just what I ought to be doing.  I found myself facing two trees that were distinct and separate from the rest (i.e. the branches were not intertwined).  They were also leaning left, which I liked: we often think that moving right ‘leads the eye in’ (see for example, Ken Rockwell’s stair images entitled ‘McCloud, California’ about 3/4 down the page; he shows the image facing both ways), and many of my photographs reflect this.  But I think the orientation to the right only works because we read left to right, whereas for readers of, for example, Hebrew and Arabic, this doesn’t necessarily make sense, and given my academic research topics, I felt this spoke to me on that level too.  The mountains across the loch formed a ‘v’ just in the middle of the image, balancing the ‘v’ formed by the tips of the trees in the foreground – and so this is the image that I came up with (note that, following yesterday’s post about cropping, this is very slightly cropped at the sides, but otherwise works in the 35mm format):



This was my second image of the day, and after taking it I thought, ‘well, it won’t get any better than this, I should stop now…’ – but I didn’t!  After my initial disgruntlement and frustration, I felt tremendously moved by the beauty of the light, and began to see all sorts of other patterns:



The trees on either side seem to me to be reaching towards each other, forming an upside-down ‘v’, almost like a classic child’s drawing of a house.  The other trees in the centre are smaller, almost as if they are in the ‘house’.  Bruce later pointed to the four ‘quarters’ in the image that balance each other – I hadn’t consciously seen this, but he’s right, of course. By this stage, I was elated – I realised that even if the images on the tiny screen on the camera had been out-of-focus, I had seen something I thought was special.  It’s an interesting issue: here I was, trying to capture an image on a camera not knowing if it would work, but knowing also that even if it didn’t, I would remember this image without the camera’s help.  It’s a way of internal visualisation that I will want to explore further at some point, perhaps here.

Bruce came over to me a while later, once I was on the shore line, wrestling with another image, of which more in a moment.  He looked at the first of these two images on my screen, and was delighted for me, exclaiming: ‘This is the kind of photograph I always want to take and I never manage it.’  Now although I’m sure that’s not really true, it gives me the opportunity to reiterate something about Bruce: I hope I’ve already communicated something of Bruce’s genius with imagery – but he’s also a genuinely warm and generous person.  This is something I felt again and again over the weekend, and although I point to this in a context of his praising my image, I don’t do so to show off (well, ok, maybe I do just a little bit…!), but to say that I saw this repeatedly in his interactions with all the other participants.  If you’re thinking of going on a course like this, Bruce will make you feel really welcome, and it will be an affirming and uplifting experience – guaranteed!

The image I was struggling with when Bruce came over to me is this one:



Or rather, this is what it became.  I felt I wasn’t capturing the mountain behind the first one, which, especially on the right side, looked in part as if it was a shadow of the foreground mountain, but Bruce assured me I was on the right lines.  I was sure this could be cropped – it had lots of sky that wasn’t ‘doing’ anything, but I felt I wasn’t really getting the detail in the more distant mountains that I wanted.  I knew I wanted this to be black and white, but needed somehow to make that ‘shadow’ appear in order to provide the continuous line of the second mountain that I could so clearly see.  Once back at the hotel, I offered this along with the previous two images for critique.  From this session, and Bruce’s earlier comments, I was reminded of the complete inadequacy of the screen on the back of the camera, even when zooming in on the image, because the shadow is clearly there, but was barely visible on the camera’s screen.  And the lesson is: trust that most of what you can see in the landscape can be seen by the camera, even if it sees it quite differently (note to self: I never doubted this kind of thing with film, so the screen is actually hindering me here!  In a different context over the weekend, Bruce mentioned photographers he knows who tape over the screen on their digital cameras and just trust their instincts).  In Photoshop, I cropped this down, developed the tones just a fraction, and turned it into a black and white image.

After lunch, we all got ready to depart.  Before we did, Bruce gave each of us a large brown envelope – without saying more than that ‘it doesn’t contain banknotes’, he just made sure everyone had one.  It was only when I arrived home that I found out what was in it… but I’ll leave the discussion of that for the fourth post about this trip, which I intend to write in a couple of days time, after I’ve had a little more mental space to digest what I’ve learnt, what the experience did for me, and so on.  However, I hope you’ve gathered that I have had a magical weekend, in the company of and under the guidance of a tremendously creative, passionate and generous teacher and fellow traveller, and accompanied by five other participants who brought light (in all ways!), energy and laughter to the creative process.  Many of their images were fantastic too, and I found myself thinking tonight how nice it would be to have a little online gallery somewhere with one of each of our images, even if that is somewhat impractical.

P.S. I did, of course, have a film camera with me (guess which one!), but found that I only used it a couple of times.  I think I was concentrating too much on using the digital camera in order to make images that could be critiqued.  Insha’allah I’ll be back to Torridon with a film camera to make many more images.

Torridon – the art of adventure photography part 2

Day two of our course began very early.  Here’s an approximate breakdown of my day:

  • get up 5:30
  • out 6h (rain)
  • ca. 6:20 arrive on location (a LOT of rain) – we are at Loch Clare
  • waiting in the van
  • rain clears a bit, returning intermittently; we’re out, taking photographs
  • back to the hotel and breakfast for 9h
  • out to another location shortly after 10h – this time Loch Torridon
  • more photos, more rain – then lots more rain (run back to minibus)
  • new location (no rain)
  • ca. 13h rain
  • at Bruce’s suggestion, we decide to return to the hotel and have lunch
  • 14h everyone chooses two photos to critique
  • 15:30 out for sunset
  • periods of heavy rain, and beautiful calm
  • moon photographs (visible for exactly 25 seconds – see below!) and more
  • return to hotel
  • 18:30 in the bar
  • 19h dinner
  • and then blog writing and bed!

An excellent day, though a long one… and I think all six of us felt that.

When out, we all wandered off in our own direction, photographing what we saw.  Bruce knows the area, and chose locations that he had either photographed in the past, or that he knew would offer something tangible for us to photograph (after all, this weekend is about learning techniques etc., not about photographing something that has never been photographed before – though, of course, each of us returned with very different images from each location).  He then made a point of going to each person and reviewing some of their photographs (we’re all on digital this weekend to help with the teaching process, though I am not the only film shooter here), talking through how they were approaching their imaging, what might work differently, ways to deal with particular compositional or lighting problems, suggesting alternative perspectives, exposures and so on.  For example, I have often felt that the metering on my Nikon D40 was out, and have therefore almost always had the exposure compensation set at -2/3.  Bruce discussed this with me at length and demonstrated, even on the crappy wee screen at the back of the camera, that this resulted in problems with my shadow detail (lesson: there is a difference between dark and moody… and just dark).  I realise that this is also partly Bruce’s style – I sometimes think that although he describes himself as a landscape photographer, I wonder if this not more of a convenient label: his images are often not really landscapes, but images of light that is transformed in some way through reflection, absorption etc. in the encounter with the land.  That is what attracted me so much to his art in the first place, and so I have no objection if even a tiny fraction of this sensibility rubs off on me.

I want to describe some images.  After breakfast we went to Loch Torridon.  Bruce drove us quite high up, and we took photographs overlooking the loch, towards the mountains around the water.  In the foreground, there were substantial erratics (a new term I learnt: these are the rocks that have been brought to their present location by glaciers that have long since vanished, leaving just the rocks in their incongruous locations), and Bruce wanted us to try and think about the use of foreground detail as well as background material.  The wind was strong, it was raining, but despite water droplets dribbling down both sides of the filter, we managed some spectacular images.  When Bruce came over to me, we talked about what I had been trying to do, and he asked me if I had turned and seen a particular tree; I hadn’t.  He borrowed my camera, and took three or four photographs.  He showed me the last one, pointing out the simplicity of the image, and the ways in which the mist isolated the tree from the mountain in the background, making for a very simple, but very powerful image of the tree.  This is his photograph (which I post here and on my website with his permission):

Tree and mountain (Bruce Percy)

Tree and mountain (Bruce Percy)

I liked this immediately, but also wondered about other ways of taking this photograph.  I took several photographs, and ended up with this one:

Mountains and tree

Mountains and tree

Bruce’s photograph is undoubtedly fantastic (though he said he thought it was a little underexposed; without wanting to sound presumptuous, I’d agree – and also add that mine was underexposed too; I’ve corrected this a little here, but didn’t feel I should manipulate his photograph!).  But I also like mine, bringing in more of the mountain outlines, setting a wider context, and offering a different role for the tree.  In my image, I realised later, the tree almost serves as an anchor for the mountains, rather than the mountains doing that for the tree.  It’s as if the majesty and grandeur of these incredible hills is given additional meaning by the tree’s inclusion in the image – although several times as tall as me, it is quite tiny in comparison to the massive mountains in the background – and thereby it perhaps helps to give a sense of the amazing landscape we were in.  I also converted this to black and white, and cannot quite decide which I prefer – the subtle tones of the colours in the original, or the even more simple tones of the black and white (comments on this are very welcome!):

Mountains and tree

Mountains and tree

As we were driving back in really hard rain, Bruce slowed the minibus and pointed out the view.  He asked if anyone wanted to photograph this, and two of us leapt out of the bus, getting ourselves and our dried off cameras wet all over again.  This is the image I came up with:

Mountains, Torridon

Mountains, Torridon

I post it here as a kind of contrast to the tree/moutain images.  Although I think this is beautiful, the large white expanse (that’s the mist…) in the bottom left corner decontextualises the mountains, making them almost more of an abstract series of lines than a mountain range.  Although these are pretty much the same mountains as in the tree photograph, in this photograph there is nothing much that anchors them to the earth, and so the photograph becomes something quite different.

Undoubtedly the most useful part of the day was the critical review.  We had very little time, but we each had to choose two photographs we had taken, and offer them for review (not easy to choose, when you have just a few minutes and are scanning 150 images!).  Bruce had brought a projector and showed us our images on a large screen.  We then explained what we had been trying to do, why the image was important to us, what we felt about how it had turned out, and so on.  Other participants then offered comment, as did Bruce.  This was in all cases incredibly positive and helpful criticism.  Bruce then went through the images in Photoshop, and showed us simple and effective ways of manipulating them in order to bring out contrasts, highlights etc.  There are many many ‘small’ things that I took from this, but the really major one that I took away was a reflection on image size: even when I crop my images, I tend to leave them in the original aspect ratio (i.e. based on a 35mm film image – perhaps this is a subcounscious desire to ‘retain’ something of the ‘original’? even though I know this is a nonsense), even though most images benefit from different shapes.  I’ve often felt my images were too ‘long’, and this session radically opened my eyes to the more pleasing ratios of 4×5, 6×7, or 1×1 as well as arbitrary crops – you’ll see that nearly all the images from today on my website are now cropped in such a way, almost as if to make a point to me, never mind anyone else.

In the late afternoon, we went to another loch, Bruce hoping to offer us a location and a sunset for trying out some of the techniques we had talked about in the critique and other locations.  It was very wet.  Not just the loch from below, but also the clouds from above.  I sometimes think that rain in Scotland must have magical molecular properties that other rain does not have… but more on that later!  I went down to the edge of the loch, and also into the loch (very slight shoreline, so that wellies were more than adequate).  It was cloudy and overcast, making for very soft light.  No real sign of a sunset, but despite this, some of the resulting images were great.  I was very pleased with my foregrounding of stones, for example, and the capture of the moonlight, which appeared once, for about 10 seconds, and I missed it; but I saw the clouds moving in such a way that it might reappear.  It did, for precisely 25 seconds (I know this, because I took five images at 5 seconds each – and it was gone!).  The image originally has the moonlight curving, which I think might be the lens’ barrel distortion (I’ll perhaps get around to correcting this at some point…):

Moonlight, Torridon

Moonlight, Torridon

Bruce then took us all back to the hotel – and our first shower of the day!  The dinner discussion in the evening was stimulating, covering the purpose of this kind of photography (one participant argued that it is to document reality/something ‘real’; Bruce asked if that was so, why was this person using a wide-angle lens?!), the processing stage (are images ‘doctored’ if they’re manipulated in Photoshop to bring out the highlights etc.?), Vettriano (is it art?), the BNP on BBC Question Time (should they have done/should they not have done?), free speech in a democracy, the Iraq invasion/war, the significance of 11.9.2001…