Friday, 17 February 2012

Assignment 3 submitted again

Well, Assignment 3 has been resubmitted. Hopefully this is a rather more solid stab at the sense of the assignment. I’ve certainly tried rather harder to put the lessons of the previous modules into practise – rather than dashing of on a flight of fancy _ so can only hope it shows.

Wish I’d been brave enough to put more people in my shots years ago – all those ‘deserted’ streets and forests and beaches in my pictures seem like an opportunity missed now.

The 19 final shots are the slideshow below. Time to concentrate on Assignment 4 now.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

How much light is enough?

One thing about the photo-a-day challenge – when I’m taking it seriously – is that it forces me to think a bit differently or risk every photo being a close-up of a household object. It also means that sometimes I have to take shots in fairly challenging conditions, which can be a useful creativity driver.

The ‘Fence’ was one example of that and it got me to thinking about how little information – and by implication light – you might need to make a reasonable photo. Most weeks I spend one or two nights in Stretton, just off J11 of the M56, which is fairly limiting from a photo opportunity angle but does have a rather splendid sandstone church which is sometimes, but not often floodlit. When the lighting is off the lights from the street and the nearby hotel cast a rather eerie glow onto the tower, which struck me as rather atmospheric. It’s also a bit tricky to capture, if you don’t have a tripod handy – which I didn’t. Usually I can find a wall to prop the camera up on, but without losing the composition that wasn’t possible – not least because I needed a portrait format to catch the tower.This forced me to ISO 3200 and f/2.8 which gave me a 1/4 second exposure (about 2/3 stop underexposed), which was just within the limits of handholding with a bit of wall support and IS. Even then I was exposed well over to the left – contrary to normal advice – don’t think there was a pixel above half-way on the histogram.

Lets not even talk about the chroma noise in the file.

But conversion to B&W and judicious use of the orange/red sliders, exposure clarity and noise reduction gives this rather atmospheric end result:

1000/717: 06 Feb 2012: Church Tower at Night

I know it’s soft, and grainy, and looks like it was taken a hundred years ago – but that’s exactly as I saw it turning out. It has that sense of mystery which churchyards have at night, there’s just enough detail to keep me looking and the small white dot (Venus) adds a slightly disconcerting note. In short – I think it has a real sense of place. Interestingly I think the chroma noise is a factor in the slightly other-worldly glow from the tower - tweaking the noise settings certainly had a marked impact. There’s an experiment for another time.

The following night I tried a slightly different approach – this time a portrait of a statue on the path behind the church. There was enough light from the street lamp to make hand-holding just feasible – although I’d have preferred a tripod so that I could get some extra depth of field as f/2.8 is a bit limiting at 2 feet or so. I could have pushed the ISO a bit further (to 3200 perhaps)but for this shot I didn’t want to risk softening the boundary between light and dark too much. Again most of the pixels were well to the left of the half-way mark on the histogram, which with a bit of tweaking of the red/orange/black point sliders produced this end result.

1000/718: 07 Feb 2012: Portrait of a Roman Soldier

Not quite true actually – I had to put quite a bit of effort into developing a decent range of tones in the lit areas while retaining the very sharp shadow edges. Again I’m quite pleased with the outcome. Given that it’s a statue it feels quite characterful – the moon behind adds some helpful atmosphere and at the risk of sounding pretentious the black shadow feels like a metaphor for time eating away at history.

I’m beginning to wonder if I have the basis for Assignment 5 here – if only I could think of a legitimate commercial brief.

I digress. It seems to me that it is possible to get interesting shots with very little light indeed, provided that you understand what can be done with that light. In some senses I think digital photography makes this easier because a quick peek at the preview shows whether there is anything useable recorded or not and you don’t have to worry about reciprocity failure. On the other hand, noise rears it’s ugly head and can have some interesting impacts on the B&W conversions. But this is both fun and rewarding and I’m beginning to hope that the evenings don’t draw out too quickly.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Colour or Black & White – that is the question?

As noted in my last post I was ratching through the Ralph Gibson website yesterday evening. It so happens that I have a copy of World Photography – Ed: Bryn Campbell that also has some good quality reproductions of several Gibson prints (book review later). Several of the shots reminded me of photos I’ve taken in the past but left in colour – largely because until recently I’d had no interest in black and white reproduction – so I though it might be instructive to choose a couple – convert them to high contrast black and white and see which I preferred and what, if any changes in impact I could identify.

First up is a sandstone buttress on a local church with a blue sky behind – brought to mind by this shot of Gibson’s. In the book the stone blocks print rather brighter than the reproduction on his website so the suggestion of ‘heat’ is more noticeable. The thing that strikes me most about this particular image is that despite the simplicity I have spent significant time just looking at the fine grain in the blocks and wondering about the purpose of the building. It comes from a set called Quadrants which is loosely based, as far as I can tell, on photos containing squares or implied squares.

The image it reminded me of, and the black and white conversion are here. To get from one to the other I used the fairly obvious expedient of reducing luminosity in the blue and aqua channels and increasing it in the red, orange and yellow channels in lightroom and then adjusting overall exposure contrast black point etc.

Experiment 1 - 1   Experiment 1- 2

The colour version feels unmistakeably British. The stone is a mellow red-orange, the blue is a nice saturated contrast, there’s no obvious glare – to me at any rate it reeks of temperate climate and summer. The b&w version, on the other hand, feels like hot climate, unremitting heat, glare and so on – so there is a quite different feel as a result of the conversion. The first version relies purely on hue for its effect as the saturation and luminosity are about the same (easily confirmed by temporarily converting to grey scale in PSE and measuring the density) – the second relies purely on luminosity. If it isn’t a strange distinction to make I would say that the colour version is more pleasing – but the b&w version is more interesting – in part because the surface textures are enhanced and, if you know what you’re looking for, it highlights the different stone dressing techniques that were employed.

There is the hint of an eye in the top right – I suspect the edge of an abutting roof or gutter – I may have to make a return trip in the summer to see if it’s practical to emphasise that aspect.

The next image I was reminded of by these two: Black Series and Deja Vu. The first of these set me trawling through all the window frames and door decorations that I had photographed when I made my book on Maryport, the second focussed my search to this one, which is nothing if not drab:

Experiment 2 -1

I had to work a bit harder to extract the image I was after from this one, but in the process I got a surprise result – it’s quite dramatic in minimal colour as well as b&w.To get the colour version I had to massively increase contrast in curves, push the black slider to 100% and increase exposure by 2.5 stops, it was then simply a case of Lightroom’s default conversion to get the b&w version.

Experipment 2 - 2   Experiment 2 - 3

The original, as noted above is just dull – I doubt it’s interesting enough to be worthy of a second glance. There’s not enough in it to give any real clue as to what it is, and little to attract the eye. I think the full b&w suffers a little from the same problem, although there are hints of detail in the black to suggest painting and hints of a 3-D structure at the base.

For me the minimal colour version is a significant improvement on both with hints of the colour field work of Rothko or Newman. Compared with the Gibson Deja Vu it clearly lacks the hint of narrative provided by the human presence, but is still intriguing enough to stand on its own.

I think where this is getting to is that it is not the large areas of dark or light that interest me in Gibson’s work, but the way in which his approach concentrate the eye on the detail. This would fit with some of the ‘profiling’ I’ve done at work, where it’s my interest in detail (although not my attention to it) and my ability to find patterns and connections that crops up regularly.

So for me the answer to my opening question is whichever provides me with the info I need to engage with the photo. In the first case, I’m more engaged with the b&w version – in the second the minimal colour. Nothing terribly insightful there I guess except that I’m becoming more and more interested in the potential of B&W to isolate patterns and detail.

Not sure how I weave any of this into the remaining assignments though :0(

Der Abend (inspired by Ralph Gibson)

I posted this on my photo-a-day blog but I feel it belongs here as well. Have been interested in Ralph Gibson ever since one of the tutors (thanks Clive) threw his name 'casually' into a conversation. He has a very distinctive signature style featuring very deep blacks and strong contrasts and I especially enjoy the graphic nature of his images and the way he plays with space and form. Interestingly, especially in view of the advice we usually receive, he also has a couple of mixed colour/b&w sets on his website, but even the colour sets are quite high in contrast and have the same focus on form and shape.

Anyway - to cut a long story short - I was having a good look around his website and came across a shot in Die Nacht which I liked so much I thought I'd have a stab at my own take. A couple of points – his shot was clearly of someone else's hand unless he had a cable release, and I struggled to get the range of skin tones that he managed – I suspect this may be down to the light source, which in my case was quite hard. In some ways I regret using a watch as the ‘object’ because it now feels too much like a copy – I think it could easily be brought up to date and retain the impact by using perhaps a smart phone or a PDA instead. However, in fairness to myself, it was a spur of the moment idea sparked by the website, and it’s worked better than I expected.

There are a couple of colour shots in my archive that I was reminded of while browsing his website, so I think I’m going to dig some out and compare them in colour and with this treatment to see how the impact varies. Somewhat unexpectedly I find that black and white is featuring more and more in my everyday photos and I’m hoping that this kind of contrasting of colour and b&w images will help me understand why – is it just the pleasure of the ‘new’ or is it something more fundamental?

Thursday, 2 February 2012

In praise of lesser photography

Having posted the link on a previous post I have now had a good read of this little manifesto for simpler photography. As is often the case with American authored self help books it is full of home-spun wisdom and lashings of Mom’s apple pie, but tucked away inside is the core of an idea that rings true if you don’t wear it as a strait-jacket – that spending money on kit doesn’t improve your art and that the viewer doesn’t really care what kit you used.
It’s an interesting irony that in order to experience this for myself I ‘had’ to buy another camera, but I’m glad I did because it’s changed my thought processes to a degree. The camera was the Pen E-P1, which is small, fully controllable and equipped in my variant with a 17mm prime lens (35mm equivalent on a 35mm camera – the PEN has a four-thirds sensor). I still love my E-3, but it stays at home more frequently these days, because I enjoy the simplicity of a single focal length, and the portability of a small camera.
A single focal length makes you work, and think , harder. I think my photography has improved as a result. Using the same focal length again and again gives you a real understanding of what does and doesn’t work effectively. It also forces you to think about composition so that all your photos don’t come out the same. A slightly wide angle lens can make everything seem small and insignificant unless you work at it. You have to work a bit harder to give the subject some context:
1000/435: Dandelion
Of course, you can also use it to ‘get everything in’ when that’s appropriate:
Geneva, Night View
One thing I’ve not been convinced by is “zooming with your feet”. With a relatively wide lens on distortion soon creeps in and I’ve found it preferable, rather than attempting to fill the frame, to use composition to put the emphasis where you want it.

And adopting this approach has changed the way I use my ‘full-size’ kit as well. I used to take everything out with me – but now I tend to think ’Today I’ll go wide/standard/tele” and just take the appropriate zoom rather than all three.