Some words about pictures

When I have time I read other photography blogs. Some on a regular basis, others as they randomly appear. Often they are interesting; seeing the process from another point of view and such. Occasionally they are infuriating; seeing people presumably making a living doing something they don’t actually understand how to do. Mostly they are amusing; looking at others’ adventures in Photo Land.

Just this morning I read a well-documented process of producing a colour Infrared photo from three separate black & white film images. I wondered why, at first. After reading it I wondered why even more. Seemed like a lot of work to go through in order to produce an image you could get straight out of a digital camera in one go. If you know what you’re doing.

This hearkens back to the recurring theme of spending endless time messing about with post-processing that is the hobgoblin on digital photography. Yes, you can adjust each and every factor by 0.1 at a time – and never emerge from your digital darkroom again. You really do have to develop (pun intended) a balance between ‘perfection’ and ‘no good’ which comes down to ‘good enough’. It won’t be the same for everyone. Most people, for example, scoff at my “professional snapshots” because they are small, low-res images often made with cheap (by industry standards) cameras. Well too bad; I like them. If I didn’t I would change my ways.

Sometimes I wonder if viewers of my work, particularly other photographers, see the message of composition and framing that goes into the shots I do. Never mind use and control of light. After 50+ years of pushing the button it’s second nature to me, although of course it doesn’t always work out (best thing about digital is you can make mistakes for free).

This is not to say there isn’t a reason to do post-processing, as there often is. For example older digital cameras tend to lose contrast so might need a little +10 in that department to bring them up to snuff. Or perhaps it is your intent to adjust things to produce the result you had in mind to begin with, or the result the image inspires when you see it on the ‘big screen’. And let’s be honest, sometimes the photo needs ‘saving’ because something went desperately wrong when you took it. It happens to all of us.

But what I wonder about is why people take perfectly good pictures and then spend hours ‘tweaking’ settings by tiny amounts expecting to get some sort of eureka moment of perfection. After all, we don’t every one of us see the same photo the same way.

I also wonder why people go about making an image the hard way when the same result is possible with far less effort (especially with digital). Maybe I’m just getting too lazy in my old age.

Anyway it’s foggy and cold this morning so no images will be captured today. Besides I have to get back to work.

One Strange Night. (Infrared image taken with Canon 1Ds & 35mm Super Takumar.)

One scene seen six ways

Manual images are fine, but sometimes need some post-processing to make them just right. Or maybe not.

The original. Underexposed, moody. Or is that ‘muddy’?
Automatic equalization applied in GIMP. Better exposure, odd colours.
Auto white balance correction applied in GIMP. Most people would say this is ‘right’.
Exposure corrected using brightness and contrast controls in GIMP. This is the most accurate to life.
Getting artistic: white balance correction with colours “toned down” by ‘fading’.
When all else fails try turning the colour off. Or even if the colour is good it doesn’t hurt to see what the monochrome version looks like.

What do you see?

Recently fellow photographer Robin Hogreve posted about how and why he shoots RAW format, which led me to comment on how his pictures look on my computer as opposed to his. This is an issue in the digital age; it’s no longer just a matter of what does a particular person’s eyes see, but what does their viewing screen present them with. Herewith I post four versions of one picture which tackles the difficult business of getting a snow image “right” (by which I mean looking as true to reality as possible).

Original, unprocessed JPEG image shot with the Nikon.
White balance automatically corrected in GIMP.
Brightness +20, contrast +10 to compensate for poor light exposure.
Cyan saturation turned down 100 because snow isn’t blue.

The final image is as close to what the scene actually looked like as I could get. It makes a difference which order the steps are applied too, as the computer uses the image content to judge how to make certain adjustments. Usually a white balance correction should be the first step, as colour temperature varies a lot in Winter.

Now artistically you might want the scene to look blue or darker or lower contrast in order to convey the mood of the time. But really the snow only looks blue around here in bright sun when it reflects our very blue skies (full of UV due to thin atmosphere at this elevation). That doesn’t mean you want it to look that way, though.

The question here is: which one looks best to you?

It would be interesting to look at these on several computers side by side and have several viewers judge the results. Art is in the eye of the beholder, but given the medium here we have to wonder if we’re getting across to the beholder what the creator intended.

By the way that’s a highway truck “winging back” the snow on the road shoulders with a “belly blade” and possibly dropping some sand as well to increase traction. It’s been a very nasty Winter, and it continues: just yesterday we got four more inches (10 cm) of the white stuff.

Re-fine art

Sometimes you take a picture that just isn’t very good. This is an example of such an image:

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It’s hard to track a flying bird at full zoom in a cloudy sky. The focus is off, the exposure is off, and the composition off. This is not a good picture. But can anything be done to save it?

Maybe.

I cranked up the exposure, increased the contrast, desaturated to B&W, inverted the colours, and recropped the framing. VoilĂ ! A “MOMA quality” image that looks like it might have been made in a completely different medium such as paper or even cloth. Dramatic lithographic tones and severely asymmetrical composition turns a dull, blurry image of an unrecognizable bird against and indistinct gray sky into a signature piece. You see less artistic offerings on the market every day.

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Limited edition prints available in the gift shop. *LOL*

Primary Colours

Some examples of selective desaturation for artistic effect. All photos taken with the good ol’ Kodak V1003 and processed in GIMP by turning down saturation on all but the intended colour.

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Red

It is interesting to note that in “Red” some brown and orange tones were retained, because they are a form of red.

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Yellow

This is my favourite. The old (’69 or so) GMC bus abandoned to use as a storage facility and looking forlorn indeed. There is some residue of colour in the weeds in front of it of course.

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Blue

Here a couple of abandoned water pressure tanks lay in the weeds awaiting eventual recycling. This one brings up the issue of just what colours can be eliminated this way: the green of the small pine sapling is completely gone. Trying to retain green is another matter, as green is often not green but yellow and blue (or rather cyan in the weird world of photo colours) put together. Thus removing the yellow and/or cyan/blue results in a loss of green tones that you may prefer to keep.

This shows up in processing other colours too, if they are comprised of blending two tones. Sometimes removing the colours doesn’t make any noticeable difference:

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In the second version magenta, cyan, and yes green have been removed. It’s hard to tell the difference, isn’t it? On a more complex pallet the secondary colours have more effect.

If you set out to do this yourself, you have to keep in mind what primary colours are in the image and try to envision what it will look like with some removed. Some cameras, by the way, have the ability to do this single-colour rendering within them. It is usually buried deep in the menu system, and of course shooting that way initially means eliminating any ‘normal’ version of the picture which might look better (although sometimes this is an in-camera post-shoot processing which retains the original; check your manual carefully).

Mysterious Forces At Work?

So I just wrote a piece bashing the obscene expense of getting into film photography these days (Film-flam, ma’am). To be fair, I did point out that everyone should get a chance to try film if they could and I certainly am not suggesting people don’t use film if they want to and can. It’s like an artist using either watercolours or acrylics, right? Different media to achieve the artistic end.

Now, while looking for something else entirely, I’ve found this in my vast collection of oddments:

film

Serendipity, perhaps? I still have my functioning (other than the meter) Pentax Spotmatic. At least in theory my mind should still be sharp enough to rig up some sort of tray processing arrangement and formulate the necessary chemicals from readily available (even if not ideal as this is C41 process) substances. The worst part would be that the film is over 10 years old and hasn’t been stored properly. Hmm.

Of course I have a few projects in the way (like getting wood, and having just replaced the battery in the P850 to be able to use it again). But still …

Should I do this? Will I do this? Time will tell.

Addendum: looking up some C41 kits I find they fall into two categories; too expensive or not available here. This will need more thought.

 

Processing … processing

From time to time I mention “post-processing”. This would more accurately be called “post shooting processing” because it is done after the picture is shot. For me it is only a ‘sometimes’ thing; often no more than turning the contrast up to compensate for a cloudy day, for example. For some people (and not just users of the RAW format) it is where the picture is made, as they go for that “other worldly” look. In any case it is easy to get stuck in it, to overdo it, and to lose track of what you’ve done. Step 1, even if there are no other steps you intend doing, is to make a copy of your original and keep it safe from accidental modification or deletion.

So here are some examples of what you can do with a picture and some pre-set modification processes using the software GIMP 2.8. It took me a while to find some simple subjects that responded significantly and yet not horribly to the changes. First up is the ‘straight’ shot, followed by ‘Normalize’, ‘Colour Enhance’, ‘White Balance’, and finally ‘Equalize’. They all give interesting variations on the original shot, and you can argue among yourselves whether any are better or worse or whether the series as a whole is the art and not any one image from it.

The Nissan Series:

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There’s almost no difference between the straight shot and the ‘Normalize’ image, indicating the original was pretty spot-on in terms of shooting. ‘Colour Enhance’ pushes and pulls the tones to extremes, giving the chrome a golden touch. ‘White Balance’ brings up the highlights and makes the chrome look more like chrome (this is my preferred version in this series). ‘Equalize’ takes every variation in shade and makes it stand out, giving the appearance of a vehicle that’s been left too long to the weather.

Now let’s go to the Red Door series for some real fun:

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The ‘Normalize’ image is the most accurate to how the scene actually looks; it manages to overcome the effects of the shade without making a mess of the colour. ‘Colour Enhance’ evidently thinks all barns are red! ‘White Balance’ is looking for tones that aren’t there, and the effect is like digital paint stripper; you can clearly see all the textures beneath. ‘Equalize’ again goes to the extreme, putting in colours that just aren’t there as it tries to cope with an essentially monochromatic image. Although ‘Normalize’ is the most accurate rendition here, I rather like the way ‘White Balance’ strips away the colour to show the texture.

This is all fast processing, done with preset functions within the program. If you have too much time to kill you can adjust all sorts of things in software – to the point where you might spend the rest of your life working on just one picture. Or perhaps making thousands of variations of it. How do you avoid this trap? By doing some experimentation; start with one good, ‘balanced’ image to see what the effects of changing things are, and how you like them. You may find that a 30% alteration of anything is as much as your aesthetic sense can stand, for example. Or that there are some variations which simply aren’t to your taste at all: there are a host of filters I’ve looked at once and never gone back to again – they just aren’t ‘me’.

This is why I continually emphasize that getting what you envision out of the camera to begin with is best. Flipping a colour photo into B&W is one thing; spending hours tweaking every last aspect of the data is quite another. It doesn’t hurt to try various effects, but you don’t have to do it with every photo. In fact you shouldn’t.

Salvage operation

Two renditions of one photo. This was taken with a cheap camera (Canon Elph) under early morning low light conditions.

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Pretty bad, eh? You can barely make out it’s a woodchuck (or groundhog if you prefer). So I tried quite a few tricks in GIMP to improve it. The only thing that gave me what I felt were plausible results was knocking the brightness down 20 and cranking the contrast up 80. The various “enhancement” filters had no noticeable effect.

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It comes out a bit ‘artsy’; like an attempt at simulating a painting. This goes to show that even in this age of post-processing wonderment nothing beats getting it right in the camera to begin with.

I have also been debating writing more about the Great Disaster of 2018, but fear the content would only make readers cringe and groan at the losses. Hindsight is not only always 20/20, but amazingly sharply focused, perfectly exposed, and with great depth of field. Sometimes it’s better if memories take on a more artistic rendition.