Saturday, 31 January 2009

On safari with Andy Biggs

Lions at play, Tanzania, January 2009

This is a 2 part review of the photo safari I've just completed in Tanzania with Andy Biggs. The reason for the two parts: first the photography bit with Andy and second the general safari bit organised by Thomson Safaris who handled booking and Andy's logistics in Tanzania.

The safari I took was the Andy Biggs' photographic safari in Tanzania, booked through Thomson. It covered 10 days incorporating the Serengeti, Ngorogoro and Lake Manyara - a classic Tanzanian itinerary but specifically set-up for photography and the needs of photographers.

Part 1: How nice is Andy?

A really nice guy. easy-going, friendly, helpful. Patient in helping teach people about their cameras and photography. At every level he had useful material to improve the quality of your pictures.

But the important stuff is behind the scenes - picking camp locations that offer the best access to wildlife. Setting a schedule that maximises good photographic opportunities, including times and locations. Working with the guides to determine the best chances of success. Ensuring power is available on camp (for charging batteries, running laptops etc). Making sure the vehicles are photgrapher friendly - size, layout, power, viewing platform.

A schedule that allows time at any interesting sighting is also perfect. Sometimes it takes 90 minutes - 2 hours to wait for things to happen. When they do, it is always worth the wait. This may seem like you get less viewing, quite the opposite. High quality wildlife viewing like that is far better than breezing by lots of stuff without time to fully appreciate it.

I will definitely contemplate taking another trip with him.

Part 2: How good are Thomson Safaris?

In a word: excellent. Logistics went without a hitch, from the initial contact for booking to final departure to the airport. Pre-trip they keep you informed, respond to email quickly, send out lots of high quality information. From the time of arrival at Kilimanjaro Airport through the trip to departure everything was smooth. Using their own staff, vehicles, camps makes for a better trip. This is not camping in any way I know it - more akin to a canvas-walled hotel. Food was excellent throughout.

The guides were all friendly and knowledgeable scouts. If your guide doesn't know about and can't find the wildlife, it wouldn't be much of a safari. As it was they were able to spot stuff from miles off, get us in the best positions with an eye to photography and let us know what was going on.

It's been a great trip and one I'd fully recommend for those so inclined. Expect to see more from me about safari and the trip in future posts.

Multiple-track thinking

Kjell has an interesting post on projects. I like the analogies he draws about walking a trench and chasing butterflies. I wondered, though, if this way of looking at projects stemmed from the way in which one is used to working on projects.

For many, a project is a full-time effort, the single goal of the moment. That would certainly lead to the trench mentality and it is certainly a way of working that I dislike. However, I am very much used to working on many projects simultaneously, with different goals and time-frames. This leaves a certain degree of flexibility on working and creativity. I approiach my photographic projects in the same way: time-lines determined by the subject matter, applying myself to each as and when it feels appropriate. In the actual photographing part I rarely have deadlines, but apply them ffairly ruthlessly too my post-processing (to motivate me to complete).

As with Kjell's observations, this is purely personal and a different perspective on the same idea.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Lightroom tip: advanced custom curves

English Wine & Beer Shop, India, August 2008

Lightroom 2.0, Windows XP
Read my tips intro if you're new.

How do I create my own curve profiles?

I previously posted on setting a Lightroom preset to do a basic tone curve inversion. You'll need to understand that, before reading on. I then wanted to go further, introducing my own custom curves, especially for my 35mm black and white scans.

I always scan my black and white as a positive and then invert in software. For a good explanation why you'd ever want to do this, read the post Matt Alofs wrote on the subject. When a negative is scanned as positive it usually compresses all the tones into the lower half of the spectrum, so on inversion it all ends up at the top. For me, the original positive scan rarely goes to more than 128 on a 255 scale (of course I'm scanning to 16 bit output files, not 8 bit).

After inversion, the first thing I want to do is apply a levels adjustment to bring the shadows back down into the lower tones. That meant a trip to Photoshop after importing into Lightroom to get a levels adjustment. I can, in fact, combine the 2 into one Lightroom preset. Here's how. The key is to set the "black point" of the inversion to a different point, close to the maximum scan value. So, instead of my black point origin being at 255,0, I want it at 130,0 so that the maximum scan value of 128 is just above the black point (so I can tweak later).

Here's what the preset file looks like with the change.

s = {
id = "498D92B2-EB89-4054-AAA2-46D3207AB652",
internalName = "Tone test",
title = "Invert 2",
type = "Develop",
value = {
settings = {
ConvertToGrayscale = false,
EnableGrayscaleMix = true,
ParametricDarks = 0,
ParametricHighlightSplit = 75,
ParametricHighlights = 0,
ParametricLights = 0,
ParametricMidtoneSplit = 50,
ParametricShadowSplit = 25,
ParametricShadows = 0,
ToneCurve = {
ToneCurveName = "Linear",
uuid = "8422BC3B-D8AA-4981-9F69-C350D56D935E",
version = 0,

I can now import into Lightroom applying the preset to the entire batch and get pretty good results from the off. This minimises the amount of work I need to do in other software. Of course, results may vary with film, scanner and exposure technique, so you might need to tweak the values for you own set-up.

If you're not good at reading negatives (and thus scan everything to check the best ones) this should speed things up considerably for you.

But there's more. What if I want a custom conversion curve to cover standard contrast or gamma adjustments? Well that can also be done (for positive or negative), by including extra points into the ToneCurve section of the preference. Here's a (rather stupid) example:

s = {
id = "498D92B2-EB89-4054-AAA2-46D3207AB652",
internalName = "Tone test",
title = "Curve weird",
type = "Develop",
value = {
settings = {
ConvertToGrayscale = false,
EnableGrayscaleMix = true,
ParametricDarks = 0,
ParametricHighlightSplit = 0,
ParametricHighlights = 0,
ParametricLights = 0,
ParametricMidtoneSplit = 0,
ParametricShadowSplit = 0,
ParametricShadows = 0,
ToneCurve = {
ToneCurveName = "Linear",
uuid = "8422BC3B-D8AA-4981-9F69-C350D56D935E",
version = 0,

The same shot as above with the strange curve applied

In fact, Lightroom curves can take any number of arbitrary x,y points to define the curve, you just have to open a text editor to get at the function.

So now, if you can translate multiple curve effects into a single curve they can be applied in Lightroom. A bit fiddly, but possible. Once the technique is known, the possibilities are endless.

Rather begs the question, if this ability exists in the software, why not expose it in the GUI?

Monday, 19 January 2009

Two careers: his and mine

Ironwork door, The Hague, January 2009

Yesterday I watched a really interesting documentary on Eugene Atget and Berenice Abbott, their work and relationship.

There were several inter-locking stories being told. Firstly there was the work of Atget in Paris. His formal documentary style and the (even then) anachronistic technique he employed. This set in the context of the huge change Paris was undergoing at the time. It was observed that he often had few people in his photographs but it could be argued that is as much a function of technique (long exposures on glass plate), time of day and locations. I was also left wondering whether he was trying to avoid the new development to avoid the crowds, or with the intent of creating a nostalgic record of the Paris being destroyed.

The there was Abbott as rescuer of the Atget archive and documenter of New York. While she held a similar style to Atget, it is clear that her subject was much more the life of the city (NYC) as created through its rapid development.

The title of this post comes from a quote by Abbott who felt that she was as well known for the Atget archive, perilously transported to New York from Paris, as she was for her own photography. The story of how Atget came to be well known, posthumously, through Abbott's efforts were a strong part of the piece.

There was also a nic aside from Hank O'Neal on how he came to take this photograph of Jackie Onassis.

All in all an enjoyable aside for a Sunday afternoon, especially for a photographic ignorant like myself.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Creating photographic websites

I was reminded of my frustrations after following the TOP recommendation for Jean-Yves Lemoigne's new site. Great work, poor presentation.

I'm no expert in website design, and certainly no very little of HTML, XML and the rest but there are some basic aspects of presenting photographs that I can grasp. So here are my top tips/rants on photographic websites:

The top thing is speed - pages and images need to load fast. If it's much slower than turning the pages of a book (on a decent broadband connection) then it's slow.

Keep the presentation simple. If you really have to use Flash (which is a triumph of style over content), keep it really simple. minimal transitions, no floating scrolling nonsense. The best presentations are usually just HTML thumbnails that launch larger versions. Screen-optimised pdf works well, too. Slow sites can get dismissed after only a couple of images.

I'd prefer to be able to view the photos in any order, so fixed order slideshows can get in the way. This is especially true if you're displaying a lot of images. And on that note, keep the numbers down. Above about 25 in gallery and it starts to feel like a chore viewing them all.If you're going to display lots, the images had better serve almost instantly - I'm more inclined to bookmark the site and come back for more. I can't remember ever having bookmarked a flash-based photo ite: they're too slow and universally have annoying interfaces.

Keep image file sizes small. For Screen display (typically in the 1000x800 pixel range), jpeg files only need to be 100-200kB in size, often smaller. That means resizing and compressing the files. High quality jpeg images are not really necessary for on-screen display. If you're not sure, do a bunch of tests for image quality versus compression.

The last point is about writing. Please, have someone proof-read and edit your writing. Photographers, like engineers, make poor writers. And noone is as good a writer as they think. Spelling, punctuation, grammar and style all need checking. This goes double for non-native speakers. If your writing is littered with mistakes or written poorly, I'm going to give up reading it.

Friday, 16 January 2009

How much is representative?

Wave shapes, Scheveningen, January 2009

A good link from photostream to Mitch Alland's Bangkok Hysteria series. Looking through the series, led me back to a thought I was having last week: how should I choose photos for a book project?

The issue I was grappling with was the notion of giving sufficient representation to subjects. In a couple of projects I've been working on, the images aren't really singular, in that they are lone events. They are indicative of a wider trend. But how does one get that feeling across. Can I use one, and state that it represents something that can be seen everywhere, or should I prove the point with more images? Are 3, 4, 5 enough, or does that start to be too many.

Mitch's series certainly pushes the boundaries. i think possibly too much, in that case. Once I've seen three or four shots of pretty girls walking by, I've got the point. I've not got to the end of the set yet. I'm feeling that 400 images in a book like this is rather too many, unless there are a lot of montages - which would rathe detract from the quality of the images themselves.

It's a tough issue to deal with.

Is it the print?

Ships sailing in, Scheveningen, January 2008

Following on from the review of photo LA at T.O.P., and the comments on these shows, I was thinking: does great printing separate the great from the also-rans? Every time I see comments by photographers on prints from great photographers, it is all about the impact of the image due to great printing. And there is apparently a rising scale of presentation - web (poor), book (acceptable), reproduction, original print.

So that raises a few issues. Is it only photographers who are actually interested in the print quality? For the most part it seems ordinary people's reactions to photography are related to the subject matter rather than the technical quality. I've had many good reactions to my own photographs when I rated them poor for various technical reasons. And I'm getting past the technical aspects of sharpness & focus here. Tonal range, precision composition and other aspects of content seem to matter.

Or maybe it is those with the technical knowledge who can analyse to reasons why certain images have so much impact. But that might conflict with the notion that content is all. Can people have the same reaction to a great image presented in a book as they do standing in front of an original in a great museum? But then we'd have to remove the variable of location. People go to galleries and museums expecting to see great things.

So if printing matters just as much, then any aspiring artists owe it to themselves to gain access to great printing - either by learning or employing someone. Focus has to be on quality

But if it is all about content, we just have to hope someone notices our stuff, and that means getting it out there in as many forms as possible. This is the quantity argument.

Trouble is, the notions are mutually exclusive.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Just another sunset

If you thought sunset pictures were rather clich├ęd, check this one out: another from NASA's APOD.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Developing a photograph

Construction hut, The Hague, January 2009

After a good discussion over at Stills about this image, I want to write about the process that went to making it. I felt the need to crystallize my own thoughts, in a sense verbalizing some things lurking in the back of my mind. Maybe others might find it interesting, too.

The subject. Here is was a portable hut used as a site office for some construction work on-going, installed between the trees lining a fairly wide avenue. In a setting where the buildings are quite old, there is a lot of weathered brick, a cobbled road surface and fairly substantial trees this hut is quite incongruous - it stands out quite strongly in colour and shape. For me, the key here is shape.

What I'm looking for. This is one of a developing series that I'm creating where I explore the relationship between natural forms and man-made, strongly geometric constructions. Many of them have the natural forms presenting as some for of weathering, decay or erosion of the man-made structure. It is these elements that I am looking for. In this case, all around me were natural shapes and the strong geometry of the hut stood right out among them. In other cases it might be some natural form or blemish in an otherwise ordered scene that catches my eye.

How I shoot the scene. I am trying to abstract the actual objects down to just the shape elements. This generally means cropping out anything that gives reference to what the structures actually are and also generally removing visual elements that give depth, effectively flattening the subject. Everything is done so as to accentuate the shapes I am presenting. This generally means getting quite close as I'm often shooting with normal to wide focal lengths. Largely this is because I find most subjects in an urban environment where I find it otherwise inappropriate to carry a long lens. In this case I was only a couple of meters away, and trying to reduce the sense of the entirety of the tree trunk and the sense of size of the hut. I wanted the straight lines of the stripes caused by the hut's construction and the more natural verticals of the tree.

How I feel at the time. The shooting is quite an instinctive process - I'm usually capturing my immediate visual reaction to a given location: see the shapes, shoot the shapes. This is in strong contrast to more more usual thoughtful considered style. I only take one or two exposures of a given scene. My experience is that I don't create a better final result in trying too hard. If I don't immediately see the shapes catch my eye, then there is no way to work a good result. I've also got an instinctive approach to the technical aspects of making the image: experience has taught me how to set up the camera for these subjects. So the entire process from seeing the scene to pressing the shutter takes a few seconds. I haven't got an understanding as to why this works best but the truth is for this type of subject I have to try and remove the rational response at the time to get the results.

How interpretation follows. When I'm then get home there is a more thoughtful process of looking at the image I'm going to present. Obviously, they don't all make the cut. In this case there were a few decisions I was looking at regarding: geometry, sense of size and depth, tone, alignment.
Key was the relative size of tree. I wanted to create a sense of the strength of nature. More so than it might be in real life beside the hut, creating the impression that the hut is seemingly smaller than it appeared in reality.
Verticals are rotated to true vertical - almost universal for these subjects. This is to create a stronger sense of the geometry and avoid distraction.
Here the right edge is included to give sense of third dimension, corners help strengthen that - as window shutters not truly horizontal due to perspective I couldn't abstract this completely to geometry.
Tonal balance has been adjusted to ensure strength of tree stands out. I want this to provide tension between the strength of the tree as an object and the geometric strength of the rectilinear nature of the hut.

Hopefully this series, as a group or individuals, causes pause for thought.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

That's life

He got a mention at T.O.P. and now this from Wikipedia:

Ibn al-Haytham of Basra invented the modern camera obscura, as described in his Book of Optics in 1021. Nearly a thousand years later, his hometown of Basra was attacked using camera-guided missiles during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
(More from my follow-the-thread web surfing.)

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Toys, toys, toys

Steam, The Hague, January 2009

Well one new toy, at least. Not quite directly photography related but purchased with photography in mind.

I bought myself a funky little netbook - an Asus Eee 901. I was after a laptop for travelling with, so I could download photos to hard drive on longer trips, do some basic edits, surf the web etc. There are times when the portable viewer/hard drive I carry isn't quite enough.

Why did I buy this one? 3 main reasons - size, Windows XP (full size laptops come with Vista these days, and I'd have immediately installed XP instead), solid state drive (light weight, low power, rugged). Never considered a Mac and unless they fundamentally change, never will (that's a story for some other day).

What do I think? Frankly, I'm astonished at how good this thing is. It has plenty of hallmarks of a quality product and works really nicely. It's well built and well configured.
The drive came pre-partitioned into system & applications: a nice touch, exactly what I do myself. Great for maintenance (even on the relatively small drive). Battery lasts a long time - I reckon 6-7h on a charge.
Good screen, that doesn't need full power to be visible (generally usable at the lowest brightness setting). The best touchpad I've ever used with a great set of gestures to improve use (still not as good as a mouse).
Nice set of installed software (oddly, includes both MS Works and StarOffice) but overall a fairly slim install (with only 12GB hard drive, it needs to be).
Plenty of ports.
Comes with 802.11n wireless which hooked-up seamlessly to my home network (once I set the passcode to something I could actually remember!) - trucks along at a creditable 65Mb/s.

It's also reasonable powerful - similar performance to the laptop I use at work, which is about 3 years old. I've installed Lightroom 2.2 and it trucks along quite merrily (haven't tried with a lot of images catalogued yet) - I won't be doing major edits anyway on this thing.

Overall it is surprisingly good. I wouldn't bank on it as a primary computer but it certainly negates a full size laptop as a second computer.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Enough to become good

Park and ride, The Hague, January 2009

After talking about what might constitute a notion of "good" in photography, I want to talk about how much diversity enables us to reach that goal.

As it is the beginning of the year, many are reflecting on the past 12 months and looking afresh to the future. Three threads came together nicely for me. First Tim Atherton talks about the things he'd like to see & do this year, Gordon McGregor has a good post on stages of photography a part of which are expanded nicely by Paul Butzi.

I don't do resolutions and all that turn of the year regeneration stuff, but these posts did put one thing in my mind which might well change my behaviour in the medium term. That thought is the idea of having just enough diversity and variation to provide the interest to keep developing yet not spreading ones view too far for lack of focus. True, focussed effort produces development but, as Paul points out, too much repetition can lead to boredom and a trailing off of effort - our skills plateau through ennui. Experience is not synonymous with wisdom. This is true in life in general.

Photographically, then, one should have enough interests to keep things fresh and interesting. Keeping up active interest almost inevitably leads to improvement, showing an active interest suggest a willingness to learn, and so we do. Long-term attention to single topics may produce comprehensive coverage but it won't necessarily get any better over time. If you've already reached a mastery level, then I'm sure that is just fine. Otherwise it's ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

Taking on too many ideas at once, however, leads to spreading oneself too thinly. Not enough attention to any area can lead to a lack of development, thence the boredom.

It for each individual to decide what constitutes enough variety to strike the balance between interest and focus. Some have greater capacity or time to be able to take on more than others. Others may wish to develop further, faster in a particular area. There are no genera, and don't let any commentator or teacher persuade you otherwise.

Of course, in all these discussions, there is an inherent assumption that one wishes to improve at all. If you're happy where you are, that's fine. I would like to think that the greater majority of us (in the narrow sense of those interested in this kind of discussion) always want a bit more than we have.

As to my own behaviour - just this weekend I decided to keep it simpler. Return to a similar style rather than trying another way of picturing the world. I was playing around with ideas on various lens & style ideas before I decide to head out of the door with a well tried camera set-up, looking for familiar types of subject. It was a more satisfying outing as a result.

And for something completely different - something I found, while doing searches for this post. Isn't the interweb a wonderful place?!

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Developing a view in monochrome

Kang Yatze, Ladakh, August 2008

Anita Jesse asked in a comment over at Stills how I came to seeing in black and white. The response turned into enough for a whole post, so here it is.

Black and white is actually a relatively recent thing for me, in comparison to how long I've had a camera in hand. i tend to think of my "serious" photography as starting when I first bought an SLR (about 12 years or so ago) but I've certainly being taking pictures for much longer than that. However, it was really with digital that I started with black and white, maybe that last 4 or 5 years. It's been a gradual process and I've learnt a few things along the way so here it is, laid bare.

(All you proper photographer types can look away now, this will all seem rather trivial.)

There have probably been three or four distinct steps to getting where I currently am. In the first instance was that whole "wow, digital allows to to use all these cool effects" step. Black and white was as much an effect as a deliberate act. Don't just treat it as an effect and don't hope the greyscale button will rescue poor images. Amateur mistakes (and photo mag hokum). This, however, didn't last long as I quickly realised that the street photography I was doing (and much other candid stuff) was distracted by the colours. I started quite quickly to treat photography of people as monochrome (I never really did this sort of photography pre-digital).

Some of my landscape worked developed with the vision of black and white. I set out to make monochrome images, spurred, I guess by classic landscape photography (think Group f/64 etc). What I started to realise was that these two threads of black and white work were converging on a single focus (or branching from a common source, take your pick of metaphor) that being the idea of shape or form. Black and white was a way to picture things that were not colour - the behaviour of people, shape of the land etc. Colour was, thus, distinctly about that: colour.

I've been using a lot of black and white film for the past couple of years, driven by camera choice. I find that large and medium format is great for quite a lot of my landscapes and a rangefinder ideal for quick reactions on the street - classic formats for classic subjects. But the same principles are applying to how I use digital, too.

And this is where I come onto the final stage - instinctively seeing subjects in black and white. the key things I've learnt about form and shape are now part of my reaction to those subjects. plenty of practice with black and white film has helped teach me how to see in that way. Bringing these two together lead to an instinctive response regardless of the camera in my hand. i now make black and white shotes in digital without even thinking, the image with this post is such an example. In fact, if I come to process such an image some time after taking, it may not actually make sense to me until I turn it into black and white - I can miss what I was seeing after the event when it's presented to me in colour.

So to Anita's orginal question, how long did this take? Hard to put a time on it. Certainly a few years, but the pace has accelerated. Working specifically in black and white helps. Focussed attention to certain subjects does, too. And finally, having a clear notion of what I was picturing in black and white has been essential.

Hope that helps.

A lack of resolution

Happy New Year to all. No resolutions from me, I don't do them. In fact, it's just another day.

Thank goodness for Kjell's perspective and the subsequent postings from Paul Butzi and Colin Jago. I read a few posts elsewhere recently that gave numbers on frames taken over the year. I'm not going to count or publicise mine - they'd be embarrassingly low. I have shot a lot of film this year, which sees my frame rate drop by a factor of about four (i.e. I shoot a quarter the frames with film as I would otherwise do with digital). But I still shoot relatively little. But it's not about quantity, it's all about quality. And about pulling it together in a way that makes sense to me. I am shooting less of the singular and more groups, series and projects.

In that respect, I'm very happy. I feel I'm getting consistently better results - the "just missed the cut" this year are better than some of the best of last (the bad are always horrid). I'm developing more consistent approaches to given subjects (something approaching a "style") and I'm having a lot of fun with a camera in hand. This last is by far the most important.

On the blog front, I seem to be getting a steady stream of regulars. Thanks to you especially - it seems to make all the blathering worthwhile. Not that all the other readers aren't welcome, of course.