Photo manipulation – yes or no?

We’ve all seen the results of HDR processing. Done well, it’s invisible. Done badly, it’s all you see. It went through a phase of everyone using it and eventually became overused and ugly. Extended dynamic range became weird luminance and a world without contrast.

Anyway, enough of the sarcasm. How much should you manipulate a picture?

I would have said just enough to get the result you wanted, but that’s pretty open ended. Take a look at the collages of Heartfield or Höch, who were Dadaists. Their work involved photography, but in the same sense that a painting might involve canvas. Their work was obvious manipulation to achieve a result. I’m not sure I often see the same intention in HDR photos, unless the aim is to show what the world looks like without contrast.

Or perhaps that doesn’t matter. The Filmosaur Manifesto says that the meaning of a photo is what the observer sees, not what the photographer intended.

How liberating is that? You don’t have to make a picture look like a photograph. You are free to have fun. The best medium for this is probably digital and the best camera is a phone. There are great tools like Paper Camera and (thanks to the Phlogger) Comica. Stop worrying about whether something is a worthy subject and just have some fun with it. The results are so far from a normal picture that nobody can judge the sharpness of your lens or how many megapickles you have.

So I’ve been having great fun, even during the dark months of lockdown, by playing with old pictures. Even ones I didn’t like as straight pictures can be pleasing when tweaked.

Who cares whether it’s artistic or even good? It’s something creative to do while we wait for the end of the apocalypse.

With luck, we’ll all be vaccinated and out to play this month.

I’m going to dull 8 it

Have you ever heard anyone say they are going to sunny-16 it? Do you think they only take pictures when it’s sunny? I’m curious because, while I know what the exposure should be in bright summer sunlight, I struggle to estimate it in the dull overcast of a British Standard Day. Even clear sunshine in winter can be two stops less bright than summer.

How hard is it to really carry a light meter? How about instead of a spare lens or a second camera?

How much would you spend on a roll of film? I can get Kentmere 400 for £4.30. How much is a light meter? I reckon you can get one for a fiver on fleabay (sanity check – I just bought two for £5). How much would you spend to get every frame on your film reasonably well exposed?

If you guess the exposure you will probably have forgotten your guesses by the time you develop the film, so you won’t have anything to learn from. If you use a meter then you will know for sure if you (or it) are over or under exposing. Then you can compensate.

I know there are some lovely new meters on sale and on kickstarter, but they cost more than a roll of film. Besides, they tend to be fixed to the camera so it can be difficult to know what you are pointing them at. I know that grass or a clear north sky will meter as that desired middle grey. I know that pale skin like mine (I can pass for Scottish) is one stop brighter. So if I’m shooting something in the same light as me I can meter off my hand and give it one more stop of exposure. It’s not very scientific, if you mean precise, but it’s better than guesswork.

MEtering 1
I wonder if the sunny bits are f16?

I’ve been using a meter more often recently than I usually do, as I’m taking one camera a month out to play. I’m finding that I can’t really guess a good exposure when it’s dull or I’m under trees. And while the latitude of the film might save me, I’d prefer to do a better job. Even Don McCullin took the time to use a lightmeter, and people were shooting at him.

So how do you know the crusty old meter you find actually works? Got a digital camera or one with a working meter? Point it at something fairly featureless like a wall or field and see what it says. Then what the old meter says. Adjust the film speed on the meter to make them agree and make a note on the meter what you did. It could be something like -1 stop on ISO if it under-reads.

Pool
Not even sunny

No digital? Try a mobile phone app. Speaking of which, even a phone app is better than no meter. I use one called LightMeter. I paid the extra to unlock it which let me check and calibrate it against a known good meter. I’d still usually rather use a small ‘proper’ meter though, just to save faffing with a phone.

My true confession though is in using the zone system. Not in the sense that large-format photographers do with special development and cleverness, but in knowing that the palm of my hand meters as zone 6. So meter my hand and overexpose by one stop. Or that sunlit snow will be at zone 9. Or the darkest shadow that I still want some detail in should be metered and then underexposed by two stops.

I hear that people who shoot portraits on colour negative film, which copes well with overexposure, meter the shadows and set that as the exposure. The reason is that they want to show some detail in the shadows and not grain or colour shifts.

Corridor
Spooky 16?

A vague memory intrudes… I recall watching a documentary years ago about a famous photographer. He was photographing models walking around a pool. He sat in a wheelchair and had an assistant pull him backwards, in front of the models. What a great idea to avoid falling in the water. But the reason for the memory is that he didn’t use a meter (or claimed not to, he had assistants). He used the exposure advice on the inside of the film packaging. Given that Kodak etc want your pictures to turn out well and that he was shooting in sunlight (and that I think he was shooting colour negative), it probably worked very well. Nobody talks about film boxing it though, do they?

But you can’t do any of this by starting with sunny 16 and guessing. At the very least, print yourself an exposure guide. It’s not a light meter, but it’s still better than guessing.

Literal is not art

This came from a comment made to David Yarrow, that I heard when he was interviewed on a podcast.

You may like David’s pictures or not – he doesn’t care because he sells them very successfully. But the difference between his picture of an elephant and any other picture of an elephant, as explained to him by the head of the Tate Modern, is that his pictures are not just literal pictures of elephants.

Let me explain.

You go on a safari holiday and take a picture of an elephant. Most likely it’s an accurate representation of what an elephant looks like. It reminds you of being there, but it’s probably a straight record of an elephant. The comment made to David was that a record is just that: it doesn’t add anything. It’s not art.

This is not an elephant

I think this explains my feelings for landscape photography. So often it’s just a record of what a place looks like.

I often return to a photography club I was in for examples. In this case they had monthly competitions on a theme. One month was record photography. On asking, I found that it was nothing to do with music. It was about taking pictures that show a thing as it is. (I could be a Kant and bring in the idea of ding an sich, but that would imply not taking a picture at all). In other words, they wanted a straight record of what something looks like with no interpretation. It would have been snide to say that most of the members’ pictures would qualify, but they would.

I think this also goes back to a comment I made in jest: are you a photographer or do you take photographs? Do you record what is in front of you or do you interpret what you saw in the scene?

I have a large horde of old pictures that only recorded the scene. For a short period after a holiday or trip they served to show other people what it was like and to remind me where I was. Then they become yet another unplaced picture of a hill or valley. These I can happily throw away. Others are interpretive and have some merit (but little skill). For example, years ago I was around Snowden and went to a famous rock-climbing area that translates as something like the dark black cliff. So I tried to photograph it as such. Nobody else would ever get it, but I still like the picture. It’s far from being art, but it’s even farther from being a straight record of a cliff.

So I think a straight record cannot be art. A photo of graffiti is a record of someone else’s art. Even a photo of the Mona Lisa is not the painting. If you are going to take a picture of something, what are you adding of yourself?

The Treachery of Imaging
The Treachery of Imaging

It may sound pretentious to talk about art in photography, but why else are you doing it? If you don’t interpret, you might as well be the Google Streetview camera car.

Focus assist for rangefinders

I had a bit of a moan about struggling to focus some cameras with my old eyes. It came home to me when I was trying to shoot some leaves caught in a wire fence in deep shade. I was turning and twisting the camera to find an edge that I could see move in the rangefinder patch. And then I had an idea. What I needed was a bright but small spot on the subject, so it would be really obvious and easy to bring two of them together. What I needed was a cheap laser pointer.

As usual, everyone else already seems to know this. Or at least it seems to be common knowledge to astrophotographers.

My first thought was to use a magnet to stick the pointer to the top of the camera. Then it occurred to me that camera top plates are probably made of brass, not steel. A quick test proved that my various rangefinders are not magnetic.

What the clever astro people are using is a hot shoe microphone adapter. Roughly £2 on eBay. On the other hand I don’t want to walk around with a weird gadget on the camera. So what I’ll be trying is the three-handed trick – one to hold the camera, one to focus and one to point the laser.

At this point I need to state what should be obvious – never point a laser in someone’s eyes. Also, never point a laser at a passing aircraft. It’s probably a bad idea to shine one into the lens of a digital camera too.

I had a trial go with the laser pointer we use to send the dog chasing itself dizzy and it’s easy to get the focus. It’s also easy to focus on things that are impossible with a normal rangefinder, like a smooth surface with no pattern. So it looks like a plan.

Off to eBay we go and a little laser pointer arrives in the post. It has a ring to attach it to a keyring, which I thought to use to hang it from one of the camera’s strap rings. What I found I could do though is to both support the camera and hold the pointer with my right hand. It meant holding the pointer like I was throwing a dart and pinching the camera between my little and ring fingers and the heel of my palm. It helps that I have big hands but it works. My left hand is under the camera, with my fingers focusing the lens. It sounds awkward but it works. The ‘dart’ grip lets me move the laser point around to put it on the focus patch. I’ve got a working focus assist.

Use of a laser pointer for focusing a rangefinder

I did try pointing the laser through the viewfinder to see if I could project two dots on the image, but that didn’t seem to work. It might do if I could line it up perfectly, but this is a quick and dirty tool, not a perfect one.

It’s also a good way to test that your rangefinder is calibrated. Shoot down the length of a long ruler or tape measure. Set up a matchbox part way down. Focus on it using the laser spot. Enlarge the negative to see if the lens focuses where it should. Russian rangefinders can mostly be adjusted and others probably can too. You don’t want to be shooting and developing a role of film after each adjustment though, so you will need to find a way of laying a focus screen on the film gate and locking the shutter open on B. I did do this once using Sellotape and a magnifier, but it took some careful cleaning to get rid of the stickiness afterwards.

Even without trying to adjust your camera, using a pointer to provide a focusing mark actually works and costs a couple of pounds.

Hurrah!

Carrying a camera

What’s the best camera? The one you have with you. That’s how the aphorism goes.

It’s a chore though, isn’t it? Lugging a camera around everywhere you go. And do you go clever or small? And then your chosen camera gets more wear, more bumps and scrapes and more chances to be underneath the shopping. So we carry a mobile phone, because you’re carrying it anyway and it has a camera built in.

Perhaps it comes back to that question: are you a photographer or do you take photographs? Carrying a camera doesn’t make you a photographer, but it shows intent. Why else would you carry that thing around?

This is why I like small cameras – I can scratch my photographer itch without carrying a boat anchor or straining a pocket.

It can go too far though. I regularly carry more than one camera. Perhaps my worst recent offence was carrying two cameras when I took the dog for a walk. Not some adventurous hike – just a quick trip out to drain the dog around local paths. The only justification is that both cameras were tiny and I did use them both. Why two? One shot black and white and the other did colour.

Bird court
A gull holds court over pigeons

So why am I making a fuss about this? I think it’s useful to actually carry a real camera. Not a mobile phone that can do a dozen other things, but a dedicated device that can do one job. Because if you consciously carry a machine for taking pictures, I believe it makes you think more about taking pictures. It’s that intent thing – I create the ability to take pictures, I don’t just wander into it or take pictures by accident. Carrying a camera becomes part of your deliberate practice.

Postbox
Sometimes stuff just happens in front of you

Cameras can be like hammers though (and not just Zenits): when you’ve got a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Ideally you don’t just take pictures because you’ve carried this camera around all day so you might as well use it. This way lies boring. Or it would be if you showed other people. Since the marginal cost of digital photos is zero, why not just shoot what you see? You can then look at your pictures and ask yourself what you saw, and if you could have done it better. That’s how you improve. Just don’t inflict every variant of that crushed can you saw on your friends. Not unless you want this social distancing thing to last forever.

The great pretender

A digital camera is a Turing camera: it has the potential to emulate any camera, which means it has the ability to emulate any recording medium.

As an example, Ritchie Roesch has posted the recipes or settings to make Fuji cameras emulate different types of film. On the other hand, you could just shoot the actual film you are trying to emulate. Except some types of film are expensive or rare – try getting some Kodak HIE or Kodachrome to play with. So the ability to summon the ghost of films past has its uses. Plus you can effectively change films mid-roll or even for a single shot. It makes me wonder though – if I emulate a particular film effect in-camera, am I just replacing film with digits? What I mean is, that one of the strongest advantages of digital over film is that you have more scope to change it afterwards. If I save a file in the camera that has effects applied, I have actually shot a frame of film.

Genuine Kodak HIE, from when it existed.

Perhaps the best way then is not to apply film effects in-camera, but later? Or at least save a raw file with no effects applied. If your camera lets you save both, you can have the raw file to work on and a jpeg to get an idea of what the final effect will look like. This might be useful if I was taking portraits in black and white. It’s difficult to visualise how colour translates, so saving jpegs in mono gives you something to show the subject.

If I choose to use a certain type of film or to process it in a certain way, I can’t go back and change my mind. If I shoot well-exposed raw files, I can do anything I want with them later. Is this a lack of commitment or is it pragmatism? Actually, it’s something I should do more often. I keep taking my old clunker cameras out for walks loaded with mono film. I should try using one of the digital jobs the same way, but having more options to change the results later. I’ve been having a go with the one camera, one lens, one month thing. Perhaps I should treat one of the digital cameras the same way? I’ve only got one that can swap lenses, so it looks like it’s going to be on the list. The emphasis will be different though. Rather than getting to know an old camera better, this will be more about seeing how much flexibility I can get out of a Turing machine.

Having thought about it, I’ve settled on using my Canon G9 compact. It can save raw files so I can play with the settings but still have the original to work on later. I’ve set it up to shoot back and white. It has two saved custom modes, so I have set them both to black and white but one of them to underexpose by one stop. I will use this when I push the ISO to 800 to see if I can use it for gritty pictures with deep shadows.

That’s the game then: G9 pretending to be a range of mono film types, with the option to later apply filters or effects.

—–

Update.

I’m quite enjoying this. It scratches my mono film itch and lets me change my mind later.

I might have succumbed to the dark side.

Rosebud

Clearing house

I threw away a load of old slides.

I never thought I would do this, but that day did come. Let me explain, for all those who are feeling faint.

I have been scanning all my old slides and colour negatives, but doing the slides first. For a time I shot almost exclusively Agfachrome, then I had an Ilfochrome phase. Some of the slides, particularly the Ilford stuff, have not aged well. Neither have some of the colour negatives. I also seem to have interminable generic holiday snaps.

So I scan the slides at a reasonable resolution for later use. I don’t bother scanning the junk or duplicates. The good ones get scanned at the maximum resolution I can do.

Then all the slide boxes got marked and stored. And then I realised how much space they took. Having scanned them, I wondered if I would ever open the boxes again? At least the scans can be catalogued and searched – there is no practical way to search through all those plastic boxes.

So an opportunity arose to dispose of what was essentially a load of waste plastic. And now they are gone.

Do I miss them? Considering that they were in storage for years and, until I scanned them, I’d forgotten what was on them, then no. Do I regret throwing them away? Not yet. Do I have good backups of my scans? I hope so.

I can’t see myself doing this with my black and white negatives. Partly because they are much easier to store, but also because I don’t routinely scan every negative on the film. I have a scanned contact sheet and a catalogue description, plus the folder contains any images I have scanned or worked on. It works too: I wanted a particular old photo of a friend recently and I was able to find it immediately.

I know there has been some talk of people throwing away their negatives. I’m not there yet and I may never be, but I have taken one step on the road to tidiness.

What do you think? Do you throw away your slides or negatives?

The opposite of camouflage

So, photography is drawing with light. What we draw is what is visible, so the camera needs to see the subject.

It occured to me that what we want of the subject is the opposite of camouflage. Just as there is a list of things to consider in making something hidden, the same things must be aspects of visibility. So we can make a subject more visible by increasing one or more of the list.

The components of camouflage are:

  • Silhouette
  • Shape
  • Shine
  • Shadow
  • Sound
  • Speed or movement
  • Shade or colour

I guess we can skip sound but the rest of these are ways of making something more (or less) visible. Silhouette is a shape against a lighter background, while shape is just a recognisable shape. The others are more obvious.

To take them in turn: think of a black cat against a black wall. You’d only see it if it smiled. Against a white wall it’s visibly a cat just by its outline. Think of the silhouette adverts that Apple ran for the iPod – was there any doubt what the shapes were or what they were doing?

Shape is probably what we see most often. Changing the shape of a subject through viewpoint can sometimes make it unrecognizable. Think of those ‘can you see what this is’ pictures. So the alternative would be to make the shape very visible and clear. Some shapes are so distinctive that you don’t need to see the whole object.

Shine is a good one. You must have seen adverts for cars or booze that use the shapes of the highlights or shine on the curves and surfaces to show the shape of something. Shiny things will outline themselves if you light them well. There is a Greg Heisler portrait of Luis Sarria that uses the shine and sheen of his skin to make his face and hands visible. There is no background, no context, just this amazing portrait.

Fins & Chrome, Stockton.

The opposite of using a reflection or highlight to reveal a subject would be to use the shadows to shape it. Think of high key portraits where a few shadows shape the rest. Or perhaps how butterfly lighting reveals the nose with a single small shadow.

With movement, think how panning can freeze and isolate an object against a blurred background. Or perhaps how a long exposure can reveal the scene behind the cars or pedestrians.

Rally car at night, sparking as it lands at the bottom of a hill.

Colour should be obvious, but less so to those of us who shoot black and white. This is where filters or film choice matter. A green hill against a blue sky could be rendered as a grey mush. Or you could use a red or green filter or either ortho film or one with extended red sensitivity. For colour choices you have the whole colour wheel to go at. If you want to know why you should care, read the analysis of colours in a cinema film here. All that, for something I thought was just the background.

So there you go – six ways to change the visibility of your subject. Or, I suppose, if you follow the instructions and not their opposite, to hide from the paparazzi.

Red Bull magazine

I like taking pictures of people engaged in activity, such as sports. So I like really good action photography. Recently I discovered a new (to me) source of action pics – Sainsbury’s.

Ok, not as such. I was leaving the store and noticed a pile of help yourself magazines at the exit. One had a great picture on the cover so I took it home. There was a new edition there this month too.

Now, I try not to endorse things (but if anyone wants to meet me at the crossroads at midnight to talk sponsorship…) and I’m not, but this is a great source of good action photography. It’s a lifestyle magazine called The Red Bulletin.

Just to be clear, I’d rather drink bleach than Red Bull and lifestyle always looked like a thing for needy people. But I like the pictures. (By the way, I didn’t steal their pictures – the ones in this post are mine. I also used these ones because I didn’t have any pictures of fast-moving supermarkets.)

Red Bull aerobatics

So if there’s anyone out there who also gets a tingle from some good action photography, do see if you can get your eyes on a copy. And yes, of course they have a website. If you haven’t got a Sainsbury’s then I’m sure you have a browser and a search engine.

Red Bull aerobatics

I expect that, as usual, I am late to the party and everyone in the world already knew about this. Indulge me – I don’t get out much these days.

Anyway, enough of that. C’mon Sainsbury’s, you know you want to sponsor a pork pie influencer…

The commitments

The idea for this developed between listening to Dan Bassini on the Sunny 16 podcast and scanning some old colour slides. Dan was saying how, when shooting film, you can’t be sure you got the shot. There’s no chimping analogue.

That goes double with slide film. Most negative films have a fair amount of latitude, so you are generally safe to overexpose a bit. With black and white film you could also under-develop a bit too. This reduces contrast and means you will likely have something usable on the negative. Think of it as raw for analogue. (And that’s raw, not RAW. It’s not an abbreviation. It’s as annoying as the people who write about LEAN methods.) </rant>

But slides. That really is photography without a safety net. Narrow range of latitude, precise exposure and no way of getting back a blown highlight. What you shot is what you got.

The Enid
Slide film – it captures the colour of the light at the time.

This is why large format shooters play around with spot meters and Zone systems – they are paying the same (or more) per shot than I pay per roll. I’d be nervous too. At least with 35mm I can easily bracket the exposure and not make my wallet cry.

Shooting slide film in large format must be a scary commitment. No way of anticipating what you’re getting and no way to save it if you cock it up. Back in the old days the large format people used to shoot tests on Polaroid, but that’s no longer possible. Perhaps what you do now is take a test shot on an old digital camera that can display a histogram or do the blinking highlights thing. The old sensors had about the same dynamic range as slide film so could show you where you were likely to lose the highlights. But if you’re doing that, why not shoot on digital anyway?

Deck Chair
It really is possible to shoot spur-of-the-moment even on unforgiving slide film.

This commitment thing is not new though. It wasn’t until Polaroid came along that anyone could see how a picture turned out until later. And it was only roll film that allowed an easy second shot. This means that most of the important pictures in history were taken without immediate confirmation. Want to know what it was like? Turn off the picture review on your digital camera.

It’s not impossible but it is pretty difficult to change or adjust a slide later. I scan mine at the lowest contrast setting I have and it can still be difficult to get the full tonal range. I’ve got an HDR setting in the scanning software but that just means I have to convert it later – I might as well get it as right as I can at the scanning stage. Like negatives, good slides scan easily but the bad ones are buggers. By bad I mean deep shadows. There’s detail in there but it’s difficult to get at without losing the highlights or the colour saturation. Some of my slides are old too, so the colours can be all over the place.

Why shoot slide film at all then? Well, I don’t any more. I used to shoot reversal film exclusively though, as it gave the best rendition of colour. This was when we all shot colour negative and had it developed and printed at any convenient one-hour photo shop. Remember Max Spielmann? Even supermarkets used to develop film. But the prints were all done by a machine that averaged the exposure and colour correction, so a good print was a thing of both wonder and beauty. For some reason I decided that slides were the way to go, as the colour wasn’t altered by the processor. Fine if you have a projector, a screen and forgiving friends. Which is why I ultimately switched to colour print.

Yugoslavia
How I miss Agfachrome 50s

I still have a shed-load of old colour slides though, as I said, which I am gradually scanning. My favourite film, Agfachrome, has held up really well and was always forgiving. The Ilfochrome has gone magenta and the Orwochrome varies from ok to almost mono. The commitment is still there though, in little series of bracketed shots and the occasional punchy colours and contrast that sing. I know Ektachrome is back, but I really can’t see myself using it. I can get what I want from digital colour, that’s easier to process and show later and where the extra bracketing shots are effectively free.

It was a grand time, I have some pleasing pictures, but I just can’t find that commitment in me again.