Colour in your camera

I’ve got an old photography book called Colour in your Camera by Gösta Skoglund.  The subtitle is ‘a book of colour photographs to show how to make colour photographs’. No punning or obscure titles here – this book is clear in its intentions.

What brought it to mind is that I’ve been thinking about colour recently. This, despite the majority of my pictures being black and white. Film-makers have made increasing use of the facility with digital capture of changing the overall colour balance of a film, or of using specific coloured lighting to set the mood of scenes. People joke about the Mexico filter, where the scene is rendered with strong yellow/ orange cast to make it look dusty and desert-like.

The reason why I even have to think about colour is that I’m late to the party (as usual). I started out using mostly black and white film and still shoot a lot of mono. I’ve even set one of my digital cameras to save and show a mono jpeg but keep the full colour version as a raw file. I like thinking about tone and shape. And then colour came along. Originally I shot colour slide film, as it was “pure”. Even then, the quick-result colour processsors could give you strange colour casts in your prints. I had some idea in my head that slide film retained the artist’s true vision (cue laughter and me slapping myself on the head). I think I had just read too many photography magazines.

What I missed with my gradual movement to using digital was that I was no longer at the mercy of the developer and printer – I could change the colours myself. I also got a total slap upside the head (I get lots of these) from my wife when we were looking at paint for the house. The big display of colour cards at the local DIY store was not a finely-graded copy of a rainbow but had some method behind it. Going side to side at a fixed horizontal level showed you colours with the same tonal value. This meant that, under the same lighting, different rooms would not be brighter or darker unless you meant them to be. Going verticaly up the colour swatches kept the same colour but varied the tonal value, so I could keep the particular shocking pink or acid green I had set my heart on and vary the brightness to suit the room or lighting.

Who knew? Well not me, obviously. I’m not sure I am colour-blind but I do appear to be colour-stupid. Or is it tone-deaf? What I have found to play and learn with is a colour wheel that will show me complimentary or contrasting colours.

There have been a couple of articles on t’interweb recently that got me thinking more about what colour means. One was a run-through of how colours are used to express mood. I also dived down the rabbit hole following a detailed analysis of the colours used in the film Ad Astra. The analysis was right – there is a very strong use of colour and colour cues in the film (it’s a shame it wasn’t also a good film, but it does mean you can focus on the colours).

I wonder if still photography can be as subtle as cinema though? In a film the viewer is hopefully concentrating on the story and action, and the colours are perhaps subtle clues that inform the viewer but may not even be noticed? A still image rests before the viewer with no distraction, so perhaps it gets more scrutiny? It has got me thinking, anyway. I wonder if I could experiment with strong ‘unnatural’ colours. I’ve also done some split toning of mono images before, so I will be using the colour wheel to look at the effect of making the highlight and shadow colours truly complimentary or analogous.

Complimentary colours
Analogous colours

I am also playing with spot colour or overall tone for mood.

So while I might be the last person to discover this, I’m going to spend more time both noticing the colours that exist and choosing the colours I use. Amusingly, I will be doing this as we head into our British winter, where the predominant colour is grey. So are there any other good resources I could study while I wait for the sun to return?

Book covers

Look at the books around you. Most of them have a picture on the cover. I’d never really thought about, but there is a whole industry that provides cover pictures.

Basically it’s the photo stock pictures business, but focused on a specific use case.

I’d also had some fanciful idea that it was the photographer’s job to interpret the book. My, how the publishers would laugh. Usually, the photographer provides pictures to an agency, which holds a large library of images. The people designing the book pick an image to fit the subject of the book or, more likely, its genre. This is probably why ‘dead or threatened woman’ thrillers have so often got a woman in a red coat walking with her back to you. And why ‘tough loner’ thrillers have a man walking away down the road. The picture tells you what the book is likely to contain even if you don’t know the author.

What got me thinking was my wife, a great fan of detective crime thrillers. She mentioned that there can be a mismatch between the quality of the cover and that of the text. Most often it seems to fail so that good books get bad covers. By that, I mean a cover that looks cheap, or lacking good design. Quite often the cover picture is trite: a formulaic copy of what other people are doing (red coat, back turned) or a literal version of the story (a pen leaking blood was a recent one). Sometimes, despite the cover, a book is good. It doesn’t seem to work as much the other way round – I guess a book published with no budget and less hope doesn’t get much other than a stock image on the front.

This is not the photographer’s fault. The snapper posts probably hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pictures to the agency. The pen leaking blood could have been used anywhere. It was a designer who thought ‘this book is about someone who writes murder stories and may have committed the crimes too, so what we need is a killing pen’. Or perhaps the designer is working on yet another Scandinavian endangered woman thriller by an unknown author and wants to signal the genre to potential readers. Cue the red coat. I make it sound easy, but it’s marketing and it usually works.

There will be a bespoke market too, where a particular photographer is commissioned to produce a specific picture. As in all such things, this will work to a power law: a few people get all the work and all the money and there is a long tail of the remainder. So I expect there are only a few known book-cover photographers.

I suppose the pictures that get on the covers are strong support for the Filmosaur proposal (point 3 of the manifesto) that a picture has no meaning but what the viewer thinks it means. A picture of a man running across a city bridge could mean anything from a thriller to a guide to time management. Or, using the picture of the slide above, anything from lost child to lost childhood.

Anyway, there is a whole industry out there creating pictures for book covers. What might be fun would be to shoot a picture for a book you like, just to play with capturing the story in a single image or even to pun on the contents. I admit to doing the opposite in my past, which was to hide all of the cover art and text beneath dust jackets made from old wallpaper or brown paper. It meant I could read anything I liked at school or commuting.

Anyway, I’m just waffling about something that caught my interest. If you want to know more about it or if the idea of shooting covers for a stock agency interests you, you could start somewhere like here.

Curating

Ever put a ‘zine or book together or assembled a set of pictures to exhibit?How do you decide what is in, what is out and what order the pictures should be in?

What got me thinking was an article by Grant Scott were he says that photographers need help with both curating and layout. Layout I definitely agree with – I’m the IT guy so I think green text on a black screen background is an undervalued part of our legacy. And a screen should be 80 characters wide and 25 deep. Curating though – deciding what is in or out and what order to put it in – I find it fascinating. The other trigger for this was my trawling of old photos and realising that I was keeping a lot of stuff that I really didn’t need and would never use.

But, back to the start. Imagine you had to present your life’s (photographic) work. Do you put it in chronological order, the major themes that have influenced you, the different styles you have used or by subject matter? Do all the portraits go on one wall, landscapes on another and selfies in the bin? Chronology seems good if you want to show the span of a career or life and how the photographer developed. Organising by assignment or theme seems good if the photographer has investigated several distinct subjects. There is also the power of repetition. Think of something like Anil Mistry’s book of abandoned mattresses.

I can give you a worked example from a small print exhibition I put on with a pal. The venue was a local wine bar. Upstairs room, maybe 10m square, old exposed brickwork. So the first decision was a common print size and a standard frame. We wanted a viewing distance of one to two meters so the prints worked best at A4. Random use of vertical and horizontal pictures because a fixed pattern would draw attention to itself and away from the pictures. Then we spread the pictures by subject type – there wasn’t going to be a set of landscapes together, then portraits for example. That may work if we were famous and prolific but in this case it might influence people to only look at part of the display – cute pictures of dogs, for example. Then colour range: do we ignore the main tone of the pictures or group the predominant colours and have a progression? Perhaps we should go from warm to cool to mono as you look around the room from the entrance? Or do we put the vibrant colour pictures in the darkest part of the room and the mono ones in the bright area? And are all the pictures to be hung at the same level, or do we follow what the old brickwork lets us do?

To relieve your tension, this is what we did: random vertical and horizontal, hung roughly aligned but as allowed by the brickwork, random placement of colour and subject. It was meant to look uncontrived. As Piet Hein said

“There is one art,
no more, no less:
to do all things with art-
lessness”.

But if I was ever famous, I would want someone much cleverer than me to both select the images and the way to display them. A few snaps in a wine bar is one thing, but an actual exhibition is a much bigger undertaking. Not that I’m ever likely to be famous. It’s a bit like asking if you would buy a Porsche or a Ferrari if you won the lottery.

There is also the sort of curating you would do to put pictures in a book or magazine. I think I have only made one picture book, and it was a set of old family photos put together for my mum. I did think about the placement though: should people look into the centre of the book or out? What should appear on facing pages? Is there a progression between relatives or places? Who gets the two centre pages? I probably thought more about it than my mum or anyone else who looked at the finished article, but that’s probably correct. See Mr Hein, above. The background to this, and the reason for thinking about the layout, is that I have self-published a how-to book. That meant paying a lot of attention to the way a book is structured and the features that make it easier to use.

Anyway, the other reason to curate is not to put together a show, but to organise your own library of pictures. It’s probably best to start with this version of curating so that you know what you’ve got and where it is. There is a lot of advice on t’interweb about how to curate your photos, but I’ve seen one fairly condensed set of rules here at Heartwork (other websites also apply). Their advice boils down to eliminating:

  • Duplicates
  • Mistakes, errors and bad shots
  • Landscapes (oh yes!)
  • Multiples within a series

Multiples within a series I might use for something else. I’ve used a bit of software in the past to combine a series of time-lapse pictures into a video. If I’d shot enough pictures in a series I might try that just to see what the result looked like. Or perhaps animate the shots that lead up to the best one and freeze on that as the final frame. But that’s nothing to do with curation, just me thinking out loud.

Mistakes and bad shots can be thrown away, but only after you have sucked all the learning out of them.

Empty landscapes (any landscapes, in my opinion) are boring. If it’s just a record of what was in front of you, then so what? Put people in a landscape and things get more interesting. Or take pictures of people.

Actually, there is one thing you can use the ‘technically OK but not worth keeping’ pictures for: make a mosaic. There are some apps available that you can give a target picture and a bunch of other pictures as a feed; they remake the target using tiled copies of the feed, selected by colour or tone as if they were large pixels. It’s quite good fun and I could see myself using it to create a mosaic using all the ‘spare’ pictures from an event. It’s not curating, but it is a way to make use of the pictures you would otherwise sacrifice to housekeeping. (I use AndreaMosaic for this, which is one of the Portable Apps suite)

So perhaps I’ve argued myself round in a circle. Selecting a set of pictures is interesting and another way of story-telling. Separating the good from the druff in your own pictures is instructive, saves space and can lead to other things.

Go curate!

The Casual challenge

I do like a bit of a challenge and those nice people over at Casual Photofile have created one. A list of 34 things to photograph. The extra challenge for film users is to get them all, in order, on a single roll. Game on!

So this is going to take a bit of thought. I can’t take several shots of something and pick the best. I’m going to have to Deer Hunter it. I’m also using a camera for which I only have one lens, so there’s no playing about with that either.

I also cocked up at the start. I was using a new light meter I’d just bought without giving enough attention to how it worked. So the first couple of frames may be underexposed. I may have to stand-develop the film to recover those without blowing the rest.

Another aspect to the challenge is that thing about doing it all on a single roll of film. If I was going to shoot pictures on the theme of something wet, for example, I would go to a place and take several pictures. But this is one shot. I suppose I could go to the place anyway and take the challenge camera with me, then decide at the time which scene to commit to film. But I would prefer to think about the theme and take just the one shot. It feels more in keeping with the idea of the challenge, especially as I will be taking the pictures around where I live as I emerge blinking into the light after lockdown.

Taking only one shot of each subject is a challenge too. Like most people I would normally develop an idea. I’d take a picture, then reframe it or change the exposure, or maybe alter the depth of field. But this is one shot: what I shot is what I got.

So what did I do? I carried a copy of the list around with me and thought about what the next subject could be. If I hadn’t got the challenge camera with me I went back to shoot my single frame.

For anyone that didn’t follow the link above, this is the challenge list:

How did I do? Well, the original plan was to shoot the whole role, develop and scan it and then put the pictures up here. But I am conscious that it is taking me time and that if you wanted to have a go, all I am adding is delay. I will therefore post this as it stands and then come back to it later when I have my photos to show.

It also gives me time to think about what I want each item to mean. “Wooden” for example – something made of wood is easy; a bad actor would be harder.

Have a go.

Found versus made

Do you make pictures or find them? I usually find them: I take a camera for a walk and take pictures of what I see. I rarely build a picture from an idea. Someone doing advertising or product photography probably builds more than finds – they have to create a story around a subject. That might the definition of professional photography – that the photographer is able to make a story around a subject to match their brief or their intention. That, and getting paid for it.

I have done this (not getting paid, making a picture) – I wanted to take a picture of a friend’s business which was in a narrow street, and I wanted glancing light across the front. So I worked out when the sun would shine down the street at the right angle and turned up with a swing lens that would let me blur the buildings at either side. But the rest of the time I just snap what I see.

What got me thinking about this? An interview with Lottie Davies. She was talking about the result of several years’ work to make an exhibition and book called Quinn. It is an immersive story with pictures of the subject travelling through the country. The person Quinn did not exist and the tale is a story. But the pictures tell the story. This is about the best example I have of made. Every detail of this story was imagined and then created.

The opposite might be Henri Cartier-Bresson, the ultimate street photographer who took pictures that he found rather than made. Except he too saw a scene and waited for the right person or people to be in it and in the right place. But he didn’t direct them and his pictures are of what happened in that moment.

I suppose the distinction doesn’t really mean anything, as we all do both. It did help me appreciate the craft that went into something like Quinn though, and it will make me think that I should perhaps put more effort into making rather than accepting what is or hoping it was different.

What are you looking at?

When you go out, what do you look at? Probably your phone. If you’re out with a camera, what do you look at? Is it the thing you came to take pictures of, or other things (or your phone)?

It can be boring walking around with a camera hoping something will turn up. When it does, it’s often the same old stuff, shot in the same old ways.

So how do you get to (or back to) a state of wonder where everything is unusual? Because if you look with curiosity the world is fascinating.

That might be the answer. I’m a curious person, in both senses. I want to know how everything works. Except people of course, as my wife points out. Which is fine by the way – we compliment each other’s weak spots. But I do seem to spend my time when we’re out going ‘ooh, what’s that?’. What it leads to is me looking everywhere but where I’m going. Which is also fine, by the way – I still manage to dodge the things I shouldn’t step in.

Anyway, the point of this is to ask if it’s possible to develop that curiosity to see things that could be pictures. Or if you want to – I’m not saying this is a good thing and I’m certainly no paragon. But it can be fun. If you have ever had to wander around streets of shops (we will get to do this again, I’m sure) there is more to see than what’s in the windows.

Try looking up. Lots of buildings are older than the shop they contain and the clues are above the shopfront.

Sometimes you have to pretend to be an alien. If you didn’t know what a thing was, what could it be? A book that is very good for this is POET – the psychology of everyday things. It studies the assumptions that are built into objects. Like a door with a big loop handle that you have to push, not pull. (And then go and read my rant about poor design assumptions). But in this case it’s a way of looking at the world around you.

Someone installed a pylon upside-down

So it makes you think about why the things you see look the way they do. Who decided to do it that way, and why?

How would you have spaced the words?

Sometimes the alien says ‘how did that get to be there?’ Rather than just assuming that it is. This is the same thing that so annoyed my mum – she bought a film and lent me the family camera for a school trip to France and I came home with pictures of bins.

I do remember how much I enjoyed one aspect of geography at school, and that was being given a map and asked to work out why a town or village came to be where it is. It was usually down to paths and rivers, transport and raw materials. One way of recreating that interest, and another book recommendation, is to have a look at some Gooleys.

Sometimes weird stuff happens

But sometimes the weird stuff is just there for the looking.

So next time you’re out, be more alien.

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.

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.

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…

Should photography be easy?

Do we make a thing less valuable by making it easier?

Photography used to be hard; and then Kodak happened. What once took study became ‘you press the button, we do the rest’. The first Kodak cameras had 100 shots on the roll too – we’re talking digital levels of bangin’ ’em off. Kodak democratised photography and made the casual snap possible.

We stumbled along with folding and plastic cameras for a while. Then the rangefinder and the SLR came along. Things got technically complicated and photographs were taken by photographers. The cameras had all sorts of settings and you had to know what to do to make them work properly. There was good money in it though – Bailey made enough to run a Ferrari.

The reaction was point and shoots and the Instamatic. Either no settings or automatic. You didn’t have to know how to work a camera to be able to take a picture.

And so the waves of development rolled in, with simple following clever. Features were added, then automated. What started as complex became easier. Light metering, then automatic exposure, then autofocus. Film turned into cartridges or the camera loaded and wound-on itself.

Talent still counted: all the automation in the world couldn’t help people take good photos. But it became easier to take a picture that was well exposed and in focus, and for the results to be mostly pleasing. But the circulation of a picture was still limited to the people you could physically meet, unless you were one of the few.

The a couple of things happened. The first was the mobile phone. Suddenly, nobody needed a camera let alone film developing or printing. Photography was democratised again – anyone could do it, there were no constraints on capacity and you could see the results immediately. The quality may have been low to begin with but it was good enough and got better.

Then social media happened and suddenly we were all syndicated worldwide. You didn’t have to work for a magazine or newspaper to be seen, you just had to be seen. Upload a picture, get likes, get the endorphin rush. Rinse and repeat. What used to take dedication, craft or understanding could be replaced by novelty and desire. Being somewhere, doing something, looking special – the pictures sparked envy and emulation. Because, like a lot of things, fame followed a power law, with a few famous or popular influencers and a long tail of the rest of us.

But the price of entry was lower. Cameras, including mobile phones, were so good that skill was replaced with presence: you only had to be there. So there became important. You can see this in the rush of people to visit the spots recorded by influencers. Someone recently posted about an old wartime bomber wreck. The police then had to ask people to not park on the road, not get lost, and if they did call them or the Mountain Rescue to at least call them again if they found their own way down. And please don’t take souvenirs – it’s a war grave.

There was a similar discussion around Ben Nevis a while back. It starts near sea level but it’s high and cold on the top and it’s easy to walk off the edge. So in 2009 the cairns were moved to mark the descent route and avoid a gully. The advice has always been to be properly equipped and to know how to navigate, but now we have the equivalent of automation.

So the camera (or phone) needs no investment of skill to operate. Being seen by other people is just a matter of posting things that enough people will like, but the liking is ephemeral and has to be repeated. Not that the majority of people are like this. Most of us are happy to have a simple method to take a snap and share it with friends. Ultimately, nobody really wants to invest in or learn to use a drill when they can just get the hole.

Does automation and the removal of craft skill bother me? Not at all. I love the idea that everyone can take a snap at the very instant. These moments are precious.

Do I mind that people are shooting weddings or cinematic films on iPhones? No, go ahead. What has always and ever mattered is what the resulting film looks like, and nobody cares what you shot it on.

Do I fret that someone with a modern digital camera can take fantastic pictures without knowing anything about photography? Again, no. The technical things I have learned allow me to shoot with dodgy old manual cameras, which is my hobby. I use the digital kit and all the automation I can get when the results are important. I like to think that my understanding of how it all works helps me get better results more often. But I still know that someone with better kit will often get better results than me, most often when things like lots of megapixels or high ISO make a difference.

I could have looked-up that it would be 2EV, or I could have got out and metered it, but I put my phone on night mode. Bite me.

So what’s the point of this rambling grumble? It’s the bit I don’t like: the social media frenzy to chase likes and gain followers. And yet I write a blog. To be honest (with both my readers), I write because I enjoy writing. It’s a challenge to come up with new ideas each week. It’s interesting to string thoughts together and ask myself if what I am saying is what I mean. I’m delighted if someone reads them, but that is not the thing that drives me. So I attempt to sidestep hypocrisy by making a virtue of my obscurity. But I don’t splurge pictures on social media – I like using them to illustrate a story or using words to describe a picture. Holier than thou? Not really. If I was to blitz Instagram with images it would feel to me a bit like something that was automatic and outside my control. By writing this blog it feels more like having to understand what I’m doing.

Your mileage may vary, as they say, and I am far from being an influencer. Or even understanding what I’m doing.

I don’t believe you make something less valuable by making it easier, if the value is in the thing and not in the learning. I do believe we destroy value when we try to copy or compete, though.

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