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Taking me up the alley

I live near York, or perhaps we should call it Old York or York Original? Anyway, it’s a medieval city that, due to arguments over ownership, kept its stone walls and gates instead of using them as building materials. Quick diversion – local humour: ‘welcome to York where the roads are gates, the gates are bars and the bars are pubs’. And it was the latter that drew me here on this day: we were taking part in a pub crawl. In particular, we were crawling the pubs using York’s alleys and passageways, collectively known as snickelways, a combination of three Yorkshire words: snicket, ginnel and alleyway. Take a camera, I thought, it will look interesting and what could possibly go wrong?

Nine pubs, for a start. Better plan to imbibe just a half in each one unless I fancied sleeping in one of those alleys. Pickled in a snickel. Not as cute as it sounds.

Thankfully nobody coming the other way

And which camera? Do I go splashproof or widest-angle lens? Or just something small and light? I could really do with a wide-angle lens in the tight passages and my digital compacts stop at a 35mm equivalent (54 degrees). I could take an SLR with my 15mm lens but do I want to carry it? How about my Espio, as it has a 28mm lens? I could load it with some Delta 3200 and develop that in 510 Pyro. The Espio recognises DX coding for ISO up to 3200, so that works. And of course I’ll throw my Canon digital compact in the bag for colour shots and the ability to stretch my ISO if needed. The die is cast.

Now, as we all know, in theory, theory and practice are the same, but in practice the difference between theory and practice is greater than theory predicts. (Try saying that at the end of the pub crawl). So how did I get on?

Well, the first thing was that I’d not shot the Espio for a while but I had been using the Canon digital compact. So each time I went to use the Espio I held it out in front of me and looked at the back. Then I did a puzzled face, as there was no screen on the camera. I was definitely right to bring a compact rather than an SLR though, as speed of use and ease of carry were important. There was even space in my small bag for a bottle of water, to drink between beers to be sure I could find my bus home later.

Diving up the back passages was by far the best way to get between pubs. York gets busy on a Saturday night, even when it’s raining. But most people stay on the main streets, so slipping down a snicket was like a private bypass. Some of the back ways were no more than shoulder width, which would have been interesting if anyone had come the other way. Our host and guide produces the definitive map to all the pubs (128 so far) and he had produced the route and plan for this event. It couldn’t have been easier, which is just as well when there are a dozen of us, with a bit of a glow on and distracted by the sights or lost in chat and not paying attention. Herding cats is easier, as you can use gaffer tape.

Gritty

The camera /film /developer combination was not that good, though. It looks like the Espio was underexposing the film. Where the lighting was even, the film had plenty of detail amongst the grain. The shots taken in the dark though, where the lighting was uneven, had featureless shadows. Perhaps it’s the film – I know the camera was working ok from previous shots. The development should have been ok – I was using 510-Pyro and it has worked well for everything else. My money is on the camera doing a bad job of metering when there are a few bright lights and a lot of dark space. The Canon G9 though, worked just fine. It’s a good workhorse. But I think the Espio could be leaving me. It’s not that compact and my Olympus XA seems to do a better job of metering. Film is getting expensive, so I need to use cameras that handle it well. Perhaps I’ll give the Espio a last chance to do what it was really meant for, and shoot some colour negative film with fill-in flash.

The irregulars

On the other hand, the negatives look better than the scans. I’m sure I have one of those slide copier things somewhere around. It’s a lens in a tube with a slide and negative mount on the end. Mount it on the camera and you have a device for making 1:1 copies. If I can find it I will have a go at making digital photo copies of the negs to see if the problem is with my (old) film scanner.

Anyway – much fun was had. And a sorry – I just enjoyed the silly innuendos. And in this context, even innuendo sounds like an innuendo.

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Flipping pictures

Not as a pejorative, but actually turning the picture upside-down. Have you ever tried it?

Some work better than others. Reflections in water can be good. In fact they were my first attempts. We’ve all done the picture of something reflected in still water to give the mirror-image effect. But if you crop the picture to only the reflection you get a wavy version of reality. This may not be ‘true’ but it does cause you to think about what you are looking at. It may actually be more true to reality, as well.

I don’t do this often, but I do like the effect. We had a session at the photo club where we each submitted a few pictures and all had a go at editing each others. We then compared and discussed the results. One picture I had a go at was a beach scene with a long sweeping area of water reflecting the sky and some distant people. I admit to cropping it to the reflection and inverting it. The reflection was fairly smooth, so it took a while for anyone to see what I had done. They didn’t like it, of course.

I also put one of my ‘reflective’ pictures into a competition. Again, the judge didn’t like it because they couldn’t see what it was. At least it was sharp, though.

Also, if you shoot more abstract pictures, they can be any way up that looks best.

Removing the normal visual clues leaves the shapes and tones, which is what attracted me in the first place.

So, enjoy. Just as there is no right way to take a photograph, there is no right way up. Take a look at the odd-looking shot here to see another example.

Foul weather

Why did the chicken go out in the rain?

Ok, get your breath back. Do you ever take pictures in bad weather? And not just moist, but bracing?

Some of the late-model film SLRs had pretty good weather sealing, as do quite a few dSLRs. I still can’t bring myself to just let a camera get wet though. Not unless it was meant to.

Other than accidents, my first attempt to use a camera in heavy rain was at a car rally. This is where recognisable road cars hurtle round gravel tracks through forests. Great fun for anyone who likes to combine pebble-dashing with deafness and the chance of being run over. The event started well, and then it rained. I was using an old film SLR. I did my best to shelter the camera inside my jacket between sessions as the cars came through, but taking pictures meant holding the camera to my eye. It got pretty wet. The camera and lens went in the airing cupboard for a week when I got home and seemed to recover.

Lombard Rally

What I lacked at the time (besides sense and a mortgage) was any means of keeping the rain off the camera. I have since invested, ooh, pounds, in a rain cover. It’s basically a camera condom. You could do the same with a bin bag and some tape. The key thing, I have learned, is to put a filter on the lens. This means you can use a microfiber cloth to wipe the rain droplets off without worrying about scratching the lens itself. A deep lens hood is also good. To shelter it better when I’m using the camera I wear a wide-brimmed hat – basically a hands-free umbrella.

The other option I have is to use a compact camera that is either meant to be waterproof or can be put in a housing. The microfiber cloth is again your friend to keep the lens clear. I did pick up a tip from Maria Munn to wipe the lens port with bit of (ocean-friendly) detergent, to stop water beading-up on the glass. Another good reason to use a clear filter on the lens, if you don’t have a housing for the camera. If it was really pouring down I would definitely use a waterproof camera. This means using a compact, which could restrict the lens options or quality. I’m lucky in that my main underwater camera is a Canon G9, so it’s as capable as my older dSLR.

The other good feature of a truly waterproof camera is that it’s also proof against dust and sand. Although, when I did go out on a windswept beach to photograph seals, I had to use a conventional SLR to be able to use my long lenses.

Something you are going to need in the wet is a dry bag to keep your stuff in. I’ve already described my favourite make. Just remember to dry your hands before you open the bag, or there’s no point to it. For places where it’s not raining but you can’t put a bag down – wind-blown sand, for example – I have a clever Lowepro Slingshot rucksack. It has a single shoulder strap and can be slid round to rest horizontally across your belly. The top side of the bag unzips, so you get a shelf to swap lenses on. It’s also pretty good in crowded places that you can put the bag in front of you and avoid battering people.

Cold weather can also be a problem. If the batteries get cold, the camera can fade away. Manual cameras can also drag the shutter or even stop as their lubricants get stiffer. I have seen, but never used, a dummy battery pack with an extension lead. This puts the actual battery inside your jacket but does mean that the camera is tethered to you. For manual cameras I have seen, but again not used, a heat-pack taped to the camera back. One of my old Pentax film cameras has a sleepy shutter when it gets cold. Now that I know about it I use a different camera when it’s icy.

Italian Alps
Sneaking across the border

I have used a manual film SLR in a blizzard, but it was kept inside a down jacket and briefly removed to grab some shots. Not ideal, as I really didn’t want to slip and fall with it on my chest. It was the only way to keep it warm(ish) and dry(ish) though.

The thing to watch out for in the cold though, is coming indoors again. Your cold camera, lenses, cards and film will all get condensation forming on them. Put the whole lot into one or more plastic bags, seal them shut and let the kit warm up in the bags. The condensation will form on the outside of the bag rather than the kit. You should also take care if you are going out into the cold several times. What you don’t want is to come in, get a bit of condensation in or on the camera, and then go out again and have it freeze. You may be better leaving the camera (in a poly bag) in the cold and bringing just the batteries, cards etc into the warm.

I’ve rarely had the pleasure of taking photographs in hot places. I did, when much younger, spend a couple of weeks back-packing in the Middle East. Shade temperatures got up to around 45C. I admit to taking no special precautions for my camera other than not leaving it out in the sun. This last summer in the UK got to 40 degrees, so I’ll probably get the chance to try cooking a camera again.

The actual border

Have fun, but take care.

A sketch pad

This idea came from Grant Scott and Neale James, and it’s to treat your camera as a sketch pad rather than every shot being a finished and polished masterpiece. This means that photos become captured ideas for future development or (the shame!) simply a record of who you were with and where you were.

This is easy with digital but was harder and more expensive when I used film exclusively. With the marginal cost of a digital picture being effectively zero, why not grab pictures of things that are interesting or have possibility? It can also be an informal record of where you were or what you were doing. If your camera can also capture the location of a picture, you have the easiest method for grabbing something interesting and then finding your way back to the place at a better time or in better light.

This field gets grazing light in the morning

I think this also fits with the idea of journaling. This is keeping a written (and doodled) record of your thoughts and ideas. Ade of the Sunny 16 podcast is doing this. Even I do it. I carry a little notebook that fits in my pocket and one of those little space pens. I’ve also got my favourite little snapshot camera that isn’t much bigger than the notebook. This goes in the pocket or the bag and is part of the leaving the house checklist (keys, wallet, phone, poo bags for dog, camera). The notebook captures stuff for later – ideas, plans, books to read, films to see, even ideas for pictures. The little camera grabs things as they happen – sunrise, newts on the path, details of cameras to use in this blog. The notebook jottings get reviewed and either moved to a collection (books to read), turned into something useful (ideas to try) or deleted (jobs done). Same with the camera – the pictures get moved to the filing system so that I can find them again or deleted if they were a temporary record.

Yes, the notebook is covered with duct tape. Because, well, duct tape.

The benefits are in peace of mind. I forget less, like ideas or references. I remember more, like things that caught my attention. There is another benefit in having the recording tools with you. It’s less stressful than seeing something and having nothing to save it on or with. Turning these things into a habit means that I’ve always got them with me, so I use them.

I was curious about the way the houses appeared to stack

An aside – I’ve also got a notebook for the house. It has a plan with measurements of every room, how much paint or wallpaper it took and the names of the paint. It gets updated when we move and is most excellent for decorating, redecorating or choosing furniture that fits </smug>.

I know a mobile phone can do these tricks, challenging the need to carry a separate notebook or camera. I do find though that the pictures on my phone rarely make the jump to my main picture files so I lose track of what I’ve got. I also find it easier to make notes on paper than in a phone, because I doodle shapes with the words. Or maybe I’m a dinosaur and still can’t work my own TV. Taking written notes does mean though that I can use Easy Script shorthand for speed, compactness and a basic level of privacy.

I need to go back and get a better look

Anyhow, it’s the idea I recommend, not the method. Capturing notes, thoughts and pictures as they arise so that you can reflect on them later is useful. It also breaks the psychological bond that everything you do must be at least good, if not perfect. Unfinished means still flexible and capable of development.

Treasure hunt

I’ve discovered a great way to enjoy my photography, and it wasn’t even my idea. To be fair, most of the ideas in the world aren’t mine either. But back to the point, I joined a photography club a while ago. One of the things they run is a monthly session on a Saturday lasting three hours. Each session is on a type of photography: architecture, portraits, monochrome and so on. After a bit of chat on what the particular thing is, how to get the effect, what to look for, the challenge is on. We have a treasure hunt.

The point of the hunt is not the theory but the practice. We have 45 minutes to produce examples of the brief and bring them back. And therein lies the joy. No faff, no explanations, just results. Better still, results that you share and explain. Each person puts two or three of their pictures onto a laptop and we project them for everyone to see and discuss.

Now, 45 minutes is not long when you are looking for good architectural pictures or monochrome shots. Obviously we know what the subject will be, so it’s possible to prepare. The last two times I had worked out where I was going, that had likely subjects. My little trot round some photogenic sites took me to some places that I’d driven past but never walked. What I had missed was old warehouses and industrial property in shabby decay, trees breaking free of paving, odd alleys and pubs left standing as the single building in a demolished row. Sounds delightful, but it’s the history of this town and of a country where we stopped making things.

I also took a few minutes to experiment. I put a flashgun on the camera and covered it with a blue filter. Then I photographed one of the members in monchrome. The plan was that the blue light would give an ortho effect on his face while leaving the background normal. It kind of worked, in that it did make his skin look darker and more rugged with more prominent veins. It needs more practice though.

The projection of the results is not just a slide show. The person working the laptop loads the pictures into an editing program, so we can all propose changes and see the results immediately. It’s not the sort of fine-tuning you could spend hours doing to one of your own pictures. This is quick and dirty guerrilla pimping. A bit of cropping, play with the exposure, darken or lighten a few areas. Then put the original and the edit side by side. It’s usually the author who suggests the first edits, as they had something in mind when they took the picture. But then someone else will chip-in with a “what if you…” and we get to play.

What I like about this is that we all take different pictures. It’s enlightening to see what other people can see. When we did an architecture theme, the pictures ranged from old to modern, from whole to detail. There were also some pictures that pushed the accepted definition. If architecture is the built environment, then is a railway line architecture?

Wierd, I know. View through a fence.

I’m also eager to get home afterwards. I drop my picture files onto the computer and do some quick edits to capture both what I saw and also what other people saw in them. Now, I don’t know what your hit rate is when you go out with a camera – how many keepers you get. I can go out for the day, take two pictures and be bored with one and hate the other. But the hit rate from a treasure hunt is higher. I think the focus of a deadline and a theme makes me try harder. Subjects I would have previously have looked at and bookmarked for a later day become things I look at with concentration to decide if it fits the brief and could give me a good picture. So, like I said above, I spend 45 minutes doing an intense burst of photography with no interruptions. There is no “that’s interesting but I’m busy right now”; the reason I am here is to take pictures.

So I highly recommend a treasure hunt. It definitely works best with other people, as the sharing and discussion of pictures is really what it’s about. The theme and the deadline are just the method for obtaining a set of pictures to discuss. Having to shoot quickly to a theme is also an excellent way of pushing yourself to try something new.

Quality

Is there a valid distinction between high and low quality photography? I have heard pictures described as low quality, where the meaning was poor technical or image quality. But there are also pictures held up as icons of photography that would be classed as low technical quality. Think of Capa’s D Day pictures, for example.

Poor quality development

Technical quality I can understand. If a lens isn’t sharp or causes colour fringes, it’s not a good lens. If a camera is unreliable, it’s low quality. My Diana camera is low quality. It was made of thin, fragile and poorly-fitting components. I can’t be sure of its results. But it was made to be sold cheaply and still turn a profit, so it is as good as it needed to be. But I have also owned what looked like an expensive wristwatch that had fragile and unreliable working parts. So this had the appearance of quality while turning a larger profit. There are probably a lot of film-based point and shoot cameras that fall into the latter category: they appear to have good features but turned out to be fragile and giving poor results. Our family camera was like this when I was young. The pictures were always off: poorly framed, exposed or focused. I think my mum believed the marketing, that she only had to press the button and Kodak would do the rest. On the other hand the pictures are perfect, because they are the only existing record. So in emotional terms, quality doesn’t matter. But it’s nice to have better pictures if you can get them.

But aside from the technical quality of the camera and the resulting negative or image file, I wonder what other aspect of quality exists? There is good design, of course. Two things can do the same job, but one of them uses materials well or is easier to use. The Olympus Trip was a brilliant design. It simplified the operating controls, blocked being used in low light and had a sharp lens. Perfect for its job.

Poor quality in design

So what’s a poor quality photograph then? Is it one where the technical quality of the image is not overridden by the value of the subject matter? Or where the subject of the picture was not the low-definition rendering, so we feel it should be sharper or better exposed? Do we all agree that Ansel Adam’s landscapes are high quality? They are generally sharp and show a full range of tones. What about Ernst Haas then? His pictures were blurred.

The risk is of going down the rabbit hole on a Zen mission to define quality (although Pirsig sought to balance the romantic and mechanistic viewpoints, of which perhaps more anon.) But to get to the point, perhaps quality is fitness for purpose. So good quality means it does the job expected and is reliable. This would mean that a poor quality photograph is one where the subject matter and the image rendering are at odds. Adams’ sharp depictions of nature fit together well, and so do Haas’ blurred images of motion. A good quality camera or lens would do what you expected, and do it accurately and repeatably. A poor quality camera would be unreliable in operation or results.

This was taken with a poor quality camera

If that’s right, then that explains what a poor quality photograph is: it’s one where the results are worse than they should have been and where that difference was not intended (which excuses the Lomo crowd). Except that you rarely know the intentions of the photographer, which leaves it all open to argument. Rabbit hole, here I come!

What colour is that?

This came about during a walk near fields of ripe barley. I, as you would, asked my partner what colour the barley was. I challenged the first response of ‘wheaty’ and we got to describing what we could see, which seemed to be cream with a hint of pink. Then I realised I could bring the power of digital photography to bear, so I took a picture of the field.

When I got back I loaded the image into Photoshop and blurred it to even-out the range of tones. I then sampled the colour and looked at the RGB coordinates. There is a useful website at e-paint that takes RGB values and finds the best matching paint. Of the easily-available ranges, Johnstone’s had a colour that was a good match.

There is also a website that will give you the RGB values of a named colour. I used this to find the values for British Racing Green to use as a colour tone in a mono picture.

MG

I couldn’t leave it there though, could I? One of our lads was looking at a new flat but really liked the colour in one he had seen on an online estate agent’s website. So we found the picture, sampled the colour and found the paint. Simples.

Interior decorating through the power of photography.

Stretching my exposure triangle

Not the same as stretching Benner’s Box, but my boundaries are now wider. I just bought a more capable camera. And by capable I mean it has a bigger exposure triangle.

What I’m used to is what I grew up with: the common range of shutter speeds, apertures and ISO. Looking at even the best of my kit the shutter speeds might run from 8s to 1/2000 and the apertures from f1.4 to (usually) f22. My ISO options run from say 6 for a very slow film to 3200 for my fastest film or sensor. So let’s say the sides of my available exposure triangle are 13 stops on shutter speed, 11 for sensitivity and 9 stops for aperture.

Then along came digital. So now, with a modern camera, I have more to play with. My shutter speeds now span 19 stops and my sensitivity 14 stops. The aperture range is the same, as the limit at the large number/ small hole end of the scale is the diffraction of light. Perhaps we could stretch to a range of 10 stops if I bought some of these new lenses coming in at f1. Even so, I have a lot more capability to use with this new camera. And even better, it’s in the places I need it. My film cameras get their 11 stops of sensitivity at the low end: they can shoot 6 or 3 ISO film. The digital camera gets its range at the top end with an ISO that goes up to 819,200. That’s far more useful, especially as the shutter will go up to 1/8000 so I can still shoot wide open in bright light, even if the ISO doesn’t go lower than 100.

Of course, being of an inquisitive nature, I had to work out what my old and new exposure triangles looked like. So the older cameras could range within a triangular volume with sides of 13, 11 and 9. The new one has sides of 19, 14 and 9. Similar to a colour space: it’s volume of the shape that gives you the space you can explore. So, using Heron’s formula and a bit of Pythagoras I make the old camera’s volume 644 and the new one’s 1197; nearly double. So we should actually talk about the exposure prism rather than triangle <\pedant>. But here’s a fun game for the family on a rainy day – plot the exposure space of your cameras. The practical side of this is that a film camera only gets a horizontal slice of the prism in use, as you set the ISO by the choice of film and there is not much opportunity to change the ISO on the fly. Sorry – geek diversion ends here – back to the plot.

The three axes at the origin should be at right angles. I bent them to fit better on the paper.

The shake reduction that comes with digital also gives me nearly seven stops of extra exposure space at the slow shutter speed end. No more than that because the world is a rotating sphere, but we knew that.

Why do I need this cleverness? Because I find myself pushing the limits of what my current kit will do. For example, a local band was playing in a pub garden during the early evening. The best camera I have for higher ISO work can do 800 and be pushed to 1600, but the quality suffers.  I was using a convenient post to steady the shot and still getting only 1/30 on shutter speed.

Yes, there is a story behind the band’s name…

I had a go at star photography with my ‘best’ camera and the results were awful. Not that I regularly do the lit-up tent and Milky Way thing, but it would be good if it did work when I was out in the hills and darkness.

Looks like Kendal is on fire

There is also the crop factor. My old camera has an APS-C sensor, so it effectively multiplies the focal length of my old 35mm lenses by 1.5. Very useful for sports and action, less so for wide angle. The old camera also has pretty poor noise at higher ISO, so things used to get a bit tight in dimmer light, with a long lens and a moving subject. The new camera is full frame, or the same size as an old 35mm film frame. So now all my wider lenses will work as they were meant to. The camera also has an option of using just the central part of the sensor to act as though it was APS-C, so I get the equivalent of a 1.5x teleconverter without losing one stop in exposure. (Or I could just crop the picture). What it does mean though is that I can still use my APS-C lenses. I do like a bit of backwards compatibility (and this is not a euphemism). And on that subject, I was delighted to find my 15 year old dedicated flash also works on the new camera.

So, having justified this extravagant purchase to myself, what am I going to use all this expensive cleverness for? After all, I could have bought a Famous Rangefinder for the same money.  Extending my options is the plan. My tilt and shift lenses go back to being mildly wide angle rather than telephoto. My wide angles do what their name suggests. I can start scanning all my medium format negatives (since my flatbed scanner died) at a reasonable level of quality. And I’m off to shoot more pictures of things that go fast in fading light.

Ricercare

I’m puzzled. I worked in IT (that’s reason enough, right there). Not the brainy side where they do development, but the messy side where we fix stuff. So we do a lot of systematic problem-solving, very often under pressure. If you can’t run the payroll on time, people get excited.

Now, I know that nobody ever came to work to use a computer. Well, maybe the code developers did, but they’re special. The rest of us have a job to do. A computer is one of the tools and, like a tool, I don’t have to understand how it works. As a colleague used to say – people don’t want drills, they want holes. But you can’t buy a bag of holes, so you have to use a drill.

This is where the puzzlement comes in. Why do so few people learn how to use the tools? I used to think I knew the answer, but I swapped sides and now I’m not so sure. Let me explain. And I promise I will get around to photography.

First, a small aside. The people in IT who provide support may often know less about what a computer can do than the people asking for help. The reason is that the IT people don’t use their computer to do your job. They know the basics and can fix most problems, but asking the IT guys how to set up running headers that repeat the section title or how to best-fit a curve to data, and they will do exactly what you could: read the Help file.

So this is what I did. Every time I wanted to do something difficult, I copied and adapted examples from Help until it worked. The (previous) scientist in me would use test data so I could check that the results worked. The geek in me wondered why nobody else did this. I also wondered why our organisation would throw people at technology with no training. Or rather they did train, but sporadically and with precise focus on how to do specific tasks.

What broadened my view was changing places. In my (early) retirement I took a part time call-centre job. We have multiple systems in use – many more than when I was a techie. I can use them, but I have no spare time to learn anything more about them. I also have no reason or incentive to do anything more than my assigned task. When something doesn’t work I don’t have the time to dawdle through the (non-existent) help facility. I want it fixed, right now. I also don’t want it changed. The systems are a minor component of what I do, but a major obstacle if they don’t work the way I expect. So now I understand why people hated IT when we rolled-out a change.

So what has this got to do with photography? So how well do you understand your camera? What about your editing software? Or your scanner? Just as we used to get people telling the IT help desk that they wished they knew more about computers (by which they meant how to use computer applications), so I hear people saying they wished they knew how to use their camera/ Lightroom/ scanner etc.

A while back I wrote an article about some aspects of learning. This was about the stages of moving from novice to expert and the false reassurance of feeling competent. While it set out what I had learned from the experts on the shape of the path, it didn’t explain how to make progress along it.

Hence the title of this post.

I have found that reading a manual or delving through menu options are not good ways for me to learn. Like I said, I could learn everything about the drill but what I want is the hole.

What I have found works for me is to try to do one thing, often imitating something I have seen or heard of. So with PhotoShop, for example, I started by removing hairs and scratches from scanned film images. I tried using cloning, but the results were horrible. Then I read about using layers. Then a bit more investigation led me to the healing brush tool. Combining that with a layer gave me a reversible and controllable spotting technique. Hurrah!

Comic
Trying a comic-book effect

I did the same with other effects that took my interest: toning; split toning; dodging and burning and so on. In each case the focus was on learning how to obtain a specific effect rather than memorising the entire manual. Each time I was happy with a process I made notes of the settings and layers I had used in a cookbook of techniques. This way I didn’t need to remember everything – I could look at the contents list for things like smoothing skin or sharpening to find the starting position. And each time I had a go at achieving an effect I could add it to the cookbook. A recent example is the use of texture layers. I went to a talk by the talented EJ Lazenby and saw how she uses texture layers and blending modes to achieve effects. Not a technique I will use every day, but useful to know and handy when needed. Very useful for dropping bad backgrounds in portraits (better would be to see and change the background at the time, but hey…). So I had a go, and fiddled until I got a result I liked. Then added it to the cookbook as a useful tool. I’m basically building myself the mythical bag of holes.

Texture
Trying the use of a texture overlay

What I am also doing (I realised, eventually) is breaking down the learning of a large area of knowledge into small steps that I am motivated to investigate and that reward me with results at each stage. To mangle another metaphor, I’m not trying to eat the whole elephant in one go. Instead I am serving an elephant-based buffet comprising elephant three ways, joues d’éléphant and a surprise pudding (of elephant). I still have no idea what PhotoShop is fully capable of, but if I see an interesting result I will learn how to obtain it. It also reduces stress. I am not fretting that I don’t know the whole of PhotoShop as I have a set of things I can do and a method for adding to the set based on interest or need.

It’s the same information-bloat with cameras. They are now so capable and feature-rich that I don’t imagine anyone knows or uses their full functionality. There is an example here of the full set of menu options on a modern camera. You can’t memorise this stuff. What you have to do is try one thing, say HDR, and see what works and what you like. Most digital cameras have one or more user or custom settings that remember a set of options. My Canon has one user mode saved that lets me shoot in mono (like a real camera) and a second mode for underwater. And I can always flick it back to program or manual if needed.

So rather than try to map the entire territory, I have explored paths that looked interesting and then left breadcrumbs so that I can find them again. Perhaps you have seen the film Jumper? The cool kids can travel instantly, but only to places they have seen in real life. I too have found my way to some useful results so I can jump to them any time I need them. The gaps between the end points remain undiscovered, unless I need something new.

Scott Redding, Marc VDS Team, Silverstone, June 2011
This was a more subtle use of several methods to improve the shadow detail

So, my sincere apologies to anyone trying to just get a job done. I am now in the same position at work and I just want stuff to work without effort. But for things that are optional, done for fun or to get a specific outcome, may I recommend trying small steps, with each one focused on getting a specific result? Don’t try to learn PhotoShop, learn how to darken a sky or level a horizon and then go from there.

And, as they used to say on Blue Peter, here’s one I made earlier:

Learning like this works for me. I hope you find it useful.

PS – why Ricercare? Because GEB.

What are the rules?

With full credit to the song from “it’s always sunny in Philadelphia”.

So, what are the rules?

  1. Sharp is better
  2. Boring subjects are made better by good technique (but see rule 6)
  3. Better cameras make better pictures
  4. Wider lens apertures are better
  5. Expensive lenses are best
  6. Bad technique is better (Lomo)
  7. More pixels = more better
  8. You have to really understand 18% grey
  9. Bokeh makes the picture
  10. If you don’t understand, you’re stupid
  11. You need the same camera as them
  12. Old lenses are better
  13. This number is unlucky
  14. You can guess the exposure
  15. You will work for exposure (the other kind)
  16. The past is not relevant
  17. If you had a Leica and a Rolleiflex, you would be perfect
  18. All women naturally stand around in poses like they do in photographs
  19. Shooting film slows me down
  20. Real photographers shoot in manual
  21. Tripods are for HG Wells
  22. I could have taken a better picture than that
  23. I don’t need to ask anyone for permission
  24. You want me to explain that to you
  25. Mirrorless is the best
  26. Film has a special look
  27. Street photography needs a rangefinder
  28. You should start a podcast
  29. Instagram will bring you fame and money
  30. Thirds are the secret of composition
  31. You should learn more about cameras
  32. Taking pictures of graffiti is art
  33. Lenses should be tested
  34. A wedding, or any event, needs thousands of pictures
  35. It’s only serious if it’s in black and white
  36. Make sure the sun is behind you
  37. Everyone loves pictures of wildlife
  38. Almost as much as they love landscapes
  39. Always aim for the highest possible contrast in your picture
  40. “Well seen” is the highest praise possible for your pictures
  41. Everybody wants their picture taken
  42. There is an answer for everything
  43. For more diversity in photography, try a different lens
  44. It’s extra special if you shoot it on an iPhone
  45. Youtube needs you
  46. Expose for the shadows
  47. Petrol stations at night
  48. Taking pictures of poor or homeless people elevates them
  49. The Milky Way and a tent lit from inside
  50. There is only one way to leave your lover

Have I missed any?

37

And in deference to Poe’s Law, I need to make it clear that this post is ironic.

9

Oh, and so is Philadelphia. Just in case.

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