Getting toned

One of the great things about black and white pictures is you can make them any colour you want.

Why would you do that? Well, sometimes it can add to an image. Imagine a picture of an old sportscar, toned in British Racing Green. How about being able to control the subtlety of a sepia tint? How about adding a hint of colour that matches the paint on the walls (or is complementary)? Or toning the highlights in a scene slightly warm and the shadows with a hint of blue?


The last one – toning the highlights differently to the shadows – is split-toning and used to be really difficult using chemicals.

Rather than smelly stuff and plastic trays, you will need somethng like Photoshop: Elements is fine, as is any similar program that will work with layers and blending modes.

Open your base image and change the mode to RGB colour (in case it is set as Greyscale). Then do all the things you would normally do to make it look nice. To change just the shadows, add a new layer above the image that has blending mode Lighten. To tone just the highlights, make the blending mode Darken. Then fill the layer with the colour of your choice and play with the Opacity to tweak the level of toning.

The following set of layers –

Set 2

Produced this picture.

The mighty Nikonos at Wheldrake Woods
The mighty Nikonos at Wheldrake Woods

If you wanted to tone with only a single colour, say for sepia toning, use a single solid colour fill layer above the image with blending mode Colour. If you want sepia, try filling the layer with the settings Red 210, Green 165 and Blue 90. Again, play with the opacity to tune the effect.


So where do you get nice colours from? Or in other words, where do you find the RGB settings for the colour of your choice?

If you have a Pantone colour in mind, there is a website here that gives the RGB values. If you have a named paint in mind, try this one.


Through a glass, darkly.

So I was listening, as one does, to some of those poddy talk-show things. A couple of them mentioned the use of filters in black and white film photography. The discussion came around to what effect filters have and what to use them for. I started by shouting at the radio (I was listening in the car while commuting). Then it migrated to ‘as any ful kno’. Then it changed to my thinking how best to describe what filters do. This is that description. You may prefer that I stayed the silent fool.

Let’s get colour out of the way first. If you avoid the use of those awful Cokin filters of yore (you thought a tobacco graduate was a university-leaver making a poor career choice?), you are left with two basic filters: neutral density and polarising.

Tobacco graduate - what was I thinking?

ND filters will let you either use long exposures for those creamy moving water shots or, in graduated form, hold back a bright sky to give the foreground a chance.

Polarisers can take reflections off glass and water, darken some areas of the sky and increase contrast. Here endeth the colour filters.

Black and white is capable of much more manipulation. The basic idea is that a coloured filter lightens its own tone on the negative and darkens the complimentary (meaning opposite) colour. “Fine” you may think “but what’s the opposite of green?”. Strictly it’s magenta, but you can vary between blue and red to get the exact effect you want.

There is a very good online resource here that describes how colours are grouped and work together and has an interactive colour-picker to let you experiment. As an aside, if you find a colour you like, it gives you the RGB values for it, which you can use in Photoshop to tone an image. Perhaps a subject for a future post.

Traditionally, anyone shooting landscapes on mono film used a yellow filter. Yellow darkens the appearance of blue, so makes the skies darker and the clouds stand out more. The haze you see over distant objects is also blue, so a yellow filter cuts through this a bit and makes the scene look a bit clearer.

This works for all colours, but there is a little complication that stops the story ending right here – colour sensitivity.

The makers of black and white film had to work hard over many years to make it sensitive to all of the visible colours of light. The first films were really only sensitive to blue and were known as Orthochromatic. Since they can’t really ‘see’ red, they can be developed under a safelight. Most photographic enlarging paper is orthochromatic. Being only sensitive to blue doesn’t matter, as the subject has already been converted to black and white on the negative. There is a real benefit in being able to see what you are doing in the darkroom (or the ‘red room’ as watchers of Stranger Things are calling it).

Gradually the manufacturers added sensitivity to green and red, giving us modern Panchromatic film that can see the full visible spectrum.

You can see the difference in portraits taken on old and new film. The old Ortho film darkened skin and lips and struggled to render skies as anything but white. And note – there is no point in putting a red filter on a camera using Ortho film – it would only have the effect of a fairly strong neutral density filter. On the other hand, if you want to recreate the old Ortho look in a scene or portrait, use a blue filter on a modern Panchromatic film.

The fun comes in that, in adding sensitivity to red light, some films strayed over the line (bad films!) into the infrared. Using a strong red filter on these films can give the effect of using specialised infrared film. This renders blue skies as black, cuts through any atmospheric haze and can render leaves and grass as white. This is because the chlorophyll reflects infrared quite strongly. So a red filter, that you might have expected to make green go very dark, can actually cause it to go white. It depends on the film though, and on the amount and direction of sunlight.

So where does this take us with filters? Filters lighten their own colour and darken the opposite colour, within the constraints of what the film is capable of seeing. A red filter will darken grass and blue skies, lighten brickwork and make pale skin paler. A red or orange filter can subdue the appearance of freckles on pale skin. A green filter will darken blue skies but also lighten grass and leaves and darken brickwork.

You can see how filters treat colours differently if you have a copy of Photoshop or Elements that can do layers. Open a colour picture in the application. Add a new layer above the image – make it a hue/saturation adjustment layer and make the blending mode Colour (or Color). Name it Filter.

Make a second hue/saturation adjustment layer on top of this one and name it Film. Double-click the layer thumbnail and drag the saturation slider to -100. This will turn the image to black and white. The layers should look like the picture below.


Go back to the Filter layer and double-click the layer thumbnail and drag the Hue slider from side to side. What you are doing is seeing how a black and white film renders a colourful scene through various colours of filter.


The picture above shows what you can do. The original image is top left. The other images are various twekas of the Filter settings. The weird image bottom right is what the colours look like in my favourite settings, with the mono-conversion layer switched off. You may just prefer this anyway.

It’s worth a play, as you may find a setting that gives you a really sharp tonal separation in what would have been a blur of blending greys.

Actually, there is one more thing you can do with colour film or digital and filters and it involves flash. Put a blue filter over the lens and a yellow filter over the flash. Shoot portraits close enough to be flash-lit. The background will go a deep evening blue. This is how to shoot day-for-night.


Try it, and try the mono filters thing too.

Catting logs

One of the benefits of digital picture files is that you can embed information in them or use tools to make them searchable. Looking for that picture of a smiling seal you took – who knows when? All the software tools exist to find it, and all the other pictures that are similar. Simples.

What do you do with physical objects though, like negatives and slides? Fine if you scan and label them all, but over years of shooting you could be looking at pterodactyls of storage and months of boring filing.

When I was young and had more time than money, I started a card filing system. I would make a contact print of my negatives and then add the film reference number to each relevant subject card. I could go to my Seals card and find the references, then pull the matching negative sleeves from their ring binders and eyeball them to find the one I wanted. This rigour and discipline lasted maybe four years. What killed it was when time got shorter (university) and the rate of taking pictures exceeded the time I was willing to put down my books (ho ho – beer, more like) to do filing.

That lasted a fair bit longer than four years, as both time and money reduced to zero.

Then, one day, I bought a scanner.

That started a craze of poring through negative sheets and slide boxes and scanning things that took my fancy. Which, obviously, all ended up in random folders without any identifying information. And I still hadn’t the time or inclination to scan every frame and log them.

What I did eventually do is take myself in hand (insert a Kenneth Williams ‘ooh!’ here).

This was mainly because I bought some proper negative filing sheets to let me move stuff from envelopes to proper A4 sheets. This made them visible. So my next trick was to drop a complete sleeve of negatives on my lightbox and take a digital picture. Same with slides: arrange into a rectangle and shoot.

So the random and invisible pictures became a set of named folders, each containing the digital equivalent of a contact sheet. And still no way of finding the smiling seal.

The final step was to add a plain text file in each folder, with the same name as the contact sheet and the folder itself, containing a description of the pictures. Basically, a simple list of what is on the negatives or slides, whether it’s good or bad, film type, development notes, location – all that jazz.

And the big question on everyone’s lips is “fine, but how do you find that picture of a smiling seal?”. Every set of pictures gets its own folder on the hard drive. The folder is named for the date of shooting in YYYY MM DD format so that they sort in date order. The folder will also probably have the main location or activity added after the date. This makes it quick to find the main home of a set of pictures, or if I have been to the same place or shot the same thing several times, I can find the occasion I am looking for. If I need to do a better search than that, I fire-up a search utility (Agent Ransack, but other products are available). This will zip through the text files in each folder and find things like ‘smile NEAR seal’.

It’s a lazy-arse and simple method, but it works for me.


Making a card rangefinder

I have referred to this a few times, with links out to pages on t’interweb where these things are spoken of. The drawback is that the web resources seem to use maths, when what we want is simplicity. So here’s my version.

What you need is a bit of card (I know, the title was a spoiler). Anything from credit card to an index card will do (ask your parents what a card index was). The main thing is that the card has one good right-angled corner. You also need a tape measure and a second scrap of card or paper.

Find a nice vertical line – a door frame or the edge of a wall. Measure a distance of say six feet from it and stand facing the target line with your toes at the distance mark. I say feet, but you might also measure the distance in meters. Use whatever units your camera lens is marked in.

Hold the card out in one hand at arm’s length. Choose the hand you will be using when you do this for real with a camera. If you are likely to be holding the camera in your right hand and using the rangefinder in your left, then hold it out in your left hand. Let’s assume you will be using your left hand. Close your left eye and line-up the edge of the card with the vertical target. Without moving the card, close your right eye and open the the left. Hopefully the vertical target will appear to move along the card, away from the edge that was originally lined-up. If it moves the wrong way, swap eyes.

That second scrap of paper is used to mark where the vertical edge appears to move to. Pinch it against the main rangefinder card and slide it sideways until your distant mark appears to consistently move to the same place. Keeping the rangefinder card and the scrap of paper pinched together, mark on the rangefinder card a line for that distance. In this example, six feet. Change the distance and repeat.

Card rangefinder
Left picture is what you see with your right eye open. Right picture is with left eye open – mark the measured distance where the yellow card joins the white one.

You can now throw away the scrap of paper and keep the rangefinder. You have built a rangefinder that works for you and your eyes and will measure close distances with enough accuracy to focus lenses using their marked distance scale.

Here’s one I made earlier. Marked in meters and made to be held in the right hand (which is why the distances come in from the left).

Go ahead and make copies of the card so that you can keep one with each camera. Laminate them. Print the scale on the back of your business cards. Get the lines tattooed on your finger or mark them with a pen before you go out.

The only time you will need to change the card is if the length of your arm changes, or the distance between your eyes. Or you decide to become a pirate.

Automatic for the people?

Imagine the shame – someone at the photo club noticed that my camera was set to Program mode. Even worse than being drummed out of the Brownies would be to be stripped of your spot-meter and have the covers torn off your copy of The Negative.

I know someone who has a very capable full-frame digital camera and always shoots in manual. Yes, I can see the point when the lighting is tricky or you are after a particular effect that would fool the meter (rather, the computer), but is there an acceptable level of assistance? Do real men twist their knobs?

What about aperture priority, where you take control of the depth of field but let the camera choose the shutter speed? Or shutter priority, where your choice of shutter speed is important? A lot of old manual cameras were probably used as virtual shutter priority: you would pick a shutter speed and leave it, as changing it meant taking the camera away from your eye and fiddling. So you would raise the camera, twist the aperture ring until the meter said go, and take the shot. That’s shutter priority using you as the actuator.

The reason that the camera-makers developed and sold automation was the delivery of the original Kodak promise: ‘you press the button, we do the rest’. Adding automation to a camera made it more likely that the results would be acceptable. And acceptable meant what what most people wanted – reasonably sharp and exposed. Most people wanted pictures, not cameras. Hence the rise of the point-and-shoot and the supremacy of the mobile phone.

So program mode was perfect for someone who wanted the potential for greater quality from a better camera without having to fiddle with the settings. Fiddling would mean less chance of getting an acceptable picture, negating the advantage of a better lens or bigger sensor. Automation also means speed and coping with changing conditions. I’ve been out in changeable weather with a manual camera, and it can be a pain to have to constantly check the light level. Really, this is what (many) digital cameras excel at: take a test shot, chimp it, apply a bit of exposure compensation if needed, then blaze away with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.

Prog mode
The work of the devil?

And then there is autofocus. We all use it, but pretend it’s not automation. Of course it replaces something that the whole of camera design was meant to make easy, but it’s just so durn useful. When you throw facial identification and follow-focus at sports or kids, it beats twisting your ring. And let’s be honest, if rapid manual focusing was so easy, the street-shooters wouldn’t all be using zone focusing.

What about image stabilisation? Yes, we know that Eisenstadt could hand-hold on the subway at 1/20th second. I’d love to see those contact sheets though – I don’t expect every frame was sharp. I LOVE having stabilisation on my digital camera, particularly as it works with any lens. I don’t even think of it as automation – it’s not replacing my finely-honed skills. Not really. Besides, nobody can see that I’m using it.

There is a more serious problem though, than the ridicule of my peers, and we have seen it already in artificial intelligence. Once an AI is trained and produces good results, we either forget or we don’t know how it works. And then it stops being accurate or it has an inbuilt bias, and we can’t tell or correct it: we just do what it says. The AI does magic and becomes a god, and we perform strange rituals to it (like peering at the back of the camera and chanting ‘ooh’). So perhaps there is some logic in knowing how to do it by hand? Even Lewis Dartnell’s book on rebooting civilisation from scratch had a section on recreating photography.

And anyway, what about light meters? Unless you guess the exposure, you are relying on at least some form of automation.

So where does this take us? There is no shame in automation. It is a tool that can increase your success rate. One should never be dependant on any particular tool existing, but there is no harm in using it well when it does exist. In a phrase used by an old friend “always use the most powerful tool for the job”. Automation can increase your options. But do learn how and why stuff works, it could save you from the cooking pot come the apocalypse.

A thing of beauty is a joy for a fortnight

My mum gave me a carrier bag full of old negatives. These were an unknown collection of formats ranging from neat sets still in their Boot’s envelopes to individual bits of film. And the great thing is that they are all still usable. Scratches aside, I can get an image off all of them.

Imagine if my mum had given me the family collection of floppy disks, or Zip drives, or even VHS tapes. The quality would be undimmed (mostly) but could be beyond retrieval. Give it a few more years and both CDs and DVDs will have lost the means to read them. I work in IT and I’m old enough to remember people using 8″ floppy disks. That’s within my working lifetime. Some of the negatives my mum gave me predate me as a person. If you want another example, look at the BBC Domesday project from 1986. Perfectly preserved and, for most people, irretrievable.

As a result, the best long-term storage for text is still paper or film. Good paper can last a century and microfiche is good for around three. If you want to preserve pictures, then the best methods would be to store negatives or prints. How ironic. Amongst the family pictures were some prints. One was of my great-grandfather, in uniform and posing with great granny. A quick zap on a scanner and we found his regiment using the shape of his badge. We didn’t need the scanner, it was just more convenient to put the image up on the screen to do side-by-side comparisons.

So what’s the outcome? Print your pictures. Give copies away so there is more than one. File your negatives (rather than sandpaper them, as some of mine appear to be). Then your pictures stand a chance of being a source of joy and wonder to your descendants rather than marketing opportunities for TwitFace.

Are you sitting comfortably?

If you recognise that phrase you could be as old as me, although the programme ran until 1982 so you might equally be a spring chicken.

What’s the story? Or, to poke another meme, “I’ll tell you a story, about Jack a Nory…”.

We, as a species, love story-telling. I believe this because Yuval Noah Harari says so and so do Mssrs Stuart and Cohen in The Science of Discworld II. Their argument is that it was the cohesive power of a shared story that taught us to collaborate across family and tribal borders. It also led to religion, but that’s another story.

So what the Darwin has this got to do with photography? Narrative has power and people look for a story. Even in the absence of an available story, people will make one.

The desire for a compelling tale is so strong that we will choose the embellished story over the plain and more likely one. See Kahnemann and Tversky’s Linda experiment for further details.

The expression of this in photography is when people tell you what they see in an image. I’ve heard photographers talking about people telling them what their picture is about, in terms and directions that were a great surprise to the person who actually made the image.

Fish on grass

So why should you care? Well, your pictures will tell a story whether you like it or not. If you have a particular story in mind, you should either make it very clear or add words. If you do not, the viewer will make their own story, and it may not be the one you intended. If you care, you need to make your story more clear. But if you think of how many times you see an image without a caption or description though,you might believe that the story should be in the image.

You might also think that what matters is not the story you are telling, but that there is potential in the picture for people to make-up their own story. Obviously this doesn’t apply to news photographers, social documentary and so on – these people really do have a story to tell and will work hard to do it. For me though, I can try to add elements to my picture that will lead the viewer to make a story. So I can try to show a relationship, or show someone’s doing something interesting that will make the viewer ask themselves what is going on.

Waiting for the man...

Perhaps this is the second Golden Question – the first was ‘what do I see?’. This one is ‘what does it say?’.

Does every picture have to tell a story? No. But that leads to the third Golden Question of ‘why should I care?’ Which is the realm of landscape photography.