Flow or Force? Which is it to be?

I feel I've hit a creative slump right now. But I know that this is perfectly natural. No one can be 100% creative all of the time, and as with everything, there is aways an ebb and a flow.

Which makes me think about how I deal with my basic happiness in my creative pursuits. Many years ago, any creative slump would have been very unwelcome. I feared it. But I have come to accept and indeed embrace these moments because I now realise that are needed pauses in the creative process. Sometimes these 'slumps' are really periods of growth in their own way; although no work is generated, I'm sure there are things going on in my subconscious. I often feel that there are pauses before something new is to come through.

I have come to know that with creativity, it is best to not ask too much of it. To have expectations is to suppress an energy that has its own path. You can try to steer the river in a different direction but it is wasted energy that will only cause you frustration and delay the inevitable natural course that it is on.

 Finding flow in the landscape Lençóis Maranhenses, Brazil, 2018 Image © Bruce Percy 2018

Finding flow in the landscape
Lençóis Maranhenses, Brazil, 2018
Image © Bruce Percy 2018

One of the biggest problems I see in our modern lives is the need to have immediate resolution. There is a need to fix our problems immediately, a need to know how they will pan out.

I would say ‘not knowing the answer’ is a great place to be. Rather than feeling the unease of not knowing what the outcome will be, I am now aware that when I am at this point: anything is possible, and it's very inspiring to know that there are lots of possibilities.

For me, I have come to realise that ‘trying to know the answer’, is just to force things when they're not ready to be concluded. Creativity as in life, has a way of flowing where it wants to go, and our task is to trust it and become comfortable with uncertainty. Everything has a way of following towards a natural conclusion - in it's own time. To rush it, is to force it and to wreck with natural advancement.

We have to trust. Control is an illusion and it just gets in the way. To trust, we have to surrender and let creativity take us where it feels it must. Indeed, I have found that when I go where life is guiding me, then things tend to go from strength to strength. If it feels good then you can't go wrong with that. If it's moving and flowing, then you're on the right path. If you are constantly hitting barriers or obstacles, then you are most probably forcing it and you should re-evaluate what it is that you're doing. Either it's not right, or the timing is off and you need to wait. I often find that waiting allows things to come forward and show me the way forward *when the time is right*.

Creative anxiety - the feeling you're not getting what you want, or that things aren't happening the way you want them to - is another way of *forcing it*. It is another example of you trying to control things. You have to surrender and let your creativity show you where it wants to go.

Similarly, trying to outdo yourself is not the way forward either. Your creativity naturally fluctuates. Some days we will create bad work, other days we will create good work. This means nothing except that your creativity has an ebb and a flow. So measuring yourself against your last great work is folly.

The key is to listen - when something good comes, we tend to know it, and this is when we run with it. When it’s not working, rather than being dejected or downbeat about it, just know that this period of what feels like 'going nowhere' is more like reconnaissance. You are just surveying, experimenting, testing things out. All good ideas often come when you least expect them, from things that start off as small ideas that lead to big ones. Just don't assume that your less successful work has no point to it: all of your work - either good or bad matters - it all contributes to where you are going, so long as you are willing to let it flow where it wants.

You need to print to Verify your edits

I'm just home from my first printing workshop. We had a great time and as much as workshops are there to teach my participants, I always learn a lot too. No one's learning is ever complete.

At the start of the week I explained to my group that although having a tightly calibrated / profiled monitor that matches what we see in print is something we strive for: it is not ideal. The truth is, that the only way to verify what we have in our files is to print. I am not alone in knowing that even with a highly profiled monitor I can be mislead. It is only the print that is honest: it shows me what is right and also what is wrong. Errors that I did not see on the monitor become evident in the print, and once I return to the monitor to check if they were there also, I see they were there all along.

The great American photographer Charlie Cramer has often said that 'computer monitors have their own reality distortion field. The more you look at them, the more your eye adapts. The only way to see what is really in your file is to print'.  I'd sure love to attend one of Charlie's workshops sometime. He is someone I have heard consistently great things about: he sounds like a great teacher.

The thing about profiling computer monitors is that you can't trust the software. It is always 'aiming for the target you set, but often finding out that it can't reach it'. So when your calibration software says 'your monitor is calibrated', what it is often saying is this; 'I did my best'. There are a few reasons for this: firstly, depending on the monitor hardware, it may have a difficult time trying to reach the white-point and luminance levels you are asking for. I know my old Eizo lost shadow detail when I tried to calibrate it down to 100 candles. It was too low for the monitor.

I use BasICColour's Display 5 software. Below it shows you how 'close' it got to what I was aiming for (known as the delta). You can see that my colorimeter and software got very very close indeed. But this still only means that the software got close to what I aimed for. But you may be aiming for the wrong result......

 BasICColour Display Calibration & Profiling software shows you just how much of a delta there was between what you aimed for, and what you got when you calibrated / profiled. You can see I chose a luminance of 100cdm, and the black point of the monitor can't reach absolute zero, so I've set it to what it's physically capable of reaching (0.26cdm). Even with this report showing me the delta, I still need a verification test proof to compare with my monitor: the only way to confirm your profiling is visually.

BasICColour Display Calibration & Profiling software shows you just how much of a delta there was between what you aimed for, and what you got when you calibrated / profiled. You can see I chose a luminance of 100cdm, and the black point of the monitor can't reach absolute zero, so I've set it to what it's physically capable of reaching (0.26cdm). Even with this report showing me the delta, I still need a verification test proof to compare with my monitor: the only way to confirm your profiling is visually.

You need to have something to verify against. Just because your software says 'I did it!', means nothing. If you are finding that your prints look warmer than your monitor, then you are probably using the wrong white-point setting. To find out what that should be, requires you compare your calibration with a day-light viewing booth. On the image below I have a daylight viewing booth (colour temperature is D50 - 5000K) and to match that, my computer monitor is around 5,800K. Each monitor will vary. Some may be higher in colour temperature while others may be lower. Just because I asked my calibration software to reach D65 (6,500K) means it is only a target it is aiming for. In truth, D65 on a monitor is far to cool.

You can't trust the numbers, only the visual inspection. That means iterating around the profiling / calibration software looking for a white-point that matches a viewing target. Once you find that colour temperature for your monitor, you now have a place to evaluate your prints.

 Even though my monitor is tightly profiled and calibrated to match my GTI viewing booth, I still see errors in the final print that were actually present in the monitor representation. I now feel I still have to learn to 'interpret' what my monitor is telling me, and not to trust it too much.

Even though my monitor is tightly profiled and calibrated to match my GTI viewing booth, I still see errors in the final print that were actually present in the monitor representation. I now feel I still have to learn to 'interpret' what my monitor is telling me, and not to trust it too much.

Once I have my monitor showing a close representation of what is under my viewing booth may I evaluate my prints. And this is where the fun begins: this is when you will find tonal distractions, colour casts and other distractions in the final print that you 'thought' weren't on your monitor. Looking back at your monitor to review, you will find they were there all along. 

The human eye is highly adaptable. One thing I have learned is that my visual system is constantly trying to lie to me. Monitors only get me so far. I have to print to verify what I think is in the file. Even if the calibration and profiling of my monitor closely represents what is on print.

I'd go one step further by adding in what Charlie Cramer has to say about the printing process:

"Poor images can look great on a monitor but will always look bad in print. Whereas great prints always look great on a computer monitor"

Your images aren't complete until you've printed them, and then further optimised them.

You have to print.

Thoughts on 'negative space', the Empty Landscape

Empty landscapes aren’t truly empty. They are governed by the same physical laws that any landscape is bound by. Light affects the surface as it would any landscape, except that subtle tonal variances are more apparent to the human eye. 

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Empty landscapes also remove the temptation to get hung up on the ‘what’ and focus more on the ‘why’. Subject matter is almost secondary, and if present, is there only to support the emotional response brought on by the tonal and luminous qualities of the light. Indeed, subtle tonal variances seem to be the basis for any image-making in empty landscapes. This is what the Altiplano excels at. It offers a fascinating array of minimal landscapes under some of the most beautiful high-altitude light I’ve witnessed. 

However, it does take time to begin to see the subtle tonal variations on offer and to utilise them in one’s own photography. For example, I can forgive anyone who visits the Salar de Uyuni for the first time for assuming that it is just a vast plain of white. To the uninitiated, that is all there is. However, to the experienced photographer who has photographed this place many times, the salt flat provides endless variances of tonal response across its flat surface. So much so, I don’t feel I have truly been able to capture the essence of it because part of its beauty is in the transient nature of the light that plays upon it. 

 Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, Image © 2009, Bruce Percy

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, Image © 2009, Bruce Percy

Making images here is difficult because the human visual system is not capable of seeing true dynamic range. We are essentially blind to gradual tonal variances and often confuse two different areas of a subject as having the same luminance or colour when in fact they differ greatly (have you ever cloned one part of the sky over another area thinking they both exhibit the same tone, only to find they vary greatly?). This begs the question: If our eyes deceive us while reading tones in the landscape then what else are we oblivious to? Quite a lot, I believe. 

But, we can and do learn from empty landscapes. Whereas, busy scenes hide distractions and tonal imperfections because our eye is far too busy absorbing what’s there, empty landscapes are uncompromising in showing us subtle problems once we begin to ‘see’.

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Just like any small problem when magnified, what may be acceptable under other circumstances soon becomes quite glaring and annoying.

As a result of working in empty places, I have become more selective to the kinds of tones I wish to record, and this I believe has pushed my photography and my visual awareness forward. 

If I were to sum up what I think photography is for me, I would say it has been a life-long study of tone and form and of improving my own visual awareness. I started off blind, not really seeing or understanding what was truly before my eyes, often over-complicating my compositions. As a result of this, it has taken me a long time to learn to 'see what is really there', and to reduce my compositions down to their essential elements. 

I believe I understand now that less is often more and, even then, less may be still too much.  Ultimately, I have begun to see, that empty landscapes aren’t really empty at all. 

All my work, is homework

Every image I create, whether I think it's good or bad, contributes to my photographic education. For this very reason I never think that any of my work is a failure: it all contributes in some way.

No matter how good someone thinks they are - the truth is that we are all in photography-school. We will always be learning. Even those we consider masters of the art of photography know this. Indeed, they welcome it. Because they understand that if they are no longer learning then they are no longer growing. And no growth means their art is dead.

The good artist knows that he is always learning, and will always have much to learn. He also knows that creating art isn't about success, it's about the creative journey. There is no room for words like failure or success, it is just a process that they have to do.

I feel a lot of contemporary photographers look for solutions in their tools when they really need to work on themselves more. I'd rather find something that works from the outset, than something that sort-of-works but needs to be worked on later. It's much easier to play with something if it's a great idea than to try to make something out of a poor idea. Looking for solutions in software or technical forums isn't going to help you improve. You need to do the work.

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Weak ideas will never work, no matter how much technology or software is applied to them. If an image has a strong idea behind it, it will be carried along by that. It needs no one's help.

You have to fail in order to learn. You have to get used to accepting that the majority of what you create isn't any good. Look upon it as 'prototypes'. Until we get to where we wanted to go with a piece of work, everything we create on the road to getting it right is a prototype. Not a failure. 

You have to understand that creating bad work is part of the process. And also to understand that even very gifted artists have to create a lot of rubbish in order to find the good stuff. If it was easy to create good work, everyone would be doing it.

Put the work in.Accept that the road will be a long one, but it will be a growing time while you're on it.

I'm very aware that all of my work to date has taken me to the point where I am now. I couldn't have got here without putting all the work in that has led me here. Everything I've done, every bad photo I've made and every successful one has taught me something, and has contributed to me being who I am now. This work has shown me that it's never the tools I need to improve, or the software I need to change. It is my application of them, my skill and experience that needs to grow.

So with that in mind, I'm very aware that all of my work, is homework. Everything I do educates me, and every apparent failure is a valuable lesson, so long as I choose to listen to what it's trying to tell me.

Our work is never finished. Every image we create, whether we think it's good or bad, contributes to our photographic education and our artistic growth, and I think we should revel in the discoveries and surprises of our chosen art form.

slow growth

A few days ago I wrote a very short post about the neuroscientist Susan Rogers. She was the sound engineer for Prince in the 80's and early 90's. In her interview she finishes up by saying:

'slow growth is real growth.
You have to be patient, and you have to go the distance'

 Getting to know a tree, Hokkaido 2018

Getting to know a tree, Hokkaido 2018

Nothing worth pursuing comes easily, and if it does, I would be suspicious of it. You don't create great work by talent alone - there has to be a lot of effort put into it. Likewise, you don't create great work from putting the hours in - you still need talent.

If I were to say what's required, it's dedication, commitment and a sense of drive to pursue what you love. Great work doesn't come from following formulas or templates, nor does it come from using software-plug'ins or reading cheap e-Books that promise to get you there in 10 easy steps. It simply doesn't work that way.

Slow Growth through intimacy

I've learned so much from the places I am so fortunate to visit. I mean, who else has the fortune to go to Iceland twice a year? or Patagonia every year? And yet doing so has taught me so much. I know it's a great privilege to do this, but it has taught me that improving one's own photography comes from developing an intimate knowledge of the places I photograph. This is why I often suggest to students on my workshops to go back to places, if they feel they have a connection with them. That connection is telling them something: namely, that there is potential here, there is work to be done.

Again and again and again

It would be understandable to think that each time you return somewhere, you get to see things in a new way. But as much as I think this is a valid part of learning, it's only one part of the story. For me, what I do learn a lot from, is seeing places in exactly the same way. If I go back to a location each year around the same time or same season, I often find that there is commonality in what I'm seeing. It confirms that places have seasons, that a tree will look a certain way, but rather than it allowing me to think 'If I don't capture it this year, I can always do it next year', it makes me realise that with the same lighting, the same weather conditions, and the same subject, I am forced to find something new there, that doesn't rely on different weather, different light, or the subject being different. Being confronted with the same thing each year, makes me think 'what else can I do here that I haven't done before?'. That is where the real learning comes from.

Going the distance

Working on my photography is like investing money in a fund. You have to be patient. You have to take delight in the subtle changes as the fund slowly grows over time. Photography is not about instant hits. It's not about instant gratification. It's about the long haul. It's about standing where you are in 10 years time and noticing that things have changed. You are now seeing things with a more mature eye. You're more aware of what's before you. And you know, that this couldn't come any other way, than going the distance.

 

Sometimes too much colour, is simply too much

When photographers talk about minimalist images, we often think of compositions where there is lots of space with very simple subjects in the frame. There is a predisposition to thinking more about objects in the frame and one aspect that is often overlooked is that of colour.

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Images can be simpler (or quieter) by being very selective about the colour that is used. As a beginner I would often welcome as much colour as I could to my images. When I started out on this road to producing more simplified images, I think I got a handle on the compositional elements within the frame pretty quickly, but one aspect of my compositions that let me down was my use of colour: I knew that something was wrong or missing, and it took me years to realise that sometimes there was simply too much colour.

Lencois-Maranhenses-2018-(7).jpg

So if you're looking to simplify your photographs, it's not just about visiting minimalist places, or shooting one or two subjects within the frame. It's also about reducing colour, or being more selective on the amount of colour you use in your work.

I do believe that we all have to go through certain learning stages. The first being to reduce the number of subjects within a frame down to a more coherent assemblage that can support a strong composition. This is really the first stage for many of us. The 2nd stage is to work on the tones contained within the photograph : we are now juggling two balls: object placement and tonal relationships between the objects. And the third stage that comes along at some point is our evaluation of colour. As time goes on, we begin to realise that images can become simpler when we reduce or remove certain subjects with certain colours as they overcomplicate the scene. We also understand that sometimes we don't need a lot of colour for the image to work. In my own case, I sometimes feel I create monochrome images in colour. Some are often reduced down to simple colour palettes of one colour using many shades.

But this can only happy when we are ready. And by being ready, I mean that we are now 'able to see'. I think the reason why I have become more comfortable with reducing the colour palette of my photographs is because my awareness of colour has become more acute over time. Where I would once need to have a colour explosion of saturated hues thrown in my face, I now find it too overwhelming. If I'd tried to reduce the colour palette of my work 10 years ago, I wouldn't have been satisfied because I was still very much in love with the deeply saturated image.

You can't force things. You can only be aware of how your tastes and perception of your visual world is changing, and adjust your work accordingly. That's all you can ask for, and by being sensitive to your own aesthetic changes, and applying them to your work - you move forward.

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Tonal Relationships e-Book Part 2 Update

Just a very short post today to update you. I'm around 2/3rds of the way through writing my new ebook, but it's taking some time. I just haven't had much free time over the past year. I am coming up to a quiet spell this June where I will have a few months at home. I'm hoping to have most of the work done on the remainder of the eBook by then. But I just don't want to rush it. If it takes longer, then so be it.

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Curves is, in my view (this is what a blog is about - someone's point of view), the most powerful editing tool available for adjusting tones in a photograph. Your mileage may vary from mine. 

On the surface the Curves tool seems relatively straight forward, but I've learned that many of my workshop participants have a rudimentary understanding of it. The curves-tool is the tool I've been using for 18 years and I'm still learning about it each time I edit. It is a tool that you do not master overnight.

I'm aware that my views may be contentious to many: a lot of people like Lightroom and love it. For me, there is still a wide gap between what Lightroom offers and what Photoshop offers. I do believe that the gap is narrowing with every release of Lightroom, but it still isn't there. Lightroom's tonal adjustment tools are broad, and they don't give you the degree of control I feel is required for very fine editing. Although Photoshop is not an intuitive program, and neither is the curves tool, with some dedication and time applied to it, it is worth the investment for finer tonal editing.

I hope to have the e-Book finished this summer. But it is kind of growing as a project. I'm now thinking I need to have some accompanying videos to go with it, but I will see.

Slow growth is real growth

If you're a regular reader of my blog, then you'll know that I see so many parallels between music and photography and that I'm fascinated by what creativity is. If you're interested in creativity, and how to get better at what you do, then I'd suggest watching Susan Rogers (used to engineer records for Prince) talk about it. She is a neural scientist these days. There is so much wisdom in this interview. A must see.

Let the work dictate its tonal signature

There is a reason why the word 'tone' is used in the world of photography, as well as in the world of music. The photographic-tone has the same function as that of its musical counterpart. In both mediums of music and photography a tones operate the same way: it can exist in its own space, allowing us to perceive it as separate from other tones, or it can be deliberately clustered together with other tones, in the case of music, one sound, or in the case of photography one continuous area of varying tone.

 The darkest tones in this image are mid-tones. I find it interesting that the darker tones - in this case - the mid-grey lines in the image appear much darker than they are because the adjacent tones are much brighter.  I've become more considerate about the range of tones I wish to use on an image by image basis. Not every image requires the same tonal signature and it is a skill as a photographer to find out what signature each photograph needs.

The darkest tones in this image are mid-tones. I find it interesting that the darker tones - in this case - the mid-grey lines in the image appear much darker than they are because the adjacent tones are much brighter.

I've become more considerate about the range of tones I wish to use on an image by image basis. Not every image requires the same tonal signature and it is a skill as a photographer to find out what signature each photograph needs.

In music, when we have tones that compliment each other, they sound pleasing or 'harmonious' and we tend to associate them with feelings of calm. Conversely, when we have several tones that seem to be at odds with each other they can be dis-pleasing or 'dis-harmonious' and this may create tension in the music. The same is true with photographs: tones that work well together are considered harmonious and tend to convey a sense of peace, while tones that don't work well together are dis-harmonious and tend to create tension in the picture.

This in no way to suggests that 'dis-harmonious' tones in a photograph are a bad thing: I often think that good photographs intentionally use degrees of both 'harmonious' and 'dis-harmonious' tones. But the use of them is done in such a way that it works and by doing so, we create contrasts not just in terms of differences between light and dark, but also in terms of areas of the image being at rest with other areas containing tension.

I think it may be easy to make a broad assumption that we should all be aiming to create images that contain harmonious tones only, but the use of tension in a photograph cannot be understated. It is just another way to create contrast when done well.

The problem in all of this, is being able to introduce tension when it's needed, and not as a result of a lack of expertise, or an untrained eye. Many beginners images will often contain areas where the tones do not work and may have unwanted or unintended tension. Applying careful amounts of tension in a photograph I believe, is a skill that only comes after some time. To impart disharmony into a photograph without it being judged as a poor edit or poor compositional choice is a hard one to pull off: there is a great difference between work that contains dis-harmony when it is unintentional, and work that contains dis-harmony as an intention.

 I often see a correlation between the musical octaves of a keyboard and the tones of a photograph.

I often see a correlation between the musical octaves of a keyboard and the tones of a photograph.

Most beginners work suffers from a lack of application of tone. Tonal relationships are often not at the forefront of their compositions or edits. Tones tend to be muddled and confused or less thought out, because the photographer is still working on composition, and for most of us that means 'placement of objects within the frame'. Only composition is much more than that: it is not only the placement of objects within the frame, but also the application of tone and colour. In my own case, I think the use of tone and colour has been something that has become more apparent to me in the last few years of my photography. And that's after almost 20 years of editing and composition. For along while I only saw the objects within the frame and colour and tone were often a welcome but often unconsidered addition to my photographs.

And this is where today's post begins: I've come to realise that each photographer has a tonal-range signature. In other words, we have a tendency to live within a certain range of tones and most of our work is often edited or selected to work within that range.

You may find that one person's work is consistently dark, while another's work always uses the entire range from absolute black to absolute white. Another photographer may always create hi-key soft images: we all have our own pre-disposition towards a certain tonal response in our work. It's based on our own aesthetics: we gravitate to doing what we like, or what we feel most comfortable with.

But we often do it based on what we like, and seldom whether it's what the image is asking for. Applying the same range of tones to all of our images does not work. The same way that applying the same techniques to different subject matter will not always succeed: not every photograph requires the same treatment, and it is a skill for us to 'see' or recognise the tonal range that the body of work is asking to be worked within.

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Each portfolio, or collection of work has its own tonal signature. That tonal signature should not be defined by the photographer, but instead the images should tell you what they need. Each landscape we visit often tells us what tones to use, and our edited work should reflect that, or at the very least be sensitive to it.

Much like certain songs live within certain octaves, so too do photographs tend to require to live within certain tonal ranges. Some may require a deft approach to high key tones, while others may require to use the full tonal range available. The key is in knowing what each image needs, rather than what we wish to force upon them.

We need to step away from our habits. If you are always creating dark images, then you are missing out on the upper tonal ranges that may offer some of your work a new avenue. If you are always creating bright work, then you are also missing out on the depth of what darker tones may do for some of your images. And if you are often creating work that use the full tonal range, as I think many of us do, then you should reconsider that sometimes using narrower tonal ranges can have great benefits and suit the work better.

As I said at the start of this article: we all tend to fall into using certain tonal registers or ranges in our work. We have our habits. Rather than forcing the same usual techniques and tonal habits on your new work, I would suggest you ask it what it needs. Let the work tell you. Often the work has a way of letting you know what it needs, and it's just up to you to develop the skills to listen.

Why you shouldn't set Levels

If you want your files to look like medium format images, then you should try to stay away from the Levels command. Regardless of what tutorials you see out there that say 'set the levels'.

Here is why:

  • The Level's command makes the tonal transitions more sudden, and therefore harder.
  • Tones that had soft graduations become harder as you move the left and right level adjusters towards the middle.
  • You are in effect adding contrast to the image, and that by definition means the tonal responses in your file become more sudden, and therefore harder.
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I only use the Levels command occasionally and never at the beginning of an editing session. It is a blunt tool which applies itself globally, and although is useful for fine-tuning a completed picture where the tonal relationships need to remain intact, is a recipe for disaster if it's used at the beginning of the session.

Indeed, global edits should be shied away from until the very end of your editing sessions, because global edits are lazy edits. I have rarely ever found an image that I can adjust the entire picture with one edit and if I've believed so, it is usually due to an oversight about what is really going on in the picture.

Photographs need to be approached sensitively. You need to work on each individual area that you wish to either bring forward or suppress. Attempting to do this with one global edit won't give you the best results and you'll only nail things down that shouldn't be touched.

If the edit session is just starting out, you need to keep the file as soft as possible, and only introduce depth or contrast in local areas. It is this 'contrast' between soft areas and hard areas, or unedited and edited areas that will give your images the contrasts you seek, whilst retaining smooth tones.

But! you say; 'I wish to make the image more punchy, and make sure I'm using the full tonal range of tones from absolute black to white in my prints. Shouldn't I use the level's for this?'

No. Not every scene you work on requires the full-tonal range approach. Some images may have softer qualities, and don't use the full tonal range available. Consider the images in this post today. If you open them in Photoshop and go around with the Curve Hand-tool and inspect the tones, you won't find any absolute blacks in these. They don't need them, and to have make them more punchy would have killed the tonal response that was present in the scene.

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Globally adding contrast to a picture is to apply the same brush to everything. It's a very blunt way of trying to bring presence to a photograph. It also means you aren't reading the contents of your images or that you understand what is going on in them.

Selectively choose the areas you wish to emphasise, and leave the others alone. Good images have quiet areas as well as loud areas, whereas badly edited images often suffer from everything vying for your attention.

If you wish your images to have more punch to them, the best way to do that is to keep some areas of it soft, so that the more harder areas have something to contrast against. That means using local edits, and it also means individually adding or reducing presence selectively. If you do this correctly, you'll find that your images retain their smooth tonal responses while also having presence. But by starting off by setting the Levels in your picture and therefore making all the tones in the picture harder, you leave yourself no room to manoeuvre and there is no room for your editing session to grow.

Gerhard Richter

I was in Norway last week, visiting a photo-pal. Except that my friend and I came down with a really bad cold and spent most of the week just trying to breathe, as our lungs were a mess.

While I was at my friend's home, he showed me some DVD's. One of them was about Gerhard Richter. I must confess I did not know of him, but I was intrigued. Particularly by his portraits, which look like photographs, except they're made by oils.

So I've just received some books and more DVD's to accompany my recuperation. Here is one of them. I've had a brief look and it's wonderful. So I hope to write a more detailed review later.

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Film Lab Recommendation

I can recommend 'AG Photolab - https://www.onlandscape.co.uk'

I've chosen to write this post today, to help other film photographers. If you are having problems getting good processing done, then I can recommend AG Photolab here in the UK. I'm not doing this because I have any business or financial interest in AG Photolab, and they haven't asked me to write a review either. I am just doing this because I receive emails all the time asking me where i get my processing done, and I have been using this company now for around 5 years, so I feel I have sufficient experience with them to recommend them.

 All my films have been processed by AG Photolab since 2014.

All my films have been processed by AG Photolab since 2014.

I often receive emails from film photographers asking me if I can recommend a processing lab for them. The short story is that good quality processing is becoming harder to come by. Film sales are up, but lab experience is down.

About 5 years ago, I began to notice that many labs weren't producing good results for me and it was becoming a lottery as to what would happen if I sent my films in. I had many films ruined by bad processing. 

This wasn't good enough and so I started to hunt around and ask people for advice. I'm glad I talked to Tim Parkin from On-Landscape magazine as he put me in touch with Matthew Wells company 'AG Photolab' in Birmingham.

I have been using AG Photolab now for around 5 years. The processing has been consistently perfect. No steaks, no strange artefacts in the processing. When I have contacted them about altering my order, or perhaps cutting the films into sections of 3 (for my film scanner tray) they have been very responsive also.

But it's the quality of the processing that has made me stick with them, that and also Matthew Wells (the owner) dedication towards analog film and processing. I've had may conversations with Matthew on the telephone where it's been very clear he is passionate about doing the best processing he can, and has helped me on many occasion with my enquiries.

I know that they can deal with your film processing from overseas if you choose to ship to them. But I would definitely say that if you do - you need to be patient. I find it takes around two weeks to get my films processed and delivered back to me. I take great comfort in this: they have repeatedly stated to me that the reason why it takes so long, is that they don't want to rush things and that they realise that the most important thing to make sure that they keep the quality high.

Should you choose to send film to AG Photolab, I should let you know that they are great at keeping you updated:

1) the first thing that happens is you receive an email from them saying that your films have been received.
2) another email when the films are now being processed
3) and another email when the films are being shipped
4) depending on the carrier you choose, you also get updates on the tracking and where your film is!

Everyone's experiences vary, but I have been recommending AG Photolab to those who ask because they've given me consistency to my processing. Matthew Wells has told me that they often use my transparencies as an example to show other customers because, as he says so himself 'you have a lot of negative space in your images, and that is where you can really see any errors in the processing'. 

AG Photolab - http://www.ag-photolab.co.uk

Portfolio Development Skills

This post originally offered a space on my September portfolio skills workshop.
It has now been filled.

You may have noticed that I'm offering more 'skills development' style workshops over the coming year. Going on location is great, and shooting is fun and that is mostly why I have tours. Workshops on the other hand should be just that - a space where you learn and develop your skills.

Portfolio Skills Development Masterclass
448.00

Image Interpretation Techniques for building cohesive portfolios

September 3 - 8, 2018

Price: £1,495
Deposit: £448

5-Day Photographic Mentoring Workshop
Wester Ross, Scottish Highlands

 

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Shooting is just one part of our workflow. There is also the question of editing, which in my view, is as much of a skill and art as shooting is.

I personally feel I've learned more about my photography and my 'style' during the editing stage than the shooting stage, and would also suggest that the things you learn about your images whilst editing, often bleed back in to your visual skills whilst out in the field. Shooting and editing become symbiotic: one informs the other.

It's one of the reasons why I detest the phrase 'post-process'. Words can influence our attitudes and I believe this phrase just encourages us to think that editing is something we do as an afterthought. As if it is unrelated.

Further, I think the word 'process' encourages us to think of editing as some kind of activity that has no art to it. It's an incredibly creative part of the birth of one's images and I find it a hugely inspiring space to work in..

Well, further to this is the skill of developing one's own style. I believe that most of us don't know if we have one, and I think this is because we aren't really given tools with which to look for it.

One of the best ways to figure out who you are as a photographer, and how best to move forward with your art - is by looking at your work from a 'project' or 'portfolio' basis. Working towards building stronger portfolio's of your work can only lead you to be a stronger photographer.

That is why I've put together the workshop you see listed here. I'm really keen to show others how to recognise themes in their work and build cohesive portfolios, with the aim of helping them become clearer about where they are with their photography and how to make it stronger.

Vanishing Point II

It's often been said that the eye is attracted to the brightest part of the frame. And I have added to this by saying that I think the eye is attracted to the tone that is less like the rest of the picture. So in a bright image, your eye is attracted to the darker tones, and in a dark image your eye is attracted to the brighter tones.

In my image below, I find my eye is pulled right towards the middle of the frame to the darker tones of the curve of the foreground slope and also the thin dark line of the hill.

Fjallabak-Winter-2018.jpg

I've deliberately brightened the edges of the picture: it is in effect an inverse vignette. Can you see it now that I've mentioned it?

As with all good edits, they should touch you in some way without you being consciously aware that anything has been done. You should instantly buy the illusion that is being cast upon you.

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One final note today: I felt there was a danger that everyone would think that these images had no colour in them, that they are just black and white. I've found that some of us are very aware of colour casts and can spot when white snow is really blue-white, or magenta-white, or grey-white. I've chosen to show you the work here now with a white background, as I think it allows you to notice the colours in the pictures more. You should perhaps ask yourself what colour is the snow in each of these images, or in particular, what tint does the whites in each picture have?

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Good Printing means good Editing

Four years ago when I first introduced my Digital Darkroom workshop, it was the least popular thing I offered in my list of workshops. I was personally surprised by this, as I had thought that this kind of workshop would be something a lot of people would be looking for. I was wrong.

It has taken this number of years to establish the course, and now it fills up very quickly each year. I'm glad that photographers have come to realise that editing is a skill that requires as much thought and deliberation as our fieldwork.

"Good edits come from improved visual awareness"

 

Editing isn't about just making the image a little more punchy, neither is it about applying templates to your work to make them look better, and it certainly isn't about trying to fix a bad image. Editing is about working with the tones within the picture, so you can navigate the viewer's eye around the aspects you want them to look at, and to take their eye away from the areas you wish to place in the background.

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Right now, we are living in a period where the emphasis is on shooting. Editing is almost an afterthought. Something that is done afterwards. For some it is an attempt to 'try to make the picture look good', and for the few who have figured it out - they have come to realise that editing is related to what they noticed in the field. Indeed, I often choose locations to make a picture due to their tonal properties - I know they will work well in the edit stage because they have enough tonal separation to work with.

I do not treat the editing stage lightly. I have found it is perhaps the biggest contributor to my 'style'. It is a highly creative space to work in and I will spend hours, if not days and weeks working on a portfolio of new images.

I'd also add;

"Good prints are made from good edits.
And good edits can only be verified by reviewing prints"

 

This is most certainly true. You can't make a good print from a badly edited image, and likewise, you can't make a good edit without printing it to evaluate it. Let me explain.

When I came to preparing my Colourchrome book for publication last year, I printed every single one of the 40 images. I had to do this because it's the only way to confirm to myself that I've got my edits right.
 

"A calibrated and profiled monitor will only get you so far.
I've been fooled many times by seeing colour casts and other problems in the final print that weren't initially obvious on the monitor.
I would go back to see if they were visible on the monitor only to find out they were. I now print to verify that what I'm seeing is true. It's the only way"

 

Even though my monitor is calibrated and profiled to give me the most accurate representation of what's in my files, I still find discrepancies once I print them. This is because the eye is highly adaptable and once we've seen the image on the monitor for a while, we adapt to the monitor's colour and tonal response. For me, I've found that after a while I can't see colour casts. I need to print the work to verify it.

When I find discrepancies in the print, I go back to the monitor to check if those discrepancies are visible there also. They always are. Yet I had not seen them, because my eye had 'adapted' to the monitor the more I looked at it and I've come to realise that there is yet another skill required to 'interpret' what my monitor shows me.

Until I master being able to 'read' my monitor, the only way to 'see' the picture, is to print it out.
 

"We all should print.
It forces us to look again"

 

Prints also force us to take note of the luminosity of the tones in the print. It's only when I print that I notice that I'm not taking advantage of the tonal range available to me. You can of course use the hand widget in the Curves tool to interrogate tones to find out where they reside in the tonal scale. Or even use the LAB mode's Luminosity value in the info palette to show you where the tones really reside, but you still need to print the image out.
 

"Where I once thought something was bright and stood out,
I
'm sometimes confronted with a lacklustre tonal range in print.
The print tells me I haven't gone far enough"

 

It's really a case of learning to interpret what your monitor is telling you. It's very hard to do because our eye adapts to what the monitor shows us and we become blind to what is actually there. 
 

"If you aren't printing: then you aren't getting the most out of your edits.
And ultimately, the images aren't optimised"

 

So you need to print. All photographers should print because it is a vital step in pushing your images to the best they can be.

Printing is also a step in learning to 'see' better, because we are forced to look again, to re-interpret the print and notice how it differs from what we thought you were seeing on our monitor.

My advice is - print, and incorporate it as part of your editing workflow. Printing helps inform your edits and show where you need to tighten up on tones that aren't as bold as you thought they were.

"Did I say you need to print? 
...You need to print!"

The Moon

This video is wonderful. 

I really should get a telescope. I've often wondered why there isn't such a high correlation between astronomers and landscape photographers, for in this video, it conveys the wonder of seeing the moon up close.

Vanishing Point

As I push and push the tonal registers in my edits, I begin to notice that there is a fine area where things are still just about visible, but almost at the point of disappearing. I like to play around with that vanishing point because in doing so, I can hopefully lead the viewer into having to look again, to wonder what is there.

After all, why does everything have to be spelled out for us? Where does the need come from, for this clarity in what we produce?

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Why can't things be implied, left open to interpretation? Isn't there beauty in what has been left unsaid? 

Not knowing can be thrilling, but above all, more interesting to me than an answer, because up until the answer is given, anything is possible. Because when the answer is revealed, any mystique that was present, instantly vanishes.

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The central highlands of Iceland is a space where boundaries become unclear. It's attraction for me is that often times, things aren't spelt out. Definition isn't always high on the agenda, and it's a place where gradual variances in tone can almost be lost in plain sight. What you think you're seeing isn't there because your mind wishes to fill in the empty spaces with 'something'.

Editing images so that the tones are almost at the very edge of becoming nothing (in this case absolute white) but still retaining a hint of colour is something I find fascinating to play with.

Where the dividing line becomes hard to find, your mind goes hunting for it, for your 'must' find a division point, an anchor, something to latch on to.

I ask myself 'why is that so?' Why do we need to have boundaries defined for us? Can't they remain unsolved for us? Where does our compulsion come from, to make sense, to answer all the unsaid aspects of a picture?

Fjallabak-Winter-2018-(5).jpg

So I deliberately edit with the intention of introducing snow-blindness to our view of the photographs. Not knowing where one hill begins and another ends, is the story of these photographs. The central highlands becomes a playground for messing with the viewers visual system and its need to construct, to make sense of what it is seeing.

Fjallabak-Winter-2018-(15).jpg

I'd much rather watch a movie where the story is left with no conclusion, than an film where everything is spelled out and explained to me. Because the film with no proper ending has room for interpretation, for it to become whatever my thoughts make of it.

Because in the agony of not knowing what really happens at the end, we endlessly work on the problem - always looking for meaning. It's certainly a much more interesting way to conclude a film than the tired approach of having to allocate 10 minutes at the end to explaining just what we saw. That kind of film invites us to think we need answers, when instead, there is often beauty in not knowing.

Do it for yourself, do what makes you happy

"You can please some of the people, some of the time,
but you can't please all of the people, all of the time,
so you may as well do what makes you happy"

Take it from me. I've been on the receiving end of a whole spectrum of correspondence and feedback about what I do. It ranges from very encouraging and positive to highly-critical. All of it is good and you just need to remember that any feedback you get is just someone's point of view. They're entitled to it and you are entitled to disregard it if it makes little sense to you.

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If you plan to be a creative person, you will need to be prepared to stand up for your work, and to believe in yourself. Accepting that not everyone is going to like what you do and that someone else's opinion is just that: an opinion and nothing more will help you a lot.

My thoughts about creative confidence come down to these points:

  1. Don't pander to what you think others may like, because you will only get lost as you are torn between one opinion and another.
  2. Following trends only means you are conforming. You may be fitting in, but you won't be standing out either. Creative confidence is all about being an individual and finding your own path.
  3. Don't create your photography looking for kudos, because you will only get lost as you seek others approval. See point 2.
  4. Remember to enjoy what you do, because that joy is a sign that you have tapped into the right kind of creative direction: if it feels good, then you've found your creative-flow and you should run with it and see where it takes you.
  5. Don't be overly critical of yourself because a serious case of 'writers-block' will only ensue. Instead, try to remain grounded and seek honesty with your efforts. All artists create bad work and what separates a good artist from a poor one is the ability to be objective: they aren't scared to see what they've created for what it is, and to work towards excellence in what they do.
  6. Celebrate it when you create something outside your usual parameters; it is surely a sign that you are experimenting or reaching new ground in your own development.
  7. Accept that nothing is a failure: bad photos, images that didn't quite work out teach us so much and besides, art should never be judged as successful or unsuccessful: it just is what it is. We are not here to give marks, to score points. We're here to be expressive.
  8. Above all else: try to trust yourself and your judgement. Take note of when you 'feel' something is right and wrong and act accordingly.

I think the last point is perhaps the biggest one for me: learning to trust yourself, your judgement and your abilities takes confidence. Confidence comes from really knowing yourself and knowing where you are with your art. Good artists are always asking themselves questions about themselves, they are always seeking to grow and are always open to the thought that their art may take them to places they had never imagined: if they are willing to let go of personality traits such as being overly-critical (never happy with what they've done), overly-controlling (expecting a particular outcome), too easily pleased (happy with the usual), then some great art may come their way.

Digital Darkroom & Printing Workshops 2019

Just a short post today, to let you all know that I've published all of my Scottish based workshops for 2019 on my workshop page.

Digital Darkroom Photoshop-CS Masterclass
448.00

Image Interpretation Techniques

2019, May 13 - 18
2019, Sep 02 - 07

2019, Oct 21 - 26


Price: £1,595
Deposit: £448

6-Day Photographic Mentoring Workshop
Wester Ross, Scottish Highlands

 

Introduction

This workshop is a 50 / 50 split between field work (making images in the surrounding Wester Ross highland landscape) and Digital Darkroom Editing / image interpretation techniques carried out in a studio environment.

During our time together we will be based in the north west of the Scottish highlands in the beautiful area of Wester Ross.

Please note: This workshop is not about learning Photoshop-CS. Instead, its aim is to teach you how to interpret your work with the skills you have.

Date:
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Fine Art Printing Photoshop-CS Masterclass
448.00

Image Interpretation & Printing Techniques


2019, May 27 - 01



Price: £1,695
Deposit: £448


6-Day Photographic Mentoring Workshop
Wester Ross, Scottish Highlands

 

Introduction

This workshop will cover the technical workflow aspects of printing from Screen calibration, proofing to print evaluation.

As part of printing your work, we will cover the same lessons taught in my Digital Darkroom' workshop, because good prints are made from good edits. And good edits can only be verified by printing.

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I am specifically focussing on mentoring style workshops with a focus towards learning. The workshops in particular are my Digital Darkroom and Printing classes. Both of these trips involve a lot of interpretation and daily discussions.

I've also chosen to change the format of both the Digital Darkroom and Printing classes so that they are focussed around Photoshop CS. This is because over the years that I have been running my classes, it has become apparent that Photoshop's Curve tool is the finest tool for tonal adjustment out there. Typically the workshops would start out with participants using Lightroom but often abandoning it when they saw the power that Photoshop's Curve tool has. I'm sure this might be quite contentious to many and I realise that everyone's mileage may vary.

A forest wedding

Sometimes an image contains some kind of symbolism. Well, perhaps they always contain some kind of symbolism. Whether it's a privately held feeling or view, or perhaps something a bit more literal that an audience can interpret.

 A forest wedding, Hokkaido. Image © Bruce Percy 2017

A forest wedding, Hokkaido.
Image © Bruce Percy 2017

Someone on my Twitter account wrote to me that this photograph is 'a forest wedding'. I like that idea very much.

I shouldn't have to explain it, and I feel that if I did, some kind of magic would be lost in the marriage between the literary title and visual interpretation.