The value of understanding Colour Theory

I'd like to say a big thank you to those of you who bought my Tonal Relationship series of e-Books so far. If you've been reading and following them, you should know by now, that I'm big on working with tones in a photograph, much like how an artist painter would.

colour-theory.jpeg

Photography is not just about clicking a shutter and 'getting it right in-camera'. Camera's do not see the way we see. And besides, if one considers that anything after the shutter has been clicked is 'manipulation', then they are forgetting that the choice of lens they used, the position they were in, are all interpretive.

For me, photography is no different from being a painter. I may not paint with oils or watercolours, but I have to abide by the same rules and concepts that a painter has to: if you do an art class you will learn a lot of valuable lessons about composition. Indeed, I encourage you to attend an evening art class. You will learn so much about tone and form that is all applicable to the art of landscape photography.

Which brings me to the point about my post today: as landscape photographers, we not only need to understand tone and form, but if we shoot colour, we also need to understand colour. How many times have you thought you could boost a certain colour in your picture only to find that although it seems as if it's present in the scene, it actually isn't there. This my friend, is all down to a lack of understanding colour, how certain tones are made up by multiple colours. 

For me, understanding colour, is paramount in removing colour casts, and by tuning certain colours to fit with others. Rather than boosting a colour, I often find myself reducing colours that are at the opposite side of the colour wheel to the colour I want to boost. And it's not just a case of boosting / reducing colour that is required. Often I find I have to 'tune' a colour - by adjusting its hue I can remove casts or even 'tune' the colour to fit more in-line with other aspects of the photograph.

So I think this is what I want to write about in my 3rd instalment of my 'Tonal Relationships' series. Right now, it's more a flicker of an idea. I haven't really figured out exactly what the e-Book will entail and I find that sometimes leaving it for a while helps me clarify the aim of such a book. This is what happened with the Tonal Relationships part 2 e-book. That one took me more than a year to work on. I got stuck at times, unclear if I was heading in the right direction and when that happens the best thing you can do is back off, and go and do something else for a while. So when you return to the problem in hand, it is often much clearer to see.

So that's my intention. I wish to write an e-Book about colour, and how it applies to editing photographs and also what it means when we are out in the field choosing our compositions. You may have noticed that over the past while, I've become a colour obsessive. Perhaps you feel my photographs have become more muted, almost monochrome (and for some of you they probably do look monochrome now), but colour once you begin to really work with it, becomes something that you want to apply delicately. Overly-vibrant, loud colour photographs, I have a theory - belong to the beginner. Once you start to really see all the colour distractions, it becomes a case of trying to calm things down a little (or in my case: a lot). I'm not for one second saying that everyone should go for the more muted look that I have adopted of late: I'm saying that if you are able to interpret colour and understand it better: you'll make more sensitive and worthy choices during your editing.

Please don't hold your breath for this e-Book. I'm pretty sure it will take me a while to find the right approach to tackling this subject, and due to my workshop schedule, time is in short supply.

The importance of rest

I realise that for most, there is never enough free time to do what we want to do. Often our work and family commitments mean that our passion for photography gets much less attention than we would wish.

 Central Highlands of Iceland in Winter Image © Bruce Percy 2018

Central Highlands of Iceland in Winter
Image © Bruce Percy 2018

Right now, I'm doing the opposite. I am spending a lot of free doing things that are unrelated to photography. I haven't made a single photograph, nor picked up my cameras for over two months now, and I'm very happy that this is the case.

I like to give my love for photography a rest every year, and I deliberately step away from it, so that I can recharge my interest in it. Perhaps you find this odd - how can someone improve their interest in something by taking time away from it?

As the saying goes 'absence makes the heart grow fonder' is never more true when it comes to what we love. And likewise, 'too much of a good thing, isn't good', is also true.

If I were to keep going, every single day, making photos, it would soon begin to feel like a chore, and I doubt that I would have the needed time to absorb what I had experienced, and to grow from it. Growth comes from rest and so by giving my photography a rest, I allow myself time to recharge.

I have found that by the end of my rest periods, I come back to photography with a fresh view. What may have started to feel old and tired now feels exciting and fresh. And I often find that the distance away has allowed me to collate my thoughts and approach photography with a slightly new way of seeing and doing things.

This summer, I spent my 'vacation' learning to Kayak, and by working on music, and by just catching up with friends and doing things very unrelated to my photography. It has all been good, and as I see September approaching soon, it won't be long before I am standing in some vast black desert in the heart of Iceland, knowing and loving every minute of it. More so, because I chose to take time away from it, so I could enjoy the experience of getting re-aquainted with it.

If you are finding you aren't enjoying photography so much of late, or that you are wondering if you should stop, then I would suggest you take a break. Go do something entirely differently for a few weeks, even a few months. Rarely have I seen anyone drop a passion when they do this, but I certainly have seen people drop a passion through burn out.

Trying too hard?

I was talking to a sound-recording friend of mine recently, about the art of mixing music. I explained that when I work on a piece of music, I often want it to be louder and more impressive than everything else around, and that I'm not sure if it's to cover up a lack of mixing expertise on my part, or a lack of confidence. I suspect it's both.

 Transylvania, February 2018 Image © Bruce Percy

Transylvania, February 2018
Image © Bruce Percy

This got me to thinking about confidence, and its role in the creative-arts.

Many years ago, I had an art student on one of my workshops and she told me that 'it is easy for you - you have a lot of confidence in what you do'. At first I was surprised by the observation as I have never thought of myself as an overly confident person. Secondly, I had never thought that confidence had anything to do with the creative-arts. For me, doing anything in art was more about being free and going wherever you want to go. Indeed, I had often found certain subjects at school overly competitive - sports, academic studies where you are marked by your performance etc. Arts - such as drawing, painting, playing or composing music, to me, had none of this. It was a 'free for all' where there were no rules and you could just dabble with no pressure of being assessed.

I've had many years to think about my art student's comments, and I think she was right. Not just about me being confident in my creative-arts pursuits, but also that confidence has a role in it.

Confidence is vital, if you want to become good at anything you do. I'm not talking about arrogance, of thinking you are great or superior, I'm talking about simply being comfortable with yourself. That comes from confidence. Confidence comes from knowing yourself and also understanding your strengths and weaknesses. Confident people are comfortable to tell others when they don't know something, and they are also comfortable in realising where their own limits are, and understanding they have some things to work on. Conversely, people who lack confidence, tend to over compensate for their limitations or try too hard. I think that is why we see so many heavily manipulated images on the web - anything that is super strong, overly contrasty is probably suffering from a need to force a point over to the audience. The editor isn't quite sure the audience will 'get' what they're trying to do, so they tend to spell it out - LOUDLY.  When I often see overly-worked images, I tend to think there is a lack of confidence behind the motivation to edit in such a way.

Being a creative person does require a sense of confidence. Any decision you make in your art making has to be one that you alone have come up with. To have a sense of conviction or faith in what you are doing is important, and to do that, you need confidence. But don't confuse confidence with knowing what to do. Confident people may not know what to do, but they are willing to try, to experiment and are comfortable knowing that anything they try may fail.

If you have confidence in yourself, you are ok about it when you fail. Indeed, I think that failure is part of the creative process. So often do writers and musicians talk about how a finished piece started off as something completely different from the finished work. This means they were entirely comfortable to throw out the initial ideas when they found something better. To do that, you've got to be able to let go, and to let go, you have to have confidence in where you are going.

How does one teach someone confidence? Well, I think it's all about trusting in your own decisions and also applying a healthy degree of forgiveness when you make a bad decision. There are no rules, and there shouldn't be when one is involved in the creative arts. And you should have the freedom to try things out, without the fear of being judged, either by others or more importantly - by yourself.

Letting go, and letting things flow where they want to go, is the best approach. Accept that you don't know all the answers, and you never will, and that nothing is ever finished. You are not doing your photography to be measured, nor for praise from others, but for self enjoyment and self development. If you are able to take this approach, then I think confidence will grow within you.

My art-student friend was right. I did have confidence in my abilities. I don't tear myself down when I create bad work. Just because you may only see finished work on my site, there is a lot of stuff that doesn't make it. If you realise that everything out there that really impresses you and moves you as a piece of art, most likely had to go through several re-works to get it right, then it should give you comfort to know that it's ok to not get things right first time. Good artists are ones that are able to keep re-assessing what they are doing, without judging themselves too harshly, and to do that, they need to have confidence.

Advanced Photoshop Curves e-Book is here

Last night I released my new e-Book on Photoshop's Curves. It is part of my 'Tonal Adjustment' set of e-Books.

Perhaps you feel that learning Photoshop isn't for you, or that you are very happy with Lightroom's toolset. It is a really nice software package after all, and easy to get to grips with.

But Lightroom only goes so far, and I find the controls rather too broad (as I type this in July 2018).

I've prepared some  on-line tutorial videos for my Curves e-Book which are included as part of the purchase.  Above is an excerpt from the videos. I hope it will show you the power of the curves adjustment tool for doing nuanced edits. 

There is also a message in this tutorial that has nothing to do with Photoshop. I discuss very much how the eye can be tricked into thinking an image is bright enough when it isn't. So if you edit in another software application, it is still worth watching.

Advanced Photoshop Curves - The Art Of Tonal Adjustment
15.99

Includes access to on-line video tutorials
+ free copy of Fast Track to Photoshop!

£15.99

The Photoshop’s curves adjustment tool is your gateway to fine tonal adjustment. It is an immensely powerful tool that once you become familiar with, will be at the core of all your editing in Photoshop for years to come.

Through the use of many editing examples and QuickTime movies I aim to cover in detail how the curves adjustment tool works and demonstrate its unparalleled power for the image editor.

Prerequisites

  • You need to already be using Photoshop to work with this e-Book.

  • You need to be familiar with Photoshop’s Curves, Layers and Masks.

  • For those who aren’t familiar, I’ve included a free copy of Fast-Track to Photoshop. I would recommend that you read this before attempting to understand the content of this e-Book.

Features

* 2 x Adobe Acrobat PDF documents.
* 15 PSD Photoshop example files.
* Access to several on-line video tutorials.

* E-book format: Adobe Acrobat
* Download format:  Zip file Containing 2 x PDF e-Books + 15 PSD Files, plus access to on-line video tutorials.

Add To Cart

Sometimes, things just take a while

No activity on this blog is usually a sign that I'm quite busy with other things. For the past month or so I've been slowly but surely working towards completing a new e-Book and also a physically printed book.

Hokkaido-2018-(22).jpg

There have been numerous delays, complications, setbacks or hold-ups. 

And it has reminded me that sometimes the creative 'flow' just doesn't. Sometimes there are blockages, dead-ends, delays and no matter how much you try to push it, it has to go at its own pace.

I often wonder why that is so, and I have often considered that when things are right, they tend to flow, and when they aren't, they don't. I would say I still hold this view, that good things tend to come together easily. But sometimes, just sometimes, the best ideas and the best creative decisions result in delays, setbacks and put quite simply: hard work.

As much as I would suggest to you not to push your creativity too hard, sometimes you just have to. You just have to keep forging ahead, even if it feels like you are walking in treacle, or that every 2 steps forward also means 1 step backwards.

Everything is a learning process. Failure or difficulties often mean we are going through some kind of learning experience: should we wish to take the lessons on board and this is how I am reminded of it right now. My new e-Book is slowly but surely taking shape and is becoming more than I had anticipated, likewise my new physically printed book is much tighter now, for all the reviewing and corrections we've put into it, and also for living with it for so long: the text was complete in its first draft around February this year, but it has had to go through this long birth to get to where it is now. Sometimes there are no shortcuts and things just have to be born when they are ready, and not any time sooner.

Photoshop's Curves Adjustment tool

In my opinion, the finest degree of control you can apply to your images is through Photoshop's Curves Adjustment tool. I know, it's not intuitive, and neither is Photoshop. But with some perseverance it is worth getting to know.

I know my e-book on Photoshop's curves has been promised for some time. I just find my schedule gets in the way, but there is also something else that gets in the way: preparation time and absorption time.

I tried to sit down to write this e-Book last December during some time away from workshops, and I found I kept hitting a dead-end with it. I know from experience that when that happens, it's best to back off and leave it. Often I find that things become much clearer if I leave them to surface when they're ready.

It's always interesting to me to find out that within a few weeks this new e-Book came together very quickly. But it did require about six months of gestation! Some things can't be rushed, and I often find I need time to sort out what it is I want to say, whether it's in an e-Book or with my photography.

I'm more convinced than ever that the subconscious is always working, sorting things out and figuring out how best to approach things.

Well, I'm delighted with what I've managed to put together for this e-Book. It just needs to go through some review time before it is finally released.

Apologies for my lack of blog posting. I only feel that I should write when I have something worthy to say, and right now I'm busy taking a break from my workshop schedule. But behind the scenes I've been writing this e-Book, and also preparing a new printed book for publication later this year.

The creative edit

Today's post is all about the creative edit. I'm been very kindly given permission to use one of the images that was discussed and edited during my Digital Darkroom workshop this past May. Many thanks to Orchid for allowing me to share this image with you.

 Disko Bay, Greenland Image © Orchid Fung, workshop participant, Digital Darkroom class May 2018

Disko Bay, Greenland
Image © Orchid Fung, workshop participant, Digital Darkroom class May 2018

There is often an image hiding within an image, and often a re-interpretation hiding within an interpretation. When we first compose a scene out in the field we often look at it from the point of what was there, often focussing, composing, setting up with the intention that we are going to record faithfully what we see. But when we come to edit or to review the image later, we often re-interpret the original composition and see other crops or other compositions within the original frame. This I believe is perfectly normal and should be encouraged.

I think if you are a photographer, you are always 'seeing', but also, you should always be interpreting, and that means even re-interpreting. To look at a photograph and see something else within it, is a similar process, if not identical to the one that allows us to look at the original world view and choose how to interpret it with our initial capture.

If you get good at choosing what to put into the frame and what to leave out , then I see no reason why this should not continue when you come round to reviewing your work and then deciding to re-crop or make another photo out of an existing one.

Which is what we did here with this photograph.

The original capture (RAW file with no processing applied) it shown below. My intentions are to illustrate that sometimes there are strong shapes and motifs in a photograph that will get stronger if we manage to remove the other things that are competing for our attention, and also, that it is perfectly ok to depart fully from what was captured.

 The original raw file

The original raw file

During my workshop, we discussed how as visitors to a location, we are often caught up in the experience of being there. We live in a 3D world with real objects and we often tend to separate them in our mind because we know they are physically different things. I also believe that we look at tones in different ways when we look at scenery compared to how we look at tones when we look at a photograph. I am convinced that my dear friend Orchid thought the highlighted snow in the foreground was a pleasing part of the photograph because I too, have done the same. I have also taken many many photographs where I was inclined to put a foreground into the picture when non was required. This is, I believe, because as physical beings we wish to represent what was immediately in front of us. Foregrounds are a way of allowing us to step into the picture after all.

 

 

It is only when we review the image later that we find that perhaps the foreground is too distracting, or maybe it doesn't have enough aesthetic beauty to support the rest of the frame. Which is what we discussed with this photograph. I know the photograph was taken because of the mountain peak in the background and I believe the foreground was put in there because of such a need to have something to help us walk into the frame.

For me, I'm fascinated by the disconnect between a photograph and reality. I do believe that we see differently while on location than we do when we are reviewing photographs. For many of us the process is different, yet I have a very strong feeling that it shouldn't be. We need to be able to 'see photographs' while on location. Not scenery, and this is the hardest thing to do for most of us because we've had a lifetime of thinking and seeing the world as a living breathing 3D reality.

So what of the final edit? Are you shocked at all by how different it is from the initial capture? I'm curious because for me, I think of photography is the art of creating an illusion. Photographs aren't real, even when we don't alter them, they still do not convey what we saw or how things actually were. We could get quite philosophical if we chose to on this one.... but for me, photography is a creative-arts endeavour where our aim is to create a beautiful illusion. How we get there is a matter of personal ideals of what photography is and what it isn't. I have my own thoughts on what is photography (dodging, burning, cropping) and what isn't (blending, HDR, merging, superimposing things) but that is just for me. I realise that each and every one of us has our own boundaries of what is and what isn't photography and I respect that you may be happy to merge or superimpose things - there are after all no rules, and nor should there be. It's an arts endeavour we're discussing here.

I think my interpretation I made of Orchid's photo takes the viewer to the heart of the picture - that beautiful peak at the back of the original frame. By softening the tones down dramatically across the picture, we have removed a lot of textural details that would be vying for our attention. Doing so enables that beautiful graphic zig-zag shape to emerge in the photograph a perhaps the reason for the photograph. It was there all along, but it was competing with so many other elements that it was being drowned a little.

I think editing is an enormously creative process. It is a space that I can spend hours and days in, and it has taught me never to judge my work at the point of capture. I never really know just what the final images may end up being like, and I've certainly had images that have become personal favourites when I almost never worked on them because I wasn't convinced they had enough merit.

Photography is the art of looking again. And again. Of being open, and willing to re-interpret something another way. I hope today with this example I've shown you exactly that.

Many thanks to Orchid Fung for allowing me to reproduce and discuss her beautiful image.

You've gotta hand-craft it

Many years ago, before my current occupation as a photographer, I used to be a budding musician with lots of nice synths at home to play with. This was the 90's and an era where most synths turned up with lots of nice sexy factory presets to play with. Indeed one of the issues with 90's synths was that they only usually had one slider on the front of the panel and thus were a nightmare to edit the sounds, so most people would tend to use the factory presets with almost no changes to them at all.

This past month I have returned to music and I'm presently busy building a little home studio of some nice synths to own. I've deliberately chosen to look for machines that have lots of knobs and sliders on the front panel so that they will encourage me to shape the sound to my liking, rather than hope or rely on some preset to work in the music I'm making.

You may wonder what this has to do with photography. Well quite a lot.

I don't believe that plug-in's that offer presets to work with are a good way to start, or to continue with for the long-run. I can sympathise and appreciate that they may feel like a really great way of kick-starting your editing, or that they perhaps influence or inspire you, but the chances of them actually being exactly what your images need is pretty slim.

I've reached the conclusion that the best approach to image editing is to hand-craft it. Here's my reasons why I think it's good to go the slow manual way:

  1. You are given the opportunity (through having to figure out what you want to do to an image) to learn what components of tone, colour and form your image is made up from.
  2. You learn a lot about what works and what doesn't when you have to go in there and deconstruct  your image. Presets don't encourage this.
  3. Presets will rarely, if ever, give you exactly what you need and they will not encourage you to look or study deeply into what is going on in your work.
  4. Hand-crafting your work means that you build up skills to interpret what you've created, and also to think about what you might want to look for in future when you do return to shooting outside.
  5. It should go without saying, but each image you create does not conform to a preset. It has its own character and therefore needs to be treated on an individual basis.
  6. Photography is about being creative, and convenience should not be part of the creative vocabulary. Making good or great images isn't easy, and we have to put the work in to learn.
  7. Perhaps the most important point - you get to tune the image exactly the way you want.

Perhaps you think that presets are a great starting point, and that you still tune and edit manually anyway. My thoughts on this are that when we apply presets to our work, we only see or understand a little of what has been changed. if you wish to iron out some of the effect it's a little bit like going 10 steps forward to have to retreat 8 steps to get to where you want to be. I'd much rather walk each step at a time and build up a good understanding of what it is i'm doing with the edit at each stage.

I used to rely on presets for synth sounds in my music and often found it hard to get certain sounds to mix in well with others. Now that I have a collection of synths at home with tweak able parameters I can shape the sounds to fit in more. It brings me confidence when I hear certain sounds just shift into focus as they are tuned to fit into the music. Rather than flipping through thousands of presets hoping for the 'right sound' I am creating it myself.

By taking the reigns of your editing and pulling the decisions and control back into your own lap, you are giving yourself the opportunity to learn about your yourself, your work and to improve your own visual awareness. As tempting as certain presets may be, I'd suggest going the manual way for a while and see how it goes.

First draft of New e-Book is complete

Part 2 of my Tonal Adjustment Series

It's been slow progress, but I'm really delighted to discover to day that I've finished writing my new e-Book about Photoshop's curves adjustment tool. I've been trying to write this e-Book since last year - I remember doing some work on it in December, and then it got shelved while I was so busy running tours and workshops.

tr.jpg

It is my 'holiday' time at the moment. I'm at home for the next few months, and the only work I have to do is finish this e-Book and also one other special project. 

All I can say is that I had no idea I could write 50 pages about the curves adjustment tool. One of the best things about writing this e-book is that it's helped me clarify in my own mind just what is actually going on when I do any curve adjustments.

The new e-Book now needs to go into review mode, where I will check for errors and discrepancies. It comes with around eight Photoshop files to illustrate some of the more difficult to understand features of curve adjustments. And I'm hoping to put some QuickTime movies together to show you some screen sessions.

But it's all come together well so far. I'm very pleased with the results and I think it's going to be a very nice e-Book if you're interested in developing your knowledge of curves. The curves adjustment tool really is the most powerful way to modify and transpose tones.

Winter Sunrise from Lone Pine - Ansel Adams

As part of my Digital Darkroom and Printing workshops, I enjoy enormously showing the beautiful Ansel Adams photograph 'winter sunrise from lone pine'  to my class. It's a great illustration of the 'creative edit' and well worth discussing in detail. 

'Winter sunrise from lone pine', the achingly beautiful image with wondrous print interpretation by Ansel Adams
Image © Ansel Adams

Before I dissect the image, I am curious if you can actually see the edits that Ansel has done to the image? Are they very apparent to you? I only ask for the sake of wondering how much skill each of us possess at deconstructing an image, or whether each of us simply just 'buy it' when we look at the photograph? My own thoughts on this are that great images tend to cast a spell on us and we are too enwrapped in enjoying the spell we're under to think more about how the image is constructed. As part of our 'learning to become better photographers', I think it is natural to be able to 'enjoy an image' as well as dissect it.

I think great photographs cast a spell on us with their imagery, and whether they are 'real' or not is irrelevant. 

Ansel Adams was a great illusionist. When I look at his images I believe them, even though I know a lot of work went into the manipulation of the negative in the dark room. To me - this  is what photography is all about..

Let's break down Ansel's image into it's core parts:

lone-pine-dissection.jpg

Ansel's image can be broken down into four summary edits (I'm sure there were more, but these are the ones I see he has attempted), which I've illustrated above in different colours:

Image Analysis

Blue area:
The Sky. Which seems to have been printed with as little contrast as possible to try to reduce the brilliance / emphasis of the cloud at the far right of the picture. If the clouds had more contrast then they would be competing with the white mountain for attention, and ultimately, stealing a little bit of the mountain's main attention grabbing ability.

Orange area:
The snowy mountains and dark hill. This is the high-contrast area of the scene and the area that is the 'initial pull'. Although this area takes us into the picture, it is not the last thing our eye settles on.

Green area:
Ground area, a necessary part of the picture, because it gives us context, even though it adds little interest to the image.

Red area:
Forest & horse. The part of the image I consider the 'easter egg' - that special bit of surprise that you see after you've looked at the high contrast mountains.
 

 

Making the print

Let us now consider the image from how Ansel may have chosen to print / edit it. If I were to make a guess on what choices Ansel made, I would assume the following:

Blue area

He would have reduced the contrast here as much as he possibly could. His aim would have been to suppress that white cloud on the far right hand side of the image, so that it does not compete with the brilliance of the jagged mountain range. He wants the white mountain to be as bright as possible, and the only way to do that is to suppress bright tones elsewhere in the image. The key is - if you want something to be brighter, darken everything else around it. So I believe that Ansel has darkened the sky for two reasons: it makes the mountain appear brighter, and it also reduces the distraction of the cloud.

Orange area

This is the main part of the image: what we are really coming to look at. It is perhaps the most 'closest to reality part of the image',. The white snowy mountain had a lot of directional hard light on it and the shadows are sharply defined here. If the image had been made on a soft-light day, even by adding a lot of contrast the shadows would have still been very diffused. So I think it's fair to say it was a high-contrast day, and Ansel has let the mountains be what it is: a high contrast subject.

With regards to the dark curvy hill, my guess is that it is impossible to put in a sudden separation in tone if there was none in the negative. So I would assume that the hill was dark, or underexposed, but by burning further in, Ansel has allowed the dark nature of the hill to become more prominent.

Green area

The contrasts in this part of the frame need to be kept under control so that the eye goes straight to the mountains and secondly to the horse. So Ansel has had to finely balance the ground so that it's not too dark or or light: not too dominant in either way: it needs to be wallpaper to a degree so the eye can scan over it and not get stuck in there.

Red Area

This is the 'easter egg' of the picture. It's the 'surprise element' that you only see after you have been drawn to the mountains upon first viewing. 

For this part of the print, Ansel has chosen to dodge the surrounding area around the horse, to give the illusion that the sun is highlighting the are where the horse is. To do this he has deliberately avoided exposing the paper at this region to lighten up the forest, but he has also had to make sure that the horse stays very dark even though he is dodging. I think he would have altered contrasts here to accomplish that.

 

In summary

This image is really about two subjects. The primary one is the mountain range of extreme highlights and dark tones contrasting with each other. The secondary subject is the horse. It's what you see after you eye has moved away from the mountain range.

To accomplish this, Ansel has darkened down a good proportion of the image and left two subjects to be as bright as naturally possible: the white mountains and the area around the horse. He has masterfully orchestrated our eye to initially be attracted to the brightness and contrasts of the white mountain and dark hill, and then to move straight to the horse in the lower part of the frame. Everything else has either been darkened or had contrast removed so the viewers eye does not get pulled away from the main areas of interest in the picture.

It is a masterpiece of editing skill and it always amazes me when I look at it.

Editing is indeed a skill. It is a life-long endeavour to search for the underlying meaning in our work and to bring it out. Sometimes to emphasise certain areas of the picture, we need to reduce surrounding areas by a large degree to let the areas we are interested in stand out. This image is a great example of that.

 

 

 

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.

Lencois-Maranhenses-2018-(6).jpg

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.

Lencois-Maranhenses-2018-(12).jpg

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.