The Pendulum Swing of Colour use

I find that each time I edit a new set of images, my application of colour varies. Some times the work has very muted tones. Other times the work has too much colour and I find that a few days later I’m re-adjusting the work to be more muted.

Part of the problem is colour constancy, or the lack of ability in oneself to correctly gauge the strength of colour, the more that one stares at the work. Part of the problem is that I’m still figuring out what my style is, and I find as my mood changes, my feeling towards the work also changes. Sometimes the work is stark and monochromatic, devoid of any colour at all. Other times the work is very colourful, and I feel a need to tone it down.

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This is not just a case of my mood changing. It mostly has to do with how our brain ‘auto-white-balances’ what we see. Our visual system innately compensates. What we perceive is not always true .

And I’m sure I’m not alone. Most of us have a hard time judging the level of colour to use in our work.

I’ve seen some photographers who completely lack any colour judgement at all. The work is overly garish, the colours sci-fi, horrific in application because there’s just simply too many strong colours competing with each other. I am convinced that photographers who create this kind of work are at the beginning of their photographic journey. They haven’t developed their colour awareness yet, and are still very much in love with the need to over-excite the work they create. They are so enraptured by having strong colour in their work that we can’t get past it. I believe this, because I suffered from this in my early years.

When I look back at my earlier work, delicate application of colour is pretty non-existent. Despite thinking at the time that the colours were great in my photographs, I now realise that I was working from the belief that ‘more is good’. I had a lot to learn.

At the time, I had no idea about colour relationships, let alone that having too much colour, or competing colours in the frame could sabotage the composition. I also had no idea that composition was more than just the art of placing subjects within a frame. Composition is also about the application of colour, as well as tone and form. Each of these three elements has to work with the other for the composition to be successful. Simply plastering lots of strong colour across my images was clumsy at best, and at worst made my images look infantile.

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And now twenty years later I’m still wresting with colour. In that I’m wrestling with ‘just how much’ to use. In other words I struggle with the degree of colour to use. I appreciate that colour is dependent on the subject matter, what the actual landscape offered. Some places are simply more colourful while others are naturally less so. So I understand that some photos or portfolios call for very little colour, while others require the colour to be applied selectively to aid the composition.

My recent images from Brazil are interesting because there appears to be a return to stronger colour for me. They are the strongest set of colour images I’ve made in a while.

But if I look at how I used to use colour over a decade ago, I’m aware that the application was more broad, more clumsy back then. Nowadays, I’m more selective. I feel I can produce a colourful image, without swamping the composition.

Colour is a balancing act.

Put too much in and you can swamp your compositions and ruin your work. Put in too little, and the image can appear dead or lifeless. Some sets of images require more colour than others, and of course we have our visual perception of colour to struggle with while we are deciding upon just how much colour is required.

The use of colour is a skill. Just like working on composition is as life long learning experience that never ends, so too is our application of colour. For colour application cannot not mastered overnight and we should expect our perception of it to pendulum swing from too much to too little, and back again.

Landscape as director

I’ve just had to accept that certain landscapes are what they are. They have an uncanny knack of knowing how to direct you: they tell us what needs to be done. We just have to listen.

Therein lies the problem. Most of the time we don’t listen to what the landscape is telling us. Instead, we often try to force upon it what we want. What we are looking for. Instead, we shouldn’t be looking for anything. We should be a clean slate, ready to work with whatever conditions we are given.

How many of us go to places with pre-visualised expectations? Hoping to get a certain shot we’ve seen before, or the same conditions?

I’ve been having problems this past year with my use of colour. Or perhaps the lack of it. I was very happy to find that my South Korean image had quite a bit of colour in them. I feel there’s been a pendulum-swing as I’ve gone from reducing colour further, and then further still, to feeling I’m starting to re-introduce it into my work.

Not so with Hokkaido.

As you can see above. These images may ‘appear’ to have little or perhaps no colour to you. All I can say in my defence is : it’s what the landscape directed me to do. I can’t make the landscape be anything it isn’t and rather than have an up-hill struggle to make it so, if I follow what the landscape tells me, things just tend to ‘flow’ much easier.

Hokkaido is not a landscape of strong colours. But it does have them. I think the art in making good photos of Hokkaido isn’t necessarily about working with negative space. Neither is it about working with snow scenes only. I think it’s about working with tone and colour responses. These are where the emotion of the picture reside.

Snow is not white. Neither is it just one continuous tone. Snow is a vast array of off-whites, with subtle graduations running through the landscape. Our eyes are often blind to these subtleties as we start to photograph it, but with some well informed time behind the computer monitor editing and reviewing, we should all come to learn that white has a tantalisingly vast array of shades and off-white colours.

Hokkaido has been my director. It has guided me in my lessons over the past four or five years. I’ve learned so much from working in this landscape when I have chosen to listen to it.

The pendulum of colour

You have to go too far one way, in order to know where to dial it back. If you never go beyond your boundaries, then you’ll never know where they are.

I see changes in my photography happen slowly throughout the years I’ve been making images. I think we have several muscles that need to be exercised: our visualisation muscle, our composition muscle, our tonal muscle and also with regards to today’s post: our colour muscle.

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Learning to use Colour is something many of us don’t even know we have to do. I remember in the early years of my photography how happy I was to just have very strong colour in my images. I never gave colour much thought except ‘is it punchy enough’.

Now I see very differently and understand that some colours:

  1. May not compliment the scene

  2. May cause distraction if too dominant

  3. May cause the scene to be too busy if there is too much of it

  4. May cause the scene to be too ‘dead’ if there isn’t some form of colour in there

  5. Colour needs to be used carefully because it is a component of what we call ‘Composition’.

I think I’ve been working on my Colour-muscle for the past 4 or 5 years. Where I was once happy to just load up the photos with oversaturated colours that caused my eye to be thrown everywhere at the same time, I began a process of reduction. And further reduction, until I began to feel as if my work was just a shade away from being monochrome. I have a theory about this which I’d like to call ‘the pendulum of colour’.

The Pendulum of Colour

We have to learn where the boundaries are. Boundaries are personal: your boundaries will be different from mine. But we all have to find them. Boundaries are important because they tell us a few things:

  1. That we’ve really explored the realm

  2. That we know where the limits of acceptability are to us

  3. Most importantly, that we have found we can go much further than we thought we could.

If you don’t go beyond what you think is acceptable, then how do you know you’ve gone far enough? If you are conservative with your use of colour, tone, composition, focal lengths and stick to the same formats all the time, then you’re never really exploring what’s possible. You aren’t reaching your full potential.

So you have to go way beyond what you think is acceptable to find out where your limits of acceptability are.

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I think, for most of us, our use of colour tends to have this kind of trajectory:

  1. We begin our photography by being delighted at having strong colours in the work. Any form of strong colour is great. But we still have to learn how to use colour selectively

  2. As the years go by, we begin to tire of strong coloured photographs and begin to feel we need to find something more. We start to notice that some of the colours are displeasing and we want to reduce them, or desaturate selectively This is what I would call the first pendulum swing: we are now going the other way with our colour use.

  3. Years may pass, but we find we become more aware of colour casts, of shadows having deep hues we never saw when we began our photography. Indeed, looking back at our first attempts causes us embarrassment.

  4. We begin to tune out certain colour casts. The photos become more muted as a result.

At some point, you may feel you’ve reduced colour far too much in what you do. That’s where the 2nd pendulum swing happens. This pendulum swing is different though, for one reason: you have gained experience and understanding of colour. Although you may be re-introducing colour back into your work, you’re much more informed about where, when and just how much you need to use.

As I said at the start of this post today: “You have to go too far one way, in order to know where to dial it back. If you never go beyond your boundaries, then you’ll never know where they are.”

Your use of colour is like a muscle that needs to be exercised. You need to push it far beyond what you’re normally capable of to find out if there’s more potential for you. You also need to do this to understand where the limits are for you. Dialling it back is informative because you begin to understand that you don’t often need as much colour as you once used. When you’ve been doing this for a while you realise that you can re-introduce colour, but it works best when applied selectively and with a much more considered approach.

We change all the time. Our tastes, aesthetics are all on their own pendulum swings, but each time we revert back to something we did a while ago, we do so as a changed person. We don’t repeat: instead we become better at what we do.

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The quietness of colour

We’re always changing. Developing or regressing, fluctuating even. But all of these changes accumulate to ultimately say ‘you are different now’.

Perhaps the start of my ‘colour reduction’ phase in my own photography.

Perhaps the start of my ‘colour reduction’ phase in my own photography.

When I look back at my earlier work, I see that it had a lot more colour in it. I’ve been discussing my ‘progress’ with a friend of mine today and I was explaining that for me, composition comes in three layers that are all inter-related.

  1. Structure

  2. Luminance (tone)

  3. Colour

When we all start out, we all work and focus on structure. The placement of objects in the frame. Indeed, I think that most of us think that composition is ultimately about where we place subjects in the frame.

2018-2017

2017-2015

2015-2011

For me, it took about maybe six years or so, before I started to realise that the luminance, or tonal properties of my subjects also affected the composition. Indeed, I think that tone and structure are interrelated. You can’t just place objects in the frame by thinking about structure only. I’m sure you will find that the reason why some arrangements of subjects in the frame work better than others is due to their luminance / tonal qualities. So these two layers of composition are connected.

The last stage, is colour. Yep, that’s right - although colour is where most of us start, and we are often delighted with our red-sky photos, a picture washed in garish colour soon becomes tiring for those that are developing a sensibility towards colour as a contributing factor to compositional success.

I think that all good colour photographs still work, when you strip the colour out. Open any colour photo and turn it to black and white. Does it still work? Are the tones there able to support the image without the colour? Good photographs will still work without their colour component.

For me, I feel I’ve been on a quest the past four or so years to quieten the colour in my images. I worked on structure in my compositions for a long time, then I was thinking about luminance and how it related to structure. These days, I think I’ve been reducing down the colour and in sense, have been playing with ‘how far can I reduce it?’.

One needs to find the boundaries, to understand the terrain that they are working in, so they can then let loose where they need to go.

Colour is a vital part of composition. Too much of it, or too many colours can cause the viewer’s attention to be thrown in many directions at the same time. But to a beginner, lots of colour seems exciting, attractive. It just becomes a little tiring after many years when you realise that by reducing colour or de-saturating certain objects in the frame allow others to shine.

Want to get better at colour composition? Take an art-class. Photography and composition are no different in a camera than they are on a canvas or piece of paper. It’s not a problem if you can’t draw, forget whether you need to learn to do that. An art class will give you the understanding of how composition works, structurally, tonally and with colour.

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.

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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.

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.

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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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The three ingredients to composition

Composition is often thought about in terms of where to place the subject within the frame. But what if I throw the subject out of the frame, or at the most, give you a very limited set of subjects to work with? How would you compose your shots, and would you consider how each of them would fit together in a portfolio? What would be the unifying theme if you had to relate them in some way? Is it the subject, the location, or would it perhaps be the colour palette that would be a more useful way of uniting a set of images together?

Subjects are only one aspect of composition. Colour palettes and colour relationships are another, and lastly, there are also tonal responses. My own compositions are often sparse in terms of subject matter, so I think what unifies my work is either the colour palettes I play with, or the tonal responses.

In my latest Hokkaido work, I've deliberately gone for an almost black and 'light blue' tonal response to the work. The absolute blacks of the Crane birds match and unify with the dark tones of the trees of the Hokkaido landscape: this is one part of a two part ingredient list for making this portfolio work. The second part is the colour palette. Despite actually shooting a lot of 'pink sunrise' during my time on the island, I felt they were at odds with some of the stronger 'colder' colour palette images that I found lurking in my processed films. 

I've realised over the past few years just how important tonal responses within a collection of images is to unifying the set. Images are really made up of three dimensions: subject, colour and tone. For me, to think of composition as being about subject only, is to ignore colour and tone at your peril.

This is why I think my work in the Digital Darkroom is a vital ingredient to what I do. Clicking the shutter is only one small part of the image creation process. Identifying themes and relationships in my work is an important part of this process and is crucial in  bringing these themes tighter together.

The proof is in the print

I've been working on my images for next year's exhibition (I know, it's a long way away, but I really need to utilise my free time - which is in short supply, when I have it). 

Despite having a calibrated monitor which I feel gives a very close representation of what I might expect to see on my prints, I have found that the only way to truly spot errors or inconsistencies in the tones of my images, is to print them and leave them lying around my house.

This does not mean there are any short comings in my monitor, nor any errors in the calibrating or profiling of it either. In fact, any issues I notice in the final print can often be seen on the monitor if I go back to check. This suggests a few things:

1. The human eye perceives electronic images differently than printed images

2. To get the best out of your work, you really need to print it.

I pride myself in having a tightly calibrated system as you can see below - my Eizo monitor is so well matched to my daylight viewing both, that I seldom find prints 'way off'. But this doesn't get round the fact that once I see an image in print form, I may find that either it's tonal aspects aren't as strong as I thought they were. Going back to the monitor to look again, I will find that the print has shown me problems in the work that are visible on the monitor, but somehow, I only became aware of them once I saw them in print form.

Daylight viewing booth and verification test print to confirm monitor is actually calibrated! (it's the only way to confirm calibration and profiling).

Daylight viewing booth and verification test print to confirm monitor is actually calibrated! (it's the only way to confirm calibration and profiling).

As much as I think that *all* photographers *should* print. I realise that many of us don't. Now that we live in the digital age, it seems as if printing is becoming something that many of us don't require. We edit, we resize for the web and we upload.

But if you do care about your work, and wish to push it further along, then I can think of no better thing to do than print it out. If you have a calibrated, colour managed system, then any problems you see in the print are most likely problems that you somehow weren't 'seeing' on the monitor. It is a chance for you to 'look again' and learn.

I've gained so much from my printing. I've realised that my monitor can only be trusted up to a point, and that if after reviewing prints I further tune them to give me a better print, I also improve them in electronic form also. But mostly, I'm teaching my eye to really see tonal inconsistencies and spot them more easily in the future. And that's no bad thing indeed, as photography is after all, the act of learning to see.

Simple in design: the art of reduction

My good friend and client Stacey Williams made this shot on our Eigg workshop last week. I think it's highly atmospheric, effectively simple in composition and tonally very finely balanced. It tells me all I need to know without trying to spell it out either: there are no loud colours or over the top contrasts here, just an inner confidence to show you the beauty of one of Scotland's most photogenic beaches.

Bay of Laig, Isle of Eigg, Scotland. Image © Stacey Williams 2016, post-edit Bruce Percy

Bay of Laig, Isle of Eigg, Scotland.
Image © Stacey Williams 2016, post-edit Bruce Percy

And yet, to pull of a very simple composition like this is not easy for many of us. We struggle with the reduction that's required to distill a scene into one simple message.

I have a theory why this is.

For a long while, I've realised that when most of us start off making pictures, we tend to over complicate them. The final image often has a lot going on and within this complexity is the added dimension of tonal / colour conflicts. Photography is one of the few past-times where we start complex and spend a life-time aiming to make our photographs more effective by simplifying what we put into the frame (or perhaps more importantly, what we choose to leave out).

The reason why we start with overly-complex pictures is because we haven't learned to truly 'see'. Photography is a life-long discipline on being able to really see what is before us and translate that into an effective photograph and if we aren't really aware of tonal conflicts, or distracting objects in the frame, we will tend to leave them in. This is why we can often find our final image doesn't look the way we thought it would. We tend to 'see' differently at the time of capture than the way we 'see' when we look at an image on our computer screen later on.

I've been asking myself for a long while: why this is so? And the only thing I can come up with, is that we tend to look at scenery differently than we do when we look at images. The art behind many successful images is to be able to see the photograph within the scenery while we are on location. Many of us don't do this because we are overwhelmed by the elements of being there, and we still can't abstract a 3D location down into a 2D image.

But composition isn't just about where to place objects within the frame, and choosing what to leave outside of the frame. It is also about understanding the relationships between colours and tones within the scene. In fact, both are interrelated. 

Again, if you aren't able to truly 'see' the relationship between colours and tones within the frame, then the final image may be fraught with overcomplexity. 'I never saw that red telephone box in the corner of the frame', or 'the stone in the foreground is really dark and I can't recover it in post, I wish I'd noticed how dark it was at the time of capture'. This is a typical response because at the time of capture we were too busy thinking about stones rather than the tone or dynamic range of them and whether they would render enough detail in the final picture.

Visual awareness of what is really in front of us, is really at the heart of all of our photographic efforts. If we can't see the tonal distractions or see the conflicting colours at the time of capture, then it means a lot of massaging and coaxing in the edit phase, which isn't a great idea. In sound recording the idea of 'fixing it in the final mix' was always a bad approach and it's better to be aware of the problem at the time of capture and do something about it. If the colours are conflicting, then look for an alternative composition, if the stone is too black to render and will come out as a dark blob in your photo, then maybe go find a rock that is lighter in tone and will render much more easily.

Back to Stacey's picture. She chose a very empty part of the beach. She also chose some very simple foreground sand patterns that she knew were strong enough tonally, to attract interest. She also gave the background island a lot of space. The edit was very simple: we added a lot of contrast to the island to make it the dominant object in the frame, but we did it while doing almost nothing else to the picture because the picture was already working.

If you are struggling with composition, my advice would be to seek out simple empty places and work with one or two subjects within the frame. Add a rock into the picture and experiment with placing it at different areas. Also try rocks of different tonal responses. How would a jet-black rock look in this scene? Will it stand out from the background sand tones? How about a rock that is similar in tone to the beach? Will it stand out just as effectively?

The problem is, that what our eye thinks is pleasing, is often overly complex for our imagery. Good composition is not simply just the act of reducing down the subjects within the frame, but also of understanding which ones will work best tonally as well. Our eye loves more complex objects around us but they don't work when they are all crammed into one picture.

Good landscape composition is not something we master in a matter of weeks or months. It is a life-long journey in building up one's own visual awareness, of noticing what will work, and just as importantly what won't. If you're in it for the long haul, and you have a curious mind, then that's a very good start indeed.

 

 

Epiphanies in the study of light

When I look back over the past twenty years of my photography, I can remember many moments when I had an epiphany - a sudden insight, to what kind of light really worked well in a photograph.

Lago Nordenskjöld, from a secret location Torres del Paine, Chilean Patagonia. Shot in mid-afternoon light on an overcast day. Image © Bruce Percy 2015

Lago Nordenskjöld, from a secret location Torres del Paine, Chilean Patagonia.
Shot in mid-afternoon light on an overcast day.
Image © Bruce Percy 2015

If I summarise it, it would be down to this; 

I started out shooting in bright blue sky sunny days because my eye liked it. But I found my camera didn't as the pictures wouldn't come out the way 'I saw them'. The first epiphany was that camera's don't see the way we see, and what is exciting to the human eye, is too high contrast and hard for a camera to record.

Then there came the second epiphany: If I shot at sunrise or sunset, the colour was often beautiful and it gave my images a sense of magic (or glow) that I couldn't quite get during the sunny days I had been shooting in until that point. I learned that the light is warm at sunrise and that often the atmosphere of a place is often calm too. Midday light is a rather cool light in comparison to the warm tones of sunrise.

For a long while, I would do nothing but shoot at sunrise and sunset. It's a great learning experience to continuously work in soft light at these times of the day, and although we all seek those golden colours, they don't always suit the environments we're photographing.

Shooting the isle of Rum from the Isle of Eigg one overcast, rainy miserable day, in 2007 taught me so much about overcast light, and how beautiful it can be in a photograph.

Shooting the isle of Rum from the Isle of Eigg one overcast, rainy miserable day, in 2007 taught me so much about overcast light, and how beautiful it can be in a photograph.

After many years of working in this light, I found myself on a very wet beach one afternoon in winter and had another epiphany. Midday light worked too, so long as the light was very overcast. I hadn't up until this point, imagined I could get any kind of 'mood' to my work except by working during the golden hours, and since this moment back in 2007, I started to employ working at other times of day, providing that the light is soft.

Over the course of 10 years, I'd gone from shooting only in sunny light, to only shooting during the golden hours, and then finally, coming back to shooting in midday light, so long as the light was soft. My understanding of the kinds of light I could shoot in had altered and I knew that soft light works best.

And then another epiphany happened. Although I would shoot any location if the light was soft, at sunrise, sunset and in the middle of the day, I found that some of the images didn't work because the light had to suit the subject. For instance, the stark black volcanic beaches of Iceland work well if the light is very cold / monochromatic. Composing a monochromatic black beach with warm light seemed at times to be at odds with each other. The landscape didn't really need the warm tones of sunrise, and if anything it was a distraction.

Small ice floes in Laguna Armaga, Torres del Paine, Chilean Patagonian winter Image © Bruce Percy 2015

Small ice floes in Laguna Armaga, Torres del Paine, Chilean Patagonian winter
Image © Bruce Percy 2015

These days I still prefer to work with soft light, but I try to work with landscapes based on their tones and colours. Some places are monochromatic in nature and therefore I feel they work best in a neutral colour temperature (midday). For example, Torres del Paine national park can be a monochromatic subject. The mountains are granite grey with dark sediment rock layered upon them and Its beaches are made up of black volcanic rock. The mountains have a very stark look to them, so rather than seeking to shoot them in the warm glow of sunrise and sunset only, I find that the cooler colour temperature of midday light can often work better.

I've come to realise over the years, that beauty is everywhere and it can be rendered under different colour temperatures - not just the golden rays of sunrise and sunset.

Colour Constancy - how we fool ourselves

Colour Constancy - "the ability to perceive an object as having relatively 
the same colour under varying illumination conditions"


I've been saying for a while now, that being a good photographer requires a heightened sense of awareness - not just of patterns and themes within the landscape, but also of colour.

But colour is difficult to perceive accurately in the landscape, because our brains and visual system have evolved to allow us to perceive the same objects as having relatively the same colour under differing lighting conditions. This a is very useful evolutionary trick that allows us to identify objects under varying lighting conditions but it can be a problem for photographers when trying to visualise how the final image will turn out. This is because cameras don't have colour-constancy - they record the variances in colour that a subject goes through when the source of light changes.

As Wikipedia says:

"A green apple for instance looks green to us at midday, when the main illumination is white sunlight, and also at sunset, when the main illumination is red."

Color constancy: The colours of a hot air balloon   are perceived as being the same in sun and shade while we are on location, but does the final photograph allow us to perceive them as the same? (Image source: Wikipedia)

Color constancy: The colours of a hot air balloon are perceived as being the same in sun and shade while we are on location, but does the final photograph allow us to perceive them as the same? (Image source: Wikipedia)

Another example would be to consider a white shirt under white sunlight. The shirt looks white to us, but if placed under a shaded green tree, the shirt has now taken on a green cast, except that we still perceive it as white and not green. 

This is a real problem for us as photographers, because for many of us, we don't see the green cast until we get home and review the images. Colour constancy is not so useful to us as photographers when we wish to see the actual colour that the object will be rendered on our film / digital sensor. Our visual system hijacks us into believing that the apple still looks green, even though it has taken on a warmer hue, or that the white shirt is still white, even though it has now taken on a green cast.

It is important to understand that objects do not have colour, but instead, that colour is an 'event'. We need three things for us to see colour: a light source, a subject, and of course ourselves to witness the light being reflected of the subject. As the light source changes, the light reflected back of the subject changes and as a result, its colour changes. But because of colour constancy, we perceive the colour of the subject to be relatively stable as the light source changes.

Cameras do not see the way we see. They do not have colour constancy - if the apple takes on a different colour at sunset, then the camera sees and records the change in colour, but we in turn do not. Similarly, if the white shirt takes on a green cast whilst placed under a tree, then the camera is able to see this and record it also, whereas we do not.

The only caveat to this is when we set the white-balance of the camera to 'auto'. When we do this, we tell the camera to 'tune-out' any colour casts and try to render what it is recording as a mid-day temperature. So in effect, 'Auto-white-balance' is the camera's own way of obtaining colour-constancy. I don't believe we should use AWB (auto white balance) in cameras because we would effectively be tuning out the warm hues that are present at sunrise, or the cold hues that are present at twilight. 

I see colour-constancy as a handicap though. For landscape photographers what we really need to see is how the colours change under varying light sources. Yet our visual system is doing everything in its power to 'tune-out' everything so we don't see these colour changes. You can consider colour-constancy as our own in-built 'auto-white-balance'. 

Colour constancy allows us to perceive squares A and B as different, when they are actually the same luminance. (source Wikipedia). Try it out - open this image in Photoshop and use the eyedropper tool to check the RGB values of square A and B. You will find that they are both R:120, G:120, B:120.

Colour constancy allows us to perceive squares A and B as different, when they are actually the same luminance. (source Wikipedia). Try it out - open this image in Photoshop and use the eyedropper tool to check the RGB values of square A and B. You will find that they are both R:120, G:120, B:120.

Being aware of our own in-built 'white-balance' - our ability to tune out these colour changes is important. We need to be aware of the different colour temperatures that are present throughout the cycle of a day from twilight (cold, blue) to sunrise (magentas, warm) to midday (neutral) and how these will affect the subjects we photograph.

Over the years, I've learned to be more aware of how colour constancy is affecting my judgement.

About a year ago, I was standing on a beach with a group of workshop participants. There was a prominent red sky towards where the sun was rising, and I knew this would mean that if the light source is warm, the entire landscape would be bathed in the same warm tones. The first thing I notice about many photographers is that they want to shoot towards the sun because they perceive the red colour being present only in that direction. They don't perceive the rest of the landscape as being bathed in the same warm light, and this is because of colour-constancy. I asked my group to tell me what colour the clouds were during the sunrise. To my eye, they were magenta. It was interesting to note that half of the group said they were magenta while the remaining members said the clouds were grey. It was only when reviewing the work in our mid-day editing session that it was obvious the landscape was pink, and so too were the clouds, yet half of the group weren't aware of it at the time of capture.

Understanding our own visual limitations, of how we can be tricked into thinking that a subject's colour remains mainly constant under varying lighting conditions is a key awareness skill.

My first Digital Darkroom Workshop

I'm just home from leading my first ever "Fieldwork to Digital-Darkroom" workshop, which entails marrying what is done out in the field with the post-edit stage. My course is based on my e-book - 'The Digital Darkroom - Image Interpretation Techniques'

Still very much a work-in-progress e-book, but I feel I'm getting a better sense of what should be included now that I'm teaching digital-darkroom interpretation skills.

Still very much a work-in-progress e-book, but I feel I'm getting a better sense of what should be included now that I'm teaching digital-darkroom interpretation skills.

The course was run at Adrian Hollister's Open Studio environment in the north-west of Scotland. Adrian runs many workshops with such notables as Joe Cornish, David Ward, Eddie Euphramus and the wonderful Paul Wakefield. His studio has six iMac computers, all colour calibrated and it's on the door-step of some wonderful landscapes which are within a 30 minute drive. Perfect venue for running such a workshop.

I've been wanting to run a course like this for a very long time, because I feel that the editing stage is often considered as an almost secondary, isolated task, something that is unrelated to the capture stage. 

Adrian Hollister's Digital Darkroom Studio, Mellon Charles, Wester Ross, Scotland

Adrian Hollister's Digital Darkroom Studio, Mellon Charles, Wester Ross, Scotland

I firmly believe that the fieldwork and editing stages are interrelated. Our editing sessions teach us about things we didn't notice at the time of capture and they illustrate to us what we need to be more aware of in future - if we choose to make the connection! Similarly, once we know how far we can push and pull images in the digital-darkroom, we are in a more informed position whilst choosing certain subjects, contrasts and qualities of light. There is a symbiotic nature between the two, and so for me, the word 'post' as in 'post-process' discourages our thinking into believing both tasks are unrelated, when they are not.

In fact, I abhor the phrase 'post-process' because it makes the entire editing stage sound like a functional, emotionless act. Images become something you could just stick in a washing machine, turn a few dials and let it run on auto. Which isn't the case. Editing requires much awareness - of tonal relationships, of competing elements, of flow throughout the image.

And adjustments made in the digital-darkroom should be made whilst noticing how our emotional response is affected when we change tones and contrasts in the work. It is much to do about 'feel' as it is to do about technology.

So I made a point that this week's workshop would not be about teaching photoshop, or teaching Lightroom. Anyone can do that in their own time, and that kind of knowledge is easy to get. No, what I wanted to teach was how to interpret what you've captured - to see and take advantage of themes present within the composition, to notice tonal relationships between subjects within the frame, to see that each image has an underlying structure that almost spells out how it should be edited to bring these motifs further forward. 

The digital darkroom is a creative space, one where we can bring out the essence of the motifs we discover in the image. That's its primary function for me. I do not see this as a way for fixing bad images. A bad image is always a bad image. We have an expression here 'you can't polish a turd'. Instead, I see it as a way to bring out the beauty and essence that can, with a bit of interpretation, be found in a good image.

But interpretation is a skill, and like composition, has to be earned and improved over the lifespan of our involvement with photography. There is no manual for this, just an improved ability to read an image, to understand what is going on, and to know your toolkit (software) well enough to be able to bring forward your interpretation.

So I was curious to see how my group of participants would edit their work after five days of guidance and continuous feedback. I definitely saw improvements in most participants work. Certainly in the daily reviews I would notice that all of the participants had observations and awareness of what might be done to help remove distractions, or bring out themes within the work, but what I had not envisaged was that some of the group would be far too subtle with their edits and I think there are a few reasons for this.

Firstly, each one of us has our own aesthetic. We have our own tastes. Some photographers are more interested in the verbatim. What they see out in the landscape is what they want to capture, and so the edits will be done with a lot of sympathy for how they perceived their reality.

Secondly, some will under-edit because of a lack of objectivity. Ideally we need a few weeks between capture and edit. I always find that if trying to edit work straight away is hard because we're so often attached to an idea of what we wanted to convey and if the image is not successful in this regard, we may feel it is not a success. Leave it for a few weeks and you will come back to it with a fresh eye. If there are any motifs of themes within the image - you're more likely to work with those because you're more open to see other things where you were not at the point of capture.

Thirdly, I think under-editing happens through a lack of confidence. Too scared to adjust the image too much because the photographer feels they don't have enough skill to know what to do. But I also think it may be because they feel they may lose something in the process, and could be holding onto how the image looks now, and can't see beyond that to another destination.

It's this that interests me most and I must confess that I feel there is no clear answer. Editing is a skill that is derived from many years of self-improvement. If I look back at my own editing abilities, and consider images I shot 10 years ago, I can see that often I knew there was something missing in an image, but I couldn't put my finger on what it might be. I see tonal errors in them where at the time of edit, my abilities were so untuned I thought I saw beauty. Where I was perhaps overcome by the strong colours of my chosen film, I now see a clumsy edit.

Digital-darkroom skills take a lifetime of continuous self-improvement. We have to put the work in. But we also have to be smart about it. Simply cranking up contrasts or saturation across the board is a clumsy way to edit work, and it should be something that doesn't happen so much as it did when you began your editing career. But things only change if you take the time to consider and reflect on what might be the best way forward to edit your work, and self-awareness is something that has to be built upon over time.

I found my Digital-Darkroom workshop did help my participants. There were moments where I felt I had led my horses to water, only they were unable to drink, because if they can't see it themselves, then I can't force them to. Improving editing skills can't be rushed, but certainly a week in the field and behind a computer with a photographer you like the work of, may help bring about an improved sense of awareness, and that's what I believe happened this week.


Josef Albers - Interaction of Color

I've been saying for a while now, that digital-darkroom skills take a lifetime to master. It is a continuous journey of self improvement. Simply buying a copy of Lightroom or Photoshop and learning the applications may give us the tools, but it does not make us great craftsmen. We need to delve deeper than simply adding contrast or saturation to our images to truly understand how to get the best out of our editing and to move our photographic art forward.

Josef Albers fascinating 'Interaction of Colour'. It's quite an old publication now, but it's great for getting a better grasp of colour theory.

Josef Albers fascinating 'Interaction of Colour'. It's quite an old publication now, but it's great for getting a better grasp of colour theory.

Lately, I've been taking more of an interest in tonal relationships and more specifically, the theories behind how we interpret colour. It's something that has grown out of my own awareness of how my digital-darkroom interpretation skills are developing.

Simply put, I believe we all have varying levels of visual awareness. Some of us may be more attuned to colour casts than others for example. While others may have more of an intuitive understanding of tonal relationships. 

Ultimately, if we're not aware of tonal and colour relationships within the images we choose to edit, then we will never be able to edit them particularly well. I think this is perhaps a case of why we see so many badly edited (read that as over-processed) images on the web. Many are too attached to what they think is present in the image, and there's a lack of objectivity about what really is there. 

So for the past few weeks I've been reading some really interesting books on the visual system. In Bruce Frazer's 'Real World Colour Management' book for instance, I've learned that our eye does not respond to quantity of light in a linear fashion.

An overly-simplified illustration. It demonstrates that the human eye is not able to perceive differences in real-world tonal values. Our eye tends to compress brighter tones, which is why we need to use grads on digital cameras, because their response is linear, while our response is non-linear.

An overly-simplified illustration. It demonstrates that the human eye is not able to perceive differences in real-world tonal values. Our eye tends to compress brighter tones, which is why we need to use grads on digital cameras, because their response is linear, while our response is non-linear.

We tend to compress the brighter tones and perceive them as the same luminosity as darker ones. A classic case would be that we can see textural detail in ground and also in sky, while our camera cannot. Cameras have a linear response to the brightness values of the real world, while we have a non-linear response.

Similarly, when we put two similar (but not identical) tones together, we can discern the difference between them:

Two different tones. Easy to notice the tonal differences when they are side by side.

Two different tones. Easy to notice the tonal differences when they are side by side.

But when we place them far apart - we cannot so easily notice the tonal differences:

Two different tones, far apart. Their tonal difference to each other is less obvious.

Two different tones, far apart. Their tonal difference to each other is less obvious.

Our eye is easily deceived, and I'm sure that having some knowledge of why this is the case, can only help me in my pursuit to become more aware of how I interpret what I see, whether it is in the real world, or on a computer monitor.

Josef Albers fascinating book 'Interaction of Colour' was written back in the 1950's. I like it very much because it:

"is a record of an experimental way of studying colour and of teaching colour".

His introduction to the book sums up for me what I find most intriguing about how we see -

"In visual perception a colour is almost never seen as it really is - as it physically is. This fact makes colour the most relative medium in art".

Indeed. How a viewer of your work may interpret what your image says may be totally subjective, but there are certain key physical as well as psychological reasons for why others are relating to your work the way they do. But most importantly, if we don't 'see it' ourselves, then we are losing out during the creative digital darkroom stage of our editing.

"The aim of such a study is to develop - through experience - by trial and error - an eye for colour. this means, specifically, seeing colour actions as well as feeling colour relatedness"

And this is the heart of the matter for me. I know when I edit work, that sometimes I need to leave it for a few days and return later - to see it with a fresh eye. Part of this is that I am too close to the work and need some distance from it, so I can be more objective about what I've done.

But I also know that I don't see colour or tonal relationships so easily. I need to work at them. I am fully aware that I still have a long way to go (a life long journey in fact) to improve my eye. And surely this is the true quest of all photographers - to improve one's eye?

The memory of a colour

While I was in the Fjallabak region of the central highlands of Iceland this September, I encountered a number of vast black deserts. I've been in vast landscapes of nothingness before, such as the Salar de Uyuni salt flats of the Bolivian altiplano, and also the pampas of Patagonia.

These places are captivating endless nothingnesses that make the eye hunt and hunt for something to latch onto. At least, that's what I think happens when humans encounter something so vast and featureless.

One of the many black deserts of the central highlands of Iceland. Black can come in many shades and hues, as I discovered.

One of the many black deserts of the central highlands of Iceland. Black can come in many shades and hues, as I discovered.

This was nothing new for me. But what was new for me, was that I discovered that black isn't really just black. There are many different types of black desert to be found in Iceland. One of them - near the volcano Hekla, is so jet-black (it feels as if nothing can escape it's pull) that you realise every other black desert you've witnessed has to a large degree - some kind of colour to it.

There's a lot of psychology at play when it comes to interpreting colour.

Bruce Frazer's excellent book on colour management. Every photographer should read this.

Bruce Frazer's excellent book on colour management. Every photographer should read this.

For instance, I've been reading Bruce Frazer's fantastic book 'Real World Colour Management', and in it he describes the psychological factors involved in how we interpret colour. Colour is as he describes it 'an event'. It is light being reflected off a subject and viewed by an observer.

We have what he describes 'memory colour'. For instance, we know what skin tone looks like, and we all know the kind of blue a blue sky should be. We know 'from memory' how these colours should be. There are psychological expectations that certain colours should be certain colours. 

I think this applies to how I perceived the black deserts of Iceland. If i say a desert is black, we think of it as jet-black, even though it might be a deep, muddy brown-black, or a deep muddy purple-black.

I think most of the time, many of us simply go around looking at colour but not 'seeing it'. We use memory colours all the time with little thought to what the real colour of an object might be.

For example, last year during a workshop, my group and I were all working in very pink light during sunrise. Knowing that the entire landscape was bathed in a pink light, and that many of us don't notice the colour cast so obviously, I asked my group individually what colour the clouds were. Half of the group correctly said that the clouds were pink, while the other half incorrectly said that they were white. My feeling on this matter is that those who said the clouds were white - were attaching a memory of what they think clouds should look like. They were, in other words, not really noticing the colour of the object at all, but just attaching a common belief that clouds are white. This is a good example of memory colour.

But let's go one stage further. This might actually not be colour-memory at play though. It could simply be our internal auto-white-balance working. It's known that the human visual system is very good at adapting to different hues of white light. If we are in twilight, we may not see the blue colour temperature of the light on the landscape (but we sure would notice it's twilight if we take a photo on a digital camera and look at the histogram - there will predominantly be a lot of information in the blue channel, and very little in the red and green channels). Likewise, if we are sitting in tungsten light at home, our visual system adapts and tunes out the 3000k warm hue that we're being bathed in.

I think I was applying 'colour memory' to the black deserts of Iceland - I wasn't aware of the subtle differences in hues between one black desert and the other, because I had just attached a memory of what I know black should be (all blacks are black right?).

Being aware of the subtle differences in colour is hard work, because our visual system has evolved to adapt to whatever context we exist in. If we are sitting in pink sunrise light, we tune it out. If we do detect any pink at all,  it's in the more obvious region of the sky where the sun is. That's why most amateur photographers point their cameras towards the sun at sunrise (I tend to point 180º the other way, because I know the pink light is everywhere, and the tones are softer and much easier to record).

If I see clouds, I assume they are white because my visual system has its own auto-white balance. If I see skin tones, I use colour-memory to assume all skin tones to be the same, regardless of what kind of light the person is being bathed in. For example, if someone is standing underneath a green tree, there will be a degree of green-ness to their skin tone which I won't see, because of colour memory.

We lie to ourselves all the time, but our camera doesnt. It tell's it like it is, and I think this is the nub of todays post: being a good photographer is about being as colour-aware as we can be.

This is not an easy thing to do, because we are hijacked by our own evolution: our visual system tunes out colour casts all the time, and we also apply colour memory to familiar objects. We expect certain things to have certain colours, and as a result, we tend to ignore the subtle difference that the colour temperature of the light we're working in can have.

As I keep saying to myself as I work on my new images from Iceland "Not all black deserts are black".