Uncovering the story in my work

Working on an image by image basis is what most of us do. Indeed, I think any other way is hardly ever considered. We tend to think of images as stories in their own right, and collections of our work tend to be location based : 20 images from Iceland, 34 images from China, etc, etc.

I’ve been more interested in the sum of the parts of a collection of work, than in individual images for a while now. I think I can find more about who I am as a photographer, when I put sets of images together.

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I find several benefits of working on portfolios, or collections:

  1. By placing the images side by side, I find that the edits of one image inform another.

  2. Some images push others further on in their development. I realise that some images are under-produced and need further work to bring them up to the same level as others.

  3. I see my style of photography become more evident through this process.

Point 3 is the most important for me.

Most workshop participants who are wondering if they have a style often say something along the lines of ‘I don’t know if I have a style’. I know I have a style in my work, because I have found portfolio development instrumental into forcing me to see where the relationships and themes are in what I do.

There is an underlying story to our work. It’s sitting there in plain sight of us, but it just needs us to look at our work in a different way. Rather than working on images on an image by image basis, I’d recommend trying to find collections that sit together well. They tend to inform me about where my recurring themes are, what I tend to do a lot of, and how I use tone and form. Portfolios are teachers. It just takes us a little effort to put together work in such a way where it flows. We can learn so much about who we are as creative artists, and where our strengths and weaknesses are.

Uncovering the story of my work has been hugely instrumental in pushing my own development forward. Few of us enquire, reflect upon our work in a collective way. We tend to look at images one at a time, and to me, this is like looking at single words at a time. By putting the work together we form paragraphs and by collecting portfolios we put chapters together. This form of assemblage, after some time, begins to write a story of who we are and what we’re trying to say with our photographs.


Photo tourist or photo artist? Which are you?

I think there are two kinds of landscape photographer:

  1. The photo artist

  2. the photo tourist

The photo artist is someone who wants to show others their view. They are looking to find their own voice, to show others what they saw and felt.

The photo tourist loves to visit really beautiful places and come home with mementos. They are happy to go to a well known location and make their own version of a well known composition. They enjoy being outdoors, seeing these rare and special places and wish to capture a good photograph, even if it may be a ‘cover’ of a well known composition.

eight different photographers, eight different ‘cover’s of a well known composition. All valid, all beautiful efforts in their own right.

eight different photographers, eight different ‘cover’s of a well known composition.
All valid, all beautiful efforts in their own right.

In the past decade, I’ve seen a massive rise in photo-tourism. Indeed, some of the photographic-tours I have run in the past have now become overrun with photographer-tourists. Take for instance the set of photos above. Eight photographs by eight photographers. All are a ‘cover’ of a well known view of the town of Hamnøy in the Lofoten islands. All are very nice images in their own right. The view is from a bridge and each morning during the months of February and March the bridge is often crowded with photographers - all making their version of a well known composition.

For many of us, reproducing a well known composition is a lot of fun. It’s simply enjoyable to be out there, and to come home with some nice images from our travels is great.

But, I am left wondering if when we take photos of a well known location, particularly a well known composition, whether we really understand that the only reason why we are able to capture these scenes, is because someone else found them for us? If you had been living under a rock for most of your life, and someone took you to Lofoten, would you naturally gravitate to a well known composition unaided by someone else’s photographs?

I don’t think so.

So which are you? Are you a photographic-tourist, or a photographic artist? Are you more interested in just coming home with beautiful, if unoriginal photographs of a well known place, or are you more interested in trying to find your own point of view, of trying to show others what you saw and felt?

I realise that it’s really really hard to find original compositions. It’s also much much easier to follow others. But when we follow others too much, we lose the chance to find out who we are and to show others what we saw and felt. This of course, may not be everyone’s motivation in making photographs: many of us just simply enjoy being there, and making images. It’s irrelevant to some of us whether the work is original or whether we are making our own version of a well known scene. If we enjoy it, then that’s just great.

We all get something out of the photographic experience and indeed, we can all learn a lot by copying well known compositions. They often teach us so much, that I think there is great value in imitating the things that inspire us. It’s just that we all need to be honest with ourselves when we’re relying too much on someone else’s ability to see a composition, and just how much further we have to go to find our own view.

Finding our own view has never been an easy task. Indeed, good photography isn’t easy. Nor is it something we master in a short while. Good photography is about being an individual, of being independent, of showing others how you see the world. Good photography is a life-long endeavour of self improvement, of development. Sure, go ahead and copy well known compositions if they make you happy and you learn a lot from the experience, but at some point, we should try to leave the well beaten path and start to show others what we saw and felt. That is why we should all photograph: to show others what we see.

Being original is hard work. The things that really matter in life often are.

Enjoy your journey :-)

Going Backwards

Somehow, sometimes, I feel as if I’m going backwards.

I take this as a message. A marker, a notice: “Do not pass this way again" - this is old ground.

We all know when we’re repeating ourselves, or when we’ve outgrown something. I think that feeling one is going backwards is a perfectly normal part of creative progress. To move forward we have to feel that where we are right now, isn’t good enough any more.

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In Patagonia

I’ve just finished a tour of Torres del Paine national park in Chilean Patagonia. Thanks so much to everyone who came and shared some time with me :-)

Image courtesy of Mark McClure, tour participant 2019.

Image courtesy of Mark McClure, tour participant 2019.

I’ve been coming here since 2003. It is my favourite national park by far, simply because I feel I have history with it. Some places get under your skin and become part of who you are, and I think shape you as a person through the experiences you have with them.

So many wonderful encounters ranging from Sabine, my guide who is such a lovely person, to seeing Puma’s on just about every tour I’ve done here in the past 5 years.

The park is changing quite a lot now. As is the case with everywhere else : things are busy. Too busy.

So many photographers now, and tourists. We are living in a smaller world.

I’ve been running tours now for 10 years and I’ve seen so much change in that time. Airports have expanded, tourist numbers have gotten larger, and there are more photographers. It is becoming harder to have a solitary experience in the world’s famous places.

Scotland is overrun with tourists. Lofoten is overrun with photographers in the winter. Iceland is the same. Everywhere that has a magnetic pull, is now no longer the idea of the sole traveller but the idea of the many. Having that solitary experience is becoming less and less a possibility.

Image courtesy of Mark McClure, tour participant 2019.

Image courtesy of Mark McClure, tour participant 2019.

Much like the hiking community, a set of principles, a code of conduct would be very welcome. I feel that things are changing and park guidelines are becoming more and more restrictive.

I’d love the national parks to consider the dreams and wishes of all landscape photographers, but at present many of the rules and regulations are going in the opposite direction: things are becoming more restrictive. This is of course to save these places from the increasing footfall they’re experiencing.

If we want to get the photos we want, we have to cooperate as best as we can: we all have to be the best ambassador we can for the photographic community. I don’t know what that might entail and far be it for me to suggest, or put some thoughts forward on this.

In the meantime, all I can do is go out into the world and care for it: realise that it is a precious thing and that I represent the photography community at large with my actions. Act responsibly and try not to put the pursuit of my photography above everything else.

I wish for all of us to consider that regulations are becoming much tighter, and if we want to continue to photograph these special places without too much restrictions, we need to go lightly, and with much care into the world.

Wood block painting, Romania 2019

A dear friend has just mentioned that this photo looks like a wood block painting. That makes me very happy as I love to abstract in my photography.

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Most of my images from this year were shot with a 250mm lens and a 2x converter. This one was more - it was a 250mm lens with 2x converter and also a 1.4 x converter. I often saw groups of objects together that only worked from where I was standing: get closer and the group would disperse or something would get in the way of the shot.

Many thanks to Florin Patras for being my guide this February. Such kindness, and I can’t thank hm enough.

I just started work on my new Romania images, but I’ve run out of time. Off to Patagonia tomorrow. Hope to resume the Romanian journey once I get home.

Vestmannaeyjar

The Vestmannaeyjar (westman islands), Iceland. As part of my central highlands of Iceland tour this year, we ended up at the coast on the last day. What felt like a rather incidental shot taken to fill up the time before we headed back to Reykjavik turned into something a little bit more than that. I’ve always wanted to shoot the Vestmannaeyjar, but I didn’t anticipate that it would happen as an add-on to a trip into the interior.

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Stephen in the landscape

tonight I’m working on my images for this year’s central highlands Iceland tour. This is the trip where we work with as little as possible. Ultimate minimalism !

Occasionally one of my group members would pop into the frame of my camera. We are all spread out as explorers in this vast canvas of white. My good friend Stephen Naor came over the brow of a hill, and I chose to include him in the photograph. I think it adds some nice scale to show how minimal this landscape can be.

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What I love about the central highlands in winter time, is that the wind often blows the snow off the crest of hills leaving them exposed. The black desert below peaks through the snow and provides the illusion of black brush strokes on a white canvas.

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The first two images will feature in my finalised portfolio. I include the image below, just to prove to those who know Stephen that it is indeed him :-)

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Euclidean geometry, Lençóis Maranhenses, Brazil

I’ve been reviewing my images from Lençóis Maranhenses tonight, as I will be visiting this fabulous place in a few weeks time for my second visit.

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Why is it, that most photographers try to shoot the entirety of a lake or lagoon? Rather than using a section of it, which I think provides a more focussed composition, most are tempted to get the wide angle out and shoot its entire circumference. It just smacks of trying too hard to spell a message out that most viewers already understand.

All I’ve learned is that less is often more.

Try to fit an entire lake into the frame and all that happens is the picture become weak as a lack of presence ensues. All because one is trying too hard to convey too much.

Rather than trying to squeeze a whole lake into the frame of your camera, I would suggest you focus on a small region of the lake. Preferably an area that offers some kind of elegant shape to keep the viewer interested.

The viewer will fill in the missing gaps. As is the case with my photograph. For most viewers the lagoon doesn't stop at the edge of the frame: it continues beyond, and the viewer delights in filling in the missing gaps.

The Creative Process

Illusive, all encompassing, being creative is our life’s work.

I’ve been writing about creativity for some time now, and I think it’s time I put together something in a more formal format, something that is convenient to read through.

So I’m busy collating all my favourite blog entires over the past few years.

I’m finding I have been doing a lot of re-writing to give more clarity to some of the entries. It might be the perfectionist in me, but I do find that sometimes when I write on my blog I almost need to write the post twice: the first time to figure out what it is I’m trying to say, and the second time to say it as best as I can :-) So I’m busy re-editing the entries right now. So far the e-Book is up at around 120 pages.

I hope to have it ready by the summer.

Thanks to everyone for buying my Printing masterclass e-book. I was surprisingly inundated with orders for it. I’ve obviously been living under the misconception that few photographers print these days. Printing isn’t a black art, nor should it be difficult to achieve great prints that match your monitor. So I was very pleased to find that the e-book sold very well. Thank you :-)

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The making of.....

Everyone sees differently, and if I give you any thoughts today about how I created my images, please bear in mind that there are many ways an image can be constructed. I am not advocating that mine is the only way, or the right way.

You should try to find your own way, and I think the best way to do that, is by listening to what others say - particularly photographers that you like, and figure out what parts of their process resonate with you. If it makes sense : use it. If it doesn’t, then discard it. The key thing is to think for yourself and to decide what works for you.

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Image prologue

I often find myself responding to the elements. If it looks good: shoot it. Don’t attempt the ‘I’ll come back for that one, as the reason you like it now, is because it’s working now. I’m not one to sit around for hours anticipating a good shot at a particular place. That’s a bit like trying to predict the stock market.

Interestingly, to contradict this, I don’t like chasing photographs either. Come on a workshop with me and you won’t find me chasing the weather forecast. You can often find something where you are right now. I prefer to stay where I am, and I seem to take a perverse delight in not knowing what the forecast is. My reason for this is - I don’t know what I’m going to want to shoot until I see it, and trying to put some kind of formula onto my shooting by watching or expecting certain weather patterns is just pointless in my view.

The adage remains true: if you don’t go, you don’t get. Or f8 and be there.

And I’ve had many workshops where the forecast didn’t look promising (for me - it’s usually a case of it being too sunny) only to find out that we found things to shoot and had a great time. You always find something.

The image

But this photo is a mixture of serendipity and of also waiting. I’ve been to this location many times and I’ve never seen it quite like this. It was snowing very heavily, and there wasn’t a breath of wind. So I knew that any small trees I used would be stationary for long enough. When I did find this composition - a small tree at the verge of the road that I’d never seen before, I knew that it would fit nicely with the background trees when the snow was blowing through. The sun was right in the centre of the frame and it kept popping through the snow clouds a bit too much causing a lot of extreme contrast. So once I settled upon the composition, I had to wait it out for about 10 minutes hoping the cloud front would thicken and obliterate the sun enough so I could record it on film without over exposure.

Learning to anticipate what the weather is going to do in the next few minutes is a good thing, but I often give myself a ‘time-out’ period and if I’ve been waiting far too long, I tend to abandon the shot and go find something that is working. I’m not in the fortune telling business. I’m here to work with what’s working now.

I used a telephoto for this lens. A 150mm lens on my Hasselblad, which relates to around 75mm on full 35mm format. The background trees were far away, so I had to pull them in and isolate them from the other noise outside the frame. But this left the foreground tree too large in the frame. So I had to walk back periodically into the middle of the road to get this shot.

Zooms shouldn’t be thought of as ‘how much you’re getting in, or how much you’re excluding’. They are really powerful at changing the emphasis between background and foreground. My trick is to do this:

  1. Set the focal length to make the background the size I want.

  2. Move forward or backwards to change the foreground to the size I want.

You see, once you set the focal length, no matter how many feet you walk forward or backwards, the background size remains unchanged. So once you set the focal length, your background is now fixed. Which then means you need to move forward or backwards to fit in your foreground. Moving a few feet either way can change the size of your foreground dramatically, while keeping the background the same size.

I’ve mentioned it many times, but for beginners, zooms are counterproductive. You tend to stay rooted in one spot and instead of walking around, tend to zoom in and out to get the foreground AND background to fit the frame. So you have two variables that change at the same time.

It’s much easier to work with one variable as a beginner, than two.

With a fixed focal length you have one variable to work with. Since you can’t change the size of the background, you only have the foreground to change. It makes for simpler composition if you only have one thing changing when you move. And besides, primes force us to move around the landscape - and that’s just great as they force us to discover things we wouldn’t have noticed by standing still.

Please don’t misinterpret what I’m saying. I am not saying that zooms are bad. Zooms are for the experienced shooter. Not the beginner. I just think that as beginners, working with fixed focal lengths is easier to master and as you become more experienced you can migrate up to zooms.

If you already own zooms, I’d suggest you try to prevent yourself from just standing still and zooming in/out to get a good shot. Instead, try to think of your zoom as a collection of fixed focal lengths. Try setting the zoom at 24mm, 50mm and 70mm and when you choose one of these, move around to see how the scene fits into the frame. Try to avoid micro-adjusting the focal length. In other words:

  1. Zoom to fit the background into the frame the size you want it to be.

  2. Move backwards and forwards to introduce / remove foreground elements until you get a good balance between background and foreground.

Back to the image

This image works well because I have the proportions between background trees and foreground tree about right. It also works well because I used the weather conditions to reduce the contrast of the sun to a manageable exposure.

It’s one of my favourites from this year’s Hokkaido trip. I’ve been to this place many times and yet this is the first time I saw this composition, which just goes to prove that nowhere is truly ever ‘done’ and going back and back again is always advantageous.

Looking for a fresh point of view?

I feel that polarisation seems to be at the heart of many human interactions these days.

I feel that we are split. Find those who agree with us, and try to avoid those who disagree with us. But I think we should do the opposite. To hang around with those who agree with us, is just to live in a feedback loop and we learn nothing new.

Rather than follow the newspapers that reinforce our beliefs, or follow the photographers that tell us what we already believe, we should go out there to find an alternative view. Even one we may disagree with. Because it will challenge us.

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If you know yourself enough, you are most probably comfortable hearing another point of view without feeling threatened. To be able to filter between your own beliefs and someone else’s and to find a new position is the kind of openness we all need as artists.

I don’t for one minute expect everyone to agree with my blog writings. My blog is just a point of view. That’s all it is. But is it challenging enough for you?.

Often hearing things we don’t want to hear, can feel unpleasant, or may feel of little benefit at the time. But if you’re as old as I am (52), then you’ve perhaps learned that challenges and trials in life are often times of growth. We don’t see them that way at the moment they happen, but often years later we’re able to look back and say ‘I learned something’.

I really don’t wish to live in a world where things are predictable and stay the same. And I realise I’m entitled to change my mind as time goes on, because I learn. And I change. We all do.

I think comments or views that are considered negative at the time, are views we should sit up and listen to. I don’t mean to suggest they’re always right, but if they challenge our point of view, then it means we have been given a chance to grow. We’re either able to get more clarity on our current position, or to discover that we’ve learned something and our position has changed as a result.

For me, I’d prefer to go and seek someone who tells me something I’ve never heard before. I’d like to believe I’m strong enough to not feel threatened, while at the same time be able to re-consider without being brainwashed - to find my own new position.

Which brings me to my point today:

  1. as much as I believe I am right, there is always room for another way of seeing things.

  2. I’m entitled to change my mind, at any point.

  3. I’m entitled to change my art, at any point.

  4. Everything is up for discussion. Even when the work is complete.

  5. The work is never complete.

The work is never complete. Nothing is ever cast in stone, and nothing is ever black and white. We should seek fluidity in what we do. We should allow things to happen regardless of our views. We need to be open to let creativity flow.

Re-imagining your exposures

This article relates to RAW conversion, and also film scanning. Although I may refer to film scanning most of the time, you should take into consideration that this applies to RAW conversion also. It’s just that I’m a film shooter, but the concepts still apply if you are a digital shooter.

RAW conversion is important because it is the foundation which all your subsequent edits are built upon. If you start with an image that has too much contrast in it, then you’ll be fighting a losing battle in trying to make some parts of the scene calmer later on in the edit.

In my scanner software, I’ve chosen to move the mid tone slider to the far right. I get much brighter, and softer scans from this. It’s a really great setting for snow or bright scenes and it keeps the tonal graduations smooth and soft.  Setting exposure in a film scanner is an art. You need to learn to use the exposure control to give you the file you want.

In my scanner software, I’ve chosen to move the mid tone slider to the far right. I get much brighter, and softer scans from this. It’s a really great setting for snow or bright scenes and it keeps the tonal graduations smooth and soft.

Setting exposure in a film scanner is an art. You need to learn to use the exposure control to give you the file you want.

My theory and working practice is to try to keep the RAW file as soft and flat as possible. If you start with a soft file, you can always add contrast to local areas of the scene later on. But it’s often impossible to do it the other way round. Start with a contrasty file and try to reduce the contrast in certain areas often has unbelievable and displeasing results.

If I were a digital shooter I would use the black and white sliders sparingly. I would also adopt a view that RAW conversion is not about “pumping up the file to get an all-in-one punchy look”. That’s a dangerous road to go down, and unfortunately, it’s the road that many take.

“RAW conversion should be about setting a minimal baseline from which to work with. But it should be also just as importantly about maintaining the smoothest, softest tones you can keep in your file. By cranking up the blacks and whites in the conversion or applying some camera profile such as ‘vivid’ or ‘landscape you are just going to make the tones within the image much more contrasty and 'hard' looking. All those beautiful soft tones will be obliterated in a couple of clicks.

The same is true for film scanning. When I scan, I never use the auto-exposure feature because it’s assumption is that the file will look much better if the blacks and whites are clipped by a percentage and the tonal range is compressed to look punchy. I’m sure the assumption by ‘Auto-Exposure’ is to try to get the file looking strong as soon as possible. But it’s a clumsy way to work.

Once it’s baked in, it’s baked in. Working with a badly exposed film scan won’t get me anywhere.

“I am often trying to keep the contrasts low and sometimes the mid point of the levels command is pushed to the far right to brighten up the exposure while maintaining low contrast.

In summary, going for the “let’s get the image looking close to where we want” approach at the beginning of RAW conversion is , in my view, bad practice. There is nowhere to go after you do this. The cake is baked before you got the chance to do anything with it.

“Your approach should be for local contrast adjustment. By applying contrast selectively to areas of the image you maintain smooth tones while introducing the perception of punch in the image.

You need to have latitude in your file to leave areas of it soft and be able to punch up the contrast where you feel it’s needed. Applying global contrast in one swoop may feel like you’ve got to where you need to go, but you do so at the cost of sabotaging areas of the picture that need a more delicate approach.

It’s just plain clumsy, a bit like the spray-and-pray attitude of firing the shutter and hoping that one image will be a good keeper. Image editing is a skill. It’s an art. It’s just as important as image composition out in the field, and an area that with the wrong approach can kill fine images.

New e-Book Printing Masterclass

For those of you who do not follow my monthly newsletter, a few days ago I published a new e-book about printing.

If you’ve been following my blog for some time, you will know that I don’t believe that images are truly finished until they have been printed well. In other words, printing is the final verification stage that you can do. A well calibrated and profiled monitor can only take you so far. As the American photographer Charlie Cramer says ‘ If it looks good on a monitor, there’s no guarantee it will look good in print, but if it looks good in print, it will look good on a monitor’. So we should all be printing.

Printing Masterclass, from colour management to final print with Photoshop
14.99

£14.99

Synopsis

The book covers everything you need to know about printing, from colour management including monitor calibration and profiling to how to optimise your images best for print.

There are many chapters in this e-book which can be used a reference for each time you print. If you forget how to use the print driver, or how to install new paper profiles - it’s all in here. Written in a simple step-by-step guide.

The book also provides step-by-step guides in monitor calibration and profiling with recommended settings.

Lastly, the book also covers best practices when optimising images for print, all laid out in such a way as to be able to refer to each time you go to print.

The book is split into three sections.

Learning:

in this section I give you the colour management knowledge you need to know for printing

  • Colour management profiles

  • Colour spaces and colour compression

Preparing:

In this section we do the practical work of monitor set up and installation of paper profiles

  • Monitor calibration & profiling

  • Printer profile installation & proofing

Doing:

In this section I walk through all the steps needed to optimise an image for print, and the steps to print.

  • Printing workflow best practices

  • Working with master files / RAW conversion

  • Preparing for print

  • Printing in Photoshop

  • Print evaluation

  • Photoshop actions

  • Equipment recommendations

Features

Adobe Acrobat PDF document, 111 Pages.
Comes with a set of Photoshop Actions

* Compatible with all versions of Photoshop (excluding Elements)

E-book format: Adobe Acrobat
Download format: Zip file containing 1 x Adobe Acrobat Files, 1 x Photoshop Actions file

Add To Cart

Maximum white pixel count problem

If you keep using the same camera for more than 4 or 5 years in snowy locations, you’ll eventually encounter the dreaded “maximum white pixel count reached” message. Once you reach this point, your camera will no longer be able to record snow any more.

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It’s the error message that all keen winter shooters should dread, because it signifies that the camera has been subjected to an unhealthy amount of RGB 255,255,255 scenes that all the white pixels have been used up.

That means no more Lofoten. No more Iceland, and no more Hokkaido.

It also means no more lone-tree-snow scenes.

As you can imagine, this last point personally caused me a great deal of panic.

There are so many hapless photographers out there using a camera that is effectively a time-bomb. With each actuation, with each shutter press fired in a snow scene, they are slowly marching their camera towards a snowy demise.

A hapless bunch of photographers. Unknowingly, their cameras, all heading towards a snowy demise.

A hapless bunch of photographers. Unknowingly, their cameras, all heading towards a snowy demise.

It’s certainly been a costly exercise for me. After each winter has passed, my digital cameras are often ready for the bin. That is, until recently.

There is a solution

To avoid your camera ever reaching white-pixel burn out, some photographers are advising to turn the exposure compensation to minus one (-1).

The reasoning is that this will ensure that your camera never uses any white pixels. At all. Which is great because you’ll completely avoid the possibility of ever running out of them.

The downside is that your pictures may suffer from being slightly dull. If you feel your images look a little dark after using this solution, I’ve found that turning the brightness dial of my monitor clockwise by a third can help a lot. More than you can imagine.

Parting thought

White-pixel-death is going to become a bigger problem in the years to come. As winter photography rises in popularity, camera manufacturers are going to have to think long and hard as to whether it may be worth setting the exposure compensation to minus one as a factory default.

I’ve even heard some rumours that some cameras may be released as special snow-editions. These models are essentially packed with twice as many white pixels as the standard models.

It’s early days yet, but it seems there may be a solution to keeping me happy shooting my lone-trees and white snow scenes for many years to come. Until a permanent solution is found, I’d advise we all just continue to work with exposure compensation set to minus one, and if that isn’t possible, shoot any snow scenes at night time when it’s dark.

Printing's role as the final stage in image verification

Back in the days when I didn’t print, and asked a pro lab to do it for me, I always had a nagging feeling that I’d lost control of my baby.

I’m a self-confessed control freak when it comes to what I do. A few days ago I wrote a blog post about appetite because I think I know appetite well: whatever I get into, I never seem to get into it in half measures.

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Knowing this about me, you may be surprised to find out that at the beginning of my photographic journey, I often got my images printed by a lab. Indeed, I only started printing about 10 years ago.

For a long time I shied away from tackling what seemed like a formidable mountain because colour management was like a black art to me.

So I stayed away.

I’ve been extremely fortunate to have this blog. It has allowed me to meet people who have helped me and I put out a request about a decade ago for some help and suggestions about printing. Not one person left an entry on the blog, but instead chose to email me privately about it. The emails usually had this format to them:

“I don’t want to get flamed for my opinion, but this is how I do printing”.

It seemed that printing was a religion and to say you had a different way of doing it to someone else’s way was often contentious. A point of view is just that, and yet I am often surprised that we feel threatened when someone has a different view from ourselves.

Well, I welcomed the input but the message I got from the replies was this: everyone has their own way of working.

I doubt things have changed much in that regard over the past decade. There is still a lot of ways you can slice an onion, and there is always going to be a huge amount of fact vs personal preference.

So it’s now a decade further on, and I feel I know a thing or two about printing now. Indeed, I feel that everyone who loves photography should print. For one very simple reason: to validate your edits.

Even with a well calibrated and profiled computer monitor, I have learned that I cannot 100% trust it. I think it has something to do with how the eye interprets transmitted light compared to reflected light.

The fact is: I often notice areas that need further work when I study a printed version of an image. Stranger still, I often find that once I notice the error on the print, I can now see it on the monitor also. But the opposite is not true.

So printing is your last verification stage, and to paraphrase the wonderful Charlie Cramer :

“images that look good on a computer monitor aren’t guaranteed to look good in print,
but good prints are guaranteed to look good on a computer monitor”

Well, the issue for most who don’t print is: how to get started? It seems like such a black art. Yes, it is difficult to get started. There is so much contradictory advice out there. There is no one single way to do this correctly (even if I think my process is good).

I think this is why I’ve chosen to attempt to write an ebook about it. If I can reduce the information down to what you need, rather than getting too lost in the technology, then maybe I might be able to help you get a head start with this. I’ll see how it goes, but so far I’m feeling good about how much I’ve written. I think it’s coming together really well.

On buying new equipment

I’m a gear head. Let’s face it, we all are. Aren’t we?

I just don’t like to write about it much, because there’s already too much of that kind of thing out there. Buying gear, and focussing on gear is much easier to do than actually working on improving our craft. And if we’re time-poor (which most of us are) then buying gear is an easy way of satisfying our desire to be out there making pictures.

I haven’t tired Lee’s new filter holder yet. And as much as I’m a self-professed gear head, I’m going to withhold from getting one.

No slight intended on Lee, or their filter holder. I’m sure it’s a wonderful product as I think original holder was a well made piece of kit.

It’s just that my current working process is working. Hence why I called it a working process. I don’t need to change it right now.

And this is my reason for writing today. If you have a process that’s working fine, then try not to mess with it too much. Ok, I appreciate that staying stuck in the mud for too long isn’t good either and it’s always worthwhile trying out new things. But I think there’s already too much of that. It’s so easy to get new things, and it’s so easy to change a working process without really understanding how it’s going to impact you.

I’m sure I’ll eventually try out the new Lee filter holder. But I’ll do that when my current holder gives out. But so far, over the past two decades, they’ve been pretty darn good and I’ve never had much complaint about them. I always felt that the Lee holder was one of the best holders out there.

Perhaps the new holder is better though. Well sure, that might be so, but I’m unwilling to go through the hassle of getting familiar with it. So often I’ve adopted a new piece of kit only to discover growing pains in getting used to it. For example, I once dropped a camera into a river because I wasn’t familiar with the clamp on a new ball head I had just got.

My process is pretty good right now. It works very well and I feel that all my equipment is like a comfortable glove. It doesn’t get in the way and I’m able to get on and do what matters : make images.

Appetite

So a few days ago I wrote about appetite.

I deliberately left it open and didn’t continue to expand on what I meant. My reasons were two:

  1. that I think if you’ve got it, you would know what I meant.

  2. and if you didn’t know what I meant, you might be prompted into thinking a bit more about it.

The web is full of self-help stuff. Most of it has a short-term feel-good factor but it’s rare that things we read stay with us the long term.

we’ve got to do the work. And we’ve got to be clever about it.

Me explaining things all the time isn’t you doing the work. It’s me doing the work, and you choosing to tune in, and tune out when you feel like it ;-)

Fjallabak-(6).jpg

The thing about appetite, is that it can be whatever you feel it means to you.

You may define it as ‘drive’, you may define it as ‘effort’, or ‘talent’.

But I’ve known many talented people who never complete things (that’s ok - it’s no judgement - do what you want to do), but I mention this just to illustrate that having talent alone doesn’t make someone a great photographer. Neither does working hard. I’m not a big fan of the 10,000 hour view that if you put enough time into something, you’ll get better. You can spend a lot of effort running in a circle.

I think good artists are self learners. They are able to use their time to learn from themselves as they go along. I’d dare to say that most great artists didn’t get to where they are because of an art class they took. Sure, the art class will have given them skills and new ways of working, but they had to spend the time and effort joining the dots, making the connections and finding their own path. In other words, at some stage : they took hold of the responsibilities of their own development.

That’s the appetite I’m talking about.

Having the aptitude to grow is one thing, but wanting to do it badly enough is another thing entirely.

If you really want to improve in your photography then there are no shortcuts. No quick fixes, no instant results.

We all have to do the work.

And we have to have the appetite to do it.

The rarest quality

Everyone is hoping to improve their photography skills. Skills can always be learnt.

But there is one thing that is much rarer than skill, and it’s something that can’t be learnt.

It’s called appetite.

Hokkaido-2019 (10).jpg


Colour compression & colour spaces

I’ve been working on some notes about printing lately. So this post today is all about colourspaces and what happens when we move an image from one colour space to another.

In the article I point out that colour management is not about colour accuracy, but more about how we choose to work around physical limitations as we move from one device to another, each with different colour gamuts.

2200 Matt paper has a small colour gamut, than Pro Photo RGB. So what can we do to make our image look good on 2200 Matt Paper even though it is physically impossible to do a direct conversion?

2200 Matt paper has a small colour gamut, than Pro Photo RGB. So what can we do to make our image look good on 2200 Matt Paper even though it is physically impossible to do a direct conversion?

The problem

Each device has its own physical limits to the range of colours it can record or reproduce. This is the problem: what do we do as we move an image from one device to another?

For example, when sending a file with a wide gamut of colours to a monitor or printer with a smaller gamut of colours, something has to be done with the colours that fall outside the physical range of the device’s effective gamut. Do we ignore those colours, or should we do something else with them?

The solution : Rendering Intent

The answer is : we decide, and we tell the colour management system our decision by way of a feature called Rendering Intent. Rendering Intent is where we tell the colour management system which rules to apply with respect to out of gamut colours.

There are several different rendering intents available. The two most commonly used rendering intents are Perceptual and Relative Colourmetric, which kind of do this:

Perceptual : shrink all the colours from the larger colourspace to fit the destination colourspace.

Relative Colourmetric : out of gamut colours are clipped, moved to their nearest relative within the new colourspace. All the other colours remain unchanged.

That’s a brief summary. Let’s consider them in more detail:

Perceptual

This rendering intent as the name suggests tries to adjust the content of the image so you perceive it as similar to the original image even though the colourspace is smaller. It does this by adjusting all the colours while keeping their relationship to each other intact. Although it is not ‘colour accurate’, most photographs look about right when it’s chosen as more often than not, it’s the relationships between the colours in the picture rather than their colour accuracy that is important. Here is an illustration to show how all the colours are shifted to fit the new colourspace:

Rendering-Intent-Perceptual.jpg

The other most common way of working around out of gamut colours is to choose relative colourmetric:

Relative Colourmetric

This rendering intent keeps all the colours that were within gamut unchanged. It’s a useful rendering intent when you want to ensure colour accuracy for certain colours - perhaps skin tones for example. Only the colours outside the gamut are clipped. They are moved to their nearest available in-gamut colour relative. As you can see below:

Rendering-Intent-Relative-Colourmetric.jpg

As you may now realise, colour reproduction is a compromise. And colours often have to get compressed if we are moving from a device with a wide gamut to a device with a smaller gamut.

We have to make the decision about which rendering intent to use. And the best way to choose the right one, is to demo them. If you are printing, then under the proofing preview, you can move between the different rendering intents to see how the colours are changed. Choose the rendering intent that suits your image the best.

No right or wrong way

Rendering Intent is best auditioned on a per image basis. Further, although an image may suit one rendering intent when printed on paper X, you may find that the same image prefers another rendering intent when printed on paper Y.

So you need to experiment on a per image basis.

But what about monitors? Do we have to compromise with them also?

As it happens, yes. Standard monitors have their own colour spaces (profiles), and when viewing something that comes from a larger colourspace on the monitor, a compromise has to be made.

Monitor Profile Rendering Intent

From what I understand, Monitor profiles are matrix based and this means that they have no idea how to deal with out of gamut colours. So they are simply clipped. In other words, when displaying out of gamut colours on a monitor, the monitor is essentially using a rendering intent of ‘Relative colourmetric’ (as illustrated above). We don’t have a choice about rendering intent when displaying an image on a monitor. It’s always ‘relative-colourmetric’.

In the diagram below, I have a Pro Photo colourspace image open in Photoshop, but I am viewing it on a monitor that has a smaller colourspace than Pro Photo. The colour management system responsible for the conversion from the image profile simply displays the colours unchanged, and any colour that it can’t display is just clipped to its nearest relative within the monitor colourspace.

monitor-profile-rendering-intent.jpg

In summary

  • Colour management is not the same thing as colour accuracy.

  • To manage colours, we need to have profiles that describe the colour gamut of each device, but we also have to make decisions on how to deal with colours that fall outside the gamut of a particular device. This is called the rendering intent.

  • We can choose which rendering intent to use when printing.

  • But we have no control over how out-of-gamut colours are displayed on computer monitors, they are just clipped to fit the nearest colour within the destination colour space.

Cameras and Colourspace Confusion

A lot of photographers think that the colour space option of ‘sRGB’ or ‘Adobe RGB’ on the back of their camera is used to set the colourspace of their camera.

It doesn’t do that.

The colourspace settings are only for the jpegs that are produced in-camera.

RAW-Conversion.jpg

RAW data is unaffected. Indeed, RAW can’t be modified. Think of RAW as a 'negative’ that comes out of an old film camera. The negative can never be changed once created.

So the ‘Adobe RGB and sRGB’ settings on the back of your camera are just for any jpegs that the camera ‘generates’ from the RAW capture .

If you are shooting RAW all the time, then you don’t need to worry about colourspaces while shooting.

Q. So when is the colourspace important then?

A. When you open your RAW files

When you open (or import), you are translating, converting the content of your RAW file into the host software’s format. In Photoshop’s case, you always go through the Adobe Camera Raw software before the image is available in Photoshop. It has to go through this translation stage.

The Raw Converter is where you can set the colourspace and it’s really important to pick a colourspace large enough to contain all the data that your RAW file has.

Effectively speaking, RAW files have no colourspace that you know of. Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but when you open up in Photoshop, you  have  to go through the Adobe Raw Converter. This is where you choose the colourspace and the RAW file is translated to that colourspace.

Effectively speaking, RAW files have no colourspace that you know of. Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but when you open up in Photoshop, you have to go through the Adobe Raw Converter. This is where you choose the colourspace and the RAW file is translated to that colourspace.

Pro Photo is the colourspace to choose, because it is a large enough container - much larger than Adobe RGB, and most likely much larger than any colours your camera can record.

A not too accurate illustration to show that Pro Photo is a larger colourspace than Adobe RGB. You should open your RAW files in Pro Photo.

A not too accurate illustration to show that Pro Photo is a larger colourspace than Adobe RGB. You should open your RAW files in Pro Photo.

If you choose Adobe RGB you may be clipping (throwing away) some of the colours that your camera can reproduce, because your camera may be capable of recording colours outside of the Adobe RGB colourspace.

The best option is to open up your camera files in Pro Photo. It’s a larger colour space and won’t clip the data. You’ll keep all of the colours in your file.

Q. But doesn’t the RAW format have it’s own colourspace?

A. Technically speaking there is a lot of splitting hairs about this. Some say no, some say yes.

The camera has its own proprietary way of recording the data, and this ‘specification’ is given to the developers who write the RAW converter engine. It’s up to them how they translate the information and this is why RAW converters vary (please note this is a serious oversimplification here).

Q. Why keep all the colours if your monitor or printer uses a smaller colour space?

A. Because the more data you have while editing, the better

Your camera is a glorified computer that just stores numbers. Photoshop just reads numbers, and when you alter a photograph you are truncating those numbers. It follows then, that the more data you have, the less chance you have in introducing weird problems into the file when you edit or adjust it in any way.

Although you cannot see all the colours present in Pro Photo because your monitor maybe has a smaller effective gamut, you still get the benefit of having more data to play with while editing.

In summary

  • The colourspace settings on the back of your camera are just for the jpegs it ‘generates’ from the RAW files.

  • The RAW files are unaffected and can’t be changed.

  • When you import a RAW file into a photo editing program, it has to get ‘converted’ or translated. This is when you need to choose a colourspace

  • Choose a large colourspace otherwise you may truncate colour data