Tag Archives: understanding photography

Natural Light Photographers vs. Flash Photographers | Alan Bailward Photography Blog

I Think (Some) Natural Light Shooters Just Don’t Understand Flash

I hear a lot of people proudly proclaim, generally amidst a discussion of flash technology, or studio lighting gear “oh I’m a ‘natural light shooter'”. Whenever I hear that I think what they’re really saying is:

“I don’t need silly flashes to make my pictures better, I use the sun and that’s it, making me a better photographer than you and your fancy gear.”

So here’s the thing. While I use flashes and reflectors and soft boxes, the light is still natural, it’s just controlled by me. The light is coming out of a flash is created in nature. The reflections in the models eyes from the umbrella? Natural as well.

So why do people get so hung up on proclaiming their status as a “natural light shooter”? It sometimes feels like one of those “doth protest too much” things sometimes.

Interesting. I’m a self-professed natural light shooter. I don’t even own a flash unit—aside from the flippy-uppy one on my camera that I usually deploy by accident. I do have a pair of redhead studio lights, and I have been known to take over our living room to do some work with them, but I currently don’t have any interest in learning to be a strobist.

Don’t get me wrong. I love looking at a well-lit photo as much as anyone. I appreciate the art and technique, too. It’s just not something I have the space and time—or budget, come to that—for in my photography right now.

Shades of Grey

The human eye has evolved to see colour. We live in a world where colour is as important to us as movement. Humans use colour to attract and to warn. Colour excites us at a very fundamental level.

Why, then, does black and white photography remain so appealing?

For much of its first century, photography was monochromatic. This was chiefly a function of the chemistry used to capture and recreate an image. Colour capture and rendition—beyond hand-tinting black and white prints—had been the subject of experiments since the beginning of photography. Affordable colour photography only really started in the 1930s, as industrial chemistry advanced to allow the subtle hues of the world around us to be captured reliably on an inexpensive film substrate.

Even so, black and white photography continued to be in the ascendant until the 1960s, by which time the overall costs of colour film production and processing allowed it to become the accepted norm.

Black and white became the exception, rather than the rule, some time in the 1970s. Black and white seemed old fashioned, a throwback. Even movies and television were in colour, so why would anyone use black and white film? Enthusiasts and art photographers continued to use black and white, of course, but colour was king.

Colour imaging remains top of the heap, in our high-definition and almost infinitely accessible digital world. Everyone has access to a digital imaging device, be it a cell phone, compact camera or top-flight SLR. The world is shot in colour, shared in colour. Surely there is no place for monochrome photography any more?

There are fancy “effects” modes on every device that mimic sepia or black and white, but these are meant as playthings. Snap a photo of the kids playing in the garden, convert it to sepia to make it look old-fashioned, and upload it to your social networking site for the world to see. It’s just a gimmick.

Black and white photography, however, simply won’t go away. Perhaps due to the relatively simple processing techniques, professionals and enthusiasts alike have continued to photograph using black and white film. Digital photographers, too, are keen to convert their work to black and white. There are plug-ins and tutorials specifically designed to let you convert your digital images to monochrome and even to add simulated film grain. I’ve been selecting and converting my digital photos into mono versions since I got my first sensible digital stills camera a decade ago.

Type “black and white” into the search bar of Flickr, and the results are interesting.

  • Over 8.5 million images are returned tagged with the search term “black and white” alone.
  • Two groups are listed, between them with almost 175,000 members who have posted over 3.5 million black and white images. There are numerous smaller groups starting all the time. I’ve recently joined a new one, called The Monographer. It started about a week ago, and already has 29 members who have posted 111 mono images between them.

What is the draw? Why does black and white photography still hold a fascination for us in this technicolor world? These are hard questions to answer.

For me, shooting black and white—I have actually set up a custom setting on my DSLR to shoot monochrome in camera, but more on this later—is a way to concentrate on the art of photography. A mono image removes the visual clutter of colour, leaving the viewer to see detail and subject matter more clearly. Losing the element of colour seems to make me work harder at choosing subjects.

Telling a story is part of being a photographer. Removing distractions in your images helps this storytelling process. Landscapes and skyscapes appear more dramatic in monochrome. B&W also works well with graphic elements and abstracts. Perhaps this is why black and white photography is still with us.

Where am I going with this? My initial idea was to try and work out why I have found myself going out with my camera set to monochrome. I want to shoot in black and white so often of late it’s become something of an obsession—and one I seem to share with many other photographers it seems.

Let me fill in some background first. Back in the good old days of 35mm film, I owned two Olympus OM-10 bodies. One would be loaded with a 400 ISO black and white negative film, the other with colour. I would use the mono camera in a documentary style, capturing details, mood and so on. The colour camera just recorded the scene.

As I moved to digital, and I started caring about processing my images in the “digital darkroom”, I would often try a mono version of a colour image. I would also try desaturating, colour toning and all the other gimmicks available. I found I liked a good, contrasty mono image over a colour one. Something about that style of image spoke to me. Darker shadows, slightly blown highlights, some noise that mimicked film grain.

I continued to convert colour images to mono as I progressed with my camera gear. With my first Canon DSLR I switched to shooting RAW quite quickly. The RAW format, as its name suggests, is all the data, warts and all and unprocessed, captured by the sensor at the time of pressing the shutter release. With the right software you can open the RAW image and work with it. You can change colour balance, pull back blown out highlights or underexposed shadows to reveal detail otherwise lost and so on. The possibilities are almost endless, and include making the image monochrome.

Interestingly, you can also work the other way. As I mentioned earlier, most cameras can be set to capture monochrome images. The snag usually is it only works in JPEG format, which means it’s a black and white image as soon as it’s saved to your camera’s card. If you later decide B&W isn’t right, you’re stuffed. It is possible with the Canon—I assume also possible with other brands—to shoot a mono RAW image. Remember, shooting RAW captures all the unprocessed data seen by the sensor. This also includes colour data, even when shooting monochrome. What happens is the camera shows you the black and white JPEG preview, which means you can work in black and white on a shoot without having to try and guess how an image will turn out later in post.

It also means you can restore the colour in post.

I’ll let that sink in for a second or two. Shoot in mono, and still get the colour later? It’s win-win: shoot in black and white, but know you can restore the colour if the image might benefit from it. I love it!

What caught me out at first is the need to tell your favoured processing software to import with the monochrome tag in place. I was a bit surprised to see colour images on first importing my black and white shots!

I am not a great fan of HDR, as previous posts here testify. However, I have seen some stunning HDR black and white work. Yes, the technique does work for mono images, and has the bonus you don’t see the over-saturated colours that are the hallmark of bad HDR.

I fully intend to continue making black and white images directly in my digital camera. I enjoy it, I like the results, and I think it helps to improve my photographer’s eye.

To finish up, here are some comparison images. All were originally shot in mono in camera, with some post processing enhancement. The comparison colour images are from the same original RAW with my usual processing. I’ve cropped them to fit the blog format. I leave it up to you to decide whether the mono or colour image is best. I know which I prefer.

Rant: I Love Photography

It might sound strange to use the verb “Love” in the title of a rant. But here goes.

I love photography.

Why am I telling you this? Isn’t it self-obvious? Don’t we all love photography? The answer is no. There is a percentage of photographers who hate photography. They do not appreciate photography. They do not consume photography. They don’t look at photo books or photo magazines. They hate the guy with the iPhone taking Instagram shots. They hate the guy who just bought the D4 because they don’t have one. They hate people using digital because film is what real artists use. They hate photographers who embrace social media because images should stand on their own. They hate Getty, Corbis, the AP, day rates, photo editors, assistants, rental houses, camera stores, point-and-shoots, iPads, zoom lenses, padded camera straps, wheeled suitcases, younger photographers, older photographers. The photo of so-and-so on the cover of whatever it’s called sucks. That guy copied the other guy, he sucks. Terry Richardson sucks. Chuck Close sucks. Vincent Laforet hasn’t taken a still in 17 years. Kodak hasn’t been managed well since the 70s. Blah, blah, blah.

I love photography. Let me show you why.

Good post over at PetaPixel.

A Lesser Photographer – A Manifesto | A Lesser Photographer

Photographers are being bombarded by content that has only further removed them from their creativity (and money). They’re aching for something to cut through the nonsense and remind them of why they fell in love with photography in the first place.

This is my manifesto; universal truths I’ve learned since selling off my fancy cameras and challenging myself to maximize my creativity by minimizing everything else.

If you find yourself nodding in agreement with these principles, I’m relying on you to pass the manifesto along to everyone you know who loves photography!

I heard about A Lesser Photographer by CJ Chilvers, while listening to Chris Marquardt’s Tips From The Top Floor podcast. I was struck by the concept—make yourself a better photographer by forgetting about the gear. Get back to basics and discover your creativity again.

I am not about to sell my gear. I like my gear, but restricting myself in some way, shape or form really helps with my vision (for want of a better word). I have stuck to a single prime lens for a few days. I have shot in black and white for a period. I have limited myself to using my mobile phone camera for a day. All helps to train my vision, so I begin to see photographs where previously I may not have done.

Download the free ebook and read it. See what you think of CJ’s manifesto. Please tell me what you think.

Some days…


Best Beloved and I went out to a local transport rally on Saturday. The sun was out, it was a glorious early September day. I had high hopes of some good photography.

Sadly, the cars were lined up on display with the sun directly behind them. There wasn’t a lot I could do, so I defaulted to my usual “make pictures from details”. Even that was difficult under the circumstances.

The photo here, of a 1967 Ford Corsair 1500GT convertible, shows the problem. I was photographing straight into the sun. Even a circular polarising filter did nothing to help, so I guess the fact I managed to get any usable image at all speaks volumes about modern camera technology!


A 1939 Standard Flying 9, in pretty much unrestored condition, but still much cherished. Again, the sun directly ahead of me. 

Perhaps, if we visit the show next year, and the weather is similar, we might visit earlier in the day. With the cars packed quite closely together, though, I expect shadows in all the wrong places. I think I’ll hope for a bright but overcast day!

Exposing For Monochrome « Photofocus

The latitude (the ability to over or underexpose) a photograph is greatest with color negative film. Slide film has the least amount of latitude, especially overexposure. Correct exposure is more critical for digital capture than film because digital sensors respond more like a hybrid of the two different kinds of film: Over exposure wipes out image data but the underexposure side of digital capture has more latitude. The downside of underexposure is the inevitable creation of digital noise, what you might see in a photograph that appears to be digital “grain.” As in all forms of photography, the secret to maximize digital image quality is to properly expose the image.

As I’m currently choosing to shoot in monochrome with my EOS 7D, this is a very handy reminder of how to get the best. Go ahead and read the original at Photofocus. I promise it won’t take you long at all.

Metronome | Flickr – Photo Sharing!


As a general rule, I don’t do flash photography. I don’t own an external flash unit, so when the need arises I have to rely on the built-in flash on my cameras.

A photo competition in the forums over at x404.co.uk prompted me to do some experiments. The theme for the competition was “Music”, and entrants are encouraged to be as literal or as lateral as they like. Having an old clockwork metronome about the place, I thought I’d have a crack at capturing the moving pendulum.

The subject was set up, and after a bit of experimentation I figured out that having it set to 60 beats a minute would make life simpler. The goal was to have an exposure long enough it would capture the sweep, with the shutter firing at the end to freeze the pendulum. I controlled the camera in tethered mode, using the Canon software on the laptop. I guess I had an hour of experimenting before I got the shot I was after.

In the end, the chosen image was exposed at ISO 100, ƒ/4 for 2 seconds. The on-board flash was dialled back about as far as it could go and had a bit of tracing paper to diffuse it further, and fired at the end of the exposure.

As I say, I don’t normally “do” flash photography. I much prefer using fixed or ambient lighting. Having had a play with the techniques, though, I can understand the creative aspects that attract people to using strobes.

Why Digital Photography Makes You Unhappy

Yesterday … I had an epiphany.

Rewind. About a week earlier, we had spent three days holding an analog photography workshop and, still being in the spirit of this old and slow medium, just minutes earlier we had talked about the analog photography time we had planned for this weekend.

And then while I was waiting for her outside the store, it hit me right in the face. All the talk about reducing and simplifying, all the thought about limitation and constraint, all the ideas of slowing down and removing choice from the equation, it all of a sudden clicked into place with a massive *THUMP*.

I was going to post this to Britstock Photo, but I think it’s just as relevant here. We all have so much choice in life, but does it really make us happy?

Chris Marquardt has been wondering the same thing. Read his blog post, watch the lecture by Dan Gilbert (Flash required).

See if you come to the same conclusions. My epiphany came one day in a supermarket, one I’d not been to before. I was after toilet rolls, but I was confronted by literally a complete wall of toilet roll choice. It was simply too much. Between super soft, super economy, multi-ply, plain, coloured, whatever, multiplied by about a million-fold, I was simply unable to make the choice I needed. I simply wanted toilet rolls, not a lifestyle choice. I had to leave the store, empty handed.

In my case, having such a choice of toilet rolls was no choice at all. My next photo expedition will be with just my camera and a single prime lens.

Diffraction Limited Photography: Pixel Size, Aperture and Airy Disks

Diffraction is an optical effect which can limit the total resolution of your photography– no matter how many megapixels your camera may have.  Ordinarily light travels in straight lines through uniform air, however it begins to disperse or “diffract” when squeezed through a small hole (such as your camera’s aperture).  This effect is normally negligible, but increases for very small apertures.  Since photographers pursuing better sharpness use smaller apertures to achieve a greater depth of field, at some aperture the softening effects of diffraction offset any gain in sharpness due to better depth of field.  When this occurs your camera optics are said to have become diffraction limited.  Knowing this limit can help you to avoid any subsequent softening, and the unnecessarily long exposure time or high ISO speed required for such a small aperture.

Although quite technical, this page does help to explain the phenomenon of “circles of confusion”. The lens diffraction problem is something that does affect scale model photographers, because we tend to use the smallest apertures we can reasonably get away with.

The effect in my photos is to give a soft focus effect to objects in the distance. I don’t actually mind it, because it does – to my mind – at a level of haze that is seen in real life.

A way to overcome the problem in small scale work would to use focus stacking, where several images are taken focused at different points, and then combined using software later.