Tag Archives: learning

A bit quiet

Hello. I am still here. I haven’t been anywhere particularly thrilling, or done anything massivley amazing. 

Even so, I have decided to get things moving with a local photo walk thing I’ve been mulling. I spread the word on Google+ and I have been blown away by the support. Okay, it’s not going to be dozens of people, but I am happy if we reach a manageable ten or so. 

I have been trying to learn to code HTML and CSS, with reasonable success. I’m not doing it because I enjoy it, more so I have a much better handle on what other tools I use for web design are trying to do. I would like to create a whole web site from scratch using the techniques I have been learning, but I don’t think that’s going to happen for a while. It’s too easy to fall back on the tried and tested software to do it for me.

Since my DSLR can record HD video, I have been learning more about how to get the best out of it. There’s plenty on the interwebz specifically aimed at the Canon EOS 7D, so I now have a pretty good idea what the machine is capable of, and what all the different buttons are supposed to do! I really want to make another short film, but I don’t have a good idea for a storyboard yet. 

So, while I haven’t been posting all and sundry here, I have actually been trying to improve my knowledge and understanding on various subjects. If there’s one thing I love, it’s being an autodidact.

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.

In the Zone

This was posted by Nick Miners. It’s a very clear and concise explanation of what the Zone System for exposure calculation is, and how to do it.

The Zone System is something I’ve looked at for a while, but never clearly got my brain around what it achieves over existing exposure methods I can do with my camera. Nick has very adequately covered the why and the wherefore, although I’m discovering with my poor old stunted EOS 400D, it’s not actually capable of spot metering in the accepted sense.

So, I have to consider alternative methods, such as an 18% grey card and all other kinds of paraphernalia. I think getting properly into the Zone is going to have to wait until I get a better camera!



Be sharp: learning about Depth of Field

Depth of Field (DoF) is one of those terms you see bandied about in photographic circles—a bit like bokeh—but it’s usually assumed you already know what it is and how to do it.

Put in the simplest terms, depth of field is how much of an image is in sharp or nearly sharp focus from your camera’s imaging sensor (or film) to the horizon. There’s plenty of discussion, including useful links and a series of hideously complex-looking tables that help you calculate DoF at the

Dofmaster.com web site. If you’re lucky enough to own a PDA or even one of those shiny Apple iGadgets, then there are also useful downloadable bits of software that will do all the complicated stuff for you. But, I digress—something I tend to do a lot…

Rather than go into all the technical stuff about focal lengths and circles of confusion, which Dofmaster does with alacrity and far, far better than I ever can, I shall concentrate on the practical use of DoF in model photography. As you will see, I take a more laid-back attitude to working it all out, but first, a quick resumé of why DoF is important in this sphere of photography.

The chief aim in taking photos of models is to fool the viewer into believing they are looking at a picture of the real thing. We achieve this by setting the camera at the right angle, and by ensuring that as much of the image as possible is in sharp focus.

Here, then, in a nutshell, is the technique I use to take a photo:

  • Set the camera to Aperture Priority (Av) mode, and switch focusing to manual. Yes, you can use it in full manual mode, but let’s just say I’m happy to let the camera’s sophisticated electronics work out the exposure for me.
  • Get the camera as low down as possible, preferably on a sturdy tripod, in relation to the subject. Remember, we’re aiming for a view that looks as if you’re holding the camera to your eye at head height if you were in the real world, say about 1.6m above the deck.
  • Frame the shot, and manually focus about a third of the way along the subject. It’s also useful to check the nearest and furthest points of the subject will be in focus at this stage.
  • Set the camera’s aperture to ƒ/22, or higher if the lens will do it.
  • Press the aperture preview button (check your camera’s user manual to find it) and have a good squint through the viewfinder to see if it sort of looks like it might actually be in focus where you expect it to be.
  • Nearly forgot to connect the remote release cable! This is important so you aren’t likely to jog the camera when you press the shutter button. You can set the camera to timed release, where you press the shutter and there is a countdown of several seconds before the shutter fires, but the remote cable looks more professional! Camera shake is not much of an issue with shutter speeds of 1/100th of a second or higher, but very likely to be a problem with the shutter open for several seconds – which it most likely will be.
  • Once you’re happy that all is set, stand away from the camera and tripod, and fire the shutter. Depending on how long the exposure turns out to be, make light conversation with those around you, or go for a long lunch. Do not be tempted to move the camera until you hear the shutter close again, or the new image is displayed on the camera screen.

With DSLRs, you can see a preview on the back of the camera, so you have a fair idea if the shot worked or not. This, however, is really only good enough for exposure, so focus checking has to wait for viewing on your computer later.

When I can, I like to take my MacBook Pro with me on a shoot, and tether the camera via USB so the download occurs as soon as the image is being dumped to the CF card. This allows me to view the new shot very quickly to assess for lens flare, straightness and, of course, DoF.

I’ve cooked up some samples to show how changing the aperture changes the depth of the sharply focused area. I apologise they’re not particularly photogenic model shots, but I wanted something reasonably extreme to demonstrate how DoF works. I’ve also thrown in a couple of zoom shots to show why such lenses are not ideal for this kind of work. Remember, several posts back, I said that one of the secrets is to “go wide’.

The first image is telephoto. According to the EXIF data, the focal length was 96mm, 1.6 seconds at ƒ/29. Technically, it’s not a bad photo. A lot is in focus, but it lacks a certain something. The viewpoint appears to be a long way from the subject, making the viewer feel cut off, away from the action.

The second image, on the other hand, places the viewer right in the action. This time the lens is a wide angle, 20mm focal length, with a two-second exposure at ƒ/29.

In the next post, I’ll post a sequence of photos taken from the same vantage point, but using increasingly smaller apertures.