Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Jeff Mermelstein, Street Photographer

Phil Coomes, picture editor and photographer for the BBC News website (whose blog you can find here) posted an article today on street photographer Jeff Mermelstein. If, like me, you're interested in candid street photography, you'll want to check out the videos of Jeff at work (total running time 14 minutes), posted here. You'll see him at work and hear him talk about why he does what he does in the way that he does. By the end, if you aren't a photographer, I think you'll understand why some people just have to be.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Press Photographer's Year Exhibition

The Press Photographer's Year exhibition is on at the National Theatre on London's South Bank until 31st August 2009. It's in the Lyttleton Exhbition Space which is on the first floor above the live music stage area. The photos range from sad through thought-provoking to amusing. And a great many of them had to be taken there and then on the spot or the shot would be missed. One of this year's best photo exhibitions, in my humble opinion. You can read more about it at the National Theatre website.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Why we need to post-process

The Hut

You don't see the image that hits your retina. Neurons in the eye start processing light (or rather, light's effects on the 'sensor': millions of rods and cones in the retina) into data well before that data reaches the brain and is processed even more into the information the brain uses to construct the image of what's in front of you. And it's that constructed image that the brain sees rather than the real world. And, as I shall be talking about a lot more in future articles, the difference between what you see and what's really there is often quite dramatic. So much so that I'm tempted to put quotes around the words 'what's really there'.

I was very much aware of this as I was walking with a friend through a small village in Surrey, on the way to dinner at my all-time favourite pub. My Canon 40D with its 10.2 megapixel sensor and Digic III processor are far, far more primitive than the human eyes, nervous system and brain. What appears to me as a rich, complex environment of light, shade and colour is transformed by my camera into a small, flat, lifeless pastiche of the original. This is why we post-process our photos just as the brain post-processes the data collected by our eyes.

And this is why the camera doesn't try to second-guess how our individual brains work by doing too much post-processing. Rather it does the absolute minimum: giving us the data as the sensor has produced it if we are shooting RAW, or tweaking the saturation, contrast, colour balance and sharpness to suit our tastes if we're shooting JPEGs.

Of course, we're trained from a very early age to interpret photographs and to decide whether or not a photo accords more or less with 'reality' which, translated, means 'what my brain thinks that it remembers of the way it was back then'. This is why some photographers insist that their small, flat, lifeless images are 'realistic'. It's not that they see the world in that way - I'm sure that, to a large degree, their world is as rich, complex and colourful as mine. It's just that they've learned to interpret photos in that particular way.

So as we walked up the lane to the pub, I knew that my camera couldn't do justice to the scene I saw by the roadside: a simple wooden hut by a field, with the background lit by the glow of the evening sun. But then the camera never can. So I raised it to my eye, metered, composed, and pressed the shutter release, knowing that I could at least tweak it into something that might remind me of what my brain thinks it remembers of what I saw back then.

Imported version

The image above is as it appeared when first imported into Lightroom. Quite a difference, don't you think? Of course, the finished image at the top of this article isn't any more realistic than the starting-point image above; but I have to admit that I like it a lot more.

My first job was to get the lighting the way I wanted it. I tweaked the Exposure, Fill Light and Contrast several times until I got it right. The end result of this stage was: Exposure -1.24, Fill +100, Contrast +100. I usually take care of cropping and straightening right up-front but I forgot this time, so that was my next job and the result of all of this first stage is below.

After exposure, fill, cropping

I'd brought out the detail in the hut quite well and the sunlight on the fences and field in the background was now starting to look good but the sky wasn't as good as I remembered it, so I added a graduated filter with the Brightness set to -75.

Graduated filter added at the top

I often use graduated filters to produce the depth cues of light and shade that can really give a feeling of depth to a photo. With a picture like this one, with a fairly-well-defined horizon line, you can achieve this with graduated filters from the top to the horizon line, and from the bottom to the horizon line. I added a second filter at the bottom with -85 Brightness, -100 Clarity and -100 Sharpness. This has the subtle effect of making detail at the bottom edge less important than the detail at the horizon line.

It was looking a lot better but the overall light wasn't quite right. I went to the Tone Curve and upped the Highlight Tones to +93, the Light Tones to +43 and the Dark Tones to +17, leaving the Shadows untouched at zero. With a smidge of sharpening and a light post-crop vignette, it was almost finished.

Almost done

I could have left it here but, while I'd pulled back a lot of the detail and depth, and balanced the light a lot better, it was still looking a little ordinary. The final touch was to go to Lightroom's Camera Profile section and select the Camera Landscape profile. That really brought out the late-evening blue of the sky and rich warmth of the orange sunlight. The end result is at the top of this post. Quite a bit better than the start image, don't you think?

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Last Chance Harvey

Back in May of 2008 I was lucky enough to walk into a fim set on London's South Bank where the production company were filming a new ending to Last Chance Harvey. Not only that but I was lucky enough to find a balcony from which I was able to get some good shots of the stars, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson.
Dustin Hoffman

Emma Thompson

Last night I was lucky enough to find out that the gala premiere of Last Chance Harvey was being held at the Odeon Leicester Square just as I was on my way into central London. Problem was, the only lenses I had on me were my Tamron 28-300mm f3.5-6.3 and my Canon 50mm f1.8. A problem because the Tamron has the reach but doesn't have vibration control (the Tamron equivalent of Canon's image stabilisation) and, while the 50mm is a great portrait lens, the red carpet was so far away that the resulting pictures would have to be cropped to zoom in so far that there would be almost nothing left of them. And, of course, the 50mm doesn't have IS either. If you've ever taken pictures in a jostling crowd, with everyone surging forward just as your subject gets into view, you'll know how important image stabilisation is.

As I've said before, I don't normally go chasing celebrities but I couldn't pass up a great opportunity to cap my previous achievement by getting some close-ups of the stars. I was lucky to get a position near the rail looking along the red carpet to where the cars would be pulling up. I metered off of a couple of security people and realised that I'd have to shoot at ISO 1600 to have any chance of avoiding motion blur and/or camera blur. That's OK, though, the 40D can handle that - as long as the shots are crisp enough.

Trusting that the reach of my 300mm lens would be long enough for the job, I tested it on the crowd of waiting fans, many clutching their autograph gear.

Fans Await

Not a brilliant result but I knew I'd have plenty of chances to get it right. My 40D was Already in Av mode, so I switched it to burst mode to up the chances of getting some in focus. This method is sometimes known as spray-and-pray. If you're one of the paparazzi in their special enclosure, you've got a good chance of getting the shots you want. If you're just a bozo in the crowd being pushed from all sides, you've got to use whatever methods you can.

Emma Thompson's car was the first to arrive. She worked half of the autograph hunters then disappeared for a while. Then another car drew up. I'd guessed it was probably Dustin Hoffman's and was proved right when Emma stepped in front of kt, waving her arms to try and get it to go back, as if she wanted all the adulation to herself. Quite a crowd-pleasing scene.

Go Back

Dustin emerged from the car and he and Emma spent some time chatting.

Dustin Emerges

It was possibly the first time they'd met in over a year.

Good To See You

If any of the other stars of the film arrived after that, I wasn't aware of it as I'm not a film buff and wouldn't recognise them. It seems that most of the crowd were in the same position. The only names you could hear called out were "Dustin!" and "Emma!" and each time one of them came near to the crowd, the fans would call out even louder, waving their autograph books.

Clamouring Fans

Both Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman allowed some of the fans to take photos of fan and star together.

Photo With A Fan

And they both made sure that plenty of fans were chatted to and autographs were signed.

Emma Signing

Emma's long-suffering husband Greg Wise not only followed her around, he was even gracious enough to take the fans' cameras for a shot of the fan with his or her arm around Emma.

Greg Wise

Some of the fans had been there for over three hours and both stars made sure that the wait was worth it, signing autographs and posing for photos.

Dustin Signing

In fact, Dustin Hoffman came back out of the cinema later to make sure he visited the fans he'd missed the first time round. One of the cinema staff had to come and fetch him just as the film was about to start.

Dustin's Well-Known Smile

I got around 120 pictures and 92 of them were worth keeping. I think a 76% keep rate is pretty good considering the conditions I was shooting under: having to shoot at 300mm most of the time, using a lens with no image stabilisation, having to shoot at ISO 1600, and being shoved around by the crowd. Not only did I come away as a satisfied amateur photographer, I had a good time; the guy next to me who amused us all by shouting out to the security staff to stop blocking our view, and who said he was taking pictures to prove to his wife where he'd been; and the woman with the American accent who'd perfected her "DUSTIN!" shriek by years of practice on rock concerts - a big 'hi' to both of you and thanks for helping make it such a great evening.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Post-processing: Sam Gandalf

I promised I'd run through how I processed my photo Sam Gandalf, and in particular how I achieved that brown old-photo look of the main characters overlaid against the colourful background of Rochester and its inhabitants. In fact, I want to talk about selective colouring in Lightroom in general so in this post I'll go through the post-processing workflow with this picture and in the next post on this topic I'll cover the subject in more detail, and in particular that type of selective colouring known as 'spot colour', and I'll show how I extended that idea in processing my photo On Piccadilly Circus.

Achieving the kind of selective colouring you see in Sam Gandalf is fairly easy but very time-consuming in Lightroom; it's a job for which Photoshop and Elements are far more suitable. Lightroom gives you quite a bit of control over colours in a picture, giving you the ability to change the hue, the saturation, and the luminosity separately. But it only allows you this degree of control over the entire picture. The only way to change the colour of selected parts of a picture is by using the Adjustment Brush which is limited to altering the saturation of the selected part and the mixing in of one user-specified colour. Also, the only way of selecting which part of the picture to alter in Lightroom is, again, by using the Adjustment Brush. While you can do a fairly good job with this brush, it can be time-consuming and you can cut out a lot of the work by doing the job in PS or PSE instead, using their far more capable selection tools.

What you see above is a version of Sam Gandalf with minimal processing. I can't say "as it came out of the camera" because I shot RAW, and RAW doesn't look like anything until you process it. I simply imported it and Lightroom 2.3 automatically applied a few default settings designed to counter to a small degree the 'flatness' inherent in the way the camera sensor works. These settings increase the blacks level and the brightness, and do a small amount of sharpening. These may not seem like the kind of changes one might make to a photo in the initial stages of post-processing but then that isn't the way Lightroom works. In fact, the changes you make in Lightroom aren't necessarily applied to the picture in the order in which you move the sliders. In any case, the picture you see above was my starting point in post-processing.

I usually start out by cropping and straightening if necessary. Then I go through some of my presets to see if I can speed up the process, just as any practised lazy photographer would. I'm not going to go into the details of what my presets do to the picture as my purpose isn't to teach you how to post-process this particular picture; I'm simply recounting what I did so that you can achieve similar results with your own photos. My strategy was to get the picture the way I wanted it in terms of levels and colours, then to start in on the selective colouring.

My initial intention was to show Rochester as it was on the day of the Sweeps' Festival: lively and colourful. Quite noisy, too, at times, but that's not easy to demonstrate in a photo. Well, not literally, anyway. I wanted to show that not only were the people taking part in the parade lively, colourful and noisy, but so were the onlookers. And while the Festival harks back to the time when chimney sweeps were a common sight, the onlookers were for the most part dressed in bright, modern clothes. So I brought out this colourfulness in post-processing in such a way as to produce the perfect backdrop for the main characters - Gandalf and his boy - a couple of living ghosts in a post-Dickensian town.

So I upped the contrast quite a bit as well as the vibrance. It seems to me that Lightroom understands vibrance to mean "increase the saturation of most of the colours except skin tones, and saturate the blues to a ridiculous degree." So, as I invariably have to when working with vibrance, I decreased the blue saturation as much as the vibrance slider had increased the other colours. The result is as you see below.
I'd previously noticed that the brightness of the sun on that day had blown out some detail on the white shirts. Bringing up the recovery slider had gone some way toward retrieving it, but I wanted to see if I could get more. So I used the Adjustment brush to alter the brightness, contrast, clarity and saturation of both shirts and ended up with this result:
So at this point my subjects were looking good and their context - the colourful streets and people of Rochester - was also looking good. This is the point at which I could have stopped, content in knowing that I'd reproduced what I'd orignally intended to capture, at least as near as is possible given the combination of me plus camera plus Lightroom. But I like to bring out the essence of my subject as I recall seeing it at the time. And while in one way the picture above is what I recall seeing, in another way it isn't. I've described my thinking and feelings as I saw those two coming down the street towards me in a previous article, Anatomy of a picture: Sam Gandalf. What I wanted to bring out was that feeling of the two characters as being Dickensian ghosts from an earlier time, freshly stepped out of some time machine into the modern world. What I wanted to express was that out-of-time-and-placeness.

My next thought was to simply desaturate the main characters and their cart. A black and white Gandalf and boy on a coloured background. I've heard some people describe black and white photography as "timeless" but, for me, it's just about the precise opposite of that. For me, black and white photography is forever fixed in time, in an era before the modern age, before technology had advanced enough to allow us to try to reproduce the colours we were seeing, before we could even afford modern cameras with modern sensors. To me, black and white photography always was, is, and always will be old-fashioned. (Go on, call me a philistine. I can take it.)

But old-fashioned isn't what I was after. The fact that the characters are wearing old-fashioned clothes is all but irrelevant. I needed something extra that would bring to life (for me, and hopefully for other viewers) that out-of-time-and-placeness that I was witness to in those few minutes as they passed by. I've explained my thinking about the brownness of the photos in my nan's biscuit tins in the earlier post. What I wanted was to see if Lightroom could duplicate the feeling of that post-Victorian era.

I called up the Adjustment Brush and began to fill in Gandalf, the boy, and the cart. Firstly with a large-sized brush A with no feathering, no masking, and 100% flow, with zoom set at about 2:1 so that I could see enough of the subjects and cover the maximum area without going over the edges (which was a topic of some importance when I was playing with colouring books many years ago). Then I switched to brush B which was set to a fairly small size with feathering set to about 20% of the brush size, with masking on and 100% flow, with zoom set to 1:1 so that I was seeing the actual pixels. I had pressed the 'O' key so that I could see which areas I was painting onto but had the brush set to 100% desaturation with all other settings at zero.
This is the halfway point and below is how it looked when I'd finished this part of the job. As you may be able to tell, it wasn't quite what I was after. But it was almost there. I wanted to tweak a few more things before changing the hue of the main subjects.
I upped the sharpening quite a bit and laid down a couple of graduated filters. I should do a slight detour here and tell you that for me graduated filters aren't just bits of coloured glass you put in front of the camera to ensure that your sky isn't blown out. Lightroom's graduated filters are another tool you can use to enhance your pictures in any way you choose. I like to vignette any picture that has a strong, well-defined subject, so that the eye isn't just drawn to it but finds it difficult to look elsewhere; but the built-in vignetting sometimes isn't enough for my purposes so I use graduated filters to the same end. And in many cases I use them with a graduated change in clarity, contrast or saturation, rather than brightness.
All that was left then was to go back to my brush work with the main subjects and overlay my brown colour on it. I clicked the adjustment brush and moved the pointer over the pins until I found the one that I'd used to desaturate the subjects, then clicked the colour swatch (see above). A minute or so of dragging the pointer around the colour palette and I had my brown. And the result is as you see it at the top of this article.

Done and dusted.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Favourite photo: TV Ladies

Sometimes you don't have anything to say in an article. Sometimes you just want to share one of your favourite photos. This is one of mine. I took it last Monday at an event called The Long Weekend, held at the Tate Modern art gallery in London. It was a kind of outdoor party with a music stage, static displays, entertainment and craftwork for children, maypole dancing, and lots of what I would call living art.

These ladies had some kind of show going on a hand-made TV - I think it was a puppet show but it was hard to see exactly what was going on as it was so popular that I couldn't get close enough to see. Not that it matters. It's how the photo turns out that's important. And I was pleased enough with this one to want to share it with you. I hope you like it.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Using other people's presets

Making A Note

One of the great things about using Lightroom for post-processing is that if you create a look you like, you can save it as a preset. What's even better is that other people have already created Lightroom presets and made them available to us; and what's more, they're usually free! Great news for the lazy photographer. But rather than being totally comatose and just using other people's ideas all the time, I like to play with other people's presets to see what else I can create.

One preset that I like is Matt Kloskowski's 300 Look. It's based on the visual effect created by the super-imposition chroma key technique used in the film 300, about the Battle of Thermopylae. You can see how other people have used the 300 Look preset in this thread in the Matt Kloskowski Presets Group on Flickr. And if you're interested in trying it out, you can download the preset here.

He explains how he achieved this effect using Adobe Camera Raw in the Photoshop User TV episode 116 of 14 January 2008. If you want to see the details, start viewing from about 4 minutes and 30 seconds into the video. If not, I'll explain the basics here so you can try it yourself. He starts out by desaturating the picture, by going to the HSL panel and dragging the saturation sliders all the way to the left to give a very basic monochrome look. He then brings back a little colour by dragging the red slider to the right again, just over halfway, and the orange slider up to about a quarter of the way from the left. He brings in a little Fill Light and adds grittiness to the picture by dragging the clarity slider all the way up to 100 and boosting the contrast a little. The final touch is to give it a bronzy-gold look in the Split Toning panel; in the highlights section he drags the hue to 0 (red) and the saturation to 30; in the shadows section he drags the hue to 63 and the saturation to 24; finally, he brings the balance slider to -85 to finish the look.

I've used Matt's 300 Look preset in a few of my photos but you probably wouldn't know it from looking through my Flickr stream. The picture at the top of this article (Making A Note) is one of them. I like to start off with basic cropping and levels adjustment and then click Matt's 300 Look preset to see how it looks with a particular picture. If I think it's starting to look interesting, I'll go to the HSL panel and start to play with the saturation sliders, bringing colours back in to see what works and what doesn't. This can take a bit of time and I'll often bring the Fill Light down a little and play with the levels again to see if I can get the subject to 'pop'. This wasn't difficult with the picture at the top of the article: I'd shot it with a focal length and f-stop that gave me a nice sharp subject against a nicely defocused background so I just needed to play with the Fill Light and colour saturation until I got a nice 3D effect.

Here's another example - a picture I shot at the Holland House Queensday event at Trafalgar Square.


The visual theme of the day was orange and I wanted to preserve that in the picture of the clogmaker so it was mainly a matter of using Matt's preset then dragging back the orange a little more to the right, along with the yellow to give the wood the colour I wanted, leaving the other sliders where they were for the most part.

Is It A Protest?

I wanted to bring a lot more colour back into the above example so I brought the saturation of the red, blue and green up. I also liked the detail in the people's clothes so I dragged the Fill Light slider to where it would show that up nicely.

So, what am I achieving exactly by using a preset in which most of the colours are desaturated and then bringing the saturation back up? Isn't it easier to forget the preset and just play with the colours? Well, not in my opinion. And there are three reasons why not. Firstly, by initially going to monochrome and then dragging the sliders back up I'm being a lot more selective about which colours I want and how much of them, and these differ from one shot to the next as you can see in the three examples above. Secondly, the preset includes that 'gritty' look achieved with the Fill Light, Clarity and Contrast sliders; I could do that myself, or I can let Matt's preset do it for me. Lastly, and possibly most importantly, the 300 Look preset includes that split-toning which will have an effect even though not all of the original colours are desaturated in my final result. I could do the split-toning adjustment manually, but why, when I have Matt's preset to do the job for me?

In my opinion, this preset is a great starting point for getting some results I might never have got by any other means. If you're using Lightroom or Adobe Camera RAW to post-process your photos, why not give this method a go yourself? If you do, post a comment with the URL of the finished result so that we can all see it. And if you find other presets that form a basis for some effect you might not have found simply by experiment, why not share it with all of us? And don't forget, if you're using Photoshop CS or Elements, you can achieve the basic 300 Look by shooting in RAW and opening your photo in PS or PSE - Adobe Camera RAW will then load so you can retrace Matt's steps as demonstrated in the video.


'Show me your best "Matt's 300 Look"' thread in Matt Kloskowski Presets Group / Discuss on Flickr

Matt Kloskowski's 300 Look preset

Episode 116 of Photoshop User TV

Monday, 25 May 2009

Bob Dylan at the National Portrait Gallery

If you like black and white portrait photography, there are three free photo exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery that might interest you. The first is a set of 15 photos that appear in the book Real Moments by Barry Feinstein who was Bob Dylan's official photographer on his 1966 European tour. This exhibition is in the Bookshop Gallery which is in the basement of the NPG; if you need step-free access, go in via the entrance by the bookshop, walk through the bookshop and go down in the lift, then walk back through the lower bookshop to the gallery.

Two other exhibitions are in Room 31 which is up on the first floor, easily accessible by lift. The first consists of photos of the American singer Elisabeth Welch, perhaps most well-known for her rendition of Stormy Weather in Derek Jarman's 1979 screen adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest. The second includes images of Isadora Duncan, John Stuart Lloyd Barnes and the St Ives artists Peter Lanyon and Sven Berlin taken by the husband and wife team of Bertram Park and Yvonne Gregory and their associate Marcus Adams. One fascinating aspect of this particular exhibition is Park's use of the soft focus lens.

Lastly, there are still six days left before the Gerhard Richter Portraits exhibition closes.

Bob Dylan European Tour
Until 30 August 2009, Bookshop Gallery

Soft Lights, Seet Music: Photographs of Elisabeth Welch
Until 35 October 2009, Room 31 case display

Adams, Park and Gregory: Photographs 1910s-1950s
Until 25 October 2009, Room 31 case display


Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Photo Exhibitions at the South Bank

If you're old enough to remember the iconic album covers of Pink Floyd - the prism on Dark Side of the Moon, the burning man on Wish You Were Here, the recursive portraits of the band on Ummagumma - you might like to pop down to at the base of the Oxo Tower on London's South Bank. If you're not old enough, you might like to go anyway to see how it was done before Photoshop.

Storm Thorgerson, co-creator of the Psygnosis studio, and described as "the creative mind behind some of the most famous album covers throughout popular music's history," is holding an exhibition and sale of limited edition prints, not only of the artwork of Floyd's covers, but also that of many other bands.

What is most interesting to me is not just that it was all done without the software - and the hardware - but the sheer creativeness of Thorgerson and his team. Hospital beds complete with nurse and patient in the shallows of the sea shore; people hanging upside-down from ropes on trees, confronted by pierrot-like figures in the same condition; and one that for me recalled the 60s series The Prisoner, of a man running along a beach pursued by a huge ball of knitting wool. One can imagine his proud cry, "I am not a jumper, I'm a free man!"

On the way in, you might spot a notice next to the door saying, "Special discount for those refurbishing their second homes." I wouldn't take it too seriously. One of the wall sockets below the prints is labelled: "Plug socket, 2009, Mixed media, Edition 4, Storm Studios, £5,950."

One problem with is that viewing of some of the prints can be marred by reflections from the glass wall opposite. Bad positioning of the lights used also to be a problem, but they seem to have fixed that one some time ago. Don't let all this put you off, though; this exhibition is well worth attending. And the price is just right- as with all exhibitions at, this one is free.

If you go, head there from Waterloo Station along the South Bank and you'll get a second exhibition for nothing. Along the riverside walkway towards Gabriel's Wharf is Wild Poland, an outdoor exhibition of wildlife photography by Artur Tabor. As the walkway is open day and night, so is the exhibition. Visit if you want to know more.

Exhibitions at open 11am-6:30pm, free
To 31 May: Taken By Storm, limited edition prints by album artist Storm Thorgerson

3-7 June: Shifting Perspectives, five photographers examine alternative representations of adults and children with Down's syndrome

11-28 June: Art in the wild, photography capturing endangered species by Roger Hooper

Riverside Walkway, Gabriel's Wharf, open day and night, free
To 7 June: Wild Poland, an outdoor exhibition of wildlife photography by Artur Tabor,

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Anatomy of a picture: Sam Gandalf

As Sam Gandalf and his boy slowly made their way down Rochester High Street on the weekend of the Sweeps' festival, I knew I had time to get a good shot which would include not only them and their cart but enough context to show how out-of-time they looked. They might well have stepped out of HG Wells' time machine - or Dr Who's - as they trundled down the road, the soot falling from them more imagined than real.

But then everything we see is as much imagined as real, as I'm going to be talking about in future articles.

Once the people in front of them had passed, I had my shot. There was time enough for more but the one was enough. My camera was in Av mode and there was plenty of light and I knew from previous experience that f/4 at that distance would give them plenty of context. I'd already checked my other settings and the street, calculating in advance the framing and where the other people in the picture would be as I pressed the shutter release.

I was happy enough with the shot but in post-processing I had an idea to do something a little more than just tweaking levels, saturation and sharpness - the three 'legs' of the post-processing tripod, just as aperture, shutter speed and ISO are the three 'legs' of the basic photography tripod.

I knew it would take time to get it right, but I thought that the picture was worth it. In fact, my decision to do all of the post-processing in Lightroom 2.3 made the job quite a bit more time-consuming. But I thought that Lightroom would be up to the job and I wanted to know for certain.

I like my photos to bring out the essence of what I'm looking at, and that essence is not inherent in the thing, person or situation being portrayed; instead we each bring our own thoughts, personality, prejudices, outlook, frames, state of mind - indeed, our entire background as a human into the picture. The essence I perceive in my subject is of my own making.

At the age of 58 I'm old enough to have seen the original chimney sweeps - albeit the last of them - in the 50s, before the first of the UK's Clean Air Acts. And my memories of that time are of cold, grey, and choking smog - well, some of the time, at least. And my grandparent's time, when sweeps and their boys were abundant wasn't, for me, sepia as we might think of the Victorian and post-Victorian era but a special kind of faded yellow-brown: the brown of the pictures in my Nan's biscuit tin.

And this is how I wanted Gandalf and his boy to appear to you, the viewer, as very real and in no way ghostly refugees from a bygone time. And their juxtaposition with people of the modern age - a girl in blue and a man in a pink top, unthinkable in Gandalf's time - is made even more striking to me by the fact that apparently only one other person can see them. Rochester itself is a strange mixture of old and new; it's history is very much that of Dickens, and Gandalf and the boy are very much characters from some Dickensian novel.

Are Gandalf and his boy real? How can we tell? The boy and his cart at least seem to cast shadows even if Gandalf himself is shadowless. He is already more ghostly than the boy, already from an older time than him. His appearance reminds me that our train passed through Gravesend on the way to Rochester. Perhaps Gandalf will be returning to Gravesend at the end of the day...

Later on I'll be showing you how I got this effect using Lightroom 2.3 and talking about how you can get a similar effect in Photoshop or Elements.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Commenting seems to be fixed

Thanks to Chuck at The Real Blogger Status, I think I've been able to fix the commenting problem. If you click an article's title, or click the word "comments" below the post, you should be taken to a comment entry form below the article. At least, this is how I'm hoping it will work. If there are any more problems, please email me at

For some reason, probably to do with the template I've chosen, some of the text immediately above the comment area looks a bit messy. I'm hoping to find time to fix that soon. If I can't I'll switch to a simpler template. In the meantime, semi-normal service has been resumed. I hope...

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Problems with commenting

It's been brought to my attention that people can't comment on any posts at the moment. It seems that clicking on the "Post a comment" link causes a jump to the bottom of the page and doesn't open a comment form.

I'm currently looking into why this is happening: comments are indeed enabled on this blog and I've even temporarily changed the moderation settings to see if that would make a difference. It hasn't.

I suspect it might be something to do with the template. If it is, I'll change it in the next few days. If not, I'll hunt down an answer in the forums. In the meantime, please be patient. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Post-processing on a netbook part 2

In an earlier article, I told you about an experiment I carried out, taking my Canon 40D DSLR and my Advent 4211-B netbook on the road, post-processing the shots I'd taken in Lightroom on the netbook, and uploading them from there to my Flickr account while on location. A few days later I repeated the experiment with my Canon S3is bridge camera and the same netbook.

Bridge cameras are useful if you want to get better results than you get on your point-and-shoot compact camera but don't want to (or can't) afford a DSLR. Or if you just don't want to carry the weight of the DSLR, lenses, filters, etc on every trip. Unfortunately, most bridge cameras and compacts don't shoot RAW, and that limits the amount of control over the post-processing that you can do. However, some clever developers have produced the CHDK firmware hack that works on a slew of Canon bridge and compact cameras including the Powershot A series, S series, SD series, SX series, G7, G9, Digital IXUS, and TX1. This hack gives your camera a shedload of new options including the ability to shoot RAW.

So I can go out with my 40D or my S3 and shoot RAW all day then process the resulting photos in Lightroom, because Lightroom loves RAW. Well, so I thought. The first time I tried it, it refused to import RAWs from the S3, reporting that they might be broken. For some reason the developers of the CHDK hack decided to make the camera produce a RAW file format that Lightroom can't handle. Not to worry, though, someone else has produced a program to convert CHDK RAWs into Adobe's "universal" DNG format, and Lightroom loves those, too, as they're just a form of RAW file. This conversion program is called DNG for Powershot 2 - or dng4ps2 for short.

So my plan was to spend an afternoon in central London armed with the S3 loaded up with the CHDK hack, and the netbook loaded up with Lightroom and dng4ps2, then post-process some of the pictures in a local cafe in the evening. Then I'd finish the experiment by uploading the results to my Flickr account from within Lightroom using Jeffrey Friedl's excellent plugin.

One of the pictures - of a young lady playing with a hoop in St. James's Park - is at the top of this post. Here are a couple more:

Point of take-off

From the dark

I think the results are OK. If I'd taken these pictures as JPEGs, they almost certainly wouldn't have looked as good. And if I'd taken them as RAWs but processed them in, say, Picasa (which understands the CHDK RAW format perfectly) as I used to do in the past, I wouldn't have had anything like as much latitude in the post-processing as I now have using the dng4ps2 converter and Lightroom. Post-processing more than a few photos can take a fair bit of time but having to convert them from .CRW to .DNG beforehand doesn't add much to that time. DNG for Powershot 2 took about 9 minutes to convert 48 files. If I were in a real hurry I'd convert a few then start work on those while the rest were being converted.

All in all, it was another successful experiment. I don't intend to take my netbook out on a shoot with me all that often, but it's nice to know that the option is there. And the S3 is so light compared to my 40D plus lenses and other gear that I might be tempted to lug the netbook as well, if only to read my email and RSS feeds on the train home.

If you've got one of the cameras listed at the CHDK wiki, why not give it a go. If you've been shooting JPEG so far the quality of your pictures will go up quite a bit. And with the ability to convert to DNG with dng4ps2, you can use Picasa, Lightroom, Photoshop CS, Elements, Gimp, and a large number of other processing programs. If you run into any problems with any of the programs or plugins mentioned in this article, let me know and I'll see what I can do.

I've just found out that the CHDK hack can already save RAW files in DNG format. Apparently it's had that ability since December 2008. That's what I get for being away from the Canon S5 Users Group forum for so long. Thanks to forum member I2k4 for the heads-up.


CHDK hack
The CHDK wiki is here:
Check out the FAQ and Usage tabs first, then go here to download:
There are full instructions on how to install and use the hack on the wiki. For a quick look at what it does as well as how to get it and install it, look here. Do check out the CHDK For Dummies link at the bottom of the page.

DNG for Powershot 2
You can download dng4ps2 from here:
Install the beta version, which is the latest. If you want the Linux version, just click the Download tab at the top of the page

Jeffrey Friedl's plugins
LinkJeffery Friedl has made plugins for uploading from Lightroom to Zenfolio, SmugMug, Flickr, Picasa Web, and Facebook. Download them from here:
Instructions on how to install and use them are on Jeffrey's site.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

The strange case of the missing burst mode

I spot her through the crowds - just a glimpse of pink at first and the pink is surrounded by black. But she's heading towards me. The pink is like a shock to the system; the kind of pink that makes your eyes jump to attention, especially if you're a photographer looking for the unusual shot: the shot that makes your eyes jump in the same way. And a pink that's surrounded by darkness is not only a shock, it's intriguing. I want to see more but I have to wait until she reappears from the bobbing waves of people that surround her.

London's South Bank gets pretty crowded right from the first day of half-decent weather onward, and today it's a sea of humanity with the tide going in both directions at the same time. As she gets nearer I note that she has a guy on each side of her, each of them dressed in something dark, mostly black, but it's her I'm checking as she is without any doubt whatsoever the subject of my next shot. It could be the three of them, with the two guys acting as bookends, but it's the essence of who she is that I want to try to capture and bring out in my next batch of published photos.

It's her hair that's pink and as the trio move nearer I see that she resembles a kind of neo-hippy Gorgon with her hair - if indeed it is her hair and not extensions - in ropes like cascading snakes. She wears a nose ring, studs below her lips, and large dangling earrings with necklaces and pendants to complement them. Her shirt is light grey and its subdued colour only serves to enhance and show off the pink. She has several wristbands, one with a skull, and gloves in a tiger-skin pattern with cut-off fingers and holes cut in the backs. I can't see if she's wearing jeans or something more feminine. In fact, I can't see all of this detail just yet, only the impression of something exotic moving towards me, and she's still a few dozen feet away. But I know I have to get at least one shot. I'll have plenty of time later on to study the detail.

By now I'd usually have the camera up at my face but in this crowd I'm worried that I'll miss completely as her head appears, disappears, and reappears between a thousand other heads. So I decide to put the camera in burst mode and fire off as many shots as I think it takes. I decide not to put the AF into AI Focus mode. I've made this mistake before trying to photograph someone in a moving crowd. With AI Focus mode, you aim at the subject and half-press the shutter release and the camera will continue to keep them in focus as they move. In theory. In reality, it works quite well with subjects moving left to right - animals crossing in front of you, for example. And my particular camera, the Canon 40D, is quite good at handling subjects moving straight towards the lens. But in a crowd it can lose the subject and refocus on someone nearby. And getting the focus back where you want it is a pain; you have to let go of the shutter release, reframe the subject and half-press again. And again, until you get it right. Or, more likely, miss the shot.

So I decide to just go with burst mode, pan the camera along with her movement, and at the optimum moment, hopefully, press the trigger while continuing to track her, allowing the camera to take half a dozen shots. And if I time it right I can have several goes at this as she moves past me. So I press the camera's Drive button to change to Hi burst mode, and turn the wheel on the top of the camera. And nothing happens...

The 40D has two LCD displays: a large three-inch one on the back for accessing the menus and viewing your shots, and a smaller four-line one on the top-right for viewing the per-shot settings such as ISO, shutter speed, aperture, focus mode, single/burst shot mode, and so on. And the icon for drive mode seems to be stuck on ONE SHOT. My first thought: this has never happened before; I hope it isn't broken; I've only had it just over a year and I'd hate to have it sitting in a workshop just when London is chock-full of interesting photographic subjects. Maybe I've changed some menu setting, hidden deep within the hierarchy. The 40D has more settings than I need and I sometimes think it would be nice to be able to hide some of them, at least temporarily. But I don't recall changing any of the settings. In fact, I've made a habit of checking my settings just before a shoot - after making sure my lenses are clean.

Just as the young lady gets about 10 feet away I have an epiphany. On the train into central London, I cleaned the lenses then settled down with my magazine. I forgot about my settings. Some habit.

As she moves nearer I go straight for my mode dial and move it from Portrait, where it has inadvertently ended up after being thrust into my rucksack, onto Av mode where it belongs. Where it usually lives, in fact. Too late now to worry about burst mode, I quickly raise the camera, already accepting that I've probably missed any chance of getting a shot, even a bad one. Great photographic subjects come and go and you can't always be ready for them. And, strangely, on more than one occasion I've found myself deliberately letting one go, knowing that I won't ever get that shot; and since what made the subject interesting was the way a particular person was behaving in particular circumstances, nor will anyone else.

The camera is now at my eye and as she reappears for a second or so amidst the crowd, I take my one chance. And then, with her two companions, she's gone. And I'll probably never see her or get to photograph her again. I feel a strangely mixed sensation of sadness as she disappears, yet happiness that such people exist. I tilt the camera and press the Play button and straight away I experience that feeling that all of us know: the feeling that you got something very right. More than that, even, as I notice that she had blinked as I pressed the shutter release and, far from spoiling the shot, it adds more than I could ever have expected. The picture not only brings out what I perceived in her from a distance, it also shows the elegance with which she held herself, with which she walked. The essence of who she was, right there and right then.

Later on, after running the RAW file through Lightroom, I'm stuck for a title for the picture. It speaks for itself. It doesn't need a title. A title might even subtract something from the viewing of it. Or add something unwanted by suggesting that the viewer prejudge it in a certain way. It's late and I'm exhausted and I take the easy way out. I call it "Pink Hair". A simple description that reveals what triggered my wanting to take the shot in the first place.

Of course, next time I'll remember to check my settings before I start a shoot. I always do. It's a habit with me.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Post-processing on a netbook

On Saturday 25th of April I carried out a small experiment. As a big fan of netbooks and a massive fan of photography I like to combine both and make the maximum use of the technology. Some time ago I bought one of the first 7" EeePC netbooks to take on holiday with me. A 160GB external USB hard drive was to be my backup storage for any photos I took and the EeePC (with 4GB of onboard flash memory) was both the means of getting the photos onto the external drive in the first place and of viewing them subsequently. And the EeePC and external drive took next to no space in my rucksack. The wonders of modern technology.

The EeePC's 7-inch screen was the first thing I outgrew; the keyboard I could live with but it was doing my back damage having to continually lean forward to read the screen. And, in any case, I had bigger plans than just using a netbook for backup. I wanted to do post-processing 'in the field'. So I bought a new netbook.

The Advent 4211-B is an MSI Wind clone. It has a 10" screen, an 80GB hard drive, 2Gb of RAM (upgraded from the original 1GB for just under £18) and a 98% keyboard on which I can touch-type at not much below my top full-sized keyboard speed. It has an Atom N270 processor and, apart from the screen size, this is the major difference between the netbook and my dual-core Pentium, 2 GB RAM, 160 GB HD main PC. Oh yes, and there's the weight. I wouldn't try to cram the PC and monitor into my rucksack.

Anyway, I said something about an experiment, didn't I?

I've put Lightroom 2 (upgraded to 2.3) on the Advent netbook as well as on the PC and it runs quite well. Yes, it's slower than on my PC but that's down to the processor, bus, and graphics chip speeds. But I can live with it. And, of course, the screen - at 1024 x 600 - is less than half the size of my 1440 x 900 17" monitor. But I can live with that, too. It's not as if I'm going to be using the netbook for all of my post-processing. Just occasionally, when I'm 'in the field'.

I should mention that I've also installed the GIMP, Picasa, and a few other graphics-manipulation programs on the netbook. That 80 GB hard disk is pretty big. Big enough for Windows XP, Mandriva Linux, all of the programs I use regularly under both operating systems - and I mean all, not just the graphics ones - plus a 10 GB partition for multimedia: photos, videos, my MP3 collection, and a few dozen ebooks, too. The wonders of modern technology.

Ah, but I digress. I said something about an experiment, didn't I?

On Saturday 25th of April there was a St George's Day celebration in London's Trafalgar Square. No, this isn't another digression, this was the day of The Great Experiment. Lugging my Canon 40D, a couple of lenses, and the netbook, I attended the aforementioned celebration, which took the form of a concert. A concert of folk music as it happens, which isn't my favourite, but that's not important in the Great Scheme of Things. In fact, Eliza Carthy cracked out a banging set that should have made her top billing. But that's not important in the Great Scheme of Things either. Well, maybe for Eliza it is, but I digress...

I took 74 photos at the concert (plus one of a Routemaster bus on the way, just to prove to myself that the camera was switched on) and the plan was to hive off to the local cafe to copy them to the netbook, select a small number of them, process them and upload them to Flickr. Just like the pros do. I said, "like". I know they use Mac laptops with screens the size of a barn door. But the principle's the same right?

Anyway, I selected six shots, three of performers and three of people getting into the spirit of St George's Day, and ran them through the Lightroom mill. I tweaked exposure, clarity, levels, fill light, vibrance and saturation; I cropped one or two a little; I worked with the colours on a couple; I reduced the luminance noise levels and sharpened them; and I even used the Adjustment Brush to bleach some teeth and sharpen up the eyes a little more. All in all I thought the result was acceptable. Not what one of the pros would do on his Mac with a screen the size of a barn door, but acceptable. Oh, and I did all of this with the touchpad, not a mouse, not a pen pad.

You've seen the results at the top of this post - my photo Waving The Flag For England. If you'd like to see the other five, go to my Flickr stream. When you're there, just search my stream for "Proof of concept". The ones to look at are titled English Hat, Jim Moray, Eliza Carthy, English Face, and Seth Lakeman.

You'll see that I missed some chromatic aberration on one of the shots - not because I couldn't see it, but because it took me a while trying to remember my usual workflow on the PC. And that, in turn was triggered by my noticing that I hadn't copied my Develop presets onto the netbook. Of course, I remedied this as soon as I got home. But if you want to try this experiment, do remember to copy all of your presets to the netbook; it's not that you won't get good results if you don't, it's just that presets save so much time.

I did the whole exercise simply as a proof of concept. I wouldn't dream of making this my regular way of working. But I've proved, to myself at least, that with a bit of practice it's workable.

Since then I've carried out a similar experiment with my Canon S3is bridge camera. With the CHDK firmware hack, this camera can shoot RAW. It's also a tad lighter than my 40D plus lenses. A few dozen tads, in fact. Though it only packs 6 megapixels as opposed to my 40D's 10.2. But 6MP is still enough to party with - at least up to A3 print size. I'll be putting together an article on this latest experiment soon.

And in a later article I'll pick one of these photos and go through the post-processing steps so you can see how I get the 'look' you see in many of my pictures.

The subject is everything

I want to talk about why IQ isn't important. No, I don't mean a discussion about why it always seems to be The Unintelligent running the country; I'm talking about Image Quality here. (Cue for the purists to start shuddering.) Yes, I'm saying that image quality isn't important. Well, not that important. In my humble opinion.

You might not agree with me but I'd ask you: who is your photography for? If you're like me, it's for yourself. As an amateur I can choose what I want to shoot. Within the constraints of the law and my own code of ethics, that is. And every shot (except those taken for tourists, with their own camera) is taken for my own enjoyment. The fact that other people have said they like a fair few of them is a bonus as far as I'm concerned. And for me, the choice of subject and how well I've portrayed that subject is far more important than any technical quality the image might have.

Take my Mr Bubbles, for instance [top left]. On the piazza at London's Trafalgar Square are to be found two or three pavement 'artists' just about every day. (You have to see what they produce to see why I've used quotes there.) One day while I was on the piazza I noticed a sizeable group of foreign children of primary-school age (under 11). The group leader had gathered them quite near to one of the pavement drawings. The guy whose drawing it was produced a bubble-blowing kit from somewhere and proceeded to amuse the children who ran around trying to be the first to burst the bubbles. I had on my Canon 70-300mm f4-5.6 IS USM lens and my camera's always on when I'm out shooting, so I raised it and created Mr Bubbles. I don't know the guy's real name, and he certainly wouldn't answer to "Mr Bubbles" if you called him that - I just wanted to capture his essence at that very moment. I think I succeeded.

But you don't even have to look very closely at it to see that his face is out of focus. As I half-pressed the shutter to lock the focus and reframe, he moved his hand up and the camera focused on that instead of his face. I didn't notice at the time as it looked like a pretty good capture when I reviewed it on the LCD, and I tend to only go for one shot of each subject. Maybe two now and again if I didn't catch the light right.

I have to take a small detour here to explain a few things: that I post my good pics on Flickr as a backup (they're also copied onto two separate partitions of my internal hard disk and an external HD, too) - I also make them publicly available under a Creative Common licence as bloggers and Wikipedia use some of them; also, I should make clear that I don't play the Flickr ego-stroking game, though I have nothing against it if other people want to play it - I have neither the time nor the inclination. The long and short of it is that each of my photos doesn't get very many views. In some cases it's because you can pretty much see the picture by looking at the thumbnail; in others it's because people don't find the picture interesting enough to warrant clicking through to view it in a larger size. Yet, despite this, Mr Bubbles continues to get several views every day - 17 on the day of writing this article. Yet never has anyone on Flickr mentioned that the guy's face is out of focus.

Why is this? Well, in my opinion it's because it's a picture of an interesting subject. With this photo, IQ (image quality) comes second to SQ (subject quality). But this is just one example.

The photo The Girlfriend Spotted Me is, if you discount photos of celebrities, my most-viewed photo of all time on Flickr. And, knowing a bit about psychology, I think I know why. When most people look at photos, they prefer to look at pictures that interest them in some way rather than pictures that are technically "good". While photographers - or at least, some of the most hopeless cases - might prefer to look at pictures with good IQ, the rest of us prefer to look at stuff we like, things that interest us, photos with good SQ. And if their image quality gives them more impact, even better.

What are some of the most well-known photos you know? If you don't know many, check out the World's Famous Photos website. How many of them are famous because of their subject matter? Don't they have the impact they do because their subjects are compelling? Wouldn't you like to produce images that are as compelling as those?

That's why I asked you near the beginning of this article, who is your photography for? If it's for you, by all means make IQ a priority if you like. But if it's for other people, just remember what it is that they like. Take another look at those famous photos. Check out Flickr's Explore: Last 7 Days Interesting page. Especially if you're fairly new to photography, don't just skip past the pictures in magazines; study what you see. Learn above all what it is that makes a picture interesting. Maybe aim to go less for Image Quality and more for Interestingness Quality - in other words, Subject Quality.

On snapping celebrities in the street

Some people have remarked on my increasing collection of celebrity shots as if it were unusual for an amateur to go chasing the Z-list. In fact, I don't. In every single case I've stumbled across that particular celeb in the middle of doing a piece to camera, a promo video or interview of some kind, or in the case of Dustin Hoffman, reshooting the end of a major Hollywood movie on the South Bank.

Most people don't see or, at least, notice celebrities in public. I think it's mostly because we don't expect to see them out and about on the street. But you're far more likely to spot one if you look at everyone you pass. Seems pretty obvious really, doesn't it? And if your camera is always on and ready you stand a good chance of bagging a shot, especially if your walkaround lens has a longish zoom.

Sometimes when I spot a celeb I watch them and the people around them. Passers-by barely glance at the celeb and, if they do, they don't seem to register who it was they just looked at. I once watched Peter Stringfellow walk a few hundred yards down St Martin's Lane, in which is situated his eponymous nightclub. Now he's not exactly the least recognisable person around (check Google Images) and yet no one seemed to notice him. Maybe they did but thought it uncool to stare. Maybe they didn't want to notice Peter Stringfellow.

Of course, keeping my eyes open, I've bumped into a few celebs when I didn't have my camera with me. Almost literally bumped. In my local Pret cafe one day I grabbed my sandwich and started to back away from the display shelves and almost trod on the foot of actress Sally Phillips (Green Wing, Smack The Pony). I didn't have my camera and it's a shame because she's prettier in real life than on the box. In any case, I really wouldn't expect to see Sally Phillips in Pret; I imagine her as far more likely to be hidden away in celebrity haunt The Ivy (no slur on Sally intended).

Many years before I got interested in photography, I found myself crossing the road next to the (somewhat diminutive) comedian Ronnie Corbett. I almost missed seeing him. I did my usual 'look right, left, then right again' (we baby boomers grew up before the Green Cross Code man did) and thought I was the only person crossing. Then I did a 'look right, left, down...' and there he was.

So, lesson learnt. If you want to snap celebs in the street (or Trafalgar Square, or the South Bank) remember: keep looking at everyone around you, and do remember to look down now and again. Not just in case Ronnie's about; you never know, you might be standing next to Tom Cruise...


Hi. My name is Garry Knight and I've been an amateur photographer since January 2007. During that time I've used a Casio EX-Z700 compact, a Canon S3IS bridge camera, and since the end of March 2008 a Canon 40D DSLR.

It's now about a year after getting the 40D, and quite a few people have said that they liked my photos. At the present time, around 100 blogs and websites have used my pictures. Wikipedia has used 37 of them, 28 being photos of celebrities, major and minor. So I decided to write a blog. A blog about photography.

But it's not just about my photography; it's also about the "rules" of photography and how to break them; it's about discussions of particular photos; it's about some of my favourite photographers; it's about photographic techniques; it's about post-processing; it's about technical stuff that I've discovered. Mostly it's about capturing the light and making light work for you; and it's about being lazy and making light work of photography. I hope you enjoy it. If you do, or if you don't, please let me know.

To give you some idea of where I'm at in photography, you can see my photos in the slideshow at the top-right of this page or at my Flickr account. You can also find me on Facebook.

Keep In Touch

I value feedback of all kinds so please feel free to comment on this blog. If you like an article, or if you don't, let me know. If there's some way I can make it better for your next visit, let me know that too. And if you have a photography blog, do let me know about it because I'd like to check it out.

About This Blog

"It's about capturing the light and making light work for you; and it's about being lazy and making light work of photography."

The Small Print

I make no warranty with respect to the content of this blog. If you try any of the tips herein and something breaks, you get to keep all of the pieces. You may copy all or part of any article as long as you credit me as the author. Any comments posted to this blog may be moderated.

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