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.

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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."

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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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