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.

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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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