What is Plan B?

The best-laid plans can go awry. It happens to all of us from time to time. You set off to go somewhere, maybe an hour’s drive away, may be further afield for a photo shoot.

It may be a place you’ve been to before and you have some particular images in mind to re-shoot or some fresh ideas. It may be somewhere new to you, and you’ve done a bit of research and got a bucket list of images in mind. You’ve checked the weather, looked at the map, chosen the right gear to take. Planned your timings. You’ve got everything covered – what could possibly go wrong?

The answer is of course, anything and everything can go wrong. The weather forecast is wrong – the sun that was promised has gone AWOL. The light is all wrong. The traffic was snarled up and you were late. You left home too late. Your timing was totally wrong. The car broke down. You got lost on the way. You arrive and it’s a nightmare to find anywhere to park, etc.

So there you are at your chosen place and it’s all gone pear-shaped. Your carefully drawn up plans have gone up in smoke. What do you do? Swear probably…and when you’re done with that, then what? Turn tail and head home? Go off in a bad mood to the nearest bar? Find someone to blame – your wife, husband perhaps for delaying you? No doubt at one time or another some or all of those reactions will ring a bell. Resist those knee-jerk reactions.

How do you get through this? Annoyance, frustration, irritation, negativity, anger perhaps – all those understandable feelings are not conducive to creativity – in fact they are the enemies of it. You need to take a time out. Maybe a half hour in a bar or café to calm down. If you’ve got a newspaper or book with you, it might be a good idea to read for a few minutes. Anything that will help to distract you. Try to wipe your brain clear of the ideas you had.

Then step outside again, take a look around you and think: how can I turn this around? Try to feel positive. Where are the pictures here, now? What is the Plan B? Look at the place with fresh eyes and it will be a rare occasion when you don’t spot the potential for unexpected images. And once you pick up that camera and start to look, images will come to you.

In January a couple of years ago, we set off for Ivinghoe Beacon – it’s a forty-five minute drive away. It’s a favourite high point that we regularly visit. The sun was shining and in my mind’s eye I was seeing long shadows spreading across the valley floors around the hill.  By the time we arrived, and got to the top of the hill, the sun was still there in the sky, but a nearby wooded ridge meant that the valley floor was in deep shadow. I had misjudged the sun’s trajectory. Too late was the cry!

I was relatively calm although frustrated; there would be other opportunities, but it was still an hour and a half of driving for no results. I decided to step off the hill and walk the long way back to the car. A couple of minutes walking and I turned round to look back up to the ridgeline and saw images. The silhouettes of people out walking in the late afternoon sun. Something totally different from anything I had ever seen at this place.

_DSC1498_wpThe next half an hour flew by as I shot image after image – some of the best I have taken at that place. I went home happy. The strange thing is that if I had just walked back off the hill down the usual path I would have missed these pictures completely.

_DSC1513_1Always think – what and where is Plan B? You may be surprised by the results.

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Mini Tutorial – Solarization

Solarizing an unexceptional B&W image is a path down which few of us travel. For several reasons perhaps: the idea that Solarization produces ‘weird’ results, or a failure to understand its potential, or maybe you’ve never heard about it or never thought about experimenting with it. But experimentation is easy and the results can be surprising.

History

Solarization is generally understood as the partial reversal of image tones achieved by fogging (brief over-exposure to light) of film or print during the development process. In addition the process of Solarization often produces a characteristic edge effect known as a Mackie Line – a clear line delineating what were, in the original image, sharply contrasting highlight and shadow, but which in the Solarized form are similarly toned. Depending on whether the final image is positive or negative the Mackie line may be a white line separating dark tones or a black line separating white tones.

Man Ray is the photographer probably best known for his experiments with Solarization in the 1930s. He was one of the first artists to use the process for aesthetic purposes, although the original concept of Solarization – gross over exposure at the point of capture of an image (resulting in a black sun) – was a phenomenon known about since the mid 19th century.

To be strictly correct the techniques employed in the darkroom, or digitally, amount to Pseudo-Solarization or the Sabattier Effect.

Solarization can be applied to film or to prints. Solarizing developing prints produces a range of silvery tones with intriguing results. Applied more commonly to Lith film inter-negatives the results are of much higher contrast.

In the darkroom era, from my experience, Solarization was a fiddly hit-and-miss technique that could be exciting but frequently intensely frustrating and wasteful of both time and chemicals.

The original negative was copied onto 2¼ square Lith film (a high contrast sheet film) to make an initial Lith positive. Part way through development the Lith positive was exposed briefly to light. This resulted in a peculiar reversal of some tones as a result of the fogging of undeveloped areas of the film. The Lith positive was then fixed, washed and dried and then used to create a Lith negative from which the final print was made.

Immediately below is a straightforward Lith image of a signal on a London bridge printed about 40 years ago, and alongside the Solarized version produced at the same time showing the Mackie Line.

ARPS12_compositeSolarization in the Digital era

Solarization in the digital era now involves a simple click on Solarize and an adjustment to Levels. What could be simpler?

Here is the latest image I’ve worked on. On the left is the unedited RAW original, on the right the final Solarized image. Click to enlarge the image.

IMG_6039_montageIt may not even look Solarized to you. The result has increased contrast and bite that would be hard to achieve by any other means. It doesn’t look odd or weird. And that is perhaps one of the main points to stress. Solarization has the capacity to produce results that certainly can be at the dramatic or obvious end of the Solarization spectrum, but it is also a tool for breathing new life into the unexceptional.

Here are the steps taken to reach the final image using Photoshop, and for those using Elements you will find the Solarize filter available there too:

Here’s the base image straight out of camera:

IMG_6039_0Step 1: Adjust Curves and Levels to increase contrast in the base image.

Step 2: The image was then taken into the plug-in Topaz Clean/DeGrunge to clean up the image a little – a cleaner image seems to Solarize more smoothly.

IMG_6039_1Step 3: I desaturated the image by Using Topaz B&W Effects/Stylized/Dynamic II Smooth, but I could just as easily have used a standard option in Photoshop.

IMG_6039_2Step 4: The critical step: Filter/Stylize/Solarize. The image, immediately after that simple ‘click’ to Solarize, looks awful – no highlights at all. Look at the levels overlaid.

Grab-before levelsStep 5: Using levels move the highlight slider and see how the image comes to life again.

Grab-after levelsStep 6: Finally the sky needed a little work to increase the contrast – so I made a selection of that using the magic wand and adjusted levels and shadow/highlights further. A final nudge of +0.2 degrees in Lens Correction and a crop and the image was finished. There’s no Mackie Line, and very little trace of this being an image derived through Solarization.

IMG_6039_finL

Click on the image to see a higher quality enlargement

In the gallery below I’ve picked five before and after Images where Solariazation has been used to create the final image. In all cases the original image is completely unedited – SOOC.

In the first pair you will see a very clearly visible Mackie Line. Similarly in the second pair, the girl is also picked out and silhouetted as a result of a distinct Mackie Line.

The final three pairs show hints of an edge effect but their main strength is in the contrast and bite that Solarization has brought to the processing pathway.

Click on the first image in the gallery and then navigate through. Individual images can be enlarged for a closer view

Three final points:

  • Selecting images on which to use this technique is not always obvious, but those with initial strong lines will usually yield stronger results.
  • Solarization can always be applied to colour images but expect some very strange colours.
  • Inverting a Solarization may occasionally yield a different but more pleasing image, especially when applied to colour work.

Do give it a try – you won’t be disappointed.

Re-Visiting

We can learn a lot by re-visiting places we have been to before and photographed.

Firstly a re-visit provides an opportunity to put right the mistakes you made at an earlier visit. Secondly, a careful look at your archive will also suggest potential images that will be an improvement on what you took previously. That critique of past efforts and a few minutes spent thinking about the next visit will often pay dividends

And, of course, nothing looks the same the second time around.

Post025_IMG_2376I travel down to London at least once a month for meetings and other events and usually I walk from Euston Station down to Oxford Circus in the heart of the Capital’s West End. It takes about thirty minutes. Each time I take that walk I try to vary the route to take in different streets. Unfortunately my walk tends to be usually at the same time of the day – about 11am – so the direction of the light is always the same, but the quality of the light is never quite the same. Sometimes I walk the same route in the opposite direction in the afternoon. You see things entirely differently in the reverse direction.

By varying my walk I approach buildings from different directions, and London never stands still. There is always development in progress, and watching a building rise can itself be an intriguing sight.

DSC_8760_RSMThe Welcome Trust’s façade on the Euston Road is always the first building I see when I leave Euston Station. The first image I took of it (See above) was in the late afternoon as dusk was approaching and it remains one of my favourite architectural images of London. The array of lights on the Staircase caught my attention. The building had gained character. This building, like so many, comes alive when the lights go on.

Two other images of that building have followed. Firstly a simple image in black and white with red being the spot colour was taken a few months later. This image wasn’t taken with the final image in mind, although I had waited for a red vehicle to pass, but the processing decision was very quickly obvious back home viewing it on the big screen.

IMG_5293_wpFinally, more recently it was the reflection of a crane at work on a building site on the other side of the road that attracted me. Glass is the new brick for so many buildings, and glass has the capacity to visually highlight the inter-relationships between neighbouring properties. Float glass thankfully is never truly flat glass. How boring life would be if every reflection was a faithful replica. The distortions are what add an extra dimension to those inter-relationships.

The second building that I have re-visited a number of times is one whose construction I have watched take place and it is now nearing completion. It continues to puzzle me. The façade I first captured is such a minimalist structure.

Post377_IMG_5299_crop_wpA sinuously curved frontage punctuated by windows that appear almost to be an after thought. The complete opposite of the wall-to-wall glass that is so often the feature of new buildings. I have no idea what function this building will serve. So far I haven’t seen it from the other side, which faces south. Hopefully there might be a bit more glass in that frontage.

This last week I approached this building at right angles to my usual line and for the first time I saw the completed side wall where the stairwell is the prominent feature – actually it’s the only feature of the wall, sheathed in tinted glass. IMG_5993_wpA Belisha beacon for a pedestrian crossing provided a little foreground interest and a contrast to the precise geometry of the wall, and the abstractly distorted reflections in the glass wall of the stairwell.

These are just two simple examples of how re-visiting will suggest new images. And the process repeats with each subsequent visit. Our Eye changes, our likes and dislikes change, and of course the light changes. Each visit will be a surprise, and a learning experience.

Foundations

Creativity cannot be taught, but the foundations – the building blocks that assist the Creative process, and facilitate the cultivation of a Seeing Eye – those can be described. Understanding those foundations, and incorporating them into your daily practice as a photographer will free up your mind and allow your Creativity to flow.

This process starts with familiarizing yourself fully with your camera. And the best way to do that (apart from reading the user guide more than once) is to use it. Carry it with you wherever you go. Many activities require practice and Photography is no different. The more you carry your camera, the more you will use it. And the more you use it in unfamiliar environments and conditions the more familiar you will become with the settings and how to change them.

Carrying a camera implies an intention to find something to capture. But there’s no point hiding it at the bottom of your rucsac – you’ll forget it’s there. Carry it, if it’s safe to do so, so it’s ready for use. The simple act of cradling a camera in your hand will encourage you to look for ways to use it.

It may seem rather pointless carrying a camera in mundane situations. But the point is this: the skills you acquire and the ability to ‘See’ and identify images in one environment are transferable to any other environment.

IMG_5461_wpLearn from your images – don’t just delete the failures without a thought. Every image is a learning experience. Look at them and work out what went wrong: think about why the image failed. Very often images fail because we use the wrong settings, and very often that is because we fail to check them before we press the shutter. Become systematic about shooting. Pause and think before you shoot. Another common cause of failure is cropping too tight. Allow a little extra space in the frame and consider the crop back home. After a while you will notice what your common mistakes are and start to correct them.

The next batch of foundations relates more to how you view your environment. The key principle here is to expand your vision. Lazily we tend to see only a 180 degree arc at eye level. Look around you. Look down, look up and always remember to look behind you (the light will be different). Learn also to see the environment as if through a sensor-shaped frame – in rectangular bites. Look for potential compositions.

Experiment with different focal length lenses. Go out with just one lens and use it at one focal length. Notice how different the world looks through a wider or longer lens. If funds allow, consider buying a significantly wider or longer lens.

_DS78443_wpDon’t overburden yourself with equipment when you go out to capture images. Do you really need a third lens? Do you really need a bulky tripod? The simpler your kit is the more you can concentrate on creativity, rather than spending time changing lenses with all the risks that process entails.

I mentioned learning from mistakes. The flip side to that is to learn from other photographers successes. When you plan a trip, Google the place you are visiting, or use another research tool to view images that others have taken. Critique those images and pre-visualize your own trip. A consequence of planning, and being clearer about your objectives, may mean you are able to slim down what you choose to carry because your ideas will be more focused.

Creativity requires an untroubled mind. Sometimes that means being out there on your own, with no distractions, with no deadline to meet, with your mind relaxed. If your photography is always in the company of family and non-photographers it is likely that the quality of your output will suffer.

Finally be inspired. Creativity does not exist in a vacuum. Creativity thrives by exposure to the work of like-minded individuals. That’s why this blogging community, to which we all belong, is such a valuable resource. Use all opportunities to see other people’s work. Visit galleries and exhibitions. Read books and magazines. All work will inspire you and give you fresh ideas. And don’t limit yourself solely to the work of photographers – exhibitions of sculpture and painting can also be sources of inspiration.

This Post contains a lot of individual points. I’ve drawn them all together in this post as a list of what I consider to be some of the essential building blocks to the development of our Creative abilities. It’s not an exhaustive list and I’m sure there are other key principles that you can think of to add to this list.

A number of them are covered in far greater detail in articles in the Foundations category visible in the right sidebar. Do explore those articles.