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.

Taking Chances

Do chances come your way? When was the last time you had a chance to take an unusual image and you missed it? Do you recognize chance, photographically speaking?

Most of us like to exist in our comfort zones in many walks of life – we are risk averse. Risk is dangerous – things can go wrong when we take a risk. Chance is a bit like a risk, but much less risky – it’s more benign. Chance is offered as an option.

IMG_6876_1When I’m out with a camera in a familiar place I usually have a clear idea of what to shoot. I know the photographic strengths of that place. I may have a specific image in mind: one I’ve taken before but want to re-shoot. We will all have approached a day out with that mindset. The problem with that attitude is that before we even arrive at our destination we have a closed mind: we are wearing blinkers, our vision is narrowed. And what happens if you don’t see what you are looking for? Do you come away rather despondent with an empty card? Or, can you re-think?

IMG_6879_wpChance presents itself to all of us in two guises: firstly as the blink-and-you-miss-it sudden event; and secondly as a result of taking the time and opportunity to see a place anew, in a way that is outside our normal modus operandi. To make the best of chance we have to recognise it first. Sometimes that is best described as riding one’s luck. We need to be open to it, and that requires us to be alert and relaxed at the same time. That sounds like a contradiction but it isn’t.

Chance came my way earlier this week. My wife and I were out in our local city centre. We shopped together for a few minutes and then she said: ‘I want time on my own, off you go with your camera, you’ve got forty-five minutes’. I was like a dog let off the lead! The shopping arcades and their surroundings are a favourite haunt of mine – full of geometry, modern architecture and interesting shop windows with reflections. But on this occasion after wasting quite a few minutes I couldn’t find a single image that attracted me: the place seemed imaged-out, there was nothing new to shoot, and the light wasn’t right. I went and bought a CD instead.

IMG_6903_wpThat break seemed to clear my head of a mild sense of irritation. I checked my watch – thirty minutes left. What to do instead? I paused to look around me, open to suggestions, and I noticed the people rather than the place. And I just started to experiment. I saw possibilities – opportunities – and I grabbed them. My mind had freed up, I felt un-pressured, my eyes were receptive to new images, and I noticed chances. It was a mix of alertness and a process of relaxing into my environment. I moved around, stood still, and waited for something to happen.

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All four images scattered through this post were taken on this walkabout. None of them will win an award. The last one nearly went straight into the trash – shot from the hip along with a few others, over-exposed, and out of focus. But when I looked at it a second time I saw something vaguely impressionistic and I felt it worth processing. The other three are examples where I stopped and waited and took a chance.

In the case of the first image, I shot the graphic and just a few seconds later I saw the lady in red approaching. The shot was instinctive. To make the most of a chance we have to be ready and prepared. Camera in hand, switched on, ready to shoot. And if we walk around like that, camera in hand, observing our environment with an open mind, then chances will always come our way. We just have to see them and take them.

What’s the Story?

 It is said that the camera never lies.

In fact it can tell a cruel version of the truth all too clearly – think of all those images you will have seen of politicians, celebrities or other prominent people papped at their worst: asleep inappropriately, yawning, having a bad hair day, eating a bacon sandwich very badly, or worse.

The camera may not lie, but the processing can and often does. Faces are re-touched, body shape adjusted to improve a profile. And we do it too: removing a TV aerial, an errant telegraph pole and sometimes much more. We clone and crop things out.

A single image may possess more than one meaning, or may have inherent ambiguity, depending on a number of factors – the processing, the pre-conceptions of our viewers, their mood, that image’s association with other images taken on the same shoot, and the personal vision of the individual photographer. The meanings we attach to an image may be very different to what the original photographer intended.

Two by Two. Margate Sea Front

Two by Two. Margate Sea Front

And, that brings me to the heart of today’s topic. What’s the Story?

You go somewhere new, you capture images there. What’s in your mind as you walk about? What is the thinking behind the images you are taking? Perhaps you are just open-minded, shooting whatever comes to mind, or ensuring you photograph the key features. Are you seeking balance, or taking images to a pre-determined agenda? In short – what is the story you will be telling through the images you capture?

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Shoes in the window

We will all be very familiar with illustrated documentary articles about places, towns or cities, environmental or topical issues etc. Many of those will be commissioned. How does that process work? I’m assuming that an editorial team will have an article in mind: they determine its scope, the approach, the context, and finally the ‘angle’ or ‘agenda’ to be pursued. The article will tell a story, a particular story. A photographer will be appointed to work to that agenda. And he will shoot accordingly: seeking out images that conform to the agenda, ignoring those that don’t.

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Beach walkers

The camera never lies, but the images it produces collectively can create a totally false, or one-sided impression of a place or an issue. Images can be employed purely to bolster, add substance to, or give credence to a chosen angle or agenda.

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Station steps

I recently visited Margate, a seaside town in SE England. Margate is a place where it is so easy to shoot images that give a false impression of this town that is a little down at heel and undergoing a process of re-vitalization. The Turner Contemporary gallery is at the forefront of Margate’s regeneration (click the link to see my post about it). More importantly read a post published today over on LensScaper (click here to view) that endeavours to look at Margate in a balanced way while presenting two very distinct visual stories about this resort.

On the terrace of Turner Contemporary

On the terrace of Turner Contemporary

It occurs to me that we – who choose to place our images in the public domain – need to be conscious of the need sometimes to present balanced views of places we visit and photograph. We have no way of knowing who will find our images and what they may think of them.

All the images in this post were taken in Margate – but what stories are they telling?

A Valuable Archive

I must start with an apology as it is now a few weeks since I last wrote an entry on this blog. The truth is that I have been acquiring new images at a frantic pace, and that makes the title of this post particularly relevant.

Every time you go out and capture a few more images, your archive grows. I’ve just checked my Pictures folder and found it contains over seventy-four thousand files. Allowing for duplications, and original and processed copies of files, there are perhaps fifty thousand distinct images. That represents about ten years work. Additionally, I’m not entirely sure how many folders have been archived off the Hard Drive completely, so the figure could be larger than I imagine. Managing an archive is hard work, but vital work, if you are to protect it and also make it accessible as a resource.

This Post is not about protection – but it would be remiss of me not to reinforce the concept of backing up your archive, not once but twice, and keeping at least one copy off-site. We have to think the un-thinkable. The what ifs? What if the house was flooded or burnt down?

What I really want to write about today is the value of your archive as a resource.

Your archive is a visual diary of where you have been, what you saw, and when you saw it. It resolves arguments on who did what and when. It measures the seasons: when did the Apple blossom bloom last year, for example? It answers questions: what was the weather like last September? Which winter was it when hoar frost lasted for days? Your archive documents events, celebrations, holidays, the growth of your children, and much more.

Hoar Frost - Dec 7, 2010

Hoar Frost – Dec 7, 2010

It also is a record of your growth and development as an individual photographer. By examining your archive you can measure change, and note the advancement of your processing skills. You may re-visit old images and find that you can re-work them, producing different or better results. You might find images that have never been processed – those hidden gems – that for one reason or another have never seen the light of day.

An archive is also a learning tool. Looked at as a whole you can see how far you have travelled as a photographer. How your Eye for an image has sharpened, how your vision has broadened or consolidated into a few well established strands. You may more clearly see a direction of travel that reveals itself over time when you review your archive. You may even see the emergence of a distinctive Style.

Finally, you can learn from your mistakes. That’s why sometimes it is not always the best idea to eliminate all the errors and imperfect images from your archive. When you re-visit a place, a city, a resort, or re-walk a known walk, that’s a good time to view the archive of your earlier visit and ask yourself: what did I miss, what do I want to re-shoot, how can I improve on previous images?

All this is possible provided you can find the files you are looking for. And that is the sixty-four thousand dollar question. How do you find those files? For those of us who weren’t circumspect enough to plan in advance, this is when we wish we had the benefit of hindsight. The sooner you develop a filing system for your images the better. Forget about it, allow the files to accumulate uncontrollably, and the task becomes a mountain to climb.

There are two principal choices for a filing system: one based on folders, and one based on keywords. If you opt for keywords, then think this process through carefully, and ideally make a note of the ones you choose – keywords are useless if you cannot recall the precise words you used to identify a tranche of images.

Value your archive, view it and organize it. Most of us are well skilled at putting off the tasks we would rather not do. For those of you in the Northern Hemisphere reading this, the approach of darker evenings may provide the opportunities to set aside time to maximise the value of your archive. I would be most surprised if you didn’t find it time well spent.

The Expected and the Unexpected

Wherever we go – on holiday, and even when we are out for the day to a special place, we will find images that we ‘expect’ from that place, and if we look we will also find the un-expected.

The Expected includes the images that we know we will wish to capture – based on previous experience, or research or simply our expectation of that place. These are the images that are ‘of’ that place and that place alone. They are the defining images – the ones that any visitor will want to photograph. Of course, as photographers, we will try our best to capture images that are a little different from the ordinary versions that we see in their thousands on the Internet or in magazines and brochures.

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A classic image of the Matterhorn that towers over Zermatt

Then there are the Unexpected. If our eyes are alert and if we are signed up to the idea that our images amount to visual story-telling then we will want to round out our experience and our documentation of wherever we are. We will endeavour to do that by seeking out the extra-ordinary image, or the un-expected. These are images that may not necessarily be associated directly with that place.

What do I mean by that? I’m talking about images that we take ‘at’ that place, but they are not intrinsically or identifiably ‘of’ that place. Although of course we could argue that by the very fact that we have taken them there, they are ‘of’ that place. These may be chance findings, but often they are the result of deliberately exploring the back alleys, searching out and capturing the detail, the textures, flowers, trees and other objects, and even perhaps the people at pavement cafes.

It is understandable that when we are visiting a place or holiday resort for the first time, our priority is to see the highlights. There may be a lot to fit in to a visit and time is precious. But what I try to do, usually towards the end of my stay, is to set aside enough time to simply wander, camera in hand, letting my eye lead me off the well-beaten tourist tracks. Sometimes I will have definite aims – there may be specific details I wish to capture, I may have spotted something earlier that I want to return to. Or, it may be simply that I allow my eye to direct my camera.

It’s these little un-expected images that enrich our memories of places that we visit. We will easily remember the primary attractions because we will have other visual evidence of them: from books or a resort guide perhaps. But the un-expected will be our unique and personal reminders of our visit and they will be just as important, if not more so. In the gallery below are six un-expected images from Zermatt.

One final point. When capturing images of your holiday, don’t forget the significance of, and the possibilities offered by, the journey to and from your destination – keep your camera accessible and keep your eyes open. Today’s post over on LensScaper (click here to view) features three images from a recent journey back to Geneva Airport.

All images in this post were taken during our recent one week stay in Zermatt.

Where colour contributes Little

One of the most commonly asked questions by photographers who have little experience of B&W photography is: ‘How do I know which images will work in black and white and which won’t?’

The simplest answer to that is to try it out. In the digital world, colour can be removed with a single mouse click or a shift of a slider. And if you want to do a bit of experimenting then that perhaps is all you need to do to start with: to get the feel for what works for you and what doesn’t. But to get the best results from conversions, I would suggest you follow the advice I offered in ‘How to convert to B&W’ to really get an understanding of how B&W conversions can be tweaked.

Another obvious answer is to say that for many decades the world’s greatest photographers produced all their work in B&W; and with skill almost any subject can produce satisfactory B&W images. But it takes time and effort to extract the best from the medium.

The practical answer for most of us as we get accustomed to the B&W medium, and acquire the ability to pre-visualize the final image, is that we will convert files where we can see the potential for a different final image. And I emphasize the word ‘different’.

Removing colour alters the mood of an image. Yes, it can result in a better image but to simply concentrate on that is to view conversions uni-dimensionally. I often think of the removal of colour as the stripping away of a surface layer. Removing colour can have what I call a purifying effect: it gets you back to simple monochromatic tones. It can also evoke a bygone era if you choose to add a sepia tone in subsequent processing. Removing colour allows line, shape and form to take centre stage. And crucially B&W images are so much more tolerant of contrast. During my formative years as a B&W photographer I saw a great many images that were sometimes unkindly referred to (usually by traditionalists) as ‘Soot and Whitewash’. High contrast work in the B&W medium, to my eye, is never dull – it exudes drama. Contrast creates emphasis.

There are also images where, for one reason or another, colour contributes very little to the success of the image – where colour may be regarded as superfluous, or muddying the picture, or is just simply unhelpful for a variety of reasons.

I’m going to show you some images that I believe fit into that last category and which I think have either benefited from the removal of colour or where the removal of colour has transformed the mood of the image. You may not agree with all the choices I’ve made – you may think I am under-valuing the contribution of colour. That’s fine – we aren’t always going to agree. It will be interesting to see what your opinions are. My gut feeling is that if, like me, you worked for many years in the film era with B&W as your main output then you will be very much more ‘sympathetic’ and passionate about that medium: somehow it remains in your blood. But if your photographic interest dates from the Digital era, then you may not yet have become fully familiar with the world of B&W and, therefore understandably, remain rather lukewarm about losing the colour you have come to love.

Choosing which images to show in this post has been really difficult – I’ve tried to pick images across a range of genres, but it remains a very personal choice. At the end of this post you will find a gallery of all the images used – colour originals and the B&W versions. But within the text I have placed the ‘before and after’ images together for a side-by-side comparison.

All images can be seen better enlarged – just click on an individual image.

My primary love remains photography in high mountains areas. That is where I find my landscapes. I grew up with repeated exposure to the classical work of Alpine photographers whose work was invariably Monochrome. High mountain landscapes with bright snow and rock shadow work well in B&W. This first image was taken from the summit of the Dom. It works perfectly well in colour, there is very little in the way of colour cast (although it can be a major difficulty sometimes as we will see later). However, the B&W version delivers a better bite. It has punch. It clarifies and delineates the detail. The mood has changed –  I think for the better.

DSC_0598_combNext up is a candid shot taken in London of a two men locked in earnest conversation. I took this shot as unobtrusively as possible. Colour here contributes little if anything. Removing colour achieves two things: it makes the background less intrusive, and it  means that I can ramp up the B&W contrast. That fits the idea that these two men are engaged in what appears to be quite a fierce debate, and sells the picture more strongly.

IMG_4403_combThe success of many images of buildings or architecture often is dependent on line, and form. Colour may compete with or detract from those features or it may simply contribute very little as is the case in the next image shot at a train station in Switzerland.

IMG_5894_CombNot satisfied with the simply worked B&W version, I then solarized it:

IMG_5894The next example comes from Snowdonia in N Wales. The weather was dry, but there was a lot of humidity that was leading to a degradation of distant views. I could not satisfactorily rid the image of what I felt was an unsatisfactory colour case. Stripping away the colour results in a simplified image where the recession can speak for itself.

DSC_2604_combHigh Key work is another area where a monochrome image can very effectively distil a purer image. This is a rather unusual view of the Matterhorn in winter from near the Theodul Pass. There are flecks of bright colour but overall the image is a pale blue monochromatic image as it stands. Removing the colour reveals a purer, simpler image.

IMG_2668_combThe hours shortly after dawn can be the best times for colour photography, but only if the light is right. On this morning heading up to the Col sup du Tour in the Chamonix area of the Alps, the light was dull and although the sky was rendered correctly, the snow had an unsightly cast to it. Switching to B&W gives the image a cold mood totally in keeping with what I felt that morning – Cold.

Col sup du Tour_combThe next image is one where I remain unsure which I prefer. There is a lot to be said for the simplicity of the B&W version. It’s all about the shadow of the Chair Lift on which I was riding and the ruckled snow surface. The colour original has very subtle colour especially in the patchy yellow stained snow (Saharan dust borne by the wind) which is actually very attractive. Once gain the two images convey different moods. It’s a matter of personal preference.

_DS78705_combThe next image very nearly ended up in the bin. The original is a scan (totally untouched) from a transparency of the descent off the summit of Kilimanjaro. The scan is frankly lousy: I was still learning how to scan when I produced this. I’ve never gone back for another attempt, partly because my immediate reaction was to think: I can rescue this in B&W. Strip out the colour. And…B&W is so much more tolerant of burnt-out highlights. You can get away with ‘white’ in B&W in a way that colour won’t allow. And sometimes it adds that little extra drama as I think is the case here.

Descent from Kili_combFinally and importantly – conversions are not always obvious, and what appears obvious does not always work. This last image is a Trompe L’Oeil taken at Wrest Park. It’s a painting on a curtain hung in front of a window that really lights up when the sun shines through. The colour cast is true. It’s a monochromatic shot. Strip out that colour and what happens? It’s cold, too cold I think. The subtle colour is needed.

_DSC1046_combB&W work is a very personal approach in the digital era. I hope I’ve suggested some ideas here that may spur some of you on to investigate the possibility of converting more images to black and white. It’s so easy to convert that you will waste very little time in trying it out. And not only may you produce images that convey a different mood, but you will open up an entire new stream to your work.

How to Convert to Black and White

There are several ways to create a black and white image in the digital era. To understand what works best and why, we need to go back and learn from the black and white workers in the film era.

If you are aged 50 plus then it is likely that a lot (if not all) of the photographs taken in your childhood will be in B&W and taken on fairly basic cameras. Mine were. If they are holiday pictures that include sky you may notice that the skies of your childhood seemed to be universally white, or close to white, as if you grew up with a sky that was permanently covered in white cloud. It wasn’t of course. The problem was that B&W film was unduly sensitive to blue and UV light, with the result that this end of the spectrum was over-exposed and so both blue sky and cloud ended up white. Black and White photographers who understood the problem, and were experienced, got round this by using coloured filters screwed onto the lens instead of a UV filter.

Coloured filters allowed the photographer to exert some control over how the colours in the original scene were rendered tonally on the grey scale. When colours are reduced to grey tones, their tonal value is governed by the light they reflect (which you can measure with a light meter). So, for example, a wood in Autumn may have many different colours but if they all register the same amount of reflected light on a light meter then they will all exhibit much the same grey tone in a B&W image. And this is where coloured filters make a difference.

A coloured filter lightens colours that are similar to it, and darkens those that are significantly different. For example a Red filter will significantly lighten red objects – red flowers, red lights, – but will darken blue skies quite dramatically. A Green filter will lighten green foliage and grass. A Blue filter will lighten a blue sky but will increase the tone of skin.

When I shot on B&W film, as I did for many years, an Orange filter was almost permanently screwed onto the front of the lens. A little less dramatic than a Red filter but it still created good contrast in the sky and was a sensible every-day choice.

The point I am making is that B&W film photographers exercised a choice when they converted a scene into a range of grey tones. They filtered the colours to achieve an effect. And you can do the same.

My advice to anyone wanting to produce B&W images is this. Forget shooting in B&W unless you want to do that purely to experiment. The problem is that shooting in B&W eliminates any potential to amend the way colours are rendered during processing. Secondly don’t use the Saturation tool to simply de-saturate a colour image. If you use that, you might just as well shoot in B&W.

The best way to convert to B&W is to mimic the use of coloured filters. And that’s why my method of choice in Photoshop is to use Image/Adjustments/Black and White. That option provides you with 12 presets, some of which mimic coloured filters, in addition to a Default setting (which is exactly the same as de-saturating the image). In addition there is a set of sliders that will provide infinite possibilities. Experiment with a bunch of images. Make sure the preview box is checked. Try out the various presets and note what happens to the tones. Play with the sliders one at a time and notice how the tonal range of the image changes.

Before we go any further I should mention that if you have an up-market camera you may have the option to apply a coloured filter in-camera as part of the process of capturing B&W images. But why would you want to do that when you can control the process much more subtly later during processing?

My processing workflow always starts with cleaning up the image. I make any necessary adjustments using Lens Correction and Transform. Then I deal with any dust spots with the Spot Healing Brush and Clone out any unwanted detail. I then save the image at that stage as a base image.

Then I am ready to go to work to create my final processed image, and that’s the point at which I will do my conversion to B&W, most commonly using Image/Adjustments/Black and White. It is at that stage and that stage only that I get the opportunity to decide how I want the colours to portray on the grey scale. If there’s grass or foliage: do I want it light or dark? If there is blue sky and fluffy white cloud: how much contrast do I want the sky to have?

I’m not saying that the initial conversion is the end of the story. Far from it. I will usually also make adjustments using Levels and Curves to alter the contrast of the image. And also quite often I will use a B&W plug-in – my favourite at the moment is one from Topaz. But there are also B&W plug-ins available from Nik or OnOne software.

There will be some colour images that really won’t benefit particularly from the use of coloured filters at the conversion step – but before you start to process the base image, pause and think how you want those colours to register. Have a mental picture of how the final image will look and plan your steps accordingly.

And finally, not all colour images look good in B&W. Identifying which images work and which don’t is a skill we acquire over time. Some images are obvious, but some are far from obvious.

Other posts will follow specifically looking at different categories of colour images and how these work in B&W.

In the gallery below are six versions of a recent image that was published recently on my other blog – LensScaper. These show the original unedited RAW colour image, a version using a blue filter to mimic what this scene might probably have looked if shot on B&W film without any filtering. And four other versions. The first three use presets: the default de-saturated version, the green filter, and the red filter. The last image is my final image, based on the red filter preset with additional work on levels, curves, and then a Topaz B&W effects preset and finally a preset in Topaz Detail. Some of the differences between individual versions are quite small, but if you compare the final image with the default saturation you will see a major change. This is what is possible.

Click on the first image in the gallery and then navigate through.