Black & White conversion workshop

Here are my reflections on what I found to be a very useful three hour workshop with Mat Hart on black and white conversion using Lightroom and Nik Silver Efex Pro.

Hart is a professional photographer of many years, and a self-confessed late adopter of digital photography. His story, work and blog can be found here (see also link below). He explained that once he made the switch to digital, he spent a year of intensively working out how he could achieve the same control over output he was used to with film. It is the outcome of this experience and his subsequent digital work that he shared during the workshop.

My motivation for attending the workshop was to further explore the tools of photography, in this case the digital dark room. Something that I consider important alongside the study of the art of photography to develop my own practice and refine an approach to giving voice to my vision. I’m not comfortable that I’m approaching post-processing in the most efficient way to obtain the results I am looking for; it can sometimes feel that I’m working in circles, in a sea of technical advice absorbed from books and the web.

The detailed content of the workshop will not be repeated here (for that attend a workshop!), but a few high level lessons and an example of an image reworked using the approach to black and white conversion suggested by Hart.

  • Always work with RAW files – processing needn’t be hugely time consuming and, as is well understood, the offer far more flexibility in post.
  • Presets (even your own) waste time – undoing adjustments made by the preset that do not fit your vision for a specific image.
  • Use the algorithm in Nik Silver Efex Pro to do the conversion (with basic adjustments as explained in the workshop) and then fine-tune the image in Lightroom.
  • For a speedy LR workflow, only the basic adjustments panel for overall image adjustments and the brush for specific adjustments can be used to great effect and with excellent control over the effect on the image.

The workshop shared several practical examples and also considerations when shooting for black and white. Overall money and time well-spent!

Finally, before and after images. This was a low-contrast image in poor light and serves as an exercise to show the improvement in speed of processing, as well as contrast:

Caravab #1
Post workshop – 3 minutes
Caravab #2
Pre-workshop – time not measured, but much longer.

 

 

 

 

Reference

Matthew Hart Photography [website]. Available from: http://www.matthewhartphotography.com [accessed 4.9.16]

Nik Collection [website]. Available from: https://www.google.com/nikcollection/products/silver-efex-pro/ [accessed 4.9.16]

Set-up for travelling light with flash; on the street

IMG_0148I like to travel light on trips abroad with work, and that includes the camera kit I take with me for my spare-time. The camera I usually travel with is a Fuji x100T, which has a leaf-shutter and in-theory can flash-sync up to 1/4000 second, killing day-light.

I spent some time experimenting with flash combinations to decide upon the best travel-kit combo, with a couple of surprising results.

My preferred travel flash is a tiny Nissin i40, which folds into a neat pouch and, despite its size, carries a guide number of 40. I mainly work on street and travel photography when travelling, so keep my set-up simple and avoid the use and bulk of light-stands and distraction of wireless triggers; opting instead for a flash cable to take the flash off camera.

Putting the Nissin i40 to the test:

  • On camera, the flash syncs all the way up to 1/4000 second either in TTL or manual mode, as expected. This allows ambient light / even day-light to be cut drastically, while filling a subject using the flash. But, with the flash on the camera, there is not so much opportunity to play with light and shade; one is left with bouncing the flash where that is possible.
  • Connected with the flash cable, the unit unfortunately seems to be incapable of syncing right up to 1/4000 second (though my bulkier Yongnuo unit does so) – the light falls off. Despite some online research, I could not find a solution to this. However, it is capable of syncing to 1/1000 second (still fast) and with the help of the camera’s built-in 3 stop ND, this is still enough to cut bright ambient day-light if needed. It is important to remember this technical limitation to avoid being scuppered mid-shoot!
  • Holding the flash in my left hand while shooting with my right, is possible, but a little like juggling. I’ve order a small inexpensive camera flash bracket as a perch for the flash, so it can either stay seated (perhaps not used) or be lifted from its perch when flexibly positioning is needed.

Exercise in light-killing: 1/2000 sec @ f/2 against south facing window, plus OCF hand-held (jpeg SOOC).

untitled #1

A quick look at photographers using flash on the street:

Eric Kim, the prolific street photography blogger, discusses Bruce Gilden and Charlie Kirk. Watching the video clip on Kim’s blog of Gilden working, Gilden works with the attitude that he owns the street, putting himself in people’s way, flash and camera in their faces. He says, ‘I have no ethics’. It appears aggressive, claiming the territory of the street. Kim performed his own experiment of shooting street photos with flash and was surprised that few people took much notice, concluding that people are often: lost in thought, thing you’re shooting something else, or assume you are a tourist.

Screen Shot 2016-08-20 at 20.49.42
source: amateurphotographer.com by Dougie Wallace

Amateur Photographer discusses Dougie Wallace’s (Glasweegee) approach to his photographs of and into Indian taxis, using a set up of 3 separate flashes; one on camera and two bracketed either side. Not travelling light!

Petapixel features a video of Mark Cohen at work, using a small camera and flash up close to his subjects, using a similarly invasive approach to Bruce Gilden, but seemingly with few consequences – he engages with his subjects briefly and moves on.

Screen Shot 2016-08-20 at 21.15.28
Source: newyorker.com by Mark Cohen

My own practice has not yet included the use of flash in street photography, but I am minded to give it a go having sorted out the simple kit and examined the masters at work.

References

Amateur Photographer [website]. Street photography using flash: how Dougie Wallace photographs Indian taxis using flash
. Available from: http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk/technique/portrait_photography/street-photography-flash-delirium-75762 [accessed 20.8.16]

Eric Kim [blog]. How to shoot street with a flash. Available from: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2011/05/30/how-to-shoot-street-photography-with-a-flash/ [accessed 20.8.16]

Petapixel [website]. Photographer Mark Cohen and the Birth of Invasive Street Photography. Available from: http://petapixel.com/2013/06/04/photographer-mark-cohen-and-the-birth-of-invasive-street-photography/ [accessed 20.8.16]

 

Digital contact sheets, Mac

A recent visit to see Sid Shelton’s Rock Against Racism (see here) with his original contact sheets in a display cabinet, again left me looking for a way to achieve something similarly organic (with the coloured scribbles indicating selects) with digital files.

After some research and experiment, I came up with the following approach that makes use of Lightroom and Preview on the Mac.

    1. Screen Shot 2016-08-06 at 06.50.37Create a contact sheet layout in LR’s print module (there are many online resources showing how to do this if needed) and export it as a pdf. It is the second step that is a little hidden – the dialogue box shows how this functionality is in the ‘printer’ menu at the bottom-right of the screen.
    2. The pdf can now be opened with Preview on the Mac. Preview also acts as the Mac’s built-in file editor and has a few tricks including annotation of pdfs, exporting files as different types, and resizing files. To put highlight markers around selects, use tools/annotate/line – this then brings up options for line thickness and colour. Save the file when done.
    3. At this stage, the file size is likely to be large and not suitable for sharing online, but useful for printing if that is something wanted. To reduce the Screen Shot 2016-08-06 at 07.07.15file size, make a duplicate (if the full size file is to be retained) and use Preview’s export function to export the file. Select export, then choose pdf, and select ‘quartize’ and reduce file size. In the case of my file it reduced its size from 10MB to 500KB. Perhaps re-applying the routine would reduce the file size further, but also result in a deterioration of image quality.
    4. Finally, upload the pdf to a blog as a media file and link into the post, setting it to open in a new window. This then brings up a readable copy of the contacts in a separate screen to the main blog post.

See pdf for contact sheets: Leeds decay contacts

RAW vs JPEG (reprise)

As a Fuji shooter, I regularly read about one professional photographer or another extolling the virtues of Fuji’s OOC JPGs and using them as the primary images, with RAW kept as backups. Most recently a lengthy and informative article by Kevin Mullins, a wedding photographer.

Possibly there is not definitive answer to the RAW vs JPG debate, but rather an ‘it depends’. It depends on what you want to do with the images – for wedding and commercial photographers a speedy workflow and turnaround are vital. And the quality that Mullins achieves from his JPGs is quite outstanding; he places a strong emphasis on knowing how to obtain the desired exposure (frequently using spot metering), as without this there are limited possibilities for recovery with JPG. However, where any significant degree of fine-tuning is required; for example in landscape work or Photoshop composites only RAW will do.

Source: f16.click, by Kevin Mullins

But with clear benefits in workflow time savings, it is worth exploring the limitations of JPGs to allow an informed choice about their use as part of the photographer’s toolkit.

I took some photos in an old (slightly run-down) mill town not too far from my home and processed the RAW and adjusted the JPGs in Lightroom for the same images. The practical experience was valuable and I note some specific disadvantages of adjusting JPGs as opposed to processing RAW. These of course exist because of the very different nature of the files, but nonetheless one should feel the impact in practice to understand it.

click for larger view

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One pair from the ten or so images I made. It is important to note that the JPG file may have been improved if the exposure had been better or the in-camera JPG settings were changed. Points noted:

  • JPGs are sharpened in camera, so there is no sharpening in LR. In LR both the level of sharpening and masking of areas not for sharpening are controlled by the user. It is also possible to do selective sharpening of elements in the image. In scenes with many elements, this is potentially a benefit. On the other hand, Ken Tanaka in the Online Photographer, suggests, ‘Using only Raw files from your camera is analogous to buying an uncooked meal from a fine restaurant, preferring to season and cook it at home. This made perfect sense years ago when the chef was still in school. But today many in-camera chefs are James Beard Award candidates.’ What goes on inside a camera’s expensive algorithms is difficult to know!
  • White adjustments have little effect on JPG files – I was able to brighten the under exposed white sign with the RAW file. But again, if I’d make a correct exposure compensation adjustment for the white, maybe there would not have been a problem (this could have also taken care of the blocked up shadows).
  • The clarity adjustment slider can quickly cause degradation in JPG files, resulting in grungy images (common place on photo-sharing sites)
  • In general, only a limited degree of adjustment is possible with the JPG files before it becomes visible. So, if you get it more or less right in camera, you are fine, but otherwise there can be trouble.
  • Finally, and obviously, with the JPG file you are stuck with the colour rendition selected in camera ; black and white conversion on JPG isn’t too clean and there is no coming back from black and white to colour.

For my own practice, I will continue working at getting the exposure correct in camera (note that ‘exposing to the right’ is not necessarily a good idea for high quality JPGs). Michael Freeman’s book is an excellent guide (see here). The time savings would be significant. However, it is difficult to envisage dispensing with RAW files at least as a backup solution; and there are times when the digital darkroom is just necessary.

References

Ken Rockwell [website]. JPG vs Raw:
Get it Right the First Time. Available from: http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/raw.htm [accessed 26.7.26]

Michael Furtman [blog]. The Real Truth About JPEG images. Available from: http://www.michaelfurtman.com/jpeg_myths.htm [accessed 26.7.26]

Mullins K. F16.click [blog]. Shooting weddings with Fuji. Available from: http://f16.click/wedding-photography/shooting-weddings-with-fuji.html [accessed 26.7.26]

The Online Photographer [website]. Ken Tanaka: Shooting JPEG Instead of Raw. Available from: http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2012/03/ken-tanaka-shooting-jpeg-instead-of-raw.html [accessed 26.7.26]

On camera flash

Being a recent convert to flash photography, I’ve studied a lot of material on how to use it effectively. The consensus is to use flash off-camera and with manual flash settings for creative control over lighting and the important depth-giving shadows. There is no getting away from this.

However, during a recent trip to Amsterdam, I was faced with a photo opportunity that needed extra light and the only thing available was the built-in flash on my Fuji X100T. Highly capable by popular opinion, but I’d never used it and I’ve never even thought about how I could control the lighting. The moment was lost. It makes sense to use what tools we have to get a job done, so I undertook a short exercise to understand my on-camera flash.

The conclusion was it can be very similar, apart from not being movable from the camera and having less control over output levels, and not being able to use any light modifiers. On the upside, the X100T uses a leaf shutter, and allows sync flashes up to 1/2.000th of a second, so it brings a creative advantage when balancing ambient light in bright conditions (plus built-in ND filter if needed). The output of the flash itself can be adjusted through the flash compensation, though it will always be in relation to the measurement it makes through ETTL metering.

There is the possibility of creating images where the subject is at high contrast to the background and, as a process, it keeps one’s mind in tune with ‘flash-thinking’; an exposure for the ambient light and one for the flash light separately. While it is no substitute for a separate flash light, it does offer another tool if travelling light. Something I intend to use more frequently from now on.

Some sample thumbnails, with the ambient light managed through manual exposure.

Digital photo archive

I first considered my workflow in Lightroom, including archiving in my Context and Narrative blog. In preparation for an exercise involving portraiture and the archive, I am again reflecting on this, painfully aware that my current practice for referencing photographs is inadequate.

Rideau emphasises that ‘to properly store digital photos requires the development of a workflow, a standard process of taking, storing, editing and archiving your digital photos.’ This should be obvious, but the application of the workflow requires discipline and habit. Labelling in particular is an area not fully integrated into my workflow. Rideau explains the standard for labelling:

The archival standard to follow is called IPTC which stands for “International Press Telecommunications Council”. They have developed a standard for information that can be embedded into a digital photo. Adobe has used IPTC as the foundation for their Adobe XMP (Extensible Metadata Platform) open standard. Microsoft has also adopted IPTC as the standard for labelling digital photos.

The IPTC provide helpful information on the types and use of metadata. Explaining three main categories of data:

  • “Administrative – identification of the creator, creation date and location, contact information for licensors of the image, and other technical details.
  • Descriptive – information about the visual content. This may include headline, title, captions and keywords. This can be done using free text or codes from a controlled vocabulary.
  • Rights – copyright information and underlying rights in the visual content including model and property rights, and rights usage terms.”

Phlearn provides a practical guide to applying metadata (including copyright), using presets and applying keywords within Adobe Lightroom.This provides protection to digital images once online and allows searching of the Lightroom archive with the keywords.

My previous workflow practices had been more concerned with the selection and processing of photographs, rather than the copyright protection and keywording of images. This I’ll now incorporate into my workflow.

References

Fitzgibbon A (2015). Context and Narrative [blog]. Lightroom Workflow. Available from: http://context.fitzgibbonphotography.com/lightroom-workflow/ [accessed 16.7.16]

iptc.org [website]. Photo Metadata. Available from: https://iptc.org/standards/photo-metadata/ [accessed 16.7.16]

Phlearn [website]. How to Add Metadata to Photos in Lightroom. Available from: https://phlearn.com/how-to-add-metadata-to-photos-in-lightroom [accessed 16.7.16]

Rideau [website]. Storing and archiving digital photos. Available from: http://www.rideau-info.com/photos/storage.html [accessed 16.7.16]