HDR Imaging. What does it mean to you? Horrible Disastrous Rubbish? Highly Desirable Representation? Something in between? Our much welcome and returning speaker, David Southwell ARPS would admit that there is a lot of the former around but if done properly, High Dynamic Range images are an important tool in the photographers tool box. Most of his ARPS panel consisted of them taken in the demanding situation of the interior of Bristol Cathedral. Thoughts were certainly provoked and the discussion afterwards was more animated than usual which would suggest that this is a bit of a Marmite question, “Love, it hate it, you can’t ignore it” as per the advertising slogan. We will return to this later, for Marmite questions have a hidden truth within them.
David did an excellent job of explaining the technical origins of HDR, essentially boosting the fixed capabilities of digital images to catch a range of 6 – 6.5 EV at best (depends on the sensor construction and other factors), or about one half that of the human eye (10-14). Using software and exposures of the same scene metered between exposure for shadow detail to exposure for highlight detail and the range in between (see here for a much more detailed explanation and on how to go about creating a more natural version of the effect) a single image is produced capturing the entire range of luminosity values in the scene. There is a more technical and vastly more expensive way to create HDR using oversampled binary image sensors. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about that and for the rest of us, rest assured they will be coming to high end mobile phones in the near future.
Some DSLR’s, CSC’s, Mobile Phones have an HDR facility built in, but this will almost certainly work with JPEG’s which have a more limited dynamic range than versions of RAW or Tiff. Handled carefully they can be effective, but as always there is the question of how much control is needed, required or is desired by the photographer. The camera processor and choice of jpeg format mean that certain assumptions have been made at the coding stage you do not have an input to. David left us in no doubt that, whereas process can be automated, shoot in RAW (preferably 16 bit, but 8 bit has got him some spectacular results). Your standard 8 bit image (as used in JEPGs and a lot of cameras shooting RAW) gives you 16.8 million colours (more than you can see) and 16 bit 281 trillion (far, far, far more than you can see). 16 bit gives you far more subtlety to play with, whereas 8 bit tends towards grouping colours into bands rather than representing them as subtle variations of colours. In a not particularly accurate but certainly useful way of looking at it we can say the difference is in the ability to reproduce shades, though the human optical processing system does vary from individual to individual. David asserts that 16 bit is the future and for those interested in HDR and, eventually, all photography, so now is a good time to start working in it as far as you can.
But why bother if all we want is the picture that represents a decent looking image of the widest possible range? Well now this is the tricky bit and where its detractors get dismissive of the technique. Before we touch on that, and we can only really touch on it here for reasons of time, space and the need to preserve a semblance of sanity, we need to deal with that problematic idea that you can only make art through fine motor skills. We have treated with this before (27/11/14) so I am not going to go into it again, but part of the attraction of HDR is to make the photograph look more like a painting. OK this is a gross simplification, a minority point in a minority interest, but that does not undermine its validity. Photography’s inferiority complex has existed since print 1 frame 1 in the history of photography. Both are trying to make that emotional connection with the viewer. If that is absent it doesn’t matter how good the draughtsmanship, the image does not work.
David made the point that it is, despite his determined advocacy of the technique, only ONE tool in the box, a very important point. We all have our favourite tools. He gave an estimate of about 3% of his own photography – and this coming from a man who needs 16 TB storage space in his computer system and a high end spec to match in terms of graphics and processors, memory and monitors. To give you an idea, that’s about 640,000 25mb raw images, if my maths is right, so 20,000 ish frames to make up his HDR section when full – with David spending up to 8 hours getting it right on each one! Slightly more involved than Justin Quinnell’s equipment needs, for sure, but they are two ways of making an artefact, two different ways of making a connection. The other 97% isn’t and that is the point. There is no technique that suits all horses on all courses but the more techniques a photographer can master the more complete that photographer will be. Not in pseudo competition with fine art, but in terms of their own personal development and capabilities. HDR has a role to play in getting emotion into an image, certainly it gets a reaction like no other photographic technique I have come across. That’s the art of photography.
OK let’s not tot up the cost of the sort of system David is talking about, he is a very experienced photographer with deep roots in computing. Looked at that from that perspective it just puts the technique out of the range of most of our pockets in the club. HDR can be done on a laptop using programmes that aren’t Photoshop. David reckons that layers and blending, cloning and careful metering are the basics and they can be practiced in any number of ways. Indeed Photoshop isn’t fully 16 bit yet and the vast majority of monitors out there cannot handle 16 bit data and the ones that do will cost you about the equivalent of the average UK wage. Start in 8 bit and make your way up. Practice, practice, practice the basics. Be critical, seek criticism, put the feedback into your practice. The same points were made by the last speaker.
So let’s come back to the Marmite question again. “Love it, hate it, you can’t ignore it”. That is simply not true. Looked at logically the vast majority of the British public remain in denial that Marmite is a big issue facing the United Kingdom. It’s a clever ruse to sell a strong tasting edible (or inedible depending on your view) spread. If a Marmite insurrection has sprung up then it has passed me by. HDR certainly provokes strong opinions, but in ten years time it may be a capability so ubiquitous in photographic equipment that we give it no thought, in exactly the same way as most people do with most Marmite questions. Depth of field may be going the same way, where the out of focus becomes a filter you apply. The technology has been around for a while, only now it’s electronic. Those that do tend to feel strongly about this sort of thing, feel very strongly indeed, how do you like Marmite?
N E X T M E E T I N G
Your Picture Your Way – Architecture & Artistry. Bring an image or two on these themes and give us some insights on the who the what, the why, the where, the when and the how!
A N N O U N C E M E N T S
Monday June 15th – peaking between 00:30 and 02:00 The Milky Way.
Philippa Wood AWPF CPAGB AFIAP, ably supported by husband Peter, took us on a tour of the Scillies and the Gower Peninsular as part of their own grand tour this week that took in Preston, Reflex, then moved on to South Wales before culminating in emigrating to Australia on Sunday (our best wishes go with them) – and that only covers the week from Thursday! The theme that stood out for me from Philippa’s presentation was detail, specifically ideas of repetition and rhythm, and I want to investigate this in the blog this week. Think of this as one of those “Making of” features film makers marketing departments flog off to television channels, where we have been charged with getting the picture that encapsulates a 90 minute film over which they can run the end credits and use as a film poster.
Our brief from the art director tells us that we will have to get all our elements together so that they are governed by a rule of composition, either balanced within our frame to create harmony or unbalanced to create tension, but governed by a single point or object more dominant than the rest to give us a fighting chance at capturing a simple, effective strong story. Detail will be the key.
Even using a planetary view, we can’t get everything in. That means that we are going to have to select. Selection is the basis of composition. Last week we talked about the extremes of selection, macro and astro, but even when taking pictures of the Milky Way we are going to have to select foreground and we have to select the correct piece of the sky. The guiding principle of the photograph we want to take is the story that we want it to tell. Lets assume that our metaphorical movie is an action thriller. The rules of composition we have visited many times. They are not the story, they are a means of supporting the story. How we make the picture isn’t as important as what we decide we are going to put in it. Compositional rules help connect with the viewer but they won’t be what the viewer takes away with them from the picture. That is a lot more complicated. We like what we know, we are challenged by what we don’t. The rules of composition are there to entice us, to engage with what we sometimes don’t know and might otherwise reject. It makes it easier for the audience to engage with our photograph when we have decided what the story of that image is – and before we press the shutter. Phillipa’s journey was expressed through her photographs and her illuminating narrative, which included showing some misfires and discussing what made them so.
Let’s approach this from a slightly different angle (always a good idea in photography). Going back to the presentation that Damien Lovegrove gave us last July. At one point he made up a wild story about the life history of one of the models in his shoot (we know it was wild because he admitted that he had made it up in order to illustrate the way we project our own experiences and preferences on a photograph). When he broke the illusion we looked at it in a different, possibly diminished light. His first two rules of taking a photograph are: “Know your shot” and “Make your subject part of the process”. OK the second one makes more immediate sense in portraiture, but could also mean getting down to the right level for that shot of the bee on the flower, picking the key feature that makes that building interesting, or not being timid about tilting the lens down to frame out that non-descript sky “…Because it’s entirely an artist’s eye, patience and skill that makes an image and not his tools” (Ken Rockwell).
Composition, then, is the imposition of rules within a frame of our choosing – basically where we point the business end of our cameras and how much of the viewfinder is taken up with what we are pointing the business end at. Symmetry is very powerful, it indulges our brains cravings for order. 50% of our brains processing capacity goes to making sense of what we can see. 70% of the bodies receptors (things that gather environmental data which the brain processes into assumptions, priorities and actions) are in the eyes. We can make sense of something we see in about a tenth of a second as a result of these two facilities. The brain takes about 250milliseconds to process and attach a meaning to a symbol – that’s why we have road signs not road memos! Colour amplifies meaning greatly in these basic calculations.
This is why, when sorting through your photographs, a very strong guide to the keepers are only those that hold our attention longer than 2 seconds. Be ruthless at this, because we will start to attach meanings to the ones we wanted to” come out better” (aka excuses) and consequently that will add up a whole heap of storage over nothing of real value. It’s like when we were seven and told to clean the rubbish out of our room – everything means something, so what is rubbish? Yes that toy is broken but I don’t want it gone, I can still have fun with it. In fact it is now officially my favourite toy etc etc. Thus, through self-deception is the Devil in the detail and we enslave Photoshop as his instrument.
But we were talking about symmetry. Symmetry we use to alter the meaning of a photograph. Think of a landscape. Where we place the horizon makes that picture about the foreground or the sky depending on where we place the horizon in a photograph. Go to your local church, especially, but not exclusively, one of the old style ones. Look at how the symmetry gives power to the space we are in. It is the same for a cathedral as it is for a parish church, just we are that much smaller in relation to the cathedral sacred space and with that comes a sense of power and structure and order (and your place in it). Look for symmetry to photograph, we will find beauty in it.
Repetition gives us predictability and in a system that has three initial responses to sudden change, flight, fight or, most often, freeze, our brains find repetition comforting, because of the predictability. Rhythm is a little more complex, visually. Rhythm is made up of visual elements that are repeated. Generally, very generally, a low number of repetitions give a photograph a slow rhythm. A high number of repetitions give an image a more intense, faster rhythm. It can be quite a difficult concept to grasp but it is an observable phenomenon. Again colour can have an effect and as club member Adrian Cook showed us back in January, horizontal, vertical, diagonal and converging lines are instrumental in making patterns to give impressions of depth and scale and effect the rhythm of a composition.
Then we come to where put these things in our frame. This is where the concepts of thirds, fifths, sevenths and “Golden ratio” enhance the ideas, the story elements, of our image. It has been said by more than one speaker and by several competition judges that the best photographs tell one story only. We do not start with these for a reason and that would be, quite simply, that if we did there would be no need to take the lens cap off to get a “good” picture as they would all be present in the pitch black. If we start with these then we are making our job that much harder. Start with the detail, the heroine of our action thriller and give her the right setting to keep our viewers enthralled. Have her dominating the situation to give our readers a comfortable feeling of control or out of balance in her situation to create tension for them. Make her the single point of dominance in action or being acted upon but always, always keep the focus on her through her allies and co-conspirators, the rules of composition.
A N N O U N C E M E N T S
NEXT MEETING: DO NOT go to the club but meet in Queens Square. Practical session, bring your cameras and be there from around 7pm Thursday 7th May.
DO enter the clubs monthly Flickr competiton, club members also get to vote on their preferences.
Grateful as I am for the legion of share-minded posters on You-Tube – you make writing a blog like this so much easier and I thank you all for it – and their willingness to help, Marko Nurminem‘s excellent evening on some of the things you can do with Lightroomtm (and Photoshoptm ) where even the most experienced users in the club I talked to afterwards said they had learnt something from, just went to prove that a live event has a quality of its own. It helps that Marko has a practiced, easy delivery, is an absolute master of his craft and has something to say. It was a very interesting evening for Adobe users and non-Adobe users alike (and I am in the latter camp).
The Adobe suite aka “Creative Cloud Photography” is far reaching in its capabilities. I remember having a conversation with a graphic designer a couple of years ago who quite cheerfully admitted that, of the Adobe suite, he had an extensive knowledge of the bits he needed but doubted there was anybody, including at Adobe, who knew it all. I can believe it. But it goes beyond photography, indeed it is, in its entirety, designed for “Creative teams in large organisations“. Scaling things back a bit, say to your average photo-club user (whoever s/he may be) some post production is going to be involved in the hobby. Indeed it seems to be a necessity in most people’s minds I have talked to about the hobby and although I am going to talk about the getting paid element below, most camera club members are hobbyists. Of course post production is not limited to Creative Cloud, there are free editing versions, like Picasa, or Gimp among many, but the Creative Cloud is designed with professional image production in mind. This explains the integration between the individual programmes in the Creative Cloud, the breadth and the depth. And there is a lot of breadth and depth. It takes a lot of time to get to know them and there are usually three or four different ways to come to the same result in any given programme.
Using them efficiently is something else. Workflow – the processes an item passes through from initiation to completion – determines this. Merely because someone talks about workflow when processing their images does not mean that it is an efficient or effective use of their time/equipment, there is nothing automatic about it. The idea behind workflow is that by isolating the steps in and between each process in the course of producing a result, in our case an image, it becomes possible to identify the most effective way of getting to the finished product. It goes back a century to the works of Frederick Taylor and Henry Gantt, though neither of them would have recognised the term. There is also a very important distinction to be made here between efficiency – which people will tell you they are after – and effectiveness. Efficiency is about getting the maximum work done (output) for the amount of time and materials used (input). What could be better? Well being effective. Being effective is about doing the right thing, you can be ultra-efficiently doing the wrong thing. You can get to hell in a hand cart in land-speed record time by straightening out all the corners and a firm pavement of good intent, it isn’t usually a destination of choice. As Marko put it: “… Be subtle, because rescuing pictures is hard work. Really!”
Presets are a key to executing an efficient workflow, Marko illustrated with a very rapid editing of a low contrast image into one with considerable pop. For editing Marko insists that using RAW as a starting point makes sense as the processing of JPEG files, though perfectly feasible, starts from a smaller base of information, some of the processing having already been carried out and is irreversible. Presets can be made and stored to suit in most of the editing suites that consider themselves more than basic. Essentially a preset is like taking the town by-pass. You get to that roundabout on the other side of town that much quicker, though you still have some twists and turns to negotiate before you reach your final destination. When you only have one or two images to develop then you most likely have time to fiddle. When you have 500 to work through – and you have deadlines and your getting paid depends upon making those deadlines – then 30 seconds saved on each one adds up to hours when you could be doing something more productive instead. Also matters of personal style and taste can be base lined, by making presets they can be easily standardised across an oeuvre over time. The merits of this particular arguments are for another day.
The messages that I got from this enjoyable evening, and it is a sample of one, other than outlined above was that post production is more or less inevitable so concentrate on what you capture on your processor (JPEG or RAW is irrelevant to this), get it as best you can and tweak it in post so you can get back to taking your next set of images. What all these post production packages in the digital age have done is not, most definitely not, invented post production, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce had to develop his image and that was the first, but it has democratised it and photography. Against this there are questions of how images should be executed and presented and that is by far mostly a question of fashion. Marko showed us, most importantly, that there is more than one way of looking at an image.
A good shot tells a story. That is timeless. There are more photographs taken now then ever, most of them with little artistic merit but a lot of personal investment. Camera club membership and presentations like Marko’s and Adrian’s last week and Rich’s and Mark S. and Gerry’s before them (and all the others) the wide range of activities, opportunities and connections that this presents is one way of closing that gap.
A N N O U N C E M E N T S
12th February is the deadline for ASK REFLEX. Please submit your questions by close of play Thursday night.
It is also the ROC open “Creative” round judging night. Be there or be square!
Mr Painter’s Most Excellent Patent Circulars Reveal All By The Magik Of The Hyperlink: This week:
Woodland Photoshoot Blaise Castle, March, see Myk.