The WCPF Travelling Critique did a sterling job of standing in without our scheduled speaker last meeting when we looked at the club competition for projected images won by Dorchester narrowly beating Bristol Photographic Society. It suggests two strands I want to discuss in this weeks’ blog. At the end of the series and before we went onto the 10×10 and Mark’s mini photoshop tutorial (thanks to Wendy G, Mark S and Eddie H for making that possible), I was put in mind of my grandfather’s culinary maxim, one which I think will stand for any man not prepared to waste time stuffing a mushroom, that “When it’s brown it’s done, when, it’s black it’s bugg***d”. It has served me well, though black pudding is something of a contentious area. It came to mind given the amount of, admittedly very well executed, post production work that, on the brown-black ancestral culinary continuum (hence forth the BBACC) suggested above, was certainly more brown than black but does that still leave it fundamentally bugg***d?
I have alluded before to the factions of Ye-Acolytes-of-Photoshop and the Get-It-Right-In-the-Camera-istas and in truth both have an argument in context – Dan Thomas (www.danyt.co.uk) talked about the removal of noise when using high ISO’s from poorly lit weddings i.e. when you are being paid to get the shot in conditions that are presented to you and certainly I can’t see a sensible argument against that; I talked about taking time to get it right in the camera when you have the time and luxury of a product shot in a controlled situation and though I am often to be found arguing with myself, I hold to that opinion as a start point. “The right way” (as alluded to in Sir Ken Robinson’s oh-so-right TED talk recorded a couple of years back) is a dangerous place to start in any creative endeavour, so often it is about defending the dominant way, so when we have categories and standards are we enforcing a “right way” that has more to do with fashion than correctness?
From the last WCPF post on prints I suggested that there are frameworks that can be used to give a logical and comparable basis for talking about images and I suggested a funnel that states your:
- First, broad, emotions when presented with the image (because of my….)
- Likes/Dislikes (because they….)
- Provoke these thoughts and feelings (because the handling of…)
- The technical aspects – light/focus/foreign objects/crop/exposure/saturation etc show and – (because the ….)
- Overall artistic impressions of composition, colour, subject matter lead to …. (because these)
- Particular aspects appeal … and (because…)
- Adjusting these aspects would change the image by … (and this all adds up to the image communicating …. because)
- Of these technical and artistic merits.
I don’t claim particular authorship of it – it’s an adaption of something I was given for appreciating poetry some years ago and there is a very similar version on Wikihow, on Examiner.com on expertphotograpahy.com a dozen other sites at least and on the Anthony Morganti YouTube Channel to name but a few. What it is, is a way of being consistent about approaching looking at photographs. So far so not news. It is why there are training panels for WCPF judges (among others) why there are advice notes for RPS distinction panels, et cetera, et cetera. However, as we all know, as soon as you put someone else in the frame, viewer, judge, then the subjective elements become more contentious.
So how do these two things tie in? There were some very well executed images that were patently unnatural in their presentation. So what? All images are artefacts, something made by artificial means. There were some very natural looking images that one suspects were expertly manipulated – despite the WCPF’s best efforts to present the lowest quality image compatible with projection and partially at least, rather diminishing the technical angles, but such is the world of copyright theft that I understand why they do it. So what was being judged, the photography or the post processing?
In part that isn’t really a fair question. A very high percentage of club, any club, photography will have some degree of post production so the only logical answer to the question is both. When viewing a “finished” image it is the final product we judge because it is the final product we are presented with. That is a pretty sterile, and somewhat circular (it is what it is because it is), argument. Move it a little and we might find another answer. Are we judging camera skills and computer skills? Is photography, in the competitive sense, now about painting with light and manipulating with image editing programmes and what is the balance?
This isn’t just idle speculation – only a few of us are capable at our current development levels of producing images as consistently good as the ones that were on display. This actually goes to the heart of club competitions. The judges we have had have all – well those who turned up, anyway – made the point that there are only small gaps between the best of the novice and the advanced category pictures. This in turn begs the question why have the two categories? I believe that there is a need for two categories and that lies in the diminishing number of entries to the competitions – novice print is all but dead on its feet. That is possibly a sign of times and the print/projection categories may no longer be meaningful. It shouldn’t mask the possibility that entering a competition that you have no chance of winning is a futile exercise for some – why put yourself up for a public slating? It isn’t futile, but that comes back to the points made by Sir Ken Robinson and the attitudes to “failure”. The only way we truly fail that way is to not engage, but we want to get it “right”.
This is where the idea of a standard becomes useful. The things you have to get technically correct (in camera preferably) but can also be helped along with a little post processing voodoo. There are compositional things that may look good as t-shirt slogans such as: “Viva the rule of thirds” “Fifths are for Landscapers!” and “Remember the Golden sections!”; “Long Live the harmonies of the colour wheel”; “The midday sun is for siesta not photography”, “Diagonals are dramatic darling”! “Eliminate dead space!”; “Don’t put your subject in the middle of the frame, Mrs Robinson!” and so on. All of which I have and you have, seen smashed to good effect. The general rule still remains you have to be able to make it before you can break it and so, like the appreciation framework, this gives us a guide.
We take those competition rules and we put them into our images and we enter the images into club competitions and get feedback from people who have a lot of experience at giving feedback (even if it is difficult to overcome some of their all too obvious dis/liking for some subjects and treatments). We use that feedback to get our next competition image better regarded. We take all the feedback from all the images in the competitions and we try them out on our own. This is where the community aspect of the club comes in. We enter the competitions to get help others as well as ourselves and the creative sessions and the competitions and the presentations all come together. It has to be a balance between the art and the craft and the competitions. The more entries the better in this regard. Where’s yours?
Small steps, but ones that get us to see more before we press the shutter. We know when this has taken effect when we start framing everyday things in our minds eye as if it were through a view finder – and most of us carry a camera of some sort pretty much every day. And does it matter about the amount of post-production? Well, as a rule of thumb, when it’s brown it’s done, when it’s black, it’s bugg***d.
NEXT WEEK Club Annual General Meeting.
For most of us, it appears, Adobe Lightroom is all we are ever likely to need in a photo editor, and in this insightful evening, Kevin Spiers, Mark OGrady and Dan Thomas gave us a whirlwind tour of some of the possibilities. It certainly isn’t the only editor available, Gimp, Pixlr, Picasa, Paint.Net are all free alternatives with their supporters but none, as they appear to me, have an interface quite as slick and certainly none have the full capability of the cloud based full suite (Photoshop CC and Lightroom) which can now be rented at just under £9 a month. Mind you, photo-shopping is not always approved of!
Kevin was first up and showed us the cataloguing feature. An image isn’t much use to anyone if it can’t be found, and with the ease and cheapness of taking another frame comes the problem of sheer volume. The number of images quickly adds up. Looking for that photograph can soon become evidence of that old proverb involving needles and haystacks, though why anyone would think to even begin to look for a steel needle in a stack of dried grass, much less think that was a suitable storage medium in the first place, has always defeated me. Sounds like bad filing practice, which is exactly what the cataloguing system is designed to overcome. Like trying to find a needle in a sewing box. Simples!
Frequency separation is a technique that gives the user the ability to process the surface and the depth of an image in different detail layers. The image is divided into two layers, containing the high frequencies and the low frequencies and allows the use these layers to work on colours, on broad and fine details independently, using non-destructive changes to the original image.
Definitely an advanced users technique, but one that seems to be getting wider use over the last couple of years . It is, in essence, about utilising the different strata (think of a photograph as a sandwich and each component of the sandwich is both part of the overall sandwich and a thing in itself) that make up a photograph. Or think of your favourite song played by different artists , there are individual notes and there are chords arranged together in subtly different ways that form the overall, still recognisable but differently rendered, tune. If you change the chords and notes sympathetically you change the harmonies but can still retain the tune. Frequency separation is about using these strata to enhance or alter parts of a photograph in the process of retouching and moving the image to a more striking, enhanced representation. Again not a process without controversy, but something that started when the first human artist drew the first image and the first human critic ,that is the first person the artist showed it to, thought “That ain’t right”.
The technique involves creating two layers, a high frequency layer and a low frequency layer. The low frequency layer contains large areas of colours and tones and the high frequency area fine details like skin pores and blemishes, hair and so on. Julia Kuzmenko McKim gives a blow by blow account of this and also includes a Photoshop action that automates the process (which you might use, but entirely at your own discretion). These actions can be replicated in some other programmes too, Gimp, for instance has its own frequency separation plug in.
To the low frequency layer, Mark applied desaturation (taking it to black and white) and Gaussian Blur, also known as Gaussian Smoothing. Carl Friedrich Gauss was an C18th mathematician, perhaps the greatest since antiquity, whose work has had a huge effect on the modern world. It is the application of an algorithm derived from his work and that of Fourier which we need to know not even that much about, leaving such technicalities to people who have use for them. All we need to know is that it is a blur effect that reduces image noise and detail. Mark suggested using a brush around 3.5 to 5 pixels and though the size used would depend on the job to be done and the preferences of the user he suggested that would be a happy medium. The larger the brush the bigger the effect. On the high frequency layer he changed the blending ode to linear light and talked about the relative merits of the healing brush and cloning.
Starting with the low frequency layer Mark evened out the skin tones and then switched to high frequency layer to work on the blemishes, making sure that the healing brush was set to sample from the current layer. There are a number of techniques, he assured us, that can be applied, and people derive their own favourites and short cuts. The results were quite stunning and well worth trying out, more finely controlable than just stamping around with a clone brush. Mark recommended Scott Kelby‘s book on photoshop.
After break Dan took us through the Lightroom layout, which is set out in a way as to aid workflow in that the tools that it shows you at the top of the menus the things you are more likely to productively work on first. This all helps with the work flow. Dan emphasised the lossless nature of using Photoshop, leaving the original untouched. To emphasise these points he took us through some images that he had provided earlier and applied some of the options that the abundant menus allow the user to easily apply. Dan’s top tips? Take in RAW and Slide the Sliders! RAW gives you more data to work with and the sliders let you apply effects incrementally and as long as preview is switched on you can see the effects on your image in real time, saving considerable effort in going back and forth to check your image. There is a downside of course and that is, in the words of Yogi Berra (American baseball player and yes, that was his real name), “If you don’t know where you are going, you will wind up somewhere else”. It helps to know what you want to do before you start fiddling around.
A great evening and thanks to Kevin, Mark and Dan for making it possible.
You can find an expanded version of what Dan took us through here and includes ground covered by Kevin as well and a whole lot more too.