Saturday, October 31, 2009

Are you a photoshopper or a photographer?

Candid portrait of Willy. Click on the image to see a large version.

Before working on the portrait of Willy above I spent an afternoon desk bound carefully retouching another portrait in Photoshop. It got me thinking about how many hours I spend working on images in front of the computer. The conclusion: way too many!

All around us we are inundated with images that strive to portray human perfection, from the sublime to the ridiculous in some cases. Just take a look at Photoshop disasters to see what I mean.

How many books, articles, tutorials are there showing you how to smooth skin, remove the faintest wrinkle, whiten the eyes, change the jaw line and the list goes on till nobody looks like themselves anymore in a photograph.

Well I'm declaring myself out of that particular race for unnatural perfection. Keep it real, raw and natural. If you've got laughter lines it's because you earned them and you should be proud of them.

As for the photography: get it right in camera. If the light is good and the composition works, and all the other technical stuff has been taken care of you will need very little post processing. And that's what I'm aiming at. I'd rather be taking photos than sitting behind a computer. I'm definitely a photographer, not a photoshopper. The portrait of Willy above is virtually straight out of the camera - just cropped.



Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Using histograms on your camera

The Abbey ceiling on the Mont St Michel, Normandy, France presents and extreme exposure challenge.

Do histograms on your camera's LCD really matter and what benefits could you derive from understanding your histogram?

First though, what is a histogram?

At it's most basic level it is a graphic representation that uses a bar graph to show the proportionate distribution of the pixels in your image, ranged from black on the left to pure white on the right. In other words the bars that peak the highest in your histogram show that there are a lot of pixels with that particular tonal value in your image.

If most pixels are on the left of your histogram your image is mostly dark. If on the other hand the longest bars are on the right then most of your picture is bright. Simple. So if the bars are all heaped up on the right hand side then your image is 'clipped' in the highlights, which means there are tones of pure bright white. Another phrase commonly used is that you have areas in your image that are 'burnt out'.

There are different types of histograms. Some show luminance and others provide colour information (RGB). Here's a link to one of the best detailed, technical explanations that I've found on the net, Sean T. McHugh's tutorial on his site Cambridge in Colour.

But are histograms really useful to photographers

The answer for me is mixed. Yes and no. When I'm shooting I have enough knowledge and feel for light not to need to bother looking at histograms. The last thing I can afford is to be peering at the back of my camera and studying the information while all the action happens and I miss the shot.

Histograms do provide a useful tool to photographers who need to learn how their digital camera and its meter react to a given light situation. So like trainer wheels on your first bicycle, they can really speed up the learning process until you're cycling along with perfect balance and everything becomes automatic.

In complicated lighting situations with flash mixed in I will take a peak at my histogram just to confirm everything is fine - but that's driven more by my fear of messing up than anything else. By the way a healthy fear of messing up and recognition of one's fallibility is a good thing in my view and it has saved me on many an occasion.

Ultimately every photographers' goal should be to understand exactly how your camera meter is going to interpret a given situation and having anticipated what it is going to do you can tweak your settings with exposure compensation. So you're ready for the moment when it happens in front of your lens. It's no good getting the shot and then looking at your histogram and finding out you've clipped all the detail out of your highlights. OK so you adjust your exposure for the situation but in the meantime that shot has gone, and probably another one while you were peering at your histogram on your LCD display. Not good.

I shoot 90% of the time in AV mode (aperture priority). The camera is always trying to pull exposure into the middle of your histogram. Your camera is trying to give you a nice bell shaped curve in the middle because it is designed to put most values in the mid-grey (safe) range.

However if you want to produce exciting images with dramatic light then you have to break away from the dull mid-grey world and live on the edge, close up to that bright white or in the deep shadows. Drive the camera, don't let it drive you. Remember you don't get exceptional images by playing it safe. To continue the driving metaphor, no Grand Prix races are going to be won by a racing driver going at 70mph down the middle of the track. Use all the available road. Just don't spin off and crash.

To sum up: learn to see the world like your camera meter sees it, anticipate, adjust and concentrate on getting the image, not the histogram on the back of your camera.

Good luck,

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Book covers

Book covers featuring photographs by Magda Indigo. Click on the image to see the large version.

Today publisher Harper Collins officially launched three books, Romeo & Juliet, Pride & Prejudice and Wuthering Heights, all featuring book cover photographs by Magda Indigo (aka my dear wife).

Needless to say I'm rather proud that her images were chosen for these classic novels. In the last three months Magda's images have been chosen for seven different books by a variety of international publishers. With the quality of her work she deserves every success in my opinion, and it seems that some pretty renowned art directors in the book publishing industry agree.

Anyway I wanted to share this little bit of news with you and take the opportunity to brag about my favourite photographer, who I just happen to be married to. If you'd like to see more of her work head over to our website and there are links from her portfolio page to a lot of her stuff on Flickr too.