Saturday, December 29, 2012

About the craft of (digital) imaging

I shoot a lot of pictures. I mean, a whole lot. About ten thousand a year these days, or even more. All sorts of subjects. Too many to mention. I have eventually uploaded most of them on Flickr. 22514 to be accurate as of the writing of this (that's twenty two thousand... that's right!). Hundreds of viewers have looked at them in the last nine years for more than 14 thousand times, which means a great deal of my posted photographs have never been viewed by anyone else but me, and this mostly during the shooting/processing time. Do I care? Not sure, as to me Flickr is a backup facility in the first place. Indeed, I wouldn't know where to look in my archives to find certain photographs that I shot in the past. I keep all my analog negatives since the mid seventies, but ever since digital imaging became popular (some fifteen years ago) I betsa, there's a set on my Flickr account where I put my shots, even those created before Flickr was around. I've been a Flickr member from early on you see, right after it was created in 2003, so no troubles about finding an old digital frame.

In honesty, I'd want my viewers to 'like' my frames; not quite in the Facebook 'like' kind-of-thing, but really 'like', as in 'I do like your work'... Don't know why I'd want that, as I am neither earning any income on my 'photography', nor I intended to, but I suppose it's an 'ego' thing. On the other side, an image is like the 'written word'. It creates emotion, like joy, awe, sadness, fear, horror, love, and all we 'feel' as living humans. I'D LIKE TO BELIEVE THAT MY PICTURES CREATE SIMILAR EMOTIONS AMONG SOME OF MY LOYAL VIEWERS, LIKE THESE SAME PICTURES CREATE IN ME.I'd dare say this: in the first place, I am creating my images for myself. It's the journey I enjoy, not so much reaching the destination. But if the result is genuinely 'liked' by someone, just knowing that makes me feel a lot better. I don't believe many viewers love my pictures though. I am not such a popular photographer after all. Even in my own family I hardly find support by anyone. They all seem to ignore my work, and instead, they seem to admire others. But like we say in this country, 'de goƻts et de couleurs, on ne discute pas
'. In general, I try not to photograph subjects that seem to turn on most people on Facebook, Flickr and Instagram, especially pets, although they are sometimes hard to avoid (like a little cat and two dogs that I photographed in Samothrace last November). I also don't seem to photograph popular subjects in ways people seem to like and feel good about. So be it. I can't pretend I photograph like others, famous and/or infamous, and I shouldn't care either. Innit?

I always enjoyed creating images. For many years I loved to do 'artistic' painting, with oil and water colours, and later acrylics. I loved sketching, although I am not too good at that. I enjoyed painting a lot, particularly with oils, 'a la prima' in my early canvases, and by layering for better transparency, much later. You see, I was an autodidact and had to learn the skill quite slowly by reading a myriad books on the subject by experts and charlatans alike. Much later, I taught myself to 'paint' digitally and have created various images, of which I consider the grapes shown here my personal best. Had I not applied the techniques of oil and water painting though, I would have never achieved that digital result. I posted a Flickr set of photographs of my paintings thru the years, from the age of 8 until recently. That 'work' has been the foundation of my love for images. However, I am nowhere near to consider myself as an artistic 'painter'. 'Amateur replicator' would have been a better attribute. I cannot create 'new' scenes. I simply copy others's work, photographs or paintings. There's always a certain thing is some image that urges me to do exactly the same and achieve a similar result. Even in photography I often do that... In museums, I tend to study paintings that impress me from a real close distance. In so doing, I try to discover what the artist did to achieve the very outcome that shook me so much. And then I start replicating it. With mediocrity most of the time. I'd really like to have been more like some artists and craftsmen that I love, but I tried... and failed. I wasn't born for that, apparently. You see, a real painter creates images based on his life experiences and talents. He/she tells us things. His/her visions of reality make us feel emotionally moved. This is what art is (should be) all about.

From my early age I was fascinated with photography. I remember my first camera at ten. A popular and extremely cheap model from the then Soviet Union. I guess a product of the post Stalin era for the folks in Communist Russia. It wasn't Lubitel though, if you thought so. It was another brand, that looked a bit like today's point-'n-shoots. Lubitel was far too expensive for a ten-year old those days. I remember the first time someone shot a color picture of our school gang. We had to wait for weeks as there was no lab in our hometown for color development, and it had to be shipped to Thessaloniki. And it also cost a fortune then. I think, I must still have that print somewhere in my archives.

I later bought a lot of gear for myself, and you simply don't want to know the money I spent in buying semi to pro material in the last thirty five years, that is. That includes many analog and digital cameras but also analog development and printing gear up to doing 4x5 inch negatives, a Toyo medium format studio camera and a field camera for my daughter, when she was a photography student.

I am fascinated by two elements in photography, sharpness and lighting. I want my subjects to pop out of the frame, regardless they are viewed on a print or a monitor. It's my weak spot, you see. I love... not simply love, I am utterly passionate about the sharpness in an image. Most people don't care, but I do. Click on the old man's portrait for a larger view, that I met in Kamariwtissa, by the port in Samothrace last November. See what I mean. Although, this was done with natural lighting, without the study of the subject for hours, it was just a snapshot. I shot four frames, but this I like most! That's what I mean with sharpness. To be able to count a subject's hairs in his moustache and eyebrows. AND MOST SKIN PORES. Unfortunately, only Carl Zeiss glass is able to boast that level of resolution, and cameras like the Hasselblad H4D-40 and medium or large format cameras with digital backs can produce results lot better than this. But I will never be that rich to afford this type of gear; for the time being I'll stick to my full frame 5D Mark III DSLR by Canon, and it's best of breed 135 fixed focal telelens.

Sharpness is my very number one thing, like I said, but lighting and composition come right after. I love studio photography with total light control conditions to the level I have built one of my own 20 years ago, in my loft. It's rather small, but it gave me the opportunity to experiment with interesting lighting sources and colours thru the years, until digital image processing came by. I used to use the Swiss Elinchrom flash system, which is nowhere suitable for real pro's but is more than adequate for amateurs like myself. Soft-boxes and loads of accessories for pointing and colouring light in different ways were added to my collection. These days I have abandoned most of it, and only use an IlluStar soft-box source of continuous light beam (a rather cheap one) with additional reflectors (and sometimes add the modelling lamp light of my Elinchroms - go figure) and a good Sirui carbon tripod. As for composition, I learned and mostly apply just the basics. Rule of thirds, golden ratios, that sort of thing. Don't bother much during shooting either as I shoot in high resolution most of the time, and I do crops afterwards. Not everybody can be like Henri Cartier Bresson, after all... What I know is this though. When I look thru my DSLR's prism, I have to like what I see. I won't press the shutter otherwise. No way. Even with the no-waste of analog negative nonsense arguments and the reusability of Gigabyte large memory solid state cards (SSDs) it makes no sense to me to shoot something that I deplore.

The other thing I try to always avoid is the presence of excess white and black luminance with no recognisable texture. Especially in the dark areas. I'm trying to keep my frame tonality spectrum nicely in the middle and avoid pixel occurrences near the 256 or 0 value extremes. Although I don't do much High Dynamic Range photography myself, I prefer frames with the correct shades of grey, especially in a picture's dark and highlighted areas. I studied Ansel Adams's zone system years ago, and although there's no need to apply it in digital photography too much, the awareness taught me the skill about where exactly to measure incident and reflected light in my scene to achieve a certain look on the final frame. Notwithstanding my digital gear is quite rich is technologies to ensure superb light measuring, I intensionally stick to manual controls, most of the time. Simply because they are quick, give the best results, and I don't seem to forget what I need to do next. Those with similar equipment like mine know exactly what I'm saying. Actually, I have eventually switched from Nikon to Canon not so much for the latter's countless functions that I always seem to forget, but for its frame processing capabilities under the most controversial scene lighting conditions, and the quality of it's glass... point blank!

I do shoot photographs quite instinctively; when I see something that I like, I point the camera, measure the light for middle gray reference where I want it to be and 'click'! The result that I eventually maintain for post processing is what I view and like on the camera's LCD display; however, this is no more than 80% of my final frame. Camera's don't do more than that for me, because of lens aberrations, focal length related geometry distortion, scene crops, and other shortcomings; so I got to interfere with software to bring the image to it's 100 percent output quality, before I decide to let others than myself see it. And I always do photograph in RAW. CR2 to be accurate.

Talking about software, I systematically avoid Photoshop. Photoshop is cheating. With it you don't 'improve' images. You simply 'create' them almost from scratch. Sometimes, you don't even need a photograph to create an image. This is not photography. It's called Illustration, if you ask me.. Most agnostics call any manipulated image a 'Photoshopped', which is great advertising for Adobe, but it's also not always true. Many stand-alone packages or plugins exist today to apply effects of all sorts (OnOne Software is a great supplier of such that I sometimes would use for monochrome effects). Photoshop is great for illustration purposes but it is cheating photography. I prefer Adobe Lightroom for post processing. I also own Apple's Aperture, but I prefer Lightroom. Sorry Steve!

There are things that I always do in Lightroom on quasi all my photographs. Before anything I do apply lens profile corrections to get this out of the way. To this end, I used to employ the DXO Optics imaging package in the past, but ever since Lightroom offered similar functionalities I abandoned DXO. As a sharpness addict, I tend to increase sharpness and radius, and add extra clarity and maybe some vibrance next. I am shy on saturation though. I avoid it in general, or at least I manage it selectively, colour by colour. Above controls are the minimum I do on each and every frame.

I've been testing Light Painting techniques recently.
I then deal with lighting. I use the tone curve for contrast and control of highlights, lights, darks and shadows, and additionally whites, and blacks but often I impact specific areas of my scenes with the brush, by adding or subtracting light and/or color. It's there where my years long struggles in oil painting paid off. Most people I imagine would be rather clumsy at that, or wouldn't even know where to start adding or reducing photons. Thankfully I seem to do, I think. I finally use graduated filter controls to add or subtract light and color, or even correct underlying color tints on larger areas. Lightroom has an outstanding ability to impact images with graduated filters like no one I know. If there would be one thing that I'd still keep on Lightroom if an Adobe comedian decided to eliminate all its other functions, that would be the graduated filter. I simply love it. It really changed all my image looks ever since I started using it.

I rather lied earlier about Photoshop. There are still a couple things I do use it for, and I invoke it from inside Lightroom to that purpose. These are a) perspective corrections and b) Liquify filter. Lenses tend to curb parallel lines, especially wide angle lenses, and perspective cropping corrects that. As for the Liquify filter, it is great to impact the geometries and curves of any picture, especially portraits. I often do adapt people's looks, not exactly the texture of their skin to make them look younger, but the shapes of their facial characteristics, to make them look nice to see. I think I rather became good at that thru the years. I do very subtle corrections though, here and there, that improve personas often to a rather considerable level, but are not too far reaching per se. If I did too much, that would be too obvious to spot and look fake. Like some paper adds of glamorous models, men or women. I also try to avoid Liquify if I can, other than in my own autoportraits! I'll stay 'young' on my own picture portraits of myself for a very long time, you see... Praise 'Liquify' as my double cheeks are forever gone. Again this is an area where my own past of portrait painting helps me a lot. In practice, sorry to admit, I only know a couple of people that I photographed in my life, who don't really need no Liquifying at all. Nature took care of that and they are simply beautiful as they are, no matter how you shoot them. Liquify is a tool rather for the rest of us. Also, it is mostly women who want to look beautiful in their photographs. Men don't care much. So, Liquify is mainly a tool for female portraiture. Like I said, men don't really care a didley squat. I think...

Last but not least, the final things I use Photoshop for are the spot healing brush and the cloner (stamp tool), mostly for making freaking cables and TV antennas disappear from landscape photography, especially in Southern Europe. Cable pollution and TV antennas there reached epidemic proportions. Ever since I have known them. Not that the situation in small town and rural US is any better, but anyways. I simply hate cables and TV antennas in pictures.
That's about it. If you ever wondered how I do photography, this was in a nutshell. Don't forget one thing though. Tools are important in creating photographic images that pop! Images that create emotions inside the soul of your viewers. Tools include your photographic gear, artificial subject lighting and post processing software (we haven't even touched upon printing and color calibration and balancing). But, with all the techno-goodies of the world, if you are unable to vision in your mind's eye a scene beyond the level of mediocrity, then even if you spend an entire fortune on imaging your output will still be a piece of crap. Like the old saying goes: GIGO!

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