Simple lines. Verticals, horizontals, a few diagonals. Stairs, and this time going up. The human element. Not just people, but two guys delivering potatoes. Bringing food, always a good thing. Filling, nourishing, tasty potatoes – a staple. Fulfilling a very basic need.
“How about starting a new blog?” Yes, great idea. It was the end of January with Christmas no more than a fading memory and, although things were more busy than ever, putting together a new blog actually seemed like a good idea. It was fun writing the last one all those years ago or, at least, that’s the way it now comes back to me.
Choosing a topic, planning the shape of the thing, outlining the various bits and pieces, selecting one or more images, writing a draft. And then the best bit. Crafting the article. For some people, this never goes far beyond ‘getting words on paper’. For me, that’s just the initial draft; the real work, the enjoyable work, is the crafting of those words into something special for the reader. And by crafting, I don’t just mean editing. Anyone with enough education can edit.
Crafting an article is cooking. Putting together simple ingredients, you want to deliver the meat and potatoes but also get the flavour right. You need to consider who’s coming to dinner. You don’t want to over-egg it (too much of one ingredient) and you don’t want to overcook it (too wordy). But do you want to add garnish, or maybe a little side salad?
A photography blog is simple home cooking. A photo at the top is the meat. The caption is the seasoning, and the blurb is the gravy. The accompanying article text gives you always-versatile Maris Pipers, with a sprinkling of verbal tricks as garnish. Insert an “Oh, by the way…” for a small side salad. With the main dish out of the way, what could be a tastier and more just dessert than an apt quote?
Just be sure not to serve up turkey with all the trimmings more than a couple of times a year.
Always start out with a larger pot than what you think you need. — Julia Child
The waitress steps out of her door and walks to where her customers are sitting. They’ve nearly finished their drinks; are they ready to order? They seem more interested in talking than choosing from the menu. “Can you give us five minutes?” “Yes, OK.” She walks back and steps in through the door. A few seconds later, she emerges again, and takes up her position by the door, where she is out of the way but can see and be seen. She waits. Now is my moment.
A little under a month ago, I asked what it is that makes a good photo. And I said that, “for me, the three principles of encapsulation, orientation, and colour-toning are all present in a photo that I consider to be good.” Not just present, but used well. And while they’re necessary, on their own they’re not sufficient. There must be something else, or it’s a good-enough photo.
When the waitress took up her position by the door, I knew as I watched that everything was coming together. Often, as I raise my camera, someone moves, the tableau is broken, the photo is just good enough. By the time I realised that everything had already come together, my camera shutter had clicked.
Back on the PC, it was obvious that the image could work in mono or colour. But the story is simple, and timeless, so mono works better. There’s already plenty of detail and interest in the wording on the window and in the menu. Leave the colour in and all that can easily turn into clutter.
The couple are in their own frame, in the right-hand two-thirds of the image; the waitress is in her one one-third frame. They are centre-screen and dressed in light colours, she is way off to the left, almost out of frame, dressed in dark, almost in the dark. Other customers are visible, inside the restaurant, and it’s obvious that this is not their story. Encapsulation, orientation, colour toning.
And a story. I deliberately used the alliterative title, Waitress Waiting, both to grab (and direct) the viewer’s attention and to reveal the story in just two words. Yes, I know that ‘waitress’ is an old-fashioned word, perhaps non-PC, but it works.
The photo got into Flickr Explore and at the time of writing had over 6,000 views and more than 140 favourites. One of my good ones.
Sorry about the delay between posts. I’ve been away for a few weeks, but I’m back now. And it’s back to Brick Lane. This guy plays multiple games of chess simultaneously. Even in the rain. I didn’t hang around long enough to ask how many games he wins or loses. Or where he buys his hats…
“One doesn’t have to play well, it’s enough to play better than your opponent.”
You might have noticed that all of the pictures featured in this blog so far are street photos. It’s my primary photographic genre, though I do like to photograph almost anything. I also make videos, and my latest is called Street Photography – Brick Lane. It’s not a how-to – there are plenty of those already, and I’m more likely to write a book on that subject than make a complete video series. It’s also not in the travelogue style. The Brick Lane area of London is famous for its street market, its larger-than-life characters, and its street art and graffiti. And it changes almost daily. Anything I include in a video of that area will be a historic record, but will be very quickly outdated.
So, it’s just a record of one afternoon in Brick Lane, showing the people and the colourful backdrop in which they live. Without any discussion, I show you a series of clips of situations in which you might think about taking a photo. In many of those situations, I take the photo and show you the processed result. In others, I decided for whatever reason that, although the potential for a street photo was there, I wasn’t going to click the shutter. You might see those situations and decide that, in my place, you would.
There are 20 photos featured in the video and I’ll be sharing the monochrome ones in this blog post. It is, after all, a mono log. And although the blog to date has mostly been about the learning process I’m going through, I’ve got to the point where I can decide with relative success which photos should be processed in colour and which in black and white.
Before we look at the photos, let’s take a look at the video. Pick up your camera and follow me…
No doubt you’ve noticed what a colourful, lively place Brick Lane is. At least, on a Sunday, when I shot the video. On a weekday, you still get all of the street art, but there are far fewer people. And I think most of the outdoor part of the market is shut. There’s more to see on a Saturday, but Sunday is when it comes alive. And although the video title mentions Brick Lane, I also cover the streets off to the side, which are mostly just as colourful and well worth a look. There are also some regulars in the area, such as the Coffee Taxi, which I’ll leave you to discover if and when you can get to Brick Lane yourself.
This one is outside the Sunday Up Market, about which I’ll say more later. There are two things of note here. The first is that the young woman was aware of me panning my camera from left to right, but her behaviour tells me that she thought I was taking a single photo and not a video. Her gaze is neutral and not just because she’s busy eating. She’s curious. And although she’s aware of the camera, she’s not antagonistic. I could have just pointed the camera and taken a single shot, given her a smile, and moved on.
The second point of interest is the ‘wall of people’ that make up the backdrop. I’ve talked about this before, while discussing the principle of encapsulation. You see the couple eating. You notice the woman first as she’s looking at the camera. He’s looking down so your eye flips back to the woman. Then up to the woman with the scarf, behind the window, also eating. We’ve got the same inside as outside. To the right of her are a number of people getting more and more indistinct as your eye sweeps to the right. So it sweeps (or jumps) back down to the subject. I knew I was going to like this shot a lot, as soon as I saw this arrangement of people.
This is an unusual shot, even for me. A young woman walks towards my camera, shrugging her coat onto her shoulders. I catch her just as she’s in ‘mid-flight’, looking for all the world as if she’s just floated down from the sky. Again, there is a wall of people as a backdrop, encapsulating the subject. A ‘homeless guy’ sits at the right watching her, just as I am. His presence in the picture adds a lot. It wouldn’t be the same picture without him.
As well as the people and the street art, Brick Lane is famous for food and fashion. There are indoor markets and outdoor markets. Fashion shops and fashion stalls; indoor, sit-down food and street food. Plus antiques, bric-a-brac, collectibles, and just plain junk. Art and bicycles, accessories and electrical goods, books and cameras. You might want to bring some money with you.
This stall is called Pasta is Ready and it sells ‘traditional Italian food’. Two features of street market stalls make for good photos: interesting people, and steam. Yes, steam. It can get in the way of a shot, but if you wait for the right moment, it can enhance a picture.
We’re still in the outdoor food market for this shot. A woman rolls out a pizza base. I could have taken half a dozen shots at different stages of this process. I chose to wait until she leaned forward, to get a dynamic shot – you can see a puff of flour rising as she moves her roller forward. Noticing little details like this can add a lot of interest to a shot.
A little way north of the food market, we’re now outside Jack the Clipper – a hairdresser, and an interesting group of people sitting outside. They’re not waiting for a haircut; people sit on any surface they can find as there are no seats outside. They sit to eat their market food, to catch up on their Twitter streams, just to get the weight off their feet. Mostly, they’re oblivious of me and my camera, but every now and again one of them catches me – even if I have the camera at waist height and the flip-screen horizontal.
What you do in Brick Lane is start at one end, work your way to the other end, then turn round and get all the shots you missed. Well, that’s my strategy, anyway. This one was shot on the way back down from the north end. Two young women are waiting outside one of the indoor fashion markets. The one on the right notices my camera. Her finger isn’t raised for my benefit, it’s just laid alongside her nose. The photo shows how grimy Brick Lane can appear if you look too closely.
This photo is the kind of scene that a lot of street photographers like to capture. The person sitting inside looking out. What is she looking at? What is she thinking? She’s sitting in a place known as the Sunday Up Market. It used to have food stalls downstairs, artwork on the ramps leading to the upper floor, and craft stalls plus tables and seating for diners on the upper floor. Last time I went in there, it appears that the upper level has closed down, the number of stalls seems to have gone down substantially, and the seating moved downstairs, somewhat cramping the space on a Sunday afternoon when it’s crowded. This photo is a little blurred. For me, that doesn’t necessarily ruin a photo.
This is the last photo in the video. It shows one of the occasional tours of Brick Lane. Tour leaders usually dress in a slightly unusual way, so that the people on the tour can spot them without having to recognise their face. A top hat will do that every time. He’s pointing something out and describing some part of the surroundings or history, as tour guides do. Whatever he’s saying, some of them seem to find it amusing. Knowing London as well as I do, I can say that I’ve heard some absolute rubbish come out of the mouths of some tour guides, but I think this one probably knows what he’s talking about.
Have you taken any photos in the Brick Lane area? If so, I’d love to see them, so please put a link in the comments.
I prefer jeans to a suit, sneakers to high heels, markets to malls.
Who can answer this question? What is it that makes a ‘good’ photo? What are the ingredients that go into it? What is it about the subject, or the setting, or the combination of light and shade or colour that make it good? Can you look at a group of photos and say with certainty which ones are worthy of an exhibition and which aren’t? Is it to do with the ingredients, or is it the overall effect? Or the story it tells?
Or is it some combination of all of these? Or is it something I haven’t mentioned yet?
I’ve always found that it’s very difficult to know what is a good photo and what is a bad photo. I’ve taken photos that I very nearly deleted, but I decided to put them on Flickr anyway just in case someone finds a use for them; and then they go and end up on Flickr Explore with thousands of views! And sometimes I take a photo that I think is special, but no one else seems to agree. So I decided very early on to take photos for me, and if anyone else likes them, I consider that to be a gift from them.
Although I learned photography by studying Flickr Explore, as I’ve mentioned in great detail in this very blog, I didn’t learn it in order to get my photos into Explore. I just wanted to grasp the basic principles of what goes into a photo that people like, and so I’m usually surprised when one of my photos get in.
While it’s true that, for me, the three principles of encapsulation, orientation, and colour-toning are all present in a photo that I consider to be good, it’s not just enough that they’re present. On their own, they make a picture good enough. Something else is needed. In some cases, it’s a good story. In others it might be an element of surprise, or an interesting juxtaposition, or an unusual treatment of a usual subject. And so on.
After thinking about all this for some considerable while, I decided that – for me, at least – there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ photos, and I decided to put everything I think could be useful onto Flickr as a Creative Commons photo, as free, royalty-free stock. Anyone can use them for any (legal and moral) purpose as long as they attribute me as the creator, owner, and copyright holder of the photo. At least, this has been true for most of them. There are an increasing number that I’ve made All Rights Reserved, though I’m not completely sure why yet. And all of the photos of political marches, protests, demonstrations, and rallies are completely free, published under the Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication licence. I’m not going to change the world; it’s just one of the ways I can make my contribution to society.
I think of the Creative Commons as being a very valuable resource for people or companies that can’t afford to buy photos (or art, music, videos, sounds) from the stock companies. Not everyone agrees with my point of view. I’ve had people (so far all non-photographers) tell me that I’m taking business away from professional photographers. But that isn’t true. It’s two different markets. In one market, companies have enough money to buy top-quality photos; in the other, money is tight and so they are willing to settle for lower quality. But I’m not saying that CC photography is lower quality necessarily. Though some of it certainly is …
Anyway, if you suspect that some of your photos might be good, or even good enough, you could consider contributing some of them to the Commons every now and again.
Now we’ve finished looking at how I used Flickr Explore to find out what makes a ‘good’ photo, I thought you might like to see one of my more recent photos by way of a contrast, so you can judge whether I’ve progressed since the same time a year ago. Itisone of the photos I consider to be amongst my best, but I’m contrasting it with my best from last April.
A man engrossed in his smartphone walks past, but doesn’t see, street art of a woman looking at a crystal ball, with a caption that reads ‘Future’. When I published it on Flickr, I captioned it, “He’s missing out on his present. Will he miss out on his future?”. If you know street photography, you’ll know what a gift this scene was.
And now we move further into the future of my past, to look at what will be the next stages for a mono-sceptic to learn how to shoot black and white photos well.
We’ve looked in depth at my three principles of encapsulation, orientation, and colour-toning, to see how they were applied while taking and processing various photos. But that doesn’t mean we’ve finished with the subject. As I move through the next stages, I invite you to follow along; to see how the principles apply in my example photos; to consider how they’re very relevant in each stage of learning.
So far, I’ve realised that there needs to be a minimum of four stages to go through before I’m satisfied that I’ve accomplished what I set out to achieve. They are:
Studying Flickr Explore and other examples
Shooting raw+JPEG to learn how to control the process
Shooting raw only, trusting the process
Re-processing old photos into mono.
Previous articles in this series covered stage 1 in some detail. In this article, we’ll take a look at stage 2. But first, a quick word on photographic technology and writing style.
A great many articles on the Internet and in print talk about RAW photos. Or, rather, they SHOUT about them. It’s as if RAW is a photo format, like JPEG. At one time, many years ago, itwasa photo format. But it’s not used any more, and these days there are almost as many raw photo formats as there are camera manufacturers. Canon uses CR2 (or is it now CR3?) format. Nikon uses NEF. My Sony A6000 uses ARW. When writing in a manufacturer-agnostic way about raw photos, I simply call them ‘raw’.
Shooting raw+JPEG on the street
Like most good cameras, my A6000 allows me to shoot a raw photo and at the same time to save it as a JPEG with the same base filename, processed according to parameters that I choose. So for some months I was going home and processing full-colour raw images, using the basic monochrome JPEG copy for comparison, into black and white photos. While out on the street, I could see the mono JPEG to decide how I would process the image later. (Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to look at the raw photo on the camera’s monitor, too, using the same basic in-camera processing normally used? Maybe one day…) But this at least allowed me to decide whether to keep the photo and decide on the processing later, or to delete it there and then on the spot.
Time for another quick aside. I’ve seen quite a few street photographers telling newcomers that “You’ll be shooting lots of attempts at each subject, and it’s best not to deleteanythinguntil you’ve looked at it on your computer monitor. That isn’t the way I work. Sometimes I’ll take two shots, very rarely three. And when I do I often find that the first turned out to be the best. And since I just don’t have time to go through dozens of shots, I’ll just go for ‘the one’, and delete the non-working ones in-camera. Shooting raw+JPEG helps this decision-making process.
Post-processing the images
My post-processing software sometimes gets in the way. I’ve been using ON1’s software since Perfect Effects 4, and am currently using their Photo Raw 2019. Amongst its excellent feature set are digital asset management; IPTC headers; basic raw image processing; advanced colour and tone processing; effects; background and textures; advanced masking techniques; layered processing with blend modes; Photoshop compatibility; comprehensive portrait processing; HDR; panorama stitching; background batch export; and a lot more. And, as I said, sometimes it gets in the way.
Although, for me, it’s the best thing since sliced layer cake, it often feels very much like a work-in-progress. It’s not just the few bugs in each new version, it’s also having to wait for years for ON1 to get around to implementing the most basic of features. For example, I drill down through my folder structure to get to the photos I want to work on. The folders are displayed as a tree on the left of the screen. I spend an hour or two on my photos and close the program. Next time I run it, the folder tree is collapsed and I have to waste time drilling down again. I’ve programmed applications in the past and know how relatively simple it is to code this kind of thing.
Anyway, the feature that got in the way a lot while processing a raw image with a JPEG for comparison was a simple bug. Obviously, when my camera saves a raw image, it embeds in the header the instructions to create the JPEG using my chosen settings. Photo Raw was reading those settings and displaying my full-colour raw images in processed black and white. Not helpful. I need to see how changes to the sliders affect the colour image. As it was displaying a mono version, sometimes the sliders apparently did nothing. ON1 were aware of the problem and advised waiting until Photo Raw finished looking at the raw version and ‘caught up’. Sometimes that didn’t happen until the following day. For me, that’s not a ‘feature’, it’s a bug.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Despite a few problems, Photo Raw is still the best photo processing software I’ve used to date.
The good, the bad, and the ugly
So, for a few months, I was shooting raw+JPEG, looking at the in-camera mono version, adapting and adjusting my technique where necessary, learning what worked and what didn’t. One thing that worked nicely was finding people wearing bright (white, cream, yellow) clothing in shady areas. Try it. It looks good. One thing that didn’t work so well was ‘shooting to the left’ or underexposing, to preserve highlight detail. It resulted in far too much shadow noise. Using my camera’s Dynamic Range Optimization to bring highlights down and shadows up, to preserve detail everywhere – a kind of ‘HDR Lite’ – looks good if you use it well. You have to know your camera well, and mono brings its own baggage.
One thing Iknewwouldn’t work, but actually did, was taking photos of huge examples of highly-colourful street art in black and white. As in the example above. The colour version looks really quite impressive. And it hides the story. I look at the artwork and wonder how it was done; how long it took; how many people worked on it; and, if itwasjust one person that worked on it… You see how the thinking process can get carried away. My story is simple: one very typical guy is so immersed in his smartphone that he not only ‘misses the bigger picture’, he misses everything around him, the present moment, and on into the future. My storyneededmono.
“Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.”
Apologies for the long time since my last post. I got a severe cold a few weeks ago and that turned into bronchitis, which hung around for a couple of weeks. And now it’s the height of Spring and my allergies have kicked in.
Normal service will resume soon, I promise!
“The secret of life, though, is to fall seven times and to get up eight times.” ― Paulo Coelho, “The Alchemist”