A quest for the ultimate, beautiful, meaningful picture


Paris airport architectural detail in black-and-white

Photography is about a two-dimensional composition. It is made up of lines and areas. Especially in pictures of architectural details, colours can be distracting from the beauty of the lines, the sharp designs. So with a little post-processing, these simple pictures of the Charles de Gaulle airport, made with an iPhone, were transformed into a play of black-and-white.

Besides, taking pictures was a great way to break the boredom of waiting for a connecting flight. The world is our playground; let’s use it!

DIY-photos in magazines: authentic or trite?

A weekly had asked its female readers to send in their best pictures of their husband (partner, or whatever politically-correct term you want). Many sent a picture of hubby in bed with a cat. Maybe those were the pictures that made these readers happiest. But if you then make it into a policy of your magazine to use only pictures made by its readers instead of professionally-made photos, will you get ‘authentic’ content or just trite DIY-pictures?

This discussion I read about in my newspaper got going because a magazine for young parents wants to use only illustrations it gets from its readers. The main argument from the magazine’s editor is that in this way the pictures will be more authentic and ‘de-glamourised’. I can agree with their point, and also with the other point they made, namely that small children are so spontaneous and that parents can capture those moments better in natural situations at home than professional photographers who always intrude into the natural situation.

An old example from my own experience (scanned from an analogous photo): a pro would not have got that relaxed-curious attitude from my daughter.

A professional photographer made the counterargument of triteness, using the anecdote of the hubby & cat pictures. Amateur photographers simply lack the imagination and the vision that a professional photographer brings to the scene.

Looking at (too many of!) my own pictures, I must agree with the counterargument, too: my pictures may be too conventional, not surprising enough. Or just made too lazily, as when I do not want to take the trouble of getting down on my knees to get a better perspective, or when I do not want to set up a tripod to get better sharpness.

And I also agree that getting the imagination and vision is largely a matter of training. But I don’t agree that only professionally-schooled photographers have that training. A lot of advanced amateur photographers have that too. Sometimes my own pictures are not too bad, and I see others’ which are much better, also among my internet friends—no professional would be ashamed of them!

Finally, there is more to photographic vision than training; maybe there is such a thing as talent. I’m thinking, for instance, of my own daughter, who without any training sometimes went out with her simple compact camera and then shot really good pictures. But she too has her share of conventional, boring pictures—a bit more training or experience would help! She has her own DSLR now… Still, here comes a little example of what she made from an inspired day in a museum.

Stairs and shadows: irrestistible

No comment or explanation needed, as far as I am concerned.

Culture Fair in the Public Library (2)

Just a little memory of the Culture Fair: the girl did her best on the guitar and although her trio of two guitars and a singer was not the star of the night, they did entertain with some decent pop songs. And they gave me a nice picture in black-and-white.

How a Classic was Made: Moon over Hernandez

‘Moon over Hernandez’ is one of Ansel Adams’s iconic landscape photos, and in this videoblog by Marc Silber of the Digital Photography School, Ansel’s son Michael tells a little about how the picture was made. It was a shot ‘at the spur of the moment’, a single negative at intuitive exposure settings (he couldn’t find the exposure meter!) because before Ansel could make a second one, the light in the foreground had faded. In our digital age, we could have made a dozen photos, bracketed for exposure…

But the real point was how different a straight print from the negative was from the final black-and-white print: all kinds of darkroom magic was used, for instance to make the sky darker (Adams’s later prints were even more dramatic than his first published ones) and mask some clouds at the top. The video showed a whole ‘storyboard’ that Ansel used for a graphic depiction of all that he wanted to do when enlarging the picture–much like the different steps you would have in Lightroom, or like the different layers you would use in Photoshop.

The main lesson for us, black-and-white landscape photographers: interpret your pictures afterwards when processing it at the computer, to get the result you want. There is not a single-best conversion from the red, blue and green pixels that make up your sensor data into the black-and-white you are going to print, and ‘highlighting’ certain areas of your picture through software adaptations is allowed–maybe we can make our own classic!

Mediterranean colours: Sun on the Stairs

Originally uploaded by DFW-Photo

Been on a trip to Istria (Slovenia, Croatia, on the Adriatic coast) last week and just recovered from it–physically OK again and photographically still very impressed. It all shouts colours. Even the photos I envisaged as black-and-white ones look better in their original, colour form!

Sunflower patterns

Harvest of the sunflowers. Most are to be kept for the birds, coming winter (if we are advised to feed them again; at the moment, because of a contagious bird disease, we’d better not stimulate their getting together). But birds don’t wait: some of the flowerheads were already mostly eaten (first picture).

For photographers (and mathematicians!), sunflowers are irresistible because of the patterns that the seeds make in the flowerhead. And as usual: patterns come out better if your eyes are not distracted by colours, so the second picture comes in black-and-white.

Dundalk, earlier this year

Originally uploaded by DFW-Photo

When selecting photos for the camera club’s next meeting, I stumbled upon this one. I had forgotten about it, and won’t show it there, but still I think that the play of hard but curved lines is kind of neat, especially in black-and-white and, even more especially, because the curves and diagonals of the empty street are contrasted–maybe you should even say they are ‘broken’ by a few verticals coming from the bottom of the picture. First there is the lantern, which still belongs in the man-made hard landscaping. But then there are the three young trees. Still leafless (it was early spring), and vulnerably small. The black-and-white makes the picture a bit ominous, to my mind: will these little trees survive? Yet the natural forms against the hard lines seem to say that nature will not be subdued! And if you then look closely, there is more of nature in the picture: more planting at the bottom, and some wild grass (you cannot call it a lawn) in the top-right corner. There is hope.

Every so often… you just have to take that picture

“Every so often, you turn a corner and there it is–a great photograph.” That is how Guardian photographer Eamonn McCabe summarised his fascination with (black & white) photography. He felt inspired by a book of the same title, Every so often, by another photographer, Raymond Moore. It’s a matter of (quoting McCabe’s column in August’s Black+White Photography again): “just enjoying the process of looking”. I agree, and whished I had a camera built into my eyes: you just click your fingers (that is an allusion to a recent song by Daniel Lohues, of course) and then it’s stored in your memory. So even when I don’t have a good camera with me, sometimes I just have to take that photograph–as this one, in the streets of Athens, in 2007. What did that junk do in the street? Why is the passer-by looking at it, or beyond it through the window? Never mind the technically bad quality of the photo, use that little old compact (as in this case) or even your phone’s camera. Point and shoot–to keep wondering whenever you see the picture again about a moment you otherwise would have forgotten.

Hazy Sunday morning

Hazy Sunday morning
Originally uploaded by DFW-Photo

Found the new issue of ‘Black & White Photographer’ with quite a few landscape pictures (almost all of seaside locations on the British isles). That inspired me to play in Lightroom with a picture of earlier this year, and which has some water–no seaside in my neighbourhood, a ditch is all you can find here! But then again, with a few wild ducks and the haze of a Sunday morning in spring, what more do you need?

Portrait workshop for kids was a success

Yesterday I survived a workshop for kids in a creative class–the kids (my daughter being one of them) and camera survived as well! The idea of the class teacher was to have old-fashioned portraits of just the kids’ heads; they would then cut the heads out, paste them on paper made looking old with diluted black ink and then draw or cut-and-paste old-fashioned clothes and attributes, all in black, greys and white. I gave a short introduction about differences between photography ‘then’ and ‘now’, and a little about ligth and shadow in portraits. Then the teacher handed round some copies from real old portraits (found on Flickr).

It was quite nice to do, but the real fun started when I was busy quickly converting the photographed portraits to black-and-white and printing them (I love working with Lightroom!). For then my daughter got hold of my camera and started making modern portraits of her friends! They had gotten the message about differences between then and now, and they had fun taking pictures and modelling. Perhaps that fun with photos shoots was an even more important result than my portraits rolling out of the printer.

This time’s picture is a slide from the presentation I made. You won’t get to see portraits of children whose parents did not get a chance to agree to their pictures being published.

Black-and-white in colour, or a dandelion and levels of meaning

Conventional wisdom has it that photos of patterns and structures are prime targets for black-and-white. The dandelion of this week’s blog was precisely such an object, I thought when taking the picture, but when I saw it on the computer screen, I did not change it from its original colours. The brownish, unfocused background adds something to it. Without this collective of seed ends in their original colour, I found the photo too abstract, too much shouting out that it wanted to be an artistic photo rather than a real picture of a flower. Now, with colours, I think its artistic value is more subdued–and heightened by that very fact. It now is a photo with two layers of meaning (at least): the seedhead itself and the pattern of star-form lines.

At a third level of meaning–if you want to go that far–the colour photo is a symbol of the transience of life, precisely because it refers more clearly than the black-and-white version to the seedhead itself. For the seedhead is destined to let go of the seeds at the first wisp of wind, of course.

The second photo here was not quite as good as the first one (in my eyes) for technical reasons: it lacks depth-of-field in the centre. But it help illustrate the point: this one, although also a close-up and also playing with the star-form patterns, is obviously a dandelion even in black-and-white and does not lose its layers of meaning by the reduction of colour to black-and-white.

By the way, you can see I am influenced by having begun to read a book I just bought: Jeffrey, Ian. 2008. How to Read a Photograph: Understanding, Interpreting and Enjoying the Great Photographers. London: Thames & Hudson. He finds so much more meaning in “simple” pictures, that you almost start to think your own photos have meaning(s), too ;-)

Twente landscape

High time for a drink–I had a thermos full of coffee in the rucksack. And of course no bench to be seen, but it was too cold to sit on the bare earth. Some time later, at the corner of a dirt road, a bench came in view. Finally! I did sit down, I did drink my nicely hot coffee, but hardly dared to look behind me. I was walking to enjoy the landscape of Twente, but my idea of tourism was quite different from what someone had done at that corner of the road: put his old and decrepit holiday caravan on show. For sale!

The only way to picture this, I thought, was in black-and-white and with a heavy sky (that needed some post-processing, as it really was a light-grey deck of clouds). Previsioned & executed later the same day–I just love digital photography!

Window on black

Just a simple old-time window in an old-time farm shed. Weathered brick, broken glass. The contrast between wall and window is a beginning, then the glass in the window is so dirty that you can hardly see through it. However, the glass is broken so you can see through it—but all you see is the dark inside of the shed, so it’s just blackness.

To make it a little more lively, I took this picture with the wall somewhat in perspective. The lines of mortar give a little bit of movement, leading the eye towards the broken window.

Calibration frustration

To be honest, one reason for concentrating on black-and-white prints (next to the artistic value of which I really am convinced!) was that I found my HP Photosmart Pro to make colour prints too yellowish. Yet at least the family’s holiday pictures should come out in colour, right?

The camera club just bought a Colormunki, to ensure calibration of monitors as well as printers. The salesman all but promised us salvation: this was to be the ideal apparatus for the job. And X-Rite quite kindly allows you to register the Colormunki for the whole camera club, for all its computers! But first results are frustrating: far from perfect colour prints yet! Too much green now, if you’d ask me—there is change, but little improvement. And don’t blame the HP printer—club-colleague Louis has similar problems with his Canon printer. We’ll have to dive deeply into switches, manuals, colour spaces, etc. in the hope to find a solution…

Here’s the photo I was testing with: subtle stone hues—the picture works well in black-and-white, in fact! ;-) To add to the frustration, this 2005 picture (taken in Bordeaux, France) I took to a digital demonstration day of the national photographers’ association, BNAFV, a month or so later, and the guys demonstrating the Epson R1800[?] got a perfect print right from the memory card!

To be continued, I fear…

Black-and-white photographers, be free!

A simple trick I finally learned from Lightroom is how in black-and-white photography, we should feel free from the rules. Until recently, when making a black-and-white print, I started from a colour picture that was more or less optimised. Not completely finished for printing in colour, but with colours corrected, the right white balance, etc. With some (pedantic) disdain, I never used Lightroom’s presets to convert that picture into black-and-white, but did so by and, fiddling carefully with the greyscale controls that work more or less like the channel mixer in Photoshop: you can control how light or dark eight parts of the spectrum (from red to yellow, to purple and magenta) will be represented. And then I’d adjust the overall contrast to get nice dark, yet sufficiently detailed shadows and good highlights. That was before LR2; since then I’d add some dashing and burning in parts of the picture.

Once I tried the LR presets though and found that they used different effects: no use of the grayscale mix at all, but simple desaturation and ruthless adjustment of exposure and white balance! I won’t follow their route completely; I’ll keep using the grayscale mix to have better control of how my blues (sky!), reds (skin!) and greens (plants!) are converted into tones of grey, but radically changing the white balance (usually to a low temperature setting, say 4000 K) was an eye-opener that helps to get strong effects that work well in black-and-white. For it is the effect that counts, and we are not accountable for the numbers of the colour temperature to be correct!

The photos are symbolic of ‘working’–seemed fitting to today’s theme. They were was taken in Hanoi, earlier this month.

Alea iacta… Another competition

Not sure if I’m testing myself or the juries, but I just sent in three photos to a national competition, the BNAFV’s first-ever ‘Foto Online’. At first I though I would not do it, expecting thousands of photographers to take part. But a few days ago we got a reminder saying that there were 180 participants. Well, then I could give it a go—basically with the same photos that I submitted for the regional contest less than a month ago. I redid the black-and-white one for which I got the comment that is at too grey and ‘murky’; tried to strengthen the drama and contrast in the air. I still like the picture of this strange building in Almere, and am curious if I’ll get similar comments from this national jury.

The other one from the regional contest that I submitted, was the allium (from our own garden, taken as a test-picture on the first evening that I had my Alpha700), again because I like it and also a little bit because someone in the audience found that it deserved a higher grade.

And you’re welcome to comment too, of course!

Pioneers of Travel Photography – Vaut le détour

The Teylers Museum in Haarlem has an exhibition of 19th century travel photography, bringing together photos from the national Rijksmuseum (still in a state of mess due to over-long reconstruction works) and its own collection. The collection of tremendous, detailed, purely registering, photos is worth going to Haarlem for if you happen to be in Holland—’vaut le détour‘ in terms of the Guides Michelin. You have time to make the detour until the turn of the year; the exhibition lasts until 4 January 2009. As I happen to live in that country, I went to see the exhibition.

‘Purely registering’ I said, thinking back to the comments from Frank Boots. These pictures had no pretension to make an impression as artistic images, but only to show those back home the exotic world beyond one’s own town and region. And we should remember that until the mid-20th century for most Europeans town and region made up the ambit of their geographical and cultural knowledge. Alright, the bourgeoisie, the intended audience of these photos, may have travelled a little further: I’m still impressed with the stories from late-19th century novelists who took up residence in Southern France or even Italy for the winter and coming home to northern Europe only when the weather was supportable there, in summer. Or who made their career in the colonies. Those people travelled, spoke their languages (at least French), and had a broad view on cultures and cultural differences. Those differences must have been much larger than now, with our globalised culture: whether they call it MacDo in French or MacDonald’s in English, you find the same fast-food counters everywhere, the same fashion shops, etc. Alright, there are some variations in the fast food assortment per country, and size schedules for fashion differ a little depending on the usually wider shoulders and hips in e.g. Germany compared to Southern Europe. But those are details, compared to the wide variety of local food, local dress, etc. of the 19th century.

But even then: to see photos from other continents must have been a stunning experience in itself to the 19th century audience. No need to do anything artistic; these pictures brought Das Andere suddenly close to many people. ‘Registering’ that was more than enough. Everyone knew about the hardships of the audacious men (and a few women) who made expeditions to wild places—they could read that from the pictures just by seeing the exotic buildings, landscapes, ruins and—a little later—the ‘types’ of the peoples from those world regions in their typical state of (un)dress. So ‘registering’, ‘documenting’ was what they did in tremendous detail. What a richness of grey tones (of all shades from cold to warm/sepia)—no graphic blacks and whites! What a cornucopia of details in every picture—no cropped buildings or portraits for them, but full shots!

Do the photos show European superiority as it was believed in during the 19th century? It was the time of establishment of vast colonial empires by European countries, after all. In a way, the pictures cannot but be a show of European superiority: Europeans took those pictures—they had the technology, they looked through the viewfinders (or how do you call it with those big glass plate cameras?), they released the shutters. And yes, there were some indications of Western supremacy in some photos. Not that there were any hunting scenes, with the white man standing proudly with a foot on the killed tiger, elephant or hippopotamus. But it was revealing enough to see “our camp” as the caption of a photo of tents among the ancient ruins. Or to see the new railway bridge, with a steam train running over it, above the old and decrepit rope bridge deeper in the valley of the Padanger highlands on Java. Yet for the most part, it was not superiority, but astonishment at the diversity, the other-ness that struck me in those pictures. They were an effort, according to me, to show those back home how strangely beautiful the world was.

Forced by the technique, no doubt, but fitting in that idea of showing in as few hard-to-come-by photos as much as possible, they not only show a number of details that we now would divide up across half a dozen of pictures at least, but they also were sharp from front to horizon, a depth-of-field that we almost find overwhelming.

In short: have a look if you can, also at the amazing stereoscopic pictures in the Kaiserpanorama.

By the way: the picture in this entry of Gizeh in the late 19th or early 20th century was googled from the Internet, and I believe it to be not copyrighted.

Photographers, be free!

When we heard Frank Boots, spokesman of the jury and president of the national association BNAFV, explain his judgements on the photos in the regional contest, two remarks stood out for me.

The first was that amateur photographers are not accountable to anyone. We should feel free to make any photo we like. He did not go into that any further, but he must have meant something like our not being bound to be faithful to nature or facts, since we are not journalists or documentary photographers. Nor are we bound by the canons of art—Mr. Boots made this remark as something coming out of a public discussion he had had with a museum director. That part of his implication was not so clear to me: I thought that if any group were good at breaking canons and being free, it was artists.

His second remark was that there were typical camera club pictures: details of buildings, dilapidated window sills, and similar still-life pictures. Or portrait and model pictures that were neat, pretty-pretty. Mr. Boots wanted more than that, wanted something ‘crazy’, something personal, something (in the words of last year’s jury in the same regional contest) ‘authenticity’.

The photo that goes along with this blog, then must be an homage to camera club traditions, but after his remarks I did put it through Lightroom once more to make it something a little more personal. I’ll spare you the details, but in the words of Dolly Parton, ‘it takes a whole lotta money to look this cheap’—it took me a whole lot of fiddling around to make it look this cheap. By the way, the photo was made last week in Vietnam, just a wall on a street in Bat Trang, a village near Hanoi.

Flooding around Hanoi

Heavy rains led to floodings in Northern Vietnam and Southern China, maybe you heard it in the news. In the Hanoi area, around 50-60 people lost their lives. When I landed at the Hanoi airport, just after the weekend, the rain had stopped (more or less), but along the road between the airport and the city, flooding was only too visible: rice fields were drowned, people were fishing where they ought to be tending the rice.

This is cause for documentary photography! The facts must be made known, esthetics should be second-place considerations.

Still, esthetic questions do turn up: the facts should be put into pictures that are remembered as pictures. One of mine is a clear failure–it is so bad I hardly dare show it, but since it is the only one of the occasion, still I leave the picture here where behind the motorbike two men are lowering a net into the water (the last photo in this entry).
Documentary photography is often black-and-white. Black-and-wite is associated with misery, apparently. I tried, quickly, to see if the following pictures were better in black-and-white, but to my mind the (subdued) colours do not detract from the message.
Since these were all made from the car driving by, I did not hesitate to use cropping to these pictures, and I even burned the sky in the first picture shown, one with the two guys wading through the water to their chest (great tool in Lightroom, this graduated filter!). It may be getting to the limit of keeping truth in documentary photography…

I’m glad I saw nothing worse than this. Wouldn’t make a good journalist, would I?

How dark grey black-and-white can be!

Last Sunday was the last day of a large photo exhibition in Leeuwarden. I took this final opportunity to go and see it. The exhibition was part of ‘Noorderlicht’ which had Central and Eastern Europe as its theme this year. The exhibition ‘Behind Walls’ was indeed large, with hundreds of photos made during the years of communism. Additionally, another exhibition in the same ‘Friese museum’, called ‘Beyond Walls’, showed work from after the fall of the Wall. Of course there were great prints to be seen, but I must admit that the overwhelming feeling with which I came away was a dark grey feeling of oppression, loneliness and hopelessness. It is as if black-and-white photography is only used to document sad situations.

Even the prictures from recent years in ‘Beyond Walls’ were largely in black and white and were largely about the leftovers from the old regime, rahter than giving an impression of new times starting, now possibilties and a bit of joy in the world. While in my travels to that part of Europe (I have worked on projects with colleagues in Central and Eastern Europe since 1991) I found the situation more balanced. True, the transition was a hard time, but people were happy that they were free to speak their minds, to start new things and generally to ‘come back to Europe’. True, too, that the transition left everyone less secure than before, and some groups were sadly left behind (the glue-sniffing boys in Romania I have met myself, not just seen in the pictures this Sunday). But I had hoped for a little less gloom, a lighter shade of grey.

Munching magazines

Lately, I have been looking at different photographic magazines, next to my ‘standard’ (but still highly-valued) Focus. I was looking for a magazine with less stress on the technicalities of hardware and camera testing—I knew what my next camera would be. And one buys a new camera or lens only once in so many years. My wife—and even more importantly my savings account—would not let me more often… In the meantime, what do I care about tests of camera brands I’d never buy? And video! On the contrary, I wanted to know more about how to use my photo gear to greatest effect. How to get the best photos on the wall.

First you need good pictures, and I wanted more guidance on that from magazines. I guess that Outdoor Photograhy, with its double aim of wildlife and landscape photography, will be one of my favourite magazines; I mentioned it before. Many pictures, tips & tricks on composition, lighting, etc. The pictures showed the British publisher, of course: there was an item on ‘the quintessential British landscape’ (field flowers making the foreground way too colourful to suit my taste, but indeed very recognisably British), and it carried stories about pictures made in (between) wind and rain. Never before did I realise how many landscape pictures had moving trees in them—long shutter speeds were quite common (make sure you have a sturdy tripod in your survival pack!). During my trip today, at one of the stations where I had to change trains I found a somewhat similar German magazine, Naturfotografie (oh, the costs of writing a blog that is read by only two people!). I have not read all of it yet, but was struck by the editorial, which asked the eternal question about the reality of photos and especially how much pre- or post-processing is ‘allowed’ in nature and animal photography. The obvious answer was ‘it depends’: in documentary photography none is permissible, while if it is just about the esthetical effect, it is hard t set any limit (apart from normal decency, of course). In another magazine, Digital Pro Photo, I learned that serious photo editors of National Geographic Magazine and the like demand the original memory cards from the photographers, or at least all[!] ‘raw’ picture files, to be certain that the chosen photos are not hoaxed. The other thing one can take from magazines on landscape photography is that large-format cameras (like 4×5 inch) are still popular among serious photographers. Good for keeping in shape, too, carrying such a thing up a mountain…

Sure, the technicalities of post-processing, especially in Photoshop and similar complex programmes remain interesting. Focus, CHIP Foto-Video but also the other magazine I mentioned before, Practical Photographer, give a fair share of that type of stuff. Quite useful, though only as reference material, for I find it impossible to read an article full of ‘click this’, ‘click that’ and ‘set the slider to 27’ when I am not at the computer trying to do a project as is being described in the magazine article.

And finally, the files have to get printed. The close to ideal magazine for me with my predilection for black-and-white photos seems to be Black & White Photography, from the same publisher, incidentally, as Outdoor Photography, and thus equally British, which shows mainly in the advertisements with prices in £, but to some extent also in the civilised tone of the language. It is not too thick for its serious price (over € 10) and still has too much on chemical photography for a digital ‘believer’ like me, but with so many magnificent black and white prints that I can watch them for hours. And with tests of types of printing paper—that’s something I must come back to in a later blog…


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