Thursday, 26 August 2010

Paris Photo Walks - 'Storm Brewing'

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~ Storm Brewing ~

The original, grim and grimy capture!
In the last post, Tunnel Vision, I was complaining about terrible contrasty lighting conditions - you much sun causing deep, dark shadows and screaming highlights, you might remember.

Well this time I'm still moaning, but for the opposite reason! This time it was a grotty, grimy July 14th, the French National Holiday, and it was grey as... granite.

What to do, what to do..? The danger is that the photos will be completely unusable due to being too flat and boring. This was indeed almost the case, but the first thing I have to say is that I did actually take the picture. It's a funny thing, but a lot of people, even keen photographers, see something really interesting but don't snap it because they don't think the lighting is good enough. Wrong (in my opinion)! You can rescue all sorts of crappy shots these days, even if, as here, you have to go a bit over the top to do so.

The thing is, even without resorting to some clever sophisticated techniques like HDR, there is still quite a lot of detail in most shots which can easily be brought out by simple operations like increasing the brightness or contrast. That's pretty much what I did here.

Although I was really just playing, given the flatness of the original, I still tried to look for some valid photographic parameters to highlight.

Picture 2: Could have been OK, but... no
Composition is obviously key in a very simple shot like this with very few elements. I liked the way the angle of the roof contrasts nicely with the frame. It also takes up about a third of the shot, the other two thirds being sky, which is good practice. If the 'thing', i.e. the subject - the building - is much smaller than the surrounding background - here it's the sky - the effect is often more striking. So that was quite good.

Then there was the flag. For me, flags need to be billowing folks, unless there's a good reason for them not to be, such as trying to show sadness or lack of interest or whatever. If there's a flag in your shot then wait until a breeze gives it a bit of life. It might take a few minutes but it's worth it. A billowing flag can be the subject of a picture all on its own. A limp, lifeless one doesn't say anything.

The other thing I tried to do was tell some sort of story, not easy with such a static structure as a building. Luckily, though, the sky came out as incredibly stormy after some playing around with contrast and stuff. So linking this to the complete name of the Assemblée Nationale, where vital decisions are made after heated debate, I imagined that this might suggest a particularly stormy session of parliament going on within these hallowed halls.

I've shown some of the other shots I could have used here. I had some very similar to the final version but where the composition was not quite as good, so they quickly got binned - a good discipline and first step to get out of the way.

Picture 3: great angles, great sky but... crappy flag
Picture 2 might have had potential, the flag's billowing nicely, but I just couldn't find anything that pleased me, and I didn't like the angle of the left side of the roof, which was too close to the horizontal for my liking. It was also unbelievably dark and probably would have lacked some detail in the end which I was able to pull out of the final shot chosen.

Picture 3 has some great converging angles, fantastic clouds and a nice skyburst up top, so this could have been a winner, except that... the flag looks like some old shirt on a washing line on a windless day. So just for that one reason the picture's out of the running. No boring unbillowing French flag is going to spoil any of my Paris pictures, I can tell you!

Looking back, I can't believe how much I pushed this in terms of over-the-top contrast and eye-popping texture, and it will certainly not be everyone's cup of tea. But I love the clouds, love the detail of the freize in the elegant pediment, and I'm pleased that the vital words are relatively sharp. There's nothing worse than words that aren't sharp in a picture, unless they're clearly in a purposely out-of-focus part of the shot. For that reason, words are generally the thing I spot focus on when they are present in a picture.

The main thing I'm a bit sad about is the very dull flag - the red, white and blue aren't very punchy at all. I suppose I could have tried masking it out before changing all the rest to keep some colour but I didn't think of that at the time. But maybe that echoes the ominous stormy sky - I'll try to convince myself that's the case anyway!

Sab's Quick Photo Hints & Tips

1) Take a couple of shots anyway, even if conditions seem terrible
2) Play with diagonals to make your shots stronger
3) A small subject can be incredibly strong
4) Flags need to be billowing, unless there a good reason against it
5) Spot focus on words - blurry writing screams 'camera shake' or just 'crap'!

This photo is part of the following walks on the Paris Photo Walks web site:

Monday, 26 July 2010

Paris Photo Walks - 'Tunnel Vision'

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~ Tunnel Vision ~

The lighting conditions here were terrible, I can tell you! Deep shadows on the edges of the old railway cutting; bright sunlight on that narrow slit leading up to the tunnel!

As a photographer who isn't a fan of spending too much time on clever techniques such as lightening specific areas of the photo because I'd rather be out there getting more photos, I once again just played around with the knobs and dials of the supplied tools and managed to get quite an interesting result, as shown below.

You'll immediately notice a couple of striking changes I've decided to make, which we can talk about now.

First of all, I've changed the orientation of the shot. What I mean is that originally it was a landscape format and in the end it's portrait format. Looking at the original I bet you can guess why I did this! there was simply too much wasted darkness on the sides, especially on the right, which I felt didn't contribute enough to the photo.

Sure, you might say that the image of the spooky tunnel entrance nestling away in all those shadows amplify the feeling of secrecy here, and that would be one option, but I didn't take it here.

Instead I decided to emphasise the feeling of the rails leading up to the tunnel entrance by choosing the more upright format. Ideally, I'd have liked the tunnel entrance to have been more over to the top right of the picture, with the curve of the rails coming out to the middle left before coming back to the middle at the bottom, but that wasn't an option with the pictures I had after the shoot. In addition, I'm high up here, so it wasn't easy to get an effect of the rails zooming away into the distance that I could have done if I'd been crouching down on the track with a wide angle lens. But you have to work with what you have, which is what I'm doing here. And at least there's a nice little echo of the tunnel in the curved blink alcove towards the mid-bottom right, which is quite pleasing.

The second big big change I've made is change the pic a sort of rich brown sepia. I love this colour and a lot of cameras and image processing programs offer a 'sepia' option, but I'm always very disappointed with it, as it always seems very washed out and bland. I prefer just going for a tinting option and choosing a tone of orangy-brown I'm happy with.

Remember, don't worry about anyone else or anything you've read (ahem! - including this) and just do your own thing. Obviously, take on board any good ideas you've heard of or amazing shots you've seen, but in the end, this as art, and if you like it, then that's good enough for me.

Turning that little philosophical nugget around, I quite like how this one has turned out, and that's therefore good enough for you, assuming you adhere to my reasoning! If you don't like it, then that is totally valid, as ever. The point is to expose yourself to new ideas and other people's creative decisions and to take on board the ones you like. End of lecture!

If you want to try this sort of shot out in fluorescent pink, then go for it - at least you'll get some interesting reactions I reckon!

The final big thing I've done is greatly lightened up the whole pic, almost too much in the end maybe. But by overexposing you can sometimes add a somewhat otherworldly, ghostly appearance, and in retrospect I'm kinds of thinking it would have been nice to throw in a diffused glow but I'll try to be satisfied with this which resembles an old postcard to an extent, (although they were never this rich!) which is ok.

Sab's Quick Photo Hints & Tips

   1) Be ready to turn landscape compositions into portrait ones, and vice versa, if necessary.
   2) Even extremely contrasty shots can be rescued these days with some easy post-processing.
   3) Look for leading lines and try to have them draw you into the shot, to some significant point.
   4) Try to have a repetition of some sort, even if it's just a dash of colour or a repeated curve.
   5) Play around with colours and remember the golden rule: if you like it, then it's great!

This photo is part of the...

Parc Montsouris Walk  ~  Parc Montsouris Quiz Walk  ~  Petite Ceinture Walk

Visit Paris Photo Walks to find out more!

Saturday, 24 July 2010

He Ain't Heavy

Statues are always a challenge for me, and perhaps least of all a technical one.

For me, the main thing I want to do is... actually twofold. First of all, I want to get away from the idea that it's a piece of cold lifeless stone or metal or whatever, and interact directly with what it is the sculptor has tried to represent, such as figures, an emotion or an event.

And then I want to show how the piece has affected me as the observer, which is a direct compliment to the original artist - I want to show them that their work, and by extention the actual artist - has moved me to the point where I wanted to add my own personality to it in some way.

Injecting this extra dimension is vital I think, otherwise it's just a direct representation of someone else's work, which at best is laziness and at worst plagiarism.

These days there are so many ways of interacting with someone else's work and adding something of your own there's really no excuse!

Traditionally speaking, there are all the classic techniques you can think of such as choosing an interesting angle, framing it originally, using creative blur or selective focusing and so on. From the modern post-processing point of view, the options are even greater.

From the second photo, which I have brightened up slightly from the original, you can see that there was great scope for simply reproducing, badly, someone else's statue! A hunk of rock on another chunky block, a bunch of flowers in the foreground, shocking flat lighting, and hey presto, one of the most boring photos you could ever imagine!

So first of all I did a bit of scouting and sniffing around. I looked at the statue from all angles, checked for any inscriptions that might give me a clue as to what was going on, and spent quite a while just 'being' with the sculpture, as it were. I tried to pretend that this event - the rescuing of an injured fellow quarryman - was actually happening in front of my eyes. I then looked for the best way to convey what they might be feeling, as well as what I might want to add to the shot myself to emphasise or even exaggerate these impressions.

As you can see, I've gone for an 'up-close-and-person' approach, where you can almost feel the stench of their sweating bodies and imagine the glistening of their dust-encrusted bodies as they struggle to get their comrade to safety.

The hand on the arm and the head-to-head support I find very touching and wanted to focus on that. This angle also highlights the drawn body with the bony shoulder and extended ribcage in evidence, adding to the gritty reality of this thankless way of life.

Technically, the original photo, the one at the top of this page, was terrible. There's a lot to be said for silhouettes, but in this case the outline doesn't say enough on its own and, thanks to shooting into a bright sky, practially all detail has been blown away. Looks like a job for Post-Processing Man!

I've pulled out (an even invented - hehe!) tons of detail in the weathered stone by playing around with a few of those funny little options hidden away in the menus, whilst trying at all costs not to lose the impact of this hard-hitting image. The greatest danger with after-the-event fun on the computer is that the special effects take over and people just want to know which one you used, as opposed to being impressed by the power of the image itself. Personally I'm terribly upset when all anyone wants to know about my photos is what programme I use. It's inevitable that you will get these questions, but from a phototgrapher's point of view I loathe them and sometimes wish computers didn't exist at all!

But you have to move with the times, and if you do use special techniques on the computer you should expect people who don't know any better to ask about them. And feel somewhat flattered that they want to know - I think it's their way of saying the like the image!!!

Anyway, I guess the most significant creative choice I made here after a slight crop top and right to get rid of some irrelevant sky was the colour modification.

As I write this I'm switching this window from one screen to another and realising that on an older screen the image looks almost totally monochome orangy-brown, whereas on my newer laptop screen it still retains hints of olive-green as I intended. Tinting in one colour range is ok, and can be very effective, but sometimes I want to retain hints of the original colours whilst moving them towards a dominant sepia tone, for example. Here I really wanted little bits of green to come through on the top of the heads, to suggest algae, and in the fuzzy leaves to suggest, well, leave, and that would have been lost if I'd just tinted everything orange or brown.

Click to visit the Parc Montsouris Photo Quiz (coming soon) Paris Photo Walks!

Sab's Quick Photo Hints & Tips

   1) Don't photograph sculptures and statues - photograph the things people have sculpted!
   2) Use any techniques you like to add something original to other people's work.
   3) Avoid including the plinth or support in the shot unless you really do need to show it is 'a sculpture'.
   4) Delve deep into all those obscure menu options - there is magic to be discovered in there!
   5) Keep your colour manipulations within the realms of reality - seen a bright purple stone statue recently?

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Cité-U On Acid

This shot was for a quiz, so I wanted to make it difficult, but not impossible, to read the words above the arches. You can just about make out 'UNIVER...' which was enough for my purposes!

In trying to make the words difficult to read I inevitably had recourse to a classic artistic device: the Zappy Zoom!

I don't know if that's a new term for it, but it's been part of the creative photographer's arsenal for decades. The only thing is, it can be a little too much if every other shot has a zappy zoom effect, so use it sparingly and it will retain its surprise value.

You need to put your camera on shutter speed priority for this effect, and choose something like 15th of a second to start off with. I find the best way is to focus on something like the writing, start zooming with one hand, and take the shot as you continue to zoom. With a slow shutter speed you should hear quite clearly the opening and closing of the shutter and you will get to feel what sort of speed you need for the level of zoom effect you're looking for.

In this shot I've thrown in a bit of an angle to add to the wildness of the zoom and I could also have moved or rotated the camera itself, but that would have made it so blurred that you wouldn't be able to make anything out at all.

Needless to say I needed a few shots to get one I was reasonably happy with, and to be honest I wasn't planning this as an artistic shot, more of a fun one for one of my Paris photo quizzes, so I didn't spend too long on getting a specific result. I'm including un unblurred - but still unhorizontal - shot here too, by the way, so you can see what the thing really looks like.

And then finally we come to the post processing. An important detail is that the sun was behind this building, and so the entire facade was in relatively gloomy shadow, despite the bright daylight behind it. So for the final version below I dynamised the image by playing with contrast and adding a dash of saturation to make the colours even zappier than the zoom has done. I tried to restrain myself with this one, as I sometimes go too over the top with my post-treatment. It's obvious from the sun that this wall is in shadow, and if I'd tried to make it look as if it wasn't all the actually sunlit areas would have been totally blown out with no detail at all.

I also chose this one over another which didn't have people in the foreground, as they add interest and the feeling of a lively campus, as well as contrast to the purely architectural image without them.

So in the end for a quick shot which wasn't even meant to be artistic I'm quite pleased with the result.

Click to visit the Parc Montsouris Photo Quiz (coming soon) Paris Photo Walks!

Sab's Quick Photo Hints & Tips

   1) Look for new, crazy techniques and try them out - what have you got to lose?!
   2) Careful with post-processing. Know when to stop! Even go back a couple of steps...
   3) Never forget the importance of some human element in the picture.
   4) I overdo weird angles in my pictures... because I love them!
   5) Don't zoom so much that you can't see what the subject actually is.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Flyby Fancies

The official start of the Bastille Day (14th July) parade begins once the President of the Republic has arrived at the Arc de Triomphe and said good morning to the General and such like. The only thing I managed to get of the parade this time was the planes as once again I'd woken up too late to see anything at all this year! Better luck next time, eh?

So the planes zoom overhead, completely out of the blue (well, grey) with no warning, because the noise they were making took a while to catch up with them, so you had to be ready.

What you see here is a refuelling plane with three thirsty planes fighters all vying for a suck at the bottle.

They had been preceded by the very impressive nine planes trailing patriotic smoke trails behind them and this was slowly dissipating and made a great backdrop to the following aircraft.

I also wanted to include a bit of Paris in the shot and some human interest if possible, and just about managed this with the silhouetted Parisian apartment building with the impressed onlookers, which also emphasised the closeness to the ground of the planes.

Whether you prefer the cropping and lightening of the final version or the moodier original is totally personal, so get the best shots you can, take lots, and make a few creative decisions afterwards to make your work the best you can.

Click to visit the Bastille Day Walk on Paris Photo Walks!

Sab's Quick Photo Hints & Tips

   1) Be ready to adjust your exposure by +2 or even +3 when shooting into the sky
   2) Try to include human interest or local colour if possible (the people, the building)
   3) Crop to throw the focus on the subject - 50% grey sky is NOT usually exciting
   4) Feel free to exaggerate the sky a bit afterwards - people have been cheating for decades!
   5) Planes are supposed to be high - placing them at the top of the frame can emphasise this
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