Burgundy Flowers and the Strange Art of Digital Chiaroscuro

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I don’t too often write about technique for the simple reason that as a self-taught photographer, most of what I know about how to use a camera or edit photographs has been learnt from others online who can have already explained things pretty well themselves.

Recently, however, I’ve been playing around in photoshop in some ways that are new to me at least, that I thought were worth a share. I am not going to do a laborious point by point demo here (although I am thinking of making a video at some point to demo this more clearly)

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My original technique starts, of course, with someone else’s idea. The great french photographer Jean-Michel Berts in one of his own training videos explains a method where you add an adjustment layer to an image and in this layer take down the brightness of the picture until it is nearly black. You then use a brush to gradually paint back the light.

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This was a revelation to me as it allows me actually to control the mood and lighting in any image to an unprecedented degree. When messing around like this, I started to be influenced by the dark and contrasty pictures by the original inventors of chiaroscuro (painting with light and shadow) such as Caravaggio.

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At the same time I had been experimenting with using layer modes in photoshop and this is where my own bit of special sauce is added. If you make a copy of a layer in photoshop and then change its mode to multiply, you create a very dark and contrasty version of the original which also has highly saturated colours. you can then apply a mask to this layer and start to paint it out as Berts suggests.

_dsc4913-copyIn many of my recent images, I am using this technique which I then experiment with further adding layer on layer and painting out different parts of the image. I also mix in more traditional techniques such as dodging and burning.

In the flower pictures that have filled this page, taken in Burgundy in France, it has allowed me to either create these very dark backgrounds or more subtly light the flower and shift attention away from the rest of the shot.

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Iceland Part Two – Water

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My last post actually turned into a bit of a Geography lesson about the formation of the Icebergs and fjords and so on. Most out of character- it won’t happen again, but Iceland does odd things to you.

Today, I am on more familiar terrain with some thoughts about the process of taking photographs- this time of the many waterfalls in Iceland which present a bit of a problem to the visitor- they are just that bit too magnificent!

I am used to going to a British waterfall and seeing either a bit of a pathetic trickle or at the fiercest ones some kind of raging torrent which is difficult to define. These latter ones are often astonishing, but don’t actually necessarily look very nice. A huge expanse of tumbling water can be impressive rather than actually pleasing to look at. The more common pathetic ones force you to be more creative and I often get shots that I am  quite pleased with because I have got myself into exactly the one place where something seems to be happening in the water that day.

The problem, if it is one, with the Icelandic waterfalls is that they are so predictably magnificent, that many photographers have looked at them before and worked out exactly the shot that brings out their awesomeness years ago. So if you google Seljalandsfoss, for example, you will find shots from behind it of the Sun setting through the water. If you do the same with Skogafoss, people tend to like to place a solitary tourist at the bottom right of the picture to contrast against the full majesty and size of the spectacle and so on.

You can see the problem in my first picture above of the so called Witch’s hat mountain falls of Kirkjufellsfoss. A large proportion of photographers take exactly the position I did so that they get the waterfall in the foreground and the mountain behind. I stood there myself, cursing the fact that the top of the hat was in the clouds so I couldn’t get the “correct”shot, but actually now looking at it, it is this difference that makes it work for me.

All of the standard shots of the waterfalls  were  amazing pictures once, but I wanted somehow to do something different.

That is not to say that I haven’t got some of these things in my pictures- at Skogafoss, for example, I do have the lone people bottom right because they wouldn’t leave! The clichés are also hard to avoid for a really practical reason- the paths by some of these falls are quite dangerous and so there is a limit to the number of places that you are allowed to stand- composing in predictable ways can be difficult to avoid.

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But that shot is where I landed on what I wanted- I couldn’t get my difference at the falls themselves, so instead I looked for it later on my computer in photoshop.

In each of these pictures, starting with Skogafoss, I have developed a technique where I have reduced the colour in the majority of the image to virtually nothing, emphasised the contrasts between the blacks and the whites to a surreal level (in Skogafoss, there are even parts of the picture which are negatives of their original) and taken the levels of everything down to darkness from which I have gradually painted the light and sometimes the colour back in.

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Of course, even when trying to be original, I am influenced here- before going I had seen the amazing images of some of the same places by the photographer Andy Lee. He had taken infrared shots of the country, but the mood he creates is not dissimilar. I too took an infrared camera but got few pictures with it that work for me- here are two which did survive:

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They are OK, but not a patch on Lee’s, and it was actually with my standard camera and lens that I got the images that while sometimes familiar in composition,  are at least  different from the clichés. I like them more than my infared shots because they have allowed me gradually over the series to begin to paint back in little glimpses of the real colours in amidst all the gloom.

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The Porticos of Bologna

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For a few months now, I have been blogging about my attempts as a naturally colour challenged photographer to capture my home town of Tunbridge Wells in England. Now it is time for me to set off further afield. The posts in this blog will travel across the UK and indeed the world. Many of these pictures go back years, but much of my recent development as a photographer has been in terms of editing, so I will use this blog as an excuse to re-edit old pictures.

First though, a trip that we took two weeks ago to the city of Bologna in Italy.

Across Italy in the middle ages, the wealthy citizens of any city would find a way of visibly competing- In San Gimignano, for example, they built upwards, creating a proto-Manhattan of towers. In Venice they fought it out by building increasingly lavish palaces by the water. In Bologna, for some reason, they chose to compete by building longer and longer porticos to protect the locals from the rain or the sun:

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The result is that you can walk almost the entire city without ever having to be rained on and I found on returning, that almost every picture I had taken would have a portico somewhere at the edges as in these shots of the square by San Stefano:

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Their love of porticos would also lead them to construct courtyards in the middle of buildings such as here at the museum and the nearby University:

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Historians have questioned what made the rich of this city so philanthropic compared to those in other cities. They also set up the first university in Europe and even into this century, the city has always been a hub for liberal and left wing thinking. Certainly the huge central square and wide main street look perfect for mass demonstrations and gatherings:

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The city does have a commercial core- they may be socialists, but they are wealthy socialists and along with the best restaurants in Italy, most of those porticos shelter shops:

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And some of the rich did build upwards- there are still 20 grandstanding medieval towers intact. The tallest gave us the view at the top of this page after an endless Escher-like staircase:

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Finally, I don’t want anyone to think that all this portico building was simply selfless liberal goodness. Wonderfully, this covered staircase in the town hall was built wide and with shallow stairs so that the rich could ostentatiously drive all the way up in their carriages:

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A Short note about the editing:

For those of you interested in photographic technique, I have recently been following tutorials by the great French black and white master Jean-Michel Berts. I would recommend his photography and methods to anyone. I have used them in all of the pictures on this page including these last few that didn’t fit naturally into the rest of my ramblings:

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