Category: Post-capture Techniques

An open letter to Freeman Patterson regarding jpegs and raw files

Freeman Patterson is one of the most renowned and respected natural environment and outdoor photographers in Canada and around the world. Many photographers have learned greatly from this master of seeing, some of us from as far back as the 1970s. His work is equally remarkable when done in his own backyard of Shamper’s Bluff, New Brunswick or in the drylands of Namaqualand, South Africa.

Periodically through the year, Freeman sends out a newsletter in which he discusses life and philosophy and photography. I find them meditative and inspirational and read them when I have an opportunity to sit and ponder and enjoy.

So, it was with some shock, and a little dismay, that I read the following in his last paragraph of his most recent newsletter, dated May 2019, Images, Ideas and Reflections:

1/ It’s my long-term observation that most digital cameras have far too many functions and are far too complicated for the needs of most amateurs and, in fact, many professionals. 2/ In my view, always shooting RAW is a sheer waste of battery power, storage space, and processing time. Although some very well-known Canadians professional photographers agree, many amateurs seem shocked when I say this. When do I shoot RAW? Only when I feel there is some possibility that I will make a 20×30 or larger print, which is extremely rare. For me, the old K.I.S.S. principle still applies – keep it simple, stupid. Never let your equipment or the way you use it interfere with your spiritual life!

(Underscores are that of the original author).

Now, far be it for me to take on a legendary photographer such as a Freeman Patterson, but I simply could not sit by silently with a blanket statement such as “always shooting RAW is a sheer waste of battery power, storage space, and processing time” and “When do I shoot RAW? Only when I feel there is some possibility that I will make a 20×30 or larger print, which is extremely rare.”

Here is my response…

Dear Freeman,

I’m just wondering if what you wrote in the last paragraph of your most recent letter – the part about jpegs vs raw files – was put there to see how many people have read to the end, you can download them with!

I very much enjoyed reading your letter, as I always do, as much as I have enjoyed your photographs and teachings since the 1970s, that is, until I read the last paragraph.

While I agree “most digital cameras have far too many functions and are far too complicated”, and “Never let your equipment or the way you use it interfere with your spiritual life!”, I am rather dismayed by your blanket statement in support of jpegs over raw files: “always shooting RAW is a sheer waste of battery power, storage space, and processing time”, with little explanation beyond “Only when I feel there is some possibility that I will make a 20×30 or larger print”. Limiting the creative potential of a photographer is deceptive, limiting and, frankly, unprofessional as an educator.
While your notions of less is more deeply resonate with me, the limitations created by a machine-created digital file may be helpful for simplifying photography in the short term, a decision to only shoot jpegs can be unnecessarily restricting in the long term.
A jpeg is like a Polaroid print or a machine print from Blacks or a Kodachrome transparency. While each could be considered fine enough quality for display as artwork, they are, essentially, end points, with much less ‘room’ for further enhancements once they are created. A photograph should represent the photographer’s complete vision – one realized through field techniques and processing techniques – not only field techniques and that of a machine with ‘under-the-hood’ computer algorithms. 
So, I can only wonder if you were addressing those photographers who believe that what the camera spits out is the end product. Is this a remnant of your transparency days when the slide was very much an end product? One can alter a Polaroid, machine print, transparency or jpeg, but it will only lead to further image degradation – fine if that’s your style, but not as a blanket end result.
Polaroids aside (they were a niche art market unto themselves, pursued beyond snapshots by only a small minority of photographers), transparencies and machine prints would have been a suitable end product to non-darkroom workers. But stop for a moment and try to imagine an Adams black-and-white as a machine print?!? While his field techniques were legendary, his printing of each negative is what made each scene “sing”. A jpeg would never stand up to the modern-day equivalent of an Adams darkroom session.
Digital image files today are the negatives of before: an opportunity for a photographer to refine and/or extend their vision beyond what the camera machine produces. And, given the ubiquity of digital editing apps, and photographers willing to pursue the technology, it hardly seems appropriate to limit their future potential growth by recommending bog-standard jpegs. Again, I’m not referring to whole scale digital manipulation, stretching photographs beyond the recognizable; rather, I’m speaking of the myriad subtle enhancements to already finely crafted images that breathe life into the product of a machine – the same manipulations I once enjoyed working with in a wet darkroom (colour and b&w).
When it comes to digital editing, working within the confines of the colour space and compression of a jpeg is like playing tennis (or basketball or football/soccer) on a court with cement walls for out-of-bounds lines. In severely limiting a player’s freedom of movement, racquet swings become much more conservative and the game much different! Due to a jpeg’s limited 8-bit colour space, even tweaking it a little may drive colours out of gamut during processing. Furthermore, subtle highlight details also suffer due to file compression algorithms in jpegs. Granted, printing processes and screens are also 8-bit, but with raw files, the photographer has the option to adjust colours during the editing process, within the larger colour space of a raw file (Adobe RGB or ProPhoto RGB), then bring them back to the once again limiting 8-bits of the printing process (or screen visualization) in ways they see fit, not an algorithm.
Creativity can start from a finished product, but the potential is limitedWorse, the decisions regarding colour, sharpening and compression are not made by the photographer, but by an automated process, pre-determined by a committee of software engineers, to produce the best possible average of averages. It’s not looking at the content, the scene the colours and is ignorant of end use. While the product of these software decisions, the jpeg, is of high quality, it is still handcuffed into only reduced quality through editing, not improved quality.
Granted, you know this already, which makes it even more surprising you would recommend it. I see the role of teachers as ones who inspire students to go beyond, to encourage exploration and discovery, not to hamper them with built-in algorithms. The books and prints of your work are not the product of blind acceptance of the decisions of software engineers, neither should a photographer’s photographs.
I shoot with a full frame sensor camera, a 1” sensor camera, and an iPhone. Believe you me, the 1” sensor files definitely benefit from being captured in raw format; the iPhone files even more so. The image quality difference between processed raw files and jpegs from all three cameras is significant on screen and in print. As sensor size is reduced, that difference becomes even more obvious. For example, even subtle image processing on a jpeg can result in obvious and unacceptable banding across otherwise clear blue skies.
So, I can’t help wondering what, exactly, you were getting at by endorsing jpegs for all photos that are not likely to end up being printed to  20”x30” or larger. I’ve been successfully photographing and selling for decades and I still don’t always know when a photograph might be printed large like that. I would rather err on the side of caution and spend a little more of my time capturing in raw then making a few quick edits to it (even automated edits!), knowing that I still have the raw file that, at some later time, I can take to the next level if I should choose to go back to it to further improve it.
I’m just very thankful that I can go back to the raw files I made 18 years ago in Tanzania with an early digital camera – a 5mp Minolta 7hi – and still make improvements with today’s editing apps, something I cannot achieve in the same way even from high quality jpegs made with the same camera. They’re good, don’t get me wrong, but they are not nearly as good as what I can do with the raw files. I can also go back to my 4×5 negatives and make silver gelatin prints, if I choose, or scan them into digital files.
You see, that’s the difference between raw files and jpegs – raw files have the potential for further improvements jpegs, not so much. One never knows what the future holds.
With great respect,
Terry McDonald

Miss the darkroom? There’s an app for that!

Apple’s App of the Day today (28 Dec ‘17) is Darkr. I don’t usually look too closely at the AotD, and sometimes not for days or weeks, but, as a photographer and former large format and darkroom enthusiast, this one certainly caught my eye.

Select your camera format or work in the darkroom

Darkr takes me back to simpler times, at least that’s what my heart is telling me. It is both a large format camera (and medium and “pocket” format camera) and a Darkroom all built into an app. What a thrill it was for me to lie in bed this morning and have an upside-down-and-backwards view camera image on my iPhone (also available for iPad, but my iPad Air has only a 5mp Camera), complete with etched grid lines and a loop for focusing. Anyone who has ever worked with a large format camera would appreciated this view.

When I say “large format, l’m referring to the old-style cameras with a leather bellows in front. For years, I used a beautiful Zone VI cherry wood field camera that made beautiful 4×5″ negatives. Yes, that’s inches – about half the size of the iPad screen I’m writing on right now. But 4×5″ was just the beginning; large format included 5×7″, 8×10″ (one of Angel Adams favourites) and 11×14”. There were even 16x20l versions that shot Polaroids! It was a huge industry through the late 19th century and right through the 20th century. I bought my “old-style” 4×5 camera in the 1990s! Working with negatives and transparencies that large meant the image quality was untouchable.

But alas, that era is behind us. My Nikon D800E captures more detail than my 4×5 could and my Sony RX-10iii isn’t far behind. The methods of working on a tripod may still be there, but the mystique of working under a dark cloth with a loupe around your neck and a pocket full of yellow, orange and red filters is gone, along with developing negatives, making test strips, changing contrast grades, and burning and dodging to make prints. BUT…

Darkr brings it all back again…

Yellow filter selected. Yes, it’s upside-down and backwards – it’s large format, after all!

…without the dark cloth and tripod, darkroom chemicals and water usage. As I said, as I lay in bed this morning, I set up my large format camera, selected ILFORD HP-5 film, put on a yellow filter, used my loupe to select the focus point, chose my shutter speed, tilted as needed, and “click” made my first exposure.

4×5 neg, complete with notches in top left.

This first exposure became a beautiful and classic 4×5 negative, complete with cut notches in the top left! From there, I entered the Darkroom where the immersive experience continued sans red light and chemicals. Honestly, I do miss the other-worldly experience of entering a darkroom with the acrid smell of stop bath and the earthy smell of developer (but not the mixing and washing).

In the Darkroom, I was presented with a series of horizontal test-

Test strips. Scroll up and down to change time; scroll left and right to change contrast.

strips. Swiping up increased the time, swiping down, the opposite. Swiping left and right changed the contrast, just like a multi-contrast head on an enlarger or multi-contrast filters. The filters are even coloured correctly – the level of detail the creators of the app have included is amazing, but not without some need for improvements (see below).

Toning options are available once you have a good-looking “print”.

Once you have a basic print, there are a variety of typical darkroom options: Crop, Dodge, Burn, Blur and Tone. The dodge and burn options take a little getting used to, but are great once you do. The best part, though, is how each option you use is stored as a layer. This digital advantage lets you revisit what you’ve done and change things about, although cropping really must be done first.

Final print – my first darkroom print in over 17 years!

So, why bother? As one commenter said, “I did darkroom processing for real…and I now realise I don’t miss it at all.” While I, too, am in this category, Darkr seems to retain well the methods and thought behind using film and darkroom processing, without the hassle of chemicals and water use.

Can you make “better” black and whites in other apps? Perhaps, especially with the near-endless sliders and options of apps such as Photos, Polarr and high-end apps like Lightroom. But there’s something about simplifying options that clarifies the process. For example, test strips: rather than constantly “playing” with sliders until things “look good”, going back and forth between whites and blacks and shaows, exposure and contrast, with Darkr, you are using a combination of exposure and contrast – two options – to attain your base print.

From there, you can apply dodging (selective lightening) or burning (selective darkening), just like using adjustments brushes in Lightroom. Lastly, you may (or may not) tone the image – selenium, cyanotype or sepia – in varying degrees.

Perhaps it’s nostalgia speaking more than practicality, but I feel apps don’t always need to be pragmatic and efficient to be useful. If anything, this simplification teaches one to be more observant. To the observant, the varying times of the test strips offer insights 8nto the relationships between light and dark, as does the switching of contrasts.

Perhaps this is my own darkroom experience talking and these nuances are not readily apparent to newbies, but I see this as not only nostalgic fun, but a good training ground of sorts, from the upside-down-backwards view presented by the Large Format  option to the selections of time and contrast. The limiting factor is the 12mp camera on the iPhone. If this system could be used with a 20mp+ camera, it would certainly be more enticing. That being said, you can import photos from Photos to work on them in the Darkroom.

The best part, though, is the price: Darkr is only $3.99. Actually, it’s free, but paying the $3.99 does two things: it supports the developers to keep refining the app (I have some improvements I’d like to see, and it unlocks some of the refinements that make Darkr so much fun.

Some of the improvements I would like to see include:

  • Spot metering – I would like to read my highlight and shadow areas to allow me to use…
  • Zone system placements; shadows with detail on Zone II – the “West Coast, Ansel Adams” way or highlights with detail on Zone VIII as Fred Picker invented on the East Coast;
  • Orange filter, for when yellow is too little and red is too much;
  • Cold and warm-tone papers options would be nice, even different paper bases;
  • Adding a cold-tone selenium effect of slight purple cast would be welcomed;
  • Vertical test strips are needed to accommodate checking different parts of a print. Making the print above would have benefitted from seeing the bright white of the duvet in the same strip
  • Lastly, the app needs a way to maintain the proportions when cropping (or select an aspect ratio).

I should note that these “improvements” may already be built into the app and I missed them. I’ll be spending more time with Darkr over the next few days and hope to discover more of it’s secrets.

GRIPS K-W Presentation follow-up

Many thanks to the folks at the Grand River Imaging and Photographic Society for hosting my presentation tonight. There are many excellent photographers whose questions and discussion added well to the evening.

A few people inquired about the “Nature Photographer’s Toolkit” I created to help organize ideas around how to approach scenes and subjects in nature photography. I’ve added a copy of the slide below. I hope it serves as a useful guide and reminder to explore a number of different avenues when in the field and in front of a screen.

Remember: Three-quarters of the effort in making photographs is done in the field before the shutter is released and half again occurs on-screen, for every compelling photo is greater than the sum of its parts.

KW-GRIPS: Monday, Nov. 13

Join me at the regular Monday meeting of the Grand River Imaging and Photographic Society where I will be presenting Shaping Landscape and Nature Photographs.

Much of the “shaping” of photographs begins in the field with the assembling of various compositional elements to take the scene from a simple snapshot to a thoughtful creation by the photographer. As artists, it’s important to at least take into consideration angle of light, perspective and angle of view, all the while making active use of visual design elements in the scene, such as leading lines and framing elements, to create dynamic compositions that guide viewers through the scene.

Shaping continues in post-capture processing with the use of selected processing adjustments including graduated masks and adjustment brushes. My sincere belief is that ¾ of the work happens before the shutter is released and ½ the work happens afterwards because every good photograph is, in fact, greater that the sum of its parts, the difference being the effort and visual skill the photographer adds in the making of each photograph.

I hope you can join me Monday evening at 7:30pm for some inspiration and perhaps a new way of looking at photography. Meetings are held at the Kitchener East Presbyterian Church at 10 Zeller Drive, Kitchener. I hope to see you there!

Computer Angst…Solved!

I’ve been going through a fair amount of angst as of late…

Back in October, the week prior to my London Camera Club presentation, my MacBook Pro (2011) began to crap out on me. It was not starting up properly – on the start-up screen, everything that was supposed to be shades of grey became shades of red. At first, I thought, “Right – Product RED; or is this for Breast Cancer Awareness Month” as the shades of red were really shades of pink. Ha, ha – No!

THANK GOODNESS I REGULARLY BACK UP MY HARD DRIVE!!! Did I yell this loudly enough for you?!? I was able to use my school MacBook Air to access the back-up copy of my presentation on my Time Machine hard drive. Time Machine is Apple’s proprietary and wonderfully easy and useful back-up app built into the operating system. I copied the presentation to the MacBook Air and could then add the tweaks I wanted – and voilà, I could present. Whew! Dodged that bullet. Little did I know bullet #2 was headed my way.

In the meantime, I had a presentation at the Halton Camera Club. The MacBook Air performed flawlessly again and the presentation went off without a hitch.

So I took my MacBook Pro into Datamatrix here in Guelph who attempted to fix it. They are a great group of guys who have saved hard drives and other computer woes in the past In fact, I thought they had fixed it until I sat down this morning to do some overdue printing. Same problem! Yikes!

So, I grab the MacBook Air again – which, at 5 years old, is no a spring chicken. It has only a 128GB SSD with only 8GB of RAM. Yet… it is blazingly faster than my MacBook Pro (w/ 16GB of RAM), primarily due to the SSD. I have 5 Chrome windows open with at least a dozen tabs in each, yet hiding it allows me to work with Lightroom as if nothing else is open. I plug in my external monitor – and it works flawlessly. I plug in my external hard drive with my Time Machine backup. It, too, works flawlessly. At this point, I’m thinking I have horseshoes up my a**!

But… what do I do about Lightroom? I have LR on the MacBook Air, but it’s set-up for the school yearbook photos I work on. Will the copy on my Time Machine back-up work? I try double-clicking on the LR catalogue icon – nope. I’m not permitted to write to the back-up. Frustrating, but a very thoughtful precaution! Well done, Apple.

But, what if I copy my catalogue file to the MacBookAir? Wow – the folder is huge at around 20GB with Previews and Smart Previews. Hmmm, all I really need is the catalogue, though, as LR will generate new previews for the few files I use. So, I copy the LR catalogue to the MacBook Air. I then open Lightroom, but not from the Dock as that would open my School LR catalogue. Instead, I double-click on the LR catalogue I’ve just copied to the Desktop and – voilà – it opens… but it can’t find my photos. There are question marks beside each and every folder of photos. Okay, that makes sense, actually. I did move the catalogue, so it broke the file connections, the “breadcrumbs” leading from LR to the photos. I need to “tell”  it where my photo library is. So, I select the top-most question-marked folder (named LRPhotoLibrary) and choose “Find Missing Folder”, then navigate to my LR Library on my backup HD and voilà, my photos blink on, one by one, in the Library view. Whew!

So I begin working on a print job – some “Fiery Sumac” ArtCards for a friend, plus a bunch of other ArtCards. Hmmm… no User Templates. I need to create a new “User Template” for the ArtCards using a copy of a previous one. Finally, all is ready.

When I go to print… Right – I need to install my printer on the MacBook Air. No go… it doesn’t have the drivers installed. So off to the Epson site I go to download the latest drivers for this version of Mac OS (El Capitan) and install them. Done.

But I still can’t print, as this laptop doesn’t have the paper profile needed for the ArtCards. I use MOAB Entrada Rag Natural “Entradalopes”, so I go to the MOAB site, download and install the needed drivers. Still no go. Lightroom doesn’t “see” the profiles. Ugh! I then try the old stand-by and restart Lightroom. Yes! The drivers are there.

Then, it’s just ensuring the printer is set up properly for Matte paper and Matte Black Ink with the Colour Management turned off at the printer. Three minutes later I have a near-perfect ArtCard printed, complete with the titling text I always use for the back of the cards (compliments of going back into the Time Machine hard drive and copying the Pages file I use to generate the text).

Woo-hoo! Success! OMG! This all started around 10am. It took about 90 minutes to set all this up (between answering a few emails and grabbing another coffee), but I’m in business.

It worked because I back-up, regularly. It also worked because I have a system for doing things. It may seem pedantic at times to someone watching me work, but it sure makes a difference when things don’t go as planned. So, to all my photographer friends… BACK-UP! BACK-UP! BACK-UP!!! Do it NOW!!! And, if you are not already doing so, use a repeatable system so that you can troubleshoot and repeat it when things go wrong. If you are not sure you can fix computer on your own, get some help from PC Revive.

Also, a quick shout-out to Apple. First of all, my MacBook Pro gets a lot of use. It has travelled with me everywhere and is on or asleep constantly and here it is 6 years later and only now in trouble. Same with the MacBook Air – still working brilliantly and fast after 5 years, with only 8GB of RAM. And, I have a the Benq HD monitor plugged in as well as my Time Machine back up HD and the printer and I can still flip back and forth between Chrome, Preview, Pages and LR without a hitch or delay.

Lastly – thanks Apple for making Time Machine. Back-ups are flawless and integrated into the OS. Lately, it seems, every time I turn on a computing device I have some kind of error, but it’s not with Apple. Usually its with some stupid website that is trying to do something it thinks I want it to do. So, fingers crossed, I haven’t jinxed anything!

Now – back to printing!

Are you editing your photos?

None of the photographs I make and publish are straight out of the camera. They could be, but they wouldn’t have the same impact as there are always improvements to be made. Besides, I want the photograph to represent what I saw and felt, not the machinations of an inanimate box with optics.

If you are shooting jpegs and you’re perfectly happy with them, then perhaps spending the time to learn and do photo editing is not for you. But, if you aren’t satisfied and you can see improvements to be made then read on…

Just to be clear, I’m editing with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, the industry-standard, fully professional app used by millions of Mac and Windows photographers around the world. However, there is a fairly steep learning curve for LR and it’s not the app to use for casual editing. Years ago, I started up the BYO Laptop course on Lightroom at Mohawk College in Hamilton. After 10 weeks of covering all the basics and some in-depth work on importing, organizing, developing, pre-sets, printing, books and black-and-white etc., users still found they needed to be actively and regularly using LR so as not to forget all it’s intricacies. Lightroom is an amazingly complete app, and I use it everyday, but it can be overwhelming without some good tutorials.

LR’s Before-After view showing the difference editing can make – not significant for this photo, but certainly an improvement from dull to glowing.

If you want to get started editing photos, begin by identifying the photos in your collection needing some improvement. We all have photos that need “rescuing” from mistakes we’ve made like under– or overexposure or poor composition. These are mistakes that should be corrected in-camera, but may be a good starting point for you to learn the extent to which photos can be “processed”. No doubt, though, you probably have others that are just lacking that bit of extra “umph’ (I know, how photographic!) to raise them from good to brilliant. Often it’s a slight adjustment to contrast, a raising of the shadows or taming of highlights or a little extra saturation.

This is where craft meets artistry. Photo editing works best if you have a preconceived “visualization” of what you want the photograph to look like. Many photographers start with a “meh” photo and try to breathe life into it using push-button pre-sets. While this can work, and it can teach you what’s possible, it’s better to start with the vision of what you want the photo to look like, then work towards it by learning what each of the options can do, and not do, for you.

Apple Preview > Tools > Adjust Color brings up this handy photo editing panel.

If this sounds intimidating, start with one of the best but basic editing apps out there – the one that’s already on your computer: if you have a Mac, it’s Preview (not Photos, not yet); on Windows 10, it’s Photos. Now, I can’t speak to the Windows experience because I don’t use it, so have a look at this article for some guidance.

Apple’s Preview is easy to use because you can open a photo already on your computer and make small adjustments to it. If you only want to edit a few JPEG files, Preview is the way to go – have a look at this comprehensive article from (surprisingly!) Forbes magazine. My only caution with Preview is that what ever changes you make become permanent once you hit “Save”. I highly recommend duplicating the photo first and adding “-Edit” to the filename, so that you can always go back to the original if you mess up.

Photos for macOS and iOS is much more complete. You can use it in Simple mode to make moderate adjustments or you can open a dozen or so various panels for a more complete editing suite (see below). It will edit both jpeg and raw files; more importantly, the editing is “non-destructive”, meaning, it is not changing the original file, but writing the edits in the background as a set of instructions that are applied only when you export or print the photo. Photos also allows you to add 3rd party extensions that further extend its capabilities.

In fact, Photos is almost as good as Lightroom. It only lacks LR’s ability to add graduated masks, adjustment brushes and bulk editing. LR is also the best possible photo app for printing, but that’s a whole different blog post.

The best article I could find to get you started with Photos is this one from MacWorld. There are also dozens of tutorials and videos online; all you need to do is Google, “How do I (fill-in-the-blank) with macOS (or iOS or Windows) Photos?” The other part of learning to edit is simply exploring; e.g. What happens to my photo when I do this?, but be sure to use the “Undo” button (or Command-Z my favourite keyboard shortcut!)

macOS Photos offers much more complete editing when you select “Adjust” then the blue “Add” in the top right.
macOS Photos – This is the simplified adjustment panel.

Other photo editors include Photoshop (Mac/Win), Pixelmator (Mac only) and Affinity Photo (Mac/Win). Photoshop isn’t really a photo editor, it’s more of an image compositor with editing adjustments that can be applied to photos. People still use it for editing photos because that’s all that was available for years. It has since been eclipsed by Adobe’s Lightroom which was designed from the ground up for photography. To fill the price gap between free and Lightroom, Pixelmator was introduced some years ago. It has since been eclipsed by Affinity Photo.

“AP”, as it’s known, is currently the leader of the pack for low cost, high-end editing, even giving Photoshop a run: AP is now considered Photoshop’s most capable replacement at about 1/10th the cost and it has a near equally-capable iOS app for newer iPads. An alternative to Lightroom is the more expensive, but very capable Capture One, used by those who can distinguish even higher-quality raw files from Lightroom’s (or claim to, anyway!)

If you’re bent on learning Lightroom (or any photo editing app, actually), give me a call or drop me an email. I can get you up and running in a few hours.

If you want really good black and white, then consider getting to know Lightroom.

Lake Superior V: B&W

I love black-and-white. Perhaps it’s because, like every photographer of my age, I “cut my teeth” on black-and-white. Thank goodness digital has not changed that. In fact black-and-white is better now than it ever has been. We are no longer tied to using colour filters – yellow, orange, red – to enhance tones of the same colour over their opposites. Nor are we tied to buying, mixing, storing, using and breathing in the chemicals needed for a darkroom. Then, there’s the water use: hours of washing negs and prints with constantly running water? I can’t even conceive of it anymore.

Figure 1

The conceptual part of making of a black-and-white photograph is perhaps a bit more difficult today. As we live in a colour world and digital cameras produce colour files, I find it more difficult to switch my brain into “black-and-white mode”. As we no longer put a roll or a sheet of B&W film into the camera, and we no longer use the colour filters, there isn’t that physical “trigger” to ignore the colour and concentrate on the tones, the shapes, the textures. Having been schooled in B&W, I find I can make the switch, but it’s definitely more difficult. I imagine those who have never worked in a B&W world may find it considerably more difficult. Often, though, it’s the scene that tells me, “I’m a black and white!”

Figure 2

Without colour, a scene must speak through tones, textures and contrast. It doesn’t need to start off monotone, but the photographer must carefully understand how colours will translate to shades of grey. Two very different colours; the orange and blue in a sunset, for example, will often become a single or two very similar grey tones (Fig 1). Back in the film days, when colour filters were used, a yellow or orange filter would be selected to brighten the yellows and oranges and darken the blues. This is now done in the digital processing stage using an app such as Lightroom (see Fig 2). While virtually any scene can be photographed and processed for black-and-white, as was the case for decades before colour film was commonly available, some scenes “work” better than others.

More so than colour, light plays a key role in black and white. Under soft lighting conditions of an overcast day, it can be difficult to properly separate the middle tones to prevent them from becoming “muddy”. That’s where the “darkroom” work comes in. Previously, we would boost the film by giving it N+1 or N+2 development and, perhaps use a higher contrast paper. In harshly-lit conditions, we would process film at N-1 or N-2 and/or use lower contrast paper. Now, in Lightroom, we adjust a combination of tone curves, contrast, clarity, white and black points, shadows and highlights to recreate our vision from the field. We’re doing the same thing as before, but using tools that allow for finer adjustment.

Some of the black-and-whites below you may recognize from previous posts as colour photos. Try not to compare them to the colour photos as too often, colour “wins” if only due to familiarity. Try to see the B&W photographs as something different. Black-and-white photographs encourage you to look beyond the obvious to see the textures and shapes that create a scene.

After viewing the gallery, please leave a comment, ask a question or offer constructive criticism; and take a moment to share this post with others. Thanks for reading.

Long Weekend = Time Printing


A winter sky with thin clouds lit magenta by the rising sun over a farm field with rows of corn stalks and a light dusitng of snow
A winter sky with thin clouds lit magenta by the rising sun over a farm field with rows of corn stalks and a light dusting of snow

Dusk, Inner Bay, Long Point

As a bonus of working in the private sector, I had Friday as a holiday as well as Monday making a 4-day weekend. Finally, some time to spend printing. How satisfying!

I am working through a backlog of print-ready photographs from the last few years, partly to satisfy me need for a sense of completion, but also to select prints for my upcoming show in September. Perhaps it’s a sign of my four decades in photography, but I never feel quite photographically “complete” until my work is actually printed on fine paper as a fine art print.

On screen and on the web is good, and, in fact, very helpful for feedback inthe forums (I can highly recommend the Luminous Landscape Forum), but the smaller size and backlit display just don’t have the same appeal. There is also the feeling of impermanence; printing on fine paper, on the other hand, is a commitment to longevity, a statement that says “I’m finished”.

Of course, what do I immediately do after printing? I scrutinize the print for improvements – so much for the “I’m finished” bit.

I’ve been very pleased with the results as of late. I don’t colour manage (I know, heretical), but I do use test strips, a technique leftover from my darkroom days. But you know what? It works. Running a 2″ test strip of a key part of the photograph printed on my paper of choice allows me to see it as it will exist – not as a softproof on monitor, but as a living, breathing front-lit print. One of two text strips allows me to nail the colour balance and exposure before committing a whole piece of ($5 to $10) paper plus about the same in ink.

My paper of choice is (and has been for a few years now) MOAB Entrada Rag Natural. It is a lovely, lightly-textured matte paper made from 100% cotton with no optical brightening agents (OBAs), thus the “natural” designation. Why matte paper? While it bucks the rend to some extent, I love the feel and look of this paper. No, I do not get super dark blacks (high Dmax), but I get what is, to my anyway, a more authentic view of the natural world I am photographing. It’s real, but not quite real. To me, there is no modern technical aspect between the viewer an the image on the paper. I hate the word “organic” in its use now-a-days, but it seems fitting in this case.

Once I’m in the groove, and have calibrated my brain to the computer and print results, I can successfully make a number of different prints without text strips. This is the zen of printing – a state which only happens once or twice a year. This weekend was one of those times.

Here are some of the prints I made this past weekend. If there is one you happen to like enough to buy, it’s yours for $75, shipped free anywhere in Canada. You will receive the print on 13×19″paper, matted and ready for a 16×20″ frame, with a certificate of authenticity.


First Look at OS X Photos – Pleasantly Surprised!

PhotosIconI’m a Lightroom user first and foremost but have used iPhoto extensively over the years for family snaps and for making books and calendars. I’ve also used Aperture for books and, more recently, Photos on iOS for snaps. iOS Photos is “fun” to use and surprisingly useful on an iPad despite not being able to tag or title photos (my pet peeve).

This morning, I’ve starting dabbling with Photos on OS X (10.10.3 Yosemite) – Apple’s most recent OS X upgrade, which is free) and am very pleasantly surprised with what I’ve seen so far. I was planning to spend only a few minutes with Photos, but became intrigued with its depth.

Many of the pundits have written off Photos (before really working with it) as a dumbed down Aperture that’s meant simply for iPhone and iPad photographers. Wrong! While it’s not an Aperture replacement, Photos is a very mature photo editing app that borrows the best from iPhoto/Aperture with a more modern UI and many tools that takes it well beyond the beginner stage.

While in this first iteration, Photos doesn’t have all the in-depth pro tools of Aperture, it is far superior to iPhoto. What I like best is that it is only as complicated as the user wants to make it. You can start off with the basics and gradually add complexity as you become more interested, technically savvy or daring. Did I mention Photos is FREE? And, better yet, it is a great improvement over than any other free photo editing app out there, the main contender being Picasa.

Photos-ScreenshotI am very pleased I can add Titles and Descriptions and keywords – which I couldn’t do in iOS Photos. But, I cannot geotag photos made with a non-GPS camera (my D800E, for example!). Photos will read GPS data and display photos on a map, but only if the GPS data is already baked in.

More importantly, though, the UI is elegant, at least far more so than LR or iPhoto, and cropping and straightening are easy – I especially like the auto-straighten feature. The beauty of Photos, though, is the variety of very powerful adjustment tools. I can turn on and off various Adjustments as needed (like LR), and I can use the “Save as Default” to keep the most used adjustments always visible. Adjustments also include a Histogram (which I turned off in the screenshot because I have Levels turned on).

Photos-AdjustmentsNow – take a closer look at the Levels: users can adjust them in quadrants similar to LR’s Highlights, Shadows, Whites and Blacks. There are also Levels controls for each colour channel and for Luminance. In fact, each of the Adjustments have drop-down selectors to allow further refinements. While this can lead to more clicking than you are used to, the functionality is pleasantly surprising in a free app that’s supposed to be “dumbed down” (according to the photo editing snobs out int he ethos!)

Another surprise is how well the healing tool works – it’s more intuitive than LR and more along the lines of Aperture. While you cannot revisit and change or delete previous “heals” as you can in LR, I find the tool to be more accurate and you can preselect the source area with an Opt-click.

No doubt, there is far more here than the average user will ever use, but I see this as one of Photos strengths: users can grow into the app as they become more interested in furthering their photography or as they become more technically inclined.

Sadly, at this point, there are no adjustment brushes and gradients, so helpful in LR and Aperture. They would certainly make Photos more of a contender as a replacement.

As I have a book project on the go, I spent a few minutes with “Create > Book” (which I finally found under the “+” sign). Photos is much closer to Aperture in book creation than iPhoto ever was. There are far more choices available and options within each choice (perhaps too many for those who might be overwhelmed by choice). Page colours and photo layout options are greatly expanded from iPhoto (but still not customizable by, for example, moving and rotating), as are font selections. While this can lead to a dog’s breakfast of design, to someone who knows what they are doing, one can do a lot more to achieve even better results – certainly Photos has LR beat in this respect!

Photos-BookThe Book module in Photos also works much more smoothly than in iPhoto or Aperture. I do wish both the Page Options and Text Options windows can be open at the same time, but I’ve not found a way to do that (the screenshot is a compilation to show both). The window does change instantly from one to the other, but I find that distracting to the creative process.

Let me be clear, though… Photos does not replace the professional options offered in Aperture or Lightroom (due to lack of brushes, gradients, history, B&W Split Toning, etc.) and I will continue to use LR for DAM and processing, but Photos will remain an important app for creating calendars (which my family loves each year) and for books.

My hat goes off to Apple for the improved UI, the great variety and depth to Adjustments and the much improved Books in Photos. Any improvement from here can only make an already very good product even better, and remember, it is FREE to Apple users.

Want to learn all about JPEGs?

This is required reading for anyone shooting JPEGs or saving photos as JPEGs for printing or for the web.

It’s a blog post from Jeffery Friedl – the man behind all the great Lightroom plugins. He offers not just sound advice based on personal experience, but photos to back it all up.