Top Ten Photographs 2015

It’s almost a year since I discovered Martin Bailey’s incredible photography podcast and was inspired by him to put together a first top ten images of 2014.  After a year exploring his 500+ diligently produced podcasts, time has rolled around.  Putting together a 2015 top ten has been in my thoughts for a couple of weeks, and I thought I’d share it here along with a loud recommendation everyone who doesn’t conduct an annual review of their work considers it.

Really I can’t outline the reasons for doing so better than Martin’s post in which he shares his top ten and selection process.  Rather than repeat what he already says so eloquently, I just wanted to log a few points here by way of personal footnote, before sharing the images themselves as much for personal reference and to crystalise the whole selection process in my head ready for another year’s shooting.

Firstly, I’d definitely suggest a single set of ten images across all of the genres you shoot.  While I understand the argument for compiling a landscape selection, a wildlife selection and so forth, it misses out the real challenge and the real learnings.  Chiefly I’d suggest that compiling a top ten within a genre isn’t that far different from what we do everyday as photographers.  Typically we have multiple shots of most subjects, and we compare different expressions, angles, sharpnesses-of-eyes, etc. to come up with a best image within a set of “similars” to ultimately utilise.  Selecting between similar images then, is something we all address as a pretty mundane activity then.

Making comparisons between genres is far more interesting, and far more challenging.  For one thing it’s not mundane.  It’s rare we’re called upon to choose between, say, a tilt-shift shot of otters at sunset and a strobist street portrait of a Parisian stranger.  It’s much harder to approach and I find the typical, easy guidelines we might use to sift between similars melt away.  The comparison of shots becomes about the basic essentials beneath the surface; do they evoke the mood, the scene, the emotion?  Do they capture the imagination?  Do they transport the viewer, do they connect?  As we can’t make easy comparisons, we’re forced to consider and explore the more subjective and wild dimensions of our work, and that I find brings new insight onto what we did well and what we missed.

Secondly, both years I’ve found it a useful exercise in stepping back and pausing to consider intent, direction and the path ahead.  This year Lightroom tells me I shot 7,853 images (not including the instant deletions).  Of that I’ve so far “used” around 350 (across Flickr, Getty and family dispatches).  In that mad rush of shooting, it’s hard really to take stock of where we’re up to and where we’re going.  I’m not going to ramble about my personal learnings from that review here, but merely note that without this review – this quick check of the map, or recalibration – it’s easy to lose direction and start shooting without conscious intent or goal.

One final thought perhaps is that to me this process is about a harmonious set.  These aren’t a ranked 1 to 10, rather a gallery that I hope balances and resonates together in a generally coherent way.  There are some stranger portraits from the year, for instance, which I consider stronger shots that the final candid of Jessica dancing.  With those substituted, however, the set somehow lacked the spark of life to lift it from a series of gathered images to a distinct whole in its own right.

In sharing mine top ten though, my main advice would be to check Martin’s post on the matter.  His process is a thing of wonder, and it’s thoughtfully described in detail.  Have an amazing New Year though, everyone, and safe travel to all!

Rain Without Sky (Meltwater Under Snow At Slap Rinka) , Logarska Dolina

Jessica (Window Light), Dorset

Falu Rödfärg (Traditional Falu Red Swedish House), Nyköping

Tara (Stranger #79/100), Edinburgh

Kauppatori Reflections, Helsinki

Smoke Without Fire (Skógafoss), Skógar

Sophie Verona Savinja Howarth born 18.11.15

Rosie (Stranger #86/100), London Soho

Thermal Event (In Camera Zoom During Long Exposure), Rickmansworth

"Whirling Swan" - Jessica dancing, reflected in mirror glass

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Cropping choices and their impact on depth of field

Listening to recent reviews and discussion around the Canon 5DS, 5DSR and the Leica Q you find some comment around in camera cropping options; features that let you set different crops or effective focal lengths in camera.  Likewise, there’s a note to some 5DS and 5DSR reviews that with so many pixels, one can crop in post and still have decent size files.  Of course, in all these cases you’re losing pixels and image size, and that’s the main focus of debate I encounter.

One nuance I don’t see mentioned so much is the difference in depth of field between a shot “cropped” with a camera feature or in post, versus a shot “cropped” by recomposing, moving nearer your subject.  My street portrait of Czech girl Jitka hopefully serves to illustrate the difference here.

Jitka (Stranger #35/100), London Brick Lane

Above is the main shot from last year’s street encounter with Jitka.  As well as this shot, I took another closer cropped version stepping nearer her (see below).  Depth of field, obviously, is an equation with multiple facets – the width of aperture, the focal length of the lens, but also the distance from sensor to subject, and from subject to background.  Composing more tightly, a closer crop, by stepping near your subject changes an input in that equation – by getting you nearer your subject, it gives a shallower depth of field, as many people seek in a portrait.  It has a three dimensional impact on your composition.

Cropping with a camera feature or in post has only a two dimensional impact on your composition.  It doesn’t change your depth of field, or help to drop a background.  Here’s an example to illustrate.  The first image (left/top) is a Lightroom crop of the main image above.  The second image (right/bottom) is a separate image shot by stepping closer to Jitka – helping to drop the background further out of focus.

Alternate Take - Jitka (Stranger #35/100), London Brick Lane (Simulated Crop)  Alternate Take - Jitka (Stranger #35/100), London Brick Lane

As ever it depends what you’re shooting and what effect you are seeking.  If you are shooting landscapes, seeking front to back sharpness, this nuance probably needn’t enter your considerations and the loss of file size is maybe the biggest trade off to consider.  For those shooting shallow depth of field portraits, I think it’s a valid footnote to the discussion about the advantages of these new features or pixel counts.

Sometimes the advice against cropping with a camera setting or in Photoshop is overwhelmed by “purists” who simply object on ethical grounds.  That’s a shame, as it disguises some of the tangible effects these decisions have on our images.  I’m a pragmatist, I don’t care how I get the end image.  Often that’s best done in camera, and hopefully this quick examination highlights one of the situations where that’s definitely the case!

21 Street portrait backgrounds that never found a stranger…

As I draft a couple of posts of tips for taking better street portraits, I’m reviewing my portfolio.  Among the portraits are scattered, however, the various near misses that are the backgrounds that never found their stranger.

Street portrait background

Above, thick fog diffuses the soft winter light, whilst fresh snow acts as a natural reflector.  Last night’s blizzard has turned The Mall into a giant light tent, with a vanishing point arch of stately trees running through it, but no one is around to ask…

One of the main divides I encounter speaking with others who shoot street portraits are those who advocate a stranger led approach, and those who advocate a background led approach.  I’m generally the latter, for reasons I’ll sketch in coming posts, and so my shots generally start as a stage.  The actors, however, don’t always show on cue.  Sometimes time simply runs out, and you simply have to walk away, leaving these relics behind on the CF card – test shots to nail down settings, compose, prepare, all for naught.  I thought I’d share what that sometimes looks like.

Before/After – Processing Ten Street Portraits; Workflow & Tips

SOOC zoe-1  Zoe (Stranger #87/100), Paris Bastille

SOOC greta-1  Greta (Stranger #14/100), Venezia Fondamente Nove

You hear the phrase “getting it right in camera” a lot, but I don’t think people think through what that means.  If you’re shooting on a digital camera, “getting it right in camera” is a misnomer nowadays.  There’s lots of good resources that advise one “exposes for the right” to get the cleanest, most tonally rich images.  It’s just the way our camera’s sensors work – right up to the point we blow our highlights, we’re capturing richer and richer information.  Check out Martin Bailey’s excellent podcast on exposing for the right if you’d like the full story!

That’s not exactly what I’m talking about here, but I wanted to kick off this post on editing portraits with that thought, because it’s kind of important in change our mindsets with regards processing.  In a world of digital sensors, getting it right in camera means shooting an image that will look overexposed unless we process it.  This realisation reinforced for me the notion that photography is a process that starts and ends a good distance either side of the camera.  We should shoot to get the best data, given that we should then process to get the best image.

no edits yolandi-1  Yolandi (Stranger #88/100), London Carnaby Street

SOOC freder-1  Frédérique (Stranger #50/100), Paris Montmatre

As you’ll see here with this set of before/after images from my 100 Strangers Project, whilst striving for the best data in camera I make plenty of mistakes.  It’s a learning project, after all.  I wanted to share here my process for editing my street portraits – partly for self reference as I look to improve, but chiefly thanks to the many questions I get through Flickr with regards the work I do.

In editing these shots then, I use two tools; first Lightroom for 80% of the work and 20% of the time, then Photoshop for 20% of the work and 80% of the time.

My Lightroom workflow starts along very similar lines;

– Boost sharpening to ~40/60, but push the masking slider up to >95.
– Boost vibrance by 10/20.
– Boost shadows by 20/40, chiefly determined by the subjects hair, which I want to keep looking natural.
– Turn the Chromatic Aberration correction on, with +1 in both fields, maybe more.  My 100mm L Macro lens is lovely for portraits, but can show some green/turquoise edging at wide apertures (I shoot at f/3.2 for these portraits).
– Tweak white balance, generally I warm images very slightly, or use the pipette on the whites of the subject’s eyes to test an extreme option.

Next I grab the Lightroom brush tool for a few separate operations;

– Take a -10/25 shadow brush and burn the deeper shadows, especially around the hair and neck, and collars.
– Zap the whites of the eyes with -20/40 saturation, +4/8 shadows and +.1 exposure.
– Paint in the iris, opposite the main catchlight, using a +.6 exposure brush, sometimes with a clarity and/or saturation boost.  Initially I was painting much more of the iris, but a fantastic Dani Diamond article on Fstoppers showed how light enters and leaves the eye.  Working on the opposite side of the iris from the main catchlight gives lots more drama.
– Darken the upper portion of the eye very slightly; -.1 exposure.  For these operations I usually find it easier to paint them in, straying over edges, then hold down Alt to clean up with much more accuracy.
– Emphasise a few key areas of brighter hair, sweeping along key lines with a +20 highlight, +20 clarity brush.
– Give clothing a little contrast boost, and maybe emphasise key highlights and shadows with a similar brush to my hair above.  Glasses will generally get a clarity boost on the rims.
– Unwanted highlights, especially in glasses generally get a -10/20 highlight brush at this point.

Finally, I might add a gradient filter to add -100 clarity or -.2 exposure to one side or other, starting well out of the frame and avoiding the subject. That’s usually us finished in Lightroom. I never crop yet, as I will sometimes borrow small elements from other frames and prefer to keep things in the broad scale and composition until after that stage.

SOOC lilyii-1  Lily (Stranger #69/100), NYC JFK Terminal 2

SOOC milena-1  Milena (Stranger #63/100), Sofia 

Now we’re off to Photoshop.  Whilst I use Lightroom to make non-destructive, pretty consistent edits, in Photoshop I’ll immediately create some spare layers and make permanent changes.

I start work with small corrections to the subject; fiddly things I want to get out of the way first.  I chiefly use the “patch” tool.  I’m not sure why it doesn’t get more love!  I see/hear lots of people using spot healing tools, yet I struggle to preserve skin texture with them.  The patch tool is a little slower – I zoom right in to near pixel level to correct temporary skin blemishes/spots, dust spots on clothes and some (not all) stray hairs.  However, for the extra time, I find a much more consistent grain and texture to the corrections, especially the skin.  Occasionally, I’ll use the “fade” follow up command to blend in patched corrections, but again that’s rare as it undermines the consistent skin texture.  If I’m going have to make changes to texture, I want to do them globally to a face – or you end up with blemishes replaced with excessively smooth patches which looks stranger sometimes.

When making those more global changes I have a couple of techniques.  My go to method is the brush tool, using a technique from the incredible Aaron Nace at Phlearn.  I’m always doing this after patching.  Then I will take a large, soft edged brush at 5% opacity and paint over the face, constantly sampling and repainting with tones from the pipette.  I will try to keep using shadow tones around shadow areas, etc., but will be painting heavily over and over areas.  I’ll then add a layer mask and ensure the eyes and edges of the face are cleaned with a 100% black brush, then areas of contrast around the nose, eyebrows, lips, etc. are cleaned with a minimum 50% opacity black brush.  I’ll pull that whole layer back to 30/50% opacity – usually at the lower end.

If I’m still not happy, I will add another layer at 50% opacity and redo all the patching a second time.  If things are really desperate (only once in 89 strangers) I’ll use frequency separation.  Again, the best explanation and free action for frequency separation are from Phlearn, and worth checking out here.  It’s really rare I use it – as I find the patch technique, along with a little time and patience, is the most realistic approach and works for my look!

Before moving out from the face I’ll use the patch tool to clean up any red streaks in the sclera (whites of eyes), and to de-dust/scratch glasses.  If there are big reflections in the glasses, I will try to patch them which usually works until the reflections hit the edges.  If I’ve failed to avoid this when shooting, then I will copy the other side of the glasses, paste it, flip it horizontally and use this mirror image to provide source pixels to rebuild the affected edges.  It’s slow, but strangely soothing and generally gives a good result.

Hair is edited mostly with the patch tool in tiny sections (3-5 pixels sometimes) to remove hairs that stray into eyes, or run perpendicular to the main flow.  Sometimes I will using the clone stamp here, in one of the scattered brush shapes, just a few pixels across, to blend the flow of messy strands.  Sometimes I will draw a few extra hairs in with the paint brush, adding them to a separate layer and adding a blur in a rainbow shape across the top so as to blend them better into my shallow DOF.

SOOC bajar-1  Bahar (Stranger #68/100), Stockholm

SOOC ish-1  ishma 3l high-1

Finally I look wider than the face, tidying up any major issues in the background.  I’m increasingly shooting with my lights (usually an umbrella and reflector) very close to my subject and that means they often sneak into a corner.  I’ll use contact aware fill for the main area at issue, and then the patch tool to clean up the edges of the filled selection.  Very occasionally I will add a little extra blur to the background, masking out my stranger, and then add a 0.5/1% noise to the same area.

There are a handful of strangers where I’ve borrowed a shoulder. eye, collar, top of head, etc. from another shot of them and composited – maybe to get the best shoulder pose with the sharp eyes or similar.  I’ll handle that elsewhere.  My project is 100% not a photojournalists project!  I am trying to make realistic, but Vogue-style portraits.  The final piece to that puzzle is some minor toning.  I add a curves layer and boost blue and green in the shadows (usually 3:1 in favour of blue), and occasionally boost yellow in the highlights – but never when the background is bright.  It gives a slightly more fashion tone set, to my eye.

Hopefully this set of before/after shots gives an illustration of the impact of the process.  Sometimes it can be quite major, sometimes pretty invisible.  In some the examples shown I’m using an adjacent frame for the “before” just to avoid losing editing data in Lightroom, but in all cases the camera settings are identical and the shots are taken milliseconds apart.  I really hope they answer the questions I get on Flickr and map out my work flow and the typical actions I take to get my look.  I’m not saying this is the best way, or the most efficient way, of course.  I grew up in Photoshop 7.0, and am massively over manual in my use of the tool.  However, I find the painstaking approach useful in getting to know an image, testing and reviewing it, before posting.  Hopefully the overview is of interest and offers a few tips or ideas!  Have an amazing week!

SOOC lars-1  Lars (Stranger #65/100), Stockholm

SOOC chloe-1  Chloe (Stranger #57/100), Blackpool

10,000 Mistakes – “Play” in learning photography

A couple of years ago, I was struck by a neat Zen quote; “The difference between a master and a novice is 10,000 mistakes.”  It was around about the time I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, sketching the general requirement for one to invest 10,000 hours in mastering a cognitive skill, and so it particularly struck.

As a result I shot a few left of field experimental shots, for example; spraying water in front of a street lamp and blossom during a long exposure, stacking filters to make a 19 stop ND (for a ~500,000 multiplier to exposure times) and shooting images of our cat’s backlit fur with a £5 extension tube on a 50mm 1.8.  All good fun, and a great way to embed lessons about light, exposure and photography in general.

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In shooting these, however, I was always looking for a shot to add to the portfolio.  Little by little, I realise, that experimental has fallen away.  I’ve recently started listening to the awesome Martin Bailey Photography podcast, and stumbled across this interview with David duChemin about his ebook The Visual Imagination.  You can check it out here – it’s fantastic, like all of Martin’s podcasts, and like every interview I’ve listened to with the relentlessly inspiring David duChemin.

They explore the idea of play in practice.  Taking shots to practice, to learn, to enjoy, to play – without any express intention to catch any lasting portfolio shots.  The notion resonated with what I used to do, but have increasingly formalised, so I thought I’d head out to play around with a flash and some subjects on my doorstep – using a bareflash and streetlight on some early summer blossom, a big white shoot through umbrella on a pole over some dense cow’s parsley and then flashing a scene with a nylon sheet over a clothes horse, before swooping my 24mm TS-E off the tripod and down towards a bare white LED buried in bright green leaves (or messing around with focus/shift mid-exposure).

EXP flowers2-1  EXP flowers3-1 EXP cpars-1  EXP cpars2-1    EXP glow-5  EXP glow-2 EXP glow-3  EXP glow-4  EXP glow-6

Whilst I’m not about to add any of the shots to my portfolio overnight, it was incredible fun and massively overdelivered in terms of learnings.  I’d 100% recommend checking out the podcast, have downloaded the ebook (superbly priced like all Craft & Vision products) and look forward to shooting practice sessions with greater freedom, without the burden of expectation and coming to know the tools, craft and possibilities of photography all the better for it.

Hope you’re well and having an incredible week so far.

The story so far…

I’m an internationally published amateur photographer, best known for long exposure, light painting and street portraits. I’ve been shooting seriously for five years, and have been featured in Advanced Photography, Absolute Photo, Amateur Photographer and Composition (Israel), including 10-12 page features and interviews. I shoot stock for Getty Images, with images used by Lonely Planet, Epson, Sky, BT, Yahoo, Elle Magazine (France) and many others.

Whilst my flickr page has served well as a hub for sharing pictures and thoughts on photography, I wanted a place to share more substantial pieces, as a way of documenting my experiments and experiences, and sharing learnings with others.  I’m hoping this site might provide a platform for this purpose.  Many thanks for dropping by!

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