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Book Review: “Outdoor Flash Photography,” by John Gerlach and Barbara Eddy

Suggested

What this book is in great need of, in my opinion, is experienced, professional, objective, editing

Catching Up …..

Wow.  My last post was at the beginning of May, 2 full months ago. I guess I have fallen into one of those “lulls.” Nothing new and notable on the shooting front, and nothing much unique to say.

Over the winter, I played around with B&W and “painting.” I read several books on those subjects, and reviewed a couple of them. More recently, something got me realizing that I needed to renew my acquaintance with supplemental and artificial light; and particularly, flash – the stroboscopic variety.

New Gear and Flash …..

Several years ago, I made a monumental (for me, anyway) change in my “gear.” Having been “married” to Nikon for nearly 40 years, I made a complete changeover to Sony mirrorless cameras. The primary reason for my changeover was not creative or technical. It was convenience; and in particular, size and weight. Along the way, I discovered some creative and technical advantages. These are not really attributable to brand, but to “new” and to features. Every manufacturer seems to have certain areas they do better than anyone else. If only I could build my own ala carte camera.

One thing Nikon did better than anyone else (in my view) and Sony seems to do worse than anyone else (again, in my view) is flash. I got spoiled with Nikon’s creative flash system. You see, flash involves math, and there is very little about math that is either appealing or comes naturally to me :-). Nikon took the math out of it and let me not have to “think” about it. Maybe that wasn’t such a good thing.

A detractor for many of us is cost. Brand-dedicated flash units are ungodly expensive. As much as a good lens. And sometimes you want to use multiple units – as much, or more than the camera!  And, flash units are complex, and befuddling: right?

I have absolutely no doubt that the authors of this book are consummate, professional photographers and workshop leaders, and that they really, really know their craft – in particular – the ins and outs of everything “flash.”

During my 40+ years of shooting, I have shot 98% natural light. I have, for sure, used flash (I even remember those big, blue, “lightbulbs” that bayoneted into a reflector on my Asahiflex, popped once and ejected – hot!). But I think it is time for me to start expanding my shooting, to include supplemental lighting.

So, I started reading. Always my go-to. And I learned that there are less expensive, after-market units out there (some good/some not so good).  Sure, they have compromises. My friend, Kerry Leibowitz, once said to me in an e-mail exchange, “everything about photography is a compromise. .. Everything.” So I am good with that. For 1/4 the cost (or less), I was able to find a Sony-compatible flash to play with.  Maybe I will review it at some point (after I understand more about it 🙂 ).

There is a lot out there to read. I am a book person. Hence, the review. But before I do, let me recommend the website, strobist. There is a huge amount of information, free for the reader, here. I have just begun to dig into it, but some would say it is all you need.  Me? I am still a book guy. I like to read and highlight and flag, and go back from time to time. I already had Bryan Peterson’s “Understanding Flash Photography,” so I started there (I highly recommend two other Peterson books: “Understanding Exposure” and “Learning to See Creatively“).

There is some really good material.  But you you really have to work for it.  And to me, that is off-putting, particularly in an “instructional book.” With some work, this book could be made into a pithy, useful, field guide that someone like me just might carry around with him. But not in its current version

So, The Book …..

Wanting to dig deeper, I started researching on Amazon. I have long known of John Gerlach, and his workshops, and the bulk of the reviews liked his book “Outdoor Flash Photography.” I had read some of his other books over the years, and was familiar with him, as he originally lived in my “backyard;” the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. As many readers know, I have spent some time up there and my “Photographing Michigan’s Upper Peninsula,” is a guide to many of the wonderful shooting opportunities there. So I bought the book.

“Suggested” …..

This book is in my “suggested” category (meaning, I don’t necessarily believe every shooter should have or read this, but I have it, or have owned it, and found some useful material there). But what makes this a “suggested” book rather than a “recommended” book is largely editorial style, unfortunately. There is some really good material in there.  But you you really have to work for it.  And to me, that is off-putting, particularly in an “instructional book.” With some work, this book could be made into a pithy, useful, field guide that someone like me just might carry around with him. But not in its current version.

As I looked at the different offerings, and the editorial reviews, I was struck at how often the description said something like, “demystifies” flash, or “contains unique material, not found anywhere else.” This book suggests that there is something unique about “outdoor flash photography,” and that there is no other resource out there that covers these topics.  But my research and experience demonstrates otherwise. To be sure, many, if not most of the resources out there have a heavy concentration on portraiture and even sometimes studio lighting techniques. But my conclusion is that there are some basic lighting principles that really apply to photography in general, and they are not that unique from genre to genre.

I would have no hesitancy to sign up for, and attend one of their workshops

Need For Objective Professional Editing

Readers here know I am good at digression.  But I want to say something here, to put my “critical” (“Critical: expressing or involving an analysis of the merits and faults of a work ….“) comments in context.  I have absolutely no doubt that the authors of this book are consummate, professional photographers and workshop leaders, and that they really, really know their craft – in particular – the ins and outs of everything “flash.”  And you only need to go to their website to see that their imagery is first class, and their workshops well-attended and widely praised.  I had the fortune of bumping into one of their workshops a couple years ago, while shooting fall colors and researching locations for my own Photographing Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and introduced myself to John.  He is a very nice man, with an undoubted bank of technical and locational knowledge.  One thing that really impressed me:  neither he nor Barbara had cameras in-hand.  It was their workshop and they were there to be a resource to the attendees.  I would have no hesitancy to sign up for, and attend one of their workshops!  I also studied nearly everything their own “mentors” (the late, Larry West, and John Shaw – both former Michigan residents themselves ) wrote and know the authors’ pedigree is estimable. Knowing this, I was mildly disappointed in this product.

What I was looking for was more of a hands-on, practical, experience-based text. How is “outdoor flash photography” different from “flash photography?” This book partially hits that mark, but it is a difficult path to get there! What the book is in great need of, in my opinion, is experienced, professional, objective editing. The term I would use to describe the current text is: “rambling.”

I would describe the author’s (while both John and Barbara are listed as authors, it is clearly primarily written in John’s voice) style as conversational.  Too conversational. It feels like maybe a day in the field, or in the lecture facility with John speaking. This style probably works well in person (he is said to be engaging and entertaining).  It doesn’t work in written form. As anyone reading here knows, I am all for an informal written presentation. But in written communication (especially instruction), there needs to be a certain level of formality, structure and organization. This book lacks that structure – in a way that makes it difficult to stay with it. Here are some specifics:

Style – The “conversational” style, as noted above, is off-putting. Sentences throughout the book are replete with misplaced modifiers, which I suspect is a matter of conversational usage, but is jarring when repeatedly read. This doesn’t affect the technical presentation of information, but it certainly makes it less effective. The frequent attempts at humor fall flat. Again, they probably work well as one-liners in an oral presentation, but they come across as borderline lame in a more formal, written text.

And words and phrases……..  I have always been a firm believer that good, strong writing and clear communication means simple, direct writing. It is good to vary word choice from time to time to make the writing less repetitive and more interesting (I use a Thesaurus frequently, when I feel that I have been repeating a single word too much). But the use of “big” words, or flowery phrases does not automatically make writing better or more interesting. Sometimes it is just best to say the word that applies in common usage – direct and simple. I have to believe that an objective, professional editor would eliminate the majority of these issues, and create a more straightforward, informative and readable text.

Relevance – Too often, the author wanders “off the reservation,” getting into totally irrelevant commentary which, while perhaps anecdotally interesting, takes us away from the subject matter of the book – flash photography. While some of it may have nominal relevance, a quick reference to it and “move on,” would be, in my view, much more effective. There is too much “Cannon vs. Nikon” philosophy, for example (I appreciate that these authors each use one of these systems, as do perhaps the majority of their audience, and surely there is some relevance to how these makers handle flash issues – but again, “just the facts ma’am” and then move on would be a good thing here). 🙂

Organization – The book is divided into 14 chapters. Respectfully, I do not believe there are 14 separate chapters of material here. I am not sure about publishing requirements and standards, never having personally done more than my own eBooks (which may not be models of clarity either). I have written enough to know that organization is not always an easy path, and there are always choices about how, where and when to present materials. But I truly believe this book could be condensed down to no more than 5 chapters. What we instead find here is a lot of needless (and I think, confusing) repetition.  In an effort to distinguish terminology and techniques, the author ends up repeating the same materials under different topics. The implication is that there is something different, and yet, there really isn’t (a great example is the segue from “fill flash,” “main flash” and “balanced flash.” After 3 long, repetitive chapters, it really boils down (and is implied, in my reading, by the book) that they are not really different categories. They are just applications of the flash fundamental that every flash exposure is composed of two exposures, one being the ambient light exposure and the other being the flash exposure. The rest is just understanding the relationships of the light sources, and how the technology in the units and cameras handle it.

There are many Positives …..

Having been critical, I have to say there are many positives to take away from this book. It is why I “suggest” it. I believe it is worth the work to slog through it and try to distill the very good information that is in there. I will go back and re-read, and take personal notes on this information and hopefully add it to my own kind of “field guide.” Here are some items I think are worthwhile information/tips from my first reading of the book:

  • The author gives one of the better explanations of how the strobe flash works, including flash duration, that I have read.
  • There are a couple comments regarding the use of flash when shooting waterfalls that I had not previously considered – particularly the ability to “freeze” water droplets while maintaining the “silky” look of the main waterfall in the image.  You can be sure I am going to experiment with that.
  • While most experienced users are aware of this, his explanation of how TTL in the flash unit relates to automatic and manual control of the camera was helpful.  He re-inforces why those of us who rely on “automatic” modes, because we don’t know better (or in my case, because we have become lazy), don’t get the results we expect.
  • There are some helpful tips on the placement of flash (particularly in close subjects) to maximize color and texture.

I could see it being transformed from an “eh” book, to one I would put on my “must own” list

The Takeaway …..

The paperback cost just under $27.00.  Today, that is a rather modest cost for a full, published, hard copy book. So I certainly didn’t feel put off or cheated by the purchase. And there was enough in it for me to keep it rather then send it back. But it would not go on my list of “must own under any circumstances” books.

What I think might be a dynamite re-work of this book would be to have some heavy editing, drilling down to the relevant, useful information in the book, perhaps adding some more practical and experiential information, into a shorter and perhaps smaller format (think “field guide”). I could see it being transformed from an “eh” book, to one I would put on my “must own” list.

Suggested

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Are Photographers Losing a Battle of Attrition?

This is an image made on my Smartphone in 2016, and then re-worked in Painter Essentials
Copyright 2018 Andy Richards

There is a war out there. It is being fought in the trenches by professional photographers.  Most people are probably not even aware of it, but I think most pros are.

“Short messages,” emoticons, and on-line abbreviations, have “dumbed down” our world

Perhaps more than anything, it is a war about technology. They are not fighting technology itself.  Indeed, technology has by and large, been a great friend to photographers. The war exists in a new world order, in which photographic imagery is judged not so much by its technical and aesthetic merit, but things like “likes,” “reblogs,” and “tweets.”

Having been a lifelong early-adopter of all things digital, I spend a fair amount of time online, and on social media. So I see a lot of photographs out there on a daily basis. Over time, this has become more and more, an image-centric phenomena. Instagram, for example was created specifically as an image-sharing media. Twitter, a service designed pretty much specifically for “short-messages,” also has image-posting capability.  Perhaps the most well-known is Facebook, which not only allows posting in messages, but archives and makes available thousands of user-posted images.

Original Image made with Blackberry Priv Smartphone
Copyright Andy Richards 2016

In the past, I have lamented the negative effect of this “digital” phenomena. “Short messages,” emoticons, and on-line abbreviations (and I am as guilty as the next person of over using them), have “dumbed down” our world. I daily observe online presences that demonstrate a basic ignorance of grammar, spelling, and history. The assault on our language, history and culture stormed the beachhead a long time ago and has made major inroads, “inland,” so to speak.

But there is a photographic component now, to this, and that is what I am referring to when I suggest that there is a war out there.

That is not to say that it has made us better photographers. Indeed, it just may be that it has made it easier for the vast majority of us to just get lucky, with our images

At the same time, technologically, the equipment available to make photographs has moved light-years in the past 50 years. It used to be the case that in order to make a nice image (usually a large(r) print), the photographer would have to have a reasonably high quality camera, and use and understand film, exposure and focus (as well as have an understanding of some of the more refined technical and aesthetic qualities of a good photograph). Digital technology, with auto-focus, face-recognition, sophisiticated “automatic” metering capability, and higher and higher quality image-sensors and lenses, has simply made it easier to make a technically sound image.  That is not to say that it has made us better photographers. Indeed, it just may be that it has made it easier for the vast majority of us to just get lucky, with our images. Today’s leading “smart-phone” cell phones have some pretty impressive digital camera capability, both in terms of hardware, and of software (and since the vast majority of photographs today are presented as internet-based digital images, they can look pretty good.

This image was made with a Nikon SLR camera and color transparency film, and later scanned.
Copyright Andy Richards 1997

I have the privilege and pleasure of knowing some shooters who make their living as professional photographers. I don’t envy them.  Most of the ones I know have established their careers, and while they have had to adapt to these technological changes, continue to make a good living at their craft. But there are many who do not fare so well.  Particularly those who are what I might call generalists. When I moved into my small community, there were probably a dozen small, professional photography studios. They shot Seniors in the spring, weddings, family photos, and contract jobs. That number has dwindled. A day or so ago, I happened to notice a (digital) sign in front of a studio that I had never paid much attention to, but pass by nearly daily.  In large, bright letters, it advertised “50% off Senior Photos,” “no sitting charge,” etc. This was a studio that has been in business for over 50 years and was notably successful. 20 years back 50% off would not have been common and most certainly would not have been advertised.

Unfortunately, I do not see this as a war that will be won by “the good guys”

Personally, I don’t think this is because of competition from other professional photographers. Instead, I think it is based on partly perception, partly reality, that we no longer need professional photographers to shoot our portraits. I don’t have any empirical information, but I suspect that business for studio photographers is way below what it was a few years back.

This image was made with the “professional” Nikon D800 and a “pro” Nikkor Zoom lens. I was experimenting with depth of field.
Copyright 2013 Andy Richards

This is rather short-sighted, and demonstrates a continuing erosion of our standards as a society. There are things a trained, professional photographer knows how to do that make photographic images. It is not about fancy equipment or secret formulas.  It is about study, hard work, and experience. Unfortunately, I do not see this as a war that will be won by “the good guys.”

Life and the Learning Curve

Beginning with the Ephesian Philosopher, Heraclitus, it has often been famously said that “change is the only constant.”  I recently purchased yet another version of my preferred textbook on Photoshop by Martin Evening: “Adobe Photoshop CC for photographers” (formerly “Adobe Photoshop for Photographers”); now “version 2018”.  My last version was purchased only 4 years ago, and yes, there has been that much change in this program!  I had been refreshing my memory on a couple of the tool settings and realized that there are options on my screen that weren’t covered by my bookThat got me thinking about change and the learning curve.

it has been my thesis over the years that although we now have some pretty amazing digital cameras at reasonable prices, it was consumer “point & shoot” digital cameras that drove the revolution

Thomas and John Knoll first created their “Photoshop” software, to display grayscale images on computers, in 1987.  Not yet “ready for prime time” or for retail consumption, the early “Knoll Software” company’s program was first known simply as “Display.”  It was shortly changed to “Image-Pro.”  But when they finally found a buyer and it went to the commercial/retail market in 1988, having been licensed to the Adobe Software Company, it became “Photoshop,” and continues to this day, to be the benchmark everyone is trying to meet or beat.

Nikon DCS 100

While the very first useable digital camera was probably created by Kodak in 1975, the real “revolution” began in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.  During that time period some DSLR cameras were produced but were too expensive for general consumption.  Smaller “digicams” began to appear, however, and it has been my thesis over the years that although we now have some pretty amazing digital cameras at reasonable prices, it was these consumer “point & shoot” digital cameras that drove the revolution.  The 1991 Nikon D1 was probably the first semi-affordable enthusiast/pro camera and still cost a healthy $5,000 (while weighing in at nearly 3 pounds and delivering a whopping 2.7 megapixels).  Canon and Fujifilm followed shortly.  Then the Canon 3 megapixel, D30 debuted in 2000 as the first real “prosumer” DLSR.  In 2002, they followed with a 6 megapixel D60 and Nikon matched with their own 6 megapixel D100, both coming in just under $2,000, and the “prosumer” DSLR revolution was in full swing.

Sony RX100

For the next nearly 20 years, we saw a continuous lineup of new digital cameras, beginning with “APS” sized sensors, to so-called “full-frame” 35mm-equivalent sensors, and from traditional SLR-styled bodies, to the newer mirrorless models.  Of course, there were also larger format digital bodies, but because of a mix of expense and size and limitations on ISO, they have never caught on with the masses.

Along with the evolution of digital cameras, there was a need/demand for pixel-editing software.  And while there have certainly been numerous participants in the mix, Photoshop has been the benchmark to meet or beat.  From 1990 on, there were new editions released approximately every two years.  When first released, Photoshop was written for MAC computers and only available on Apple’s platform until version 2.5, released in 1992.  Clearly this was in response to demand.  Since version 2.5, new releases have essentially been parallel for Window and Mac.  And over time, some pretty impressive new features were added every few years.  Originally having notable features like levels, curves, the clone tool, color balance, hue and saturation adjustments, in 1994, layers were added to version 3.0.

with the evolution of digital cameras, there was a need/demand for pixel-editing software

In 2003, for reasons really known only to Adobe, Photoshop dropped the version numbers in the title (with version 7.0 being the last) and became “Photoshop CS” (versions are still retained, however).  CS introduced ACR (Adobe Camera Raw decoding engine) 2x.  CS2, in 2007, added a new user interface and some additional bells and whistles.  CS3 continued the “new and improved” feature set.  In 2008, CS4 was released with lots of “refinements,” but nothing new and exciting. Though we are up to, I believe, “version 7 or 8 of ACR, there is little or no change from version number to version number.  The real changes occurred in what Adobe refers to as their “process version.”  In 2003, we were working with process version 1.  Process version 2 was rolled out in 2010.  It may have been the most dramatic change.  Process version 3 came in 2012, and we are now working with process version 4, since 2017.

My LightCentric Logo Image in the current Photoshop CC version of Camera Raw

At the same time, Adobe released Lightroom 1.0 in 2007, following with version 2.0 in 2008.  This program was aimed squarely at photographers. Photoshop is a very robust graphics editing and creating program, which was Adobe’s only in depth pixel editing offering for serious photographers (Elements and other versions of “Photoshop – Lite” type software were available, but were in my experience, woefully inadequate to the task).  In the meantime, many of us photographers found that the continuing stream of new versions often did not justify the cost of the upgrade.  We often skipped a version (or two or three).  Then, when the CS series came along, Adobe began to essentially require sequential upgrading.  Shortly after that, Adobe announced the discontinuation of the stand-alone version of Photoshop,with the roll-out of cloud-based Photoshop CC (in lieu of CS7).  Unlike the former Photoshop model, “owners” of the full program installed on their computer (well, at least owners of the right to use it 🙂 ) have now become “subscribers,” paying a monthly fee and working in “the cloud” (on the internet).  This, in all probability, has motivated some new, competing “complete photo-editing” programs, which tout the fact that they are still stand-alone.  And some of them are pretty darn good.

Screenshot from my Lightroom catalog

Lightroom has continued to develop (pun intended) as a stand-alone photographers’ alternative to Photoshop.  Apple’s now-discontinued Aperture was also a parallel Lightroom alternative for Apple owners (I am not an Apple user, but I understand that part of the decision involved Apple’s roll-out of a new program called “Photos” which will integrate with its iCloud – it appears that iPhotos and Aperture will not, including the legacy software, which should still work stand-alone).  Meanwhile, it seems that everyone is jumping on the raw editor “bandwagon.”  A quick online search reveals at least 10 (and I am sure there are more) names that have some familiarity out there.  Some of them started out as Photoshop “plugins.”  I have played around with a couple of them, including ON1, Capture 1, and Topaz Labs.  They are all up-and-coming Photoshop competitors.  There are those who say one or the other of them does some things better than Photoshop.  Sounds a bit like the “camera wars” we have all come to know.  Every “flavor” is going to have do some things better than the others, and some things not so well.  I will continue to look at these alternative (or in some cases supplemental) programs.  But for now, Photoshop still does the overall combination of things that works best for me (and at this time, I believe, the majority of others doing digital post-processing).

owners of Photoshop have now become subscribers

All of these software programs (though they have many similarities) have a new and different “learning curve.”  Photoshop is — perhaps — the most daunting of all of them, and once a person has put as much time as many of us have into learning its “ins and outs,” it is hard to shift to a different program.  As for Photoshop, I have owned many “how too” texts for Photoshop (as well as Lightroom and some of the plug-ins for Photoshop and Lightroom).  I feel like I have contributed my part to the publishing industry’s well-being 🙂 (though it looks more and more like they are going to be eclipsed by digital media).  The Martin Evening Book is over 700 pages and only attempts to cover the photographer-aspect of this very complex and very robust program.  It is a $50.00 book and that is an expensive addition to the already healthy cost of acquiring and maintaining Photoshop.  But is the only comprehensive “textbook” guide available of its kind (that is not intended to be a lukewarm endorsement – it really is a very good book).  There is a lot of material available free on the internet.  But there is no real organized source to have as a desktop companion when working with the program.  The Adobe site’s so-called “help” program is not really very good, in my opinion.  It is too general, and there is as much of a chance of not finding the item you need explained or expounded as not.  Unfortunately, most of this text are 80% repetition from past versions.  It would really be nice if the writers and publishers would offer a smaller (and cheaper) version that is kind of a “What’s New In Version x.0” (which is done now, only on a website).  But here it is.  And again, change is going to continue, and therefore apparently so is cost – if you want to move with the change. 🙂

for now, Photoshop still does the overall combination of things that works best for me

“Going Straight”

Tilted Horizon

In my early days of blogging, I posted a series on “fundamentals” for photographers.  I don’t fancy myself a pro, or necessarily a qualified teacher.  I don’t have “credentials.”  I am self-taught, with a small amount of formal training, and many generous and talented friends.  However, I have helped some friends and family get their arms around the basics of photography, to advance beyond so-called “point and shoot.”  In fact, the genesis of my blogging here was reducing a few long-winded e-mail messages to writings that I thought could help others who have struggled as I did.

The internet and high quality smart phones have made everyone a “photographer” these days

That was a long time ago.  I have moved away from the “tips and tutorials” thing and leave that to other writers and bloggers out there, many of whom are much better qualified than I.  If you want to see my simple-minded approach to teaching, you can see my series here.  But every once in a while, my observations on-line give the urge to pontificate.  The internet and high quality smart phones have made everyone a “photographer” these days.  The technology in both IOS and Android (and others) phones today is impressive, with good lenses, good resolution, and many apps designed to assist that process.

But technical quality doesn’t guarantee a good photograph.  There is still a basic skill set required.  While technology has made good exposure (with sophisticated metering capability), and sharper images (with image-stabilization technology and ever sharper lenses) possible, there are a couple things that still require a different “built-in” but sometimes not effectively mobilized technology – the brain.  Being as guilty as the next guy, I find that in my own case, failure to take advantage of this marvelous technology (the brain) is often borne of laziness, or lack of observation of my surroundings (both during and after the image has been made, during post-processing).  While I have tried to avoid this problem, I am sure you can find an example or two of what I am going to criticize, in my “online” presence. 😦

Technical quality doesn’t guarantee a good photograph

I thought about doing a “Top 10″ things we fail to do.”  But wouldn’t be what I honestly think.  I pointedly avoid the left and right leaning political points of view here.  But there is one case in which I have to admit that I abhor leanings in both directions.  There is really one primary one that I see time and again (and when I – or someone else – catch it in my own work, I am always disconcerted).  That one thing is the left-leaning or right-leaning horizon.  I see it so often on Facebook that it has become “fingernails on a blackboard” for me.  It is the single most prominent fault (at least in my observation) of the 1000’s of posted images on the internet.  And here’s the thing:  It is fixable!  It is fixable before and after the shot (though it is always better in my mind to try to “fix” it during the shooting process).

And here’s the thing; It is fixable!

Starting Out “Straight”

One type of Hotshoe Bubble Level

Before we make the image, we have several aids available to us.  Perhaps the best (but not always feasible) one is to use a fixed camera stand (tripod) and install a bubble level on the camera hotshoe (of course, your smartphone doesn’t have a hotshoe 🙂  – more on that one later).  Before a couple of my colleagues persuaded me to use a level, I thought my own eye was pretty good at judging that.  The level proved otherwise (note, however, that not all levels are created equal.  It is worth buying one from a good source and then testing it to be sure it is accurate – I used a carpenter’s level to test mine).

Where is that thing on my smartphone?

Of course, it is not always feasible (or convenient) to shoot from a tripod.  And some of those to whom I am preaching here, don’t shoot with a dedicated camera, but use their smartphone.  In most modern cameras, the software options include an on-screen (or in-viewfinder) graphic level.  These are great tools (of course, they need to be checked and calibrated for accuracy, and there is some anecdotal commentary online that they are not always completely accurate – and there is an answer to that below).  Where is that thing on my smartphone?  To the best of my knowledge, neither the top Android (I use Samsung) and IOS phones do not have that as a built-in option.  But there are several free apps that will add that feature.  I am test-driving one called “Camera Level” that seems very much like the in-camera built-in level in my Sony cameras.  It automatically loads into your smartphone’s camera (after appropriate “registration/permission”).

One of many different variations of a built-in “electronic” level

Most software now also offers a “grid” pattern on the screen or in the viewfinder.  While I find this can be a help, your eye will still fool you.  The level won’t.  I do not think there is any good reason not to use this technology regularly.

Rehabilitation is Available

When “curating” my images after a shoot, there is little doubt that even when using these tools, I still have occasions where the image is tilting.  Fortunately, there is help for this in post-processing.  Today, virtually every post-processing software application has an automated “straighten” feature.  But even in the day when that wasn’t part of the software features, there was always a way to accomplish this.  I primarily use Photoshop and it was easy to create a straight line (using an available “grid” overlay, or a “guide”) and then rotate the image so that the horizon was straight.  And because it is possible that the level methods described above are not always accurate, it ought to always be part of your process to make sure that things are level that should be level.  Our eye will fool us from behind the lens.  But the image won’t and it will be one of the first things the astute viewer will notice.  I often quip, when seeing that ubiquitous sunset over water, “I wonder why the water doesn’t just drain out of that picture?” 🙂

There are some drawbacks to the post-processing “fix.”  It very often may require you to crop out important parts of an image, in order to straighten it (Photoshop’s impressive “content-aware” cropping can in many cases repair that problem).  It is also true that there is not always a “horizon” to reference from.  It can then become more challenging.  Straight lines that “should” be horizontal or vertical can be used, but you have to take into consideration perspective distortion created by lenses now.  But careful analysis of the photo should tell you which lines “should” be horizontal or vertical – or at least if you have to make a choice, which are aesthetically preferable.

Have a great day, be careful out there, and watch those horizons.

“I wonder why the water doesn’t just drain out of that picture?” 🙂

 

The “Eye Doctor”

Tulips
Copyright Andy Richards 2011

LOL.  This one reminds me of trips to the Opthalmologist/Optometrist.  When we were kids, my family always referred to them as the “eye doctor.” :-).  Once again, I have been “playing.”  So here we go.

BETTER HERE?

Tulips
Copyright Andy Richards 2018
“Watercolor Sketch” – Painter Essentials

OR HERE?

Tulips
Copyright Andy Richards 2018
“Watercolor” – PS

THIS ONE?

Tulips
Copyright Andy Richards 2018
“Fresco” – PS

OR THIS ONE?

Tulips
Copyright Andy Richards 2018
“Poster” – PS

ONE?

Tulips
Copyright Andy Richards 2018
“Oil” – PS

OR TWO?

Tulips
Copyright Andy Richards 2018
“Cutout” – PS

BETTER HERE?

Tulips
Copyright Andy Richards 2018
PS – “Fiber” background

OR HERE?

Tulips
Copyright Andy Richards 2018
PS – mixed texture background

OR MAYBE THIS ONE?

Tulips
Copyright Andy Richards 2018
Canvas (burlap/fiber) – PS

It is interesting to me (but then, I am easily entertained 🙂 ) how many variations of certain images there can be, and I can still “like” them all.  Thanks for indulging me.

It’s Over

Daffodils
Copyright Andy Richards 2009

This will be my last post here.  I always seem to have a difficult time finding things to write about, especially during this time of year, when here in Michigan, it teases Spring, but then turns back to brown, wet and cold.  This time of year, I start to think about Spring, and perhaps the most plentiful subject; Spring flowers.  But I have “been there done that” in this blog a few times.  I haven’t shot Spring flowers for a number of years, as this opening image demonstrates (as far back as 2009).  So, since I can only go back to former years’ material, and re-post, it is time to hang it up.  But before I do, and since I have started this one, here are a few more.

Oh, and by the way, happy Easter.  This is the day that celebrates the rising of Christ …. And the re-birth, or new beginning of so many things.  And Spring and new growth could not be more fitting for the occasion.

Daffodil
Sony RX100iv
Copyright Andy Richards 2015

O.k., maybe I was wrong.  This one is the same plant, 6 years later, taken with my super-compact Sony RX100iv.

Daffodil Close Up – ColorEfex
Copyright Andy Richards 2015

This one is the same shot, but after I did the “painterly” thing in Google/NIK’s ColorEfex.  It may be the best rendition of this image.

Tulips
Copyright Andy Richards 1996

I have also shot a lot of tulips over the years in Spring.  They bloom shortly after, and often contemporaneously with the Daffodils.  One of the best parts of these flower subjects is that they are often found in our own yards.  That means they are predictable most years, and that they allow us to keep coming back to them in different light conditions.  This image, shot with transparency film, is my favorite ever tulip image.

Tulips
Copyright Andy Richards 1997

Tulips come in all sizes and shapes.  This one was made-again – with transparency film- using flash to make the background go to black.

Tulip Closeup
Copyright Andy Richards 1997

I spent a lot of time (and film) on flowers back in the film days.  The closeup is another transparency.

Oh, and that thing about my last post?  JUST KIDDING!  APRIL FOOLS! 🙂

Spring also has also gotten my “juices flowing” to get out in the field, and over the years I have found some wildflowers. Michigan’s official state wildflower is the White Trillium.  I have most often found them along the Eastern shore of Lake Michigan.  This one was shot on an overcast day with transparency film using a gold reflector to add some warm fill light.

White Trillium
copyright Andy Richards 1999

Mature White Trillium
Copyright Andy Richards 1999

As the White Trillium matures and gets ready to die, it turns purple.  I rather like the mature coloration.

Pink Lady’s Slipper Orchid
Copyright Andy Richards 1999

Northern Michigan is also known for a wild Orchid known as a “Lady’s Slipper.”  They come in pink and in yellow (which, in my experience, is much more rare).  I am also aware that there is a spotted (or painted) version and a white version.  I have not had the fortune to find these.  I know the painted variety exists in Michigan.

Yellow Lady’s Slipper Orchid
Copyright Andy Richards 1999

We are probably a month or less away from Spring blooms here in Michigan.  But this nostalgic trip into my archives has already started to generate some excitement for some Spring shooting.  Flowers, waterfalls, and other things coming back to life will likely yield some new “fodder.”  I need to get my equipment dusted off and ready.

Oh, and that thing about my last post?  JUST KIDDING.  How often do you get to post on your regular posting day (usually Sundays),  celebrate Easter, and say APRIL FOOLS!  In the words of Arnold Schwartzenegger:  “I’ll be baaaaaaack.” Happy Easter and happy Spring!

Pushing the Envelope

Barns in Winter
(original color image)
Copyright Andy Richards 2011

Some months back, I mentioned “winter doldrums” in my photography. There are, I suppose, all kinds of excuses I could call doldrums (boredom, sameness, lack of ability to travel to “new” places, etc.).  But in my particular part of Michigan, as I have oft mentioned, we are already in perhaps one of the flattest, brownest places in the U.S.  Add dreary, cold, sometimes grimy snow cover (or worse yet, no snow, but otherwise grey, winter conditions) and the motivation to get out and shoot gets sketchy, at best.  My good friend, Al Utzig, suggested that this period was a good time to “experiment” with my images and software.


The Photoshop “glow” image was made from my B&W Composite which was two layers, to brush in the red colored barns and tank into a B&W rendering.  I think the “glow” is really more photographic than graphic.


Barns in Winter
(Photoshop “glow”)
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

This year, I took his challenge and began to explore not only Photoshop, but some other software, including the popular plug in software, the Nik Collection, the up and coming ON1 software, and the scaled down version of Paintshop; Painter Essentials.  I started out trying to learn  a bit about B&W conversion of digital images.  I have had some fun with it and learned some rudimentary things. The B&W foray motivated me to purchase ON1 Photo Raw 2018.  I had some fun with this software, and I think it would have been a nice edition (at a reasonable cost) to my tool kit.  Alas, for reasons I note below, I was unable to continue using it.

Barns in Winter
(Painter Essentials Detailed Painting)
Copyright Andy Richards 2018


These Painter Essentials images were made using the “autopaint” feature in the software.  The first is its “detailed painting” preset.  I hand “brushed” some of it to make it a bit more refined.  I am not sure it is distinguishable from a photographic rendering (you have to click on the individual image to see the larger version to really see the effect of these renderings).  The second is the “color pencil drawing” preset.


Barns in Winter
(Painter Essentials Colored Pencil)
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

That pushed me into experimenting with “painting.”  Again, I may have scratched the surface on this area a bit, but still have a way to go.  I am (I know this shocks my friends 🙂 ) “old school” when it comes to learning.  One of my big disappointments is that as we move away from the “print” world, to the “digital” world, there is more and more, a complete lack of printed documentation for new software.  Likewise, I find printed “how to” books, less and less common.  I know there are economics involved, but it is still disappointing.  So, for the ON1 software (in fairness, there is a pdf documentation for the ON1 suite – but it is lacking in useful detail), and the Painter Essentials software, you have to learn basically by internet research and U-Tube videos.  And there is really no single, organized source and there are literally thousands of U-tube and other “how to” pieces out there.  I am looking for a book (ala, the Martin Evening Photoshop Series books) for Painter Essentials that would help me “get under the hood.”


I have played around with the filter gallery in Photoshop before, but never to the degree I did in this image.  Here are 3 “painterly” renditions of the image that I liked (there are many more options in the software, but these seemed to work best for me).  I created these on layers and in some cases, adjusted the opacity of the layer a bit.  I did not play around with blending modes, which opens another whole area of experimentation.  I like the first one the best.

Barns in Winter
(PS Brushstrokes1)
Copyright Andy Richards 2018


Barns in Winter
(Photoshop Brushstrokes2)
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Barns in Winter (PS Brushstrokes 3) Copryight Andy Richards 2018

But what has this all got to do with the “envelope” I allude to in the title?  I have known for some time that there was pretty much the capability to accomplish all the results I got from the supplemental software programs mentioned above.  But not without some work and experimentation.  And some experiential learning.  Or, what maybe in my case I better called “playing.”  In doing so, I have been able to pick up on some fundamental things.  One of them is that there is a certain type of photographic image that just works better with the graphic/art rendering of an image.  It seems to work best with an image that has strong graphics, including shape and size and color contrasts.  Like the image I used in last week’s blog of Barns in Winter in Frankenmuth.  This time, I used the estimable “filter gallery” in Photoshop and began to experiment with some of its many image rendering choices.


For this image I used the filter gallery preset called “cutout.” It feels like the Japanes anime art form to me.  I have clicked on this a few times in the past and never really liked the result.  Until this one.  I could see this one being used as an illustration, or on a notecard.


Barns in Winter
(Photoshop “cutout”)
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Nothing I have shown here is “new.”  Much of the capability has been with Photoshop since its emergence back in 1988.  And it has all be “done before.”  So, as I have said before, my work here may be, to many observers, nothing more (and perhaps less) than sophomoric.  But is is “new” to me, and I hope it has broadened my approach to the art of photography.  The last image really kind of pushes it.  I would not ordinarily like something like this, but if the owner liked purple, I could see this as a night image.

Barns in Winter
(Photoshop “neon” filter)
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

I hope at least some readers enjoy it. 🙂


[A NOTE ABOUT MY EXPERIENCE WITH ON1 PHOTO RAW 2018.  I don’t want to officially “review” this software.  It has so much promise as a “Photoshop-alternative” photo-editing program.  But it didn’t work for me for technical reasons.  If it did, my review would likely be very favorable.  I was initially intrigued by ON1’s ability to render B&W images, and equally by its layer and local adjustments capability.  Touted as a “complete” image editing program, it appears to be a deserving competitor to the Adobe Suite (Bridge, Lightroom and Photoshop) in an all-in-one package.  I really wanted to like (and learn) this software.  It is stand alone, as opposed to the Adobe Cloud approach and that has some attraction.  I did occasionally find myself “needing” (perhaps a function of learning curve) to take an image into Photoshop to make additional adjustments however.  And alas, ON1 ultimately did not work for me. It had a glitch that would randomly, but more and more frequently, fail to render any image on screen and would, instead, give me an opaque rectangle.  I have 2 computers I work with, one is a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and the other is an HP desktop.  Both have integrated Intel graphics processors.  Neither would work with the ON1 program.  I found their tech support – though always courteous – not very responsive and not very helpful.  Their answer was to upgrade my drivers.  I tried that, both through Intel and my computer manufacturers.  They (ON1) even sent me a link to driver update (which ultimately gave me the message that it was unable to install).  Ultimately, I was informed that my drivers were up to date and there were no new updates applicable.  While both computers are now about 3 years old, I have not had a single issue – ever – with graphics drivers, on any other photo editing or graphics software.  While I know there are logical fallacies out there, my deductive reasoning is that this is an ON1 issue.  They have refunded my purchase.  Again, I think they have a lot of promise and I may return later.  But right now, it is a no go for me.]