Category Archives: Photography and Art

Mixed Color Temperatures and White Balance in Art Photography

Situations with differing light sources with differing light temperatures are difficult for wedding photographers or other professionals who must produce naturalistic pictures. Film can either be for sunlight or for artificial light and a digital sensor of a modern digital camera can only perform white balance for one lightsource in each single picture. Books have been written about this topic and how to overpower light sources with flash.

For the art photographer however this is a golden opportunity to add an unusual artistic element.

Ridley Scott used this a lot in the movie „The Blade Runner“ and it contributed greatly to the beautiful, surreal cinematography.

in this picture I adjusted the white balance to the natural light of the sunset in the background but exposed to light from the neon tubes in the underpass.

People in an underpass

Underpass

This creates the greenish, surreal gliw and helps to create two distinct parts.

Here is another example

Two beautiful girls saying farewell in a brightly illuminated entrance in very heavy, dark rain, neon lights, Bladerunner athmosphere

A Farewell in the Rain

The girls stand in the yellow tungsten light in the entrance, the background appears fale and blue and the neon sign above a bit surreal as it is also a different light temperature. This clearly separates the girls from the background and draws the viewers eye towards them with the neon sign competing for attention and balancing them in a vertical axis.

Random Thougts about Creativity and Photography

As mentioned before, I learned from theatre improvisers that creativity is in our subconscious mind and our conscious mind might be required for the technical side of art but is entirely uncreative. Creativity is always there in any human but we can not force or control it, we need to let it happen and learn not to jam it with our conscious mind.

Here are some random thoughts about factors affecting creativity in photography.

Expectations 

In recent weeks I was not very satisfied with my pictures. Last I spent a week in Singapore photo hunting with a few good pictures. Upon my return I had a day off in Hongkong and had a walk around the city. On this day I had more good pictures than in the whole week shooting before! Why? I think the difference is very subtle but important. During this whole week I wanted and expected to shoot great pictures. Of course I also wanted to shoot great pictures on this one day but had no great expectations. And the expectations made all the difference. If I do not expect much I am more grateful for whatever I see and this makes me more receptive. The high expectations and sense of entitlement kill openness and lead to trying too hard.

Similarly I noticed since a Long time that the „On the way home -pictures“ from a shooting session are often amongst the very best. Then I expect nothing and am just open.

Alcohol

After two or more beers I go shooting without shame or fear and it flows. In no time I return with hundreds of pictures. But exactly this lack of emotions and the lack of struggle makes them awful. Even after minor alcohol consumption the pictures are flat and shallow. I can see in them this drunken grin.

Physical Fitness

Physical fitness is the single most underrated factor in photography. After all I can shoot more when I walk 20KM than when I collapse after 5KM and often I can only get a good picture if I climb up some stairs.

And if I am exhausted my mind is not free to be creative.

Photographic gear is heavy and unwieldy. Back and neck pain are common amongst photographers. We can add foot pain from walking Long distances in poor shoes. This is similar, if I am limping around with sore neck, back and feet my mind is to busy with discomfort to be creative.

Equipment 

Each camera and each lense has a „soul“ and distinct character. I use an Olympus OM-D 5.2 with a universal zoom equivalent to 28-300mm and a Nikon D850 with the 16-35mm and a 70-300mm.

The Olympus is much smaller and lighter and with the universal zoom encourages me to be spontaneous and to try new things. But also it encourages sloppiness.

The Nikon enforces more meticulous work and consideration.

I have the Olympus with me at all times, even on my way to work or the supermarket. But if I go out photo shooting I usually take the Nikon

Creativity, Spontaneity and Art are not the same

Creativity is the basis of art, there is no art without creativity. In photography creativity mainly means being open and seeing the pictures which are already there. This includes spontaneity and is comparable to improvised theatre or music. But artistic photography is not necessarily spontaneous! If I see something which could give a great picture, there might be poor light, other disturbing factors or I might make a mistake. But nothing prevents from going there again and trying it again. Even street scenes can be planned. I can of course anticipate what will happen in certain places or situations. I do this all the time. I also thought of hiring actors or models to recreate scenes which I could not get for whatever reason. It is perfectly legitimate. Only the quality of the picture counts.

The creative act or perception of such planned shots happened before the picture was taken and the shooting is not at all spontaneous.

Artistic Exposure

Exposure is central to photography and a lot has been thought and written about. I find it often misleading.

Medium Grey Exposure

Our eyes adjust to light and darkness. So we perceive most scenes as more or less medium bright or medium grey in photography speak. Basic light meters measure and show how much a camera needs to be adjusted to achieve exactly this. Very often a good Guess for a pleasing picture. Usually the centre of the image is the most important part and the edges less so light meters usually place higher importance on the centre and lead to better results.
Today cameras can compare scenes with a database of saved pictures to get an idea what the photographer wants to shoot to get better results. However I found that for night photography this is often misleading and the old centre weighted exposure mode is better suited than Matrix Metering Mode of my Nikon and similar for the Olympus.

Optimised Exposure by Using the Zone System or Exposure to the Right

Ansel Adams developed the zone system to achieve maximum brilliance of his pictures. Black and white film can capture a higher dynamic range than we can see at a give an moment or than a print can deliver. BW film can also be manipulated in the darkroom. The idea of the zone system is to measure the scene with a spot meter and expose rather bright. During development of negative and print the photographer can then compress the dynamic range and get more details in highlights and shadows.

Bruce Barnbaum‘s book The Art of Photography  has a detailed introduction to the zone system

Exposure to the Right is an adaptation for digital cameras. New digital sensors can also capture a very high dynamic range even for colour. We can use use live histograms to place the highlights on the maximum of the sensor. If we capture in RAW data format we can then process the file on our computer and compress the dynamic range and get again amazing details in the highlights and shadows.
In reality this only achieves much at very low ISO and there are practical limitations on adjusting aperture (best quality around f8, depth of field needed) and even more on shutter speed (movement in the scene, no Tripod). And many scenes just don’t have a big photodynamic range and all this is not needed. Nevertheless understanding the principles and applying the ideas behind this is really important to achieve technically good pictures.

Black and white photography of a wide avenue and tall buildings with high contrast. A small solitary human silhouette crosses the street

Morning in the CBD

Artistic Exposure

In the end the Metering system of the camera just suggests us roughly how to achieve a pleasing exposure and the zone system helps us to get details. Both are helpful guide points but neither answers us how to expose to make a great picture, tell the story we experienced and the emotions we felt.
In fact exposure is an artistic decision.
Should this picture be medium grey, very bright, very dark? Maybe I do not want to show details in a certain area of the picture or want to guide the viewers attention to certain point by exposing it middle bright. Such questions a photographer has to answer by choosing an exposure.
And there are no absolute rules or step by step instructions to make this decision only helpful guidelines, hints and techniques and tools.
Many photographers approach exposure so nerdish and assume that there is something like a „correct“, precisely defined exposure which we must search. This is the thinking which often holds photography back. True art is not precise and involves bold decisions and photographers must develop such skills as well if we want to be artists.

Photography of a street scene in Guangzhou’s old town. A man passes a shop. Harsh contrasts of a tree falling over the scene, mysterious athmosphere

Street Scene Old Canton

Is Photography Art?

I just found these two articles published in The Guardian in 2014.

Here Jonathan Jones trashes Peter Lik’s picture “Phantom”, the one which sold for $6.5m and argues that photography is not art.

This is the reply by Sean O’Hagan in defense of photography. Naturally I agree with him that photography is art and always will be. Looking at one bad picture for which a ridiculous price was paid does not allow generalisations about a whole genre and proofs nothing at all. He raises some great points. Particularly that it is inaccurate to compare photography and painting as these are totally different art forms. Also the differentiation between financial and artistic value is important.

But I find it more interesting to discuss J. Jones’ arguments and reservations. I am as annoyed as him about this endless stream of photos of Antelope Canyon or similar spectacular scenes which add nothing new. There must billions of photos published on the internet. Everyone can go there and look at the beauty of these canyons him or herself and just another picture of a beautiful scene is not art. This is maybe the most widespread mistake of Photographers to just rely on the beauty of the subject. Art starts when the artist adds something personal, tells a story, has a unique opinion. And this is not the case in Most Antelope Canyon pictures or pictures of other famous sceneries.

I also share his reservations about the tendency to assume monochrome makes pictures artistic. It is very unfortunate that so many photographers convert mediocre pictures to black and white to pretend they mean something. I want to have a compelling reason for such an invasive manipulation of a picture as modern digital cameras by default take colour pictures. But I can see why Peter Lik took this picture as monochrome, to highlight the tonal contrast and emphasise textures in the wall and in the light.

His shock about such a price for a reproducible picture should be taken seriously and deserves some discussion. Modern photography is by default reproducible and I have reservations about limiting the number of copies artificially to inflate prices.

Approaching Photographic Art – Common Misconceptions

We are living in the the digital age and practically everyone has camera in the pocket with the telephone. There are now trillions of pictures all over the internet for each and any keyword. Which ones of them are art and which ones not?
Many photographers -and to a lesser degree viewers and colllectors- still mix up technical quality and artistic value and with this kill their own creativity. I wrote about this before. Now I want to adress a few more misconceptions, more from the viewers‘ point.

A photo showcasing the bright lights of Soho in central HK in the night. A man with a yellow binder and a car in the foreground

South of Hollywood

Quite common is the shortcut to assume only black and white photos qualify as art whereas colour photography is automatically disqualified.
In film times black and white had an advantage as the film and the print could be heavily manipulated which is impossible with colour film. This gave the photographer
the freedom to decide how much contrast would be in the final print or the possibility to lighten or darken certain areas of the print. This required advanced dark room knowledge and experience and ample time. Therefore original prints of great black and white photos are rare and unique. But rarity should not be confused with artistic value. Today photography is digital, with very few exemptions and with this nearly always reproducible art, just like literature or music. The reproducibility reduces the price of the individual print but does not affect the artistic value. How many copies of Tolstoy’s „War and Piece“ or Miles Davies’ „Kind of Blue“circulate currently? It does not affect the artistic value. By the way it is worth pointing out that black and white shooting is much easier than Colour as only one of two dimensions of light, tonal value, needs to be addressed.

In the digital age a few people now believe in the rule that only „unmanipulated“ pictures qualify as art. First, let me point out that this is somehow the opposite of the worship of Monochrome as explained above! All these classic BW pictures look so great because they were manipulated in the darkroom. Second, assuming that an „unmanipulated“ picture exists relies on the assumption of an unambiguous visual reality which simply does not exist. The manipulation starts when we decide for an exposure which could produce a very dark or a very light picture or everything in between. No, it even starts before, it starts when we take a phot. Seeing with a human eye is very different to photography. A camera passively records light whereas seeing is an active scanning process with interference and extrapolation of our mind. In fact, all digital pictures are already processed by the computer inside the camera. And this includes RAW files. If we skip postprocessing in Photoshop or other software we just rely on the standard settings of the camera manufacturer. And this is certainly only a disadvantage.

Henri Cartier-Bresson is widely considered to be one of the greatest photographers. He first voiced the opinion that only pictures taken with a focal length of 35mm or 50mm can be art. Later some people changed to mildly different rules such as 28-35 or 28-85 or … The rational behind is that these focal lengths are most similar to the human field of view. The angles and dimensions of around 80mm are roughly how we see things but as we actively scan our field resembles more a 28mm lense. So these rules assume that the more realistic a photo is the better it gets, which is a very restrictive approach to art. Painters and even cinematographers and their audience would find such an approach ridiculous.
Conveniently for photographers who follow such rules, these focal lengths are technically much easier to shoot than long tele lenses which are difficult to focus or very wide angles which are difficult to frame. I suspect that the proponents of a restrictive focal lengths follow their laziness and timidity.

Some of the most striking pictures violate all these quick rules. For example Saul Leiter often used tele lenses and usually shot colour. And he was certainly not inferior to Cartier-Bresson.
We should not approach art with rules. Art is about emotions, about stories about getting moved and changed. The artist should use her or his art to express who she or he is and her or his opinion about the subject of the art. The mindset of the viewer of art should be open and curious.
What did the photographer see? What did he or she feel? Why is this remarkable? Addressing these questions leads the photographer to great pictures and the viewer to appreciate great pictures and to differentiate them from random snaps.
And further, art is about the unusual. If we do not embrace the unusual, the diversity and the surprise we loose so much.

Thoughts about Black and White Photography

Black and white photography of a narrow alley in backlight. With high contrasts. The light appears cross shaped. Outlines of people visible

Untitled

With very few exceptions modern cameras are digital and the sensor delivers a colour photo. Converting to monochrome is an extensive digital manipulation similar to cropping.
I myself am a colour photographer but have a few monochrome pictures. I always write in the description of the picture why it is black and white. Now I want to use the opportunity to write a bit more about the general principles when I convert to black and white.

Specific Retro Aesthetics

Just using some vague retro styles and BW on a random scene to pretend it has a meaning will not give a good picture and is not art.
Being specific is the key. The closer the retro style fits to a certain period or situation the better the picture will be. And this should match and advance the story of the picture.

BW photo of the lasers of Singapore‘s Marina Bay

Searchlights

The lasers in the rainy night sky reminded me of anti-aircraft searchlights in WW2 documentaries. To support this aesthetic idea I used a vintage BW filter with rough grain. I included the ultra modern buildings of Singapore on both sides of the picture as an ironic contrast instead of faking a historical scene.

A black and white photo of two men in a cafe with harsh contrasts, film noire style

That Afternoon…

These two gentlemen look a bit like spies or gangsters in a Noire movie in the harsh contrasts of the afternoon sun. I absolutely love Noire Aesthetics but often prefer such pictures in colour. In this picture the smartphone and the Costa label are clearly out of the Noire times and provide an ironic contrast of content to the vintage style which I reinforced with monochrome.

Structuring

A black and white picture showing a man exiting a bus in Mongkok

Bus Stop on Nathan Road

This is a very busy scene so typical of Mongkok, so many things going on at the same time. Please look at the textures on the side of the bus. These were reflected colourful neon lights. I generally love maximalism and love to fill the frame but this was a very chaotic scene and the eyes were overwhelmed. So I converted to BW to structure. The second method to structure this picture was a narrow depth of field and gradually blurring into the distance.

Isolating

There is a subtle but important difference between structuring a picture and isolating a certain theme within the picture

A black and white picture of the hands and chopsticks of two persons at dinner in selective light

Dining

Actually the light reflexes on the skin and the dish were quite nice in this scene but I really wanted to showcase the grace of the fine movement of a human hand in this picture and direct the viewer towards this without distracting elements by using black and white.

Tonal Qualities

Black and white photography of a wide avenue and tall buildings with high contrast. A small solitary human silhouette crosses the street

Morning in the CBD

In fact it is isolation when we showcase tonal qualities, how dark or bright certain areas of a picture are. But the tonal qualities and shades are so central to photography that this should be separated from isolating for example movements by both, the photographer and the viewer.

Please note how wide the tonal differences are between the darkest and brightest area in this picture and how many shades of grey in between are present.

The opening picture of this post also belongs to this category. In that picture the stark contrast between extremely bright and extremely dark shows the geometrical structure with not much intermediary grey in between.

Mood

Gloomy black and white photo of a man walking along Hong Kong harbour on a cold, Romy, foggy morning

Gloomy Morning

I personally think using black and white to make a picture more gloomy is a bit a cliche. But it works and can be used occasionally. Even in the RAW file this picture anyhow looked almost monochrome and using BW was a good choice.

… and very often Colour is the better option

A high contrast photo of a street intersection and a woman with her dog crossing, Shadowplay effect and surreal athmosphere

Another Morning in Tsim Sha Tsui

This picture has stark tonal contrasts and I planned it as BW. But it turned out that the remnants of colour are not distracting. Instead they give nice textures to the road and the dog and add depth.

I really appreciate great black and white photography. But a photographer should have a very good reason and make a conscious decision about sacrificing colour as it is such an important quality of light and seeing.

About the Difficulties of Art in Photography

A camera is really easy to use, particularly compared to a violin or a painter’s brush. Learning to expose and focus fully manual takes a month, add two more months and we have practiced a lot. And by the way there are wonderful pictures taken with a camera on full auto mode. So the difficulty to make art photography is really not the technique. The difficulty is finding a Creative vision. I hope I can talk more about this in the future. Today I talk a bit about a common pitfall which so often paralysis creativity: technology and the abuse of it.

Night photography. Silhouettes of a patron and a waitress against brightly green illuminated background. An orange table provides a small colour contrast accent

Serving Tea

Unlike a violin a camera was not primarily designed to produce art. Cameras are used by journalists and for other documentary work, for example real estate agents use photos to show property and scientists and technical people use it. Our dentists have a top notch Canon DSLR with macro lense and macro flash.

A modern camera is usually a metal box with a lot buttons and dials and menus in a cryptic technical language. Plenty high tech accessories for diverse situations are available. And all this is so tempting to rely on technical skills and solutions to take great pictures.
Photographers tend to buy all the best accessories and rely on them. Getting an underwater casing will get pictures of interesting underwater life forms, a macro lense will reveal amazing details, a tilting lense will give architectural photos with fully corrected axes and angles, high speed photography impresses us with pictures of a bursting glass etc.
And all this might be interesting. But in the end it is just technical and keeps our interest just for minutes.
This is not art! Art should show something deeper, is about real emotions and moving stories and hold our attentional for a long time and encourage us to come back to the same picture many times. All these gadgets seduce us into thinking we could replace creativity with them.
This technical mindset also leeds many photographers to treat composition as a step by step guide to taking pictures. All compositional “rules” can be helpful for structuring a picture. But if they are not treated as sometimes useful cues but instead seen as laws or step-by-step recipes they lead to predictable pictures lacking any deeper meaning.

A damp hotel window in the night, in the background blurred, colourful city lights visible

In the Hotel, Looking out over a Foreign City

Photographic minimalism usually runs into the same trap. Yes, I am often impressed by that perfect picture of a single red nail in a plain white wall or the crack in the red brick. The story ends very fast in such pictures and I have no desire to look at it a second time.
We can admire technical mastery in them but these pictures are not worth coming back as we don’t feel about them.
Neither perfect technique nor equipment can substitute for true creativity.

Creativity is more a passive quality. We can not force creativity, we must trust the creativity which is in us and let it happen. And yes,  every human is Creative! Creativity is about seeing, feeling, perceiving, loving, curiosity.

I hope to talk more about creativity and art in the future.