Straight out of the camera?

Reflections in the Canal

Reflections in the Canal

I often see people post images “straight out of the camera”. But what does this actually mean?

In the days when film cameras were the only option, images may well have seemed to come “straight out of the camera”, particularly if the photographer relied on the local chemist or sent them off in an envelope to be processed. You shot the film, trying to get the exposure correct, put it in an envelope, wrote out a cheque (remember them?) and sent it off. The prints (or slide film) came back and the images seemed to come straight out of the camera. You had to get as much as possible right in the camera because you didn’t have any control over what happened once it was in the envelope, or the hands of the lady at Boots.

However if, like me, you had neither the money to keep getting films processed, nor any confidence that Boots would actually get it right, some photographers processed their own films. This opened up a world of creative possibilities. You could “push” the film, making it grainy, but allowing a higher ISO to be used – up to 800 or even 1600 if you were lucky. You could cross-process the film, giving it an interesting tone since you were using a process designed for one film type on a different type of film. You could then produce your own prints – using the enlarger as a creative tool. You could “dodge” out the bits that looked a bit pale on the negative, and “burn in” the bits that looked a bit dark – usually the sky needed a bit longer onto the paper before you processed it. You cut a “mask” out of ordinary card to allow you to mask off bits you didn’t want to expose any more on the paper. You could add toners to your prints to give them sepia, blue or other tints. You could even airbrush small imperfections out.

In short, you did an awful lot of manipulation to get the perfect look for your photograph. But here’s the thing – so did Boots! Their print-making machines looked at the density of the negative and calculated exposure onto the paper taking account of this to produce a pleasing, if rather bland, image. In doing so they often managed to correct a negative that was actually pretty poor, but in many cases, unless we looked at the negatives, we had no idea they had done anything at all to it.

The difference between the manipulation the photographer who self-processed did and the machine at Boots did was that the photographer had a vision of what the final result should look like (often before even putting the film in the camera), whereas Boots produced something that worked pretty well most of the time for the average set of holiday snaps.

Roll on 40 years or so, and we have very good digital cameras. Instead of film, light triggers an electronic response on a sensor, which is converted into raw data – a series of 0s and 1s – which can be reconstituted as an image in a format that computers and other devices can read and display – usually a jpeg file.

But how does it get to be a jpeg file, when it starts off as a series of numbers? There are essentially two methods of achieving this – you can let the camera do it for you, or you can do it for yourself after retrieving the raw data from the camera. These are the modern-day equivalent of sending it to Boots, or doing a bit of creative work in the darkroom, but without the inconvenience of putting up black curtains and working in a very dim red light (or dark green for slide film) with smelly chemicals and your Mum shouting at you because she needed to use the loo (my darkroom was in the bathroom most of the time).

Cameras have some element of control over what the jpeg looks like – you can usually set some pre-sets which control things like contrast and saturation of colour, and some cameras have creative modes which add things like black and white or sepia filters, or soft focus, or whatever. But you have to take what the camera manufacturer says you should have – a sort of Boots-plus. You get a particular landscape look, night-time look, portrait look, black and white look and that is it.

Or you can do your own processing, just like in the old days of curtains, chemicals and frustrated family members queueing outside the bathroom. Like when you used chemicals and paper, this requires some creative thought right at the moment you take the photograph. You need to get it right so that you can produce the result you want to at the end of the process. This may require you to under or over-expose the image a bit (or a lot), shoot with a different white-balance, or use graduated, polarizing or neutral density filters, just as you did in the old days. Then, when you have the raw file, you use some software to produce the image you want to.

It is possible to completely alter the colour, feel and mood of the image by doing this. It is also possible, as it was in the days of film, to add and remove things that weren’t or were there – to produce a composite. But you have a lot more control over the creative process. Your black and white images will have the feel you want, not the feel that the camera says you should have. If to your eye, it was the greens, or yellows in a landscape that stood out, then you can emphasize these. If your sky needs burning in, just like in the old days with cardboard masks and an enlarger, you can do this. It is a bit easier, a bit more comfortable, a bit less smelly and a bit less inconvenient.

Now to me, the processing is at least half of the creative process involved in taking a photograph. The camera can do a great job a lot of the time. However everybody sees a different scene differently – this is because our eyes are not cameras, but what we see is a result of the processing done by our brains. The camera cannot do the same processing – it does the processing that seems right in the eyes of the people who wrote the software in the camera, just as the machine at Boots produced images according to the software in the processing machine. If you want it to look like you saw it, or imagined it, or it made you feel at the time, you have to do some of that yourself. You have to think, feel, imagine, and develop the technical skills to ensure that the final image is just the way you want it.

It is nice to see “straight out of the camera” images, particularly when a new model of camera comes out, and you want to see the sort of thing it can do without heavy interpretation by a photographer. However, posting “straight out of the camera” can simply be used as an excuse for not thinking about your photography. You spend a lot of time and money getting a good camera, a sharp lens, getting the right exposure, and the focus sharp – and then that is it. You leave it up to the digital equivalent of Boots to produce the final image. All “straight out of the camera” images are processed, it is just that the photographer doesn’t do the processing, the camera does.

As I have always done, I process my images. I correct the exposure (which you could do with prints), apply digital sharpening (the camera automatically does that with raw images but you can decide how much to apply if you do it yourself), adjust the contrast, apply some toning (like you could in the old days using chemicals and cross-processing), convert to black and white using colour balance to get the right feel for the image, soften the image or add clarity, adjust the saturation and sometimes crop the image (you could do that if you made your own prints). In this way I manage to produce an image that is what I imagined when I pressed the shutter, not how Canon or Olympus or Nikon or Sony imagined I would want it to look.

This does not mean that you don’t have to think about what you do when you push the shutter – you perhaps have to think even harder when you are also thinking about post processing, because this will influence how you take the image. You do try and get the exposure right, the focus sharp, the lighting right and so on. But it means you also use the skills and imagination you have to produce the image you saw in your head when you pushed the button.

To some people this is cheating – in which case I have been cheating all my life since I used to process my own films and make my own prints. To me, leaving it all up to the camera feels a bit lazy – like sending it off to Boots. The pictures I post are genuine – I don’t add things that weren’t there or take anything away that was there – but the are the product of my imagination, and I use a camera and the other tools at my disposal (Lightroom, Photoshop, Topaz Labs and so on) to convey my imagination to the rest of the world through these images. They are not “straight out of the camera” – a lot more thought goes into them than that.

Bend in the canal

Bend in the canal

Through the trees

Through the trees

The Bench

The Bench

Alvecote Priory

Alvecote Priory

Path through the trees

Path through the trees

Beside the Lake

Beside the Lake

Almost There! - a walk up the local spoil heap

Almost There! – a walk up the local spoil heap

Alvecote Priory

Alvecote Priory

Mirrorless

Coot at the local ponds - OMD EM-1 with 40-150 f2.8 Pro

Coot at the local ponds – OMD EM-1 with 40-150 f2.8 Pro

Don’t get me wrong – I love my full-frame Canon SLR, and for many applications, nothing can touch the quality. But…

The fact is that a big SLR weighs a lot, and the lenses even more. Lugging this lot around is often very impractical, particularly for somebody like me who has problems with my lungs. On good days, and over short distances, the big kit is fine, but on bad days or longer distances, there is a real need for a lightweight kit that can do a very good job.

I first encountered Olympus Micro Four Thirds (MFT) cameras on a photography workshop, when I was exceedingly impressed by the technical quality of the photos from a camera that a student brought with her. I’d tried the Canon mirrorless system, but found it a bit slow, and I have a smaller cropped-frame SLR which I loan out to students who are doing my photo workshops. It is nice, but still a bit large, and the problem remains that if you want good quality glass, it is still heavy.

So I recently decided to try Olympus MFT as a secondary system, attracted by the ability to use not just Olympus, but also Lumix and Leica lenses. Something that will get good results when I’m carrying it around, and which I can keep in my handbag for those opportunities that come along when you haven’t got the full kit. It can also replace the heavy kit on long walks and when my breathing is having a bad spell.

Having traded in some lenses I rarely use, I first bought an Olympus OMD EM-10 Mark ii. I was expecting to be very impressed, but I was disappointed in the image quality. A few test shots later, and it turned out that it was likely the package had been damaged in transit, as both the lenses included were badly out of alignment. Fortunately the dealer (Wex photographic) replaced the kit without question, and the second set of lenses were much, much better. The retro-styled camera body is a thing of beauty, particularly to somebody who grew up using a traditional manual film SLR – it has dials where you would expect them for aperture and shutter speed, and exposure compensation. However it also has useful features such as 5-axis image stabilisation, and touch screen point focusing. And it is very, very good for most things except wildlife and sports – the autofocus is good, but not good enough, taking too long to acquire the target when it is moving. As a handbag camera, though, it is streets ahead of anything I’ve had before. The lenses that came with the camera are pretty good too, although because I like backlit imagery, I found purple-fringing to be troublesome. They (Lumix 14-45 and Olympus 40-150 which on a half-frame camera have a combined equivalent of 28-300 in 35mm focal length) do however, perform admirably.

I have also recently acquired a secondhand OMD EM-1 body and some Pro lenses. Now this is a very good camera indeed. The autofocus is excellent and fast and good. The ability to easily switch the dials to control one or other function of the camera is also excellent – you can customise which dials do what. The 5-axis image stabilisation works very well indeed. The pro lenses (Olympus Pro 12-42 and 40-150 – both f2.8) are excellent bits of glass, and there is no purple fringing and admirable sharpness right out to the edge of the frame. They are both solid and weather-sealed, and have a lovely clutch mechanism to engage and disengage the autofocus for fine tuning. There is in particular something about black and white images from this combination that looks stunning. I am also impressed at the lack of noise at low ISO, given the small size of the sensor – better than a larger APS-C sensor camera that I own!

I had not intended to use the EM-1 camera for birds or wildlife, but I recently gave it a trial, and it exceeded expectations, giving sharp and crisp results, and catching the birds most of the time. A 60mm macro lens was also acquired secondhand at a good price (shabby outside, good inside), and again, I was really impressed with the results – sharp, good bokeh, and tiny compared to Canon’s offering. The 40-150 should also be a good dragonfly lens, as it focuses down to 70cm, and a teleconverter can be added to catch the dragonflies as they perch over the water.

The fact is that when I’m taking a walk around places now I usually take the Olympus. It has a permanent place in my handbag. It will not replace the big Canon. The tiny body, with the sensor close to the lens means even at f2.8, you don’t get the separation from the background that you can get with a bigger camera, particularly in Macro work. My big Canon bird lens (100-400 Mark II) is better for wildlife – no getting away from it. The autofocus is better on the Canon – faster, and more controllable. And there is something of the feel of a full-frame shot that really can’t be beaten.

However, the best camera is the one you have with you. If you don’t or can’t carry it, then you can’t take the photos. The mirrorless Olympus is impressive, and it is likely to be “the camera I have with me” quite a lot of the time.

Along the Canal - OMD EM-10 with Lumix 14-45.

Along the Canal – OMD EM-10 with Lumix 14-45.

Macro shot of Moss with OMD EM-10 and 60mm Macro lens

Macro shot of Moss with OMD EM-10 and 60mm Macro lens

Blue Tit on feeder - OMD EM-1 with 40-150 f2.8 Pro

Blue Tit on feeder – OMD EM-1 with 40-150 f2.8 Pro

Willow Herb Seed Head - OMD EM-1 with 60mm Macro

Willow Herb Seed Head – OMD EM-1 with 60mm Macro

Local pond on misty day - OMD EM-1 with 12-40 f2.8 Pro

Local pond on misty day – OMD EM-1 with 12-40 f2.8 Pro

Ray of Light on local ponds - OMD EM-1 with 12-40 f2.8 Pro

Ray of Light on local ponds – OMD EM-1 with 12-40 f2.8 Pro

The official and unofficial paths - OMD EM-1 with 12-40 f2.8 Pro

The official and unofficial paths – OMD EM-1 with 12-40 f2.8 Pro

Bright green grass in the evening sunlight - OMD EM-10 with Lumix 14.45.

Bright green grass in the evening sunlight – OMD EM-10 with Lumix 14.45.

Back to Black (and White)

Reflections in Stonydelph Lakes.

Reflections in Stonydelph Lakes.

When I started out with a camera, an embarrassingly large number of years ago, I managed to scrape enough money to buy a basic Eastern Bloc SLR with TTL metering, but everything else was completely manual – aperture, shutter speed and focus. Nevertheless this was a big step up from a Kodak Instamatic (remember them?). However I was a bit pushed to pay for colour film (slides or prints) and the developing costs were very high too, particularly as I was still at school.

So it was that I came to shooting black and white film by default. It was much cheaper, you could buy it in bulk, load your own cartridges, process the film in your own darkroom, and even equip your own darkroom with a basic timer, chemicals and enlarger for not too much money.

Shooting in black and white was my life until well into my time at University, when I started to splash out a tiny bit on some colour slide film. But it taught me a lot of things, and in particular how to look for tonal contrasts in images. It also taught me a lot about how to use filters and what the effects of those magic squares of plastic might be on the image.

In recent year, concentrating on macro and wildlife photography, I have let my use of black and white slide a bit. However in recent weeks, I have re-ignited my love of black and white landscapes, which can be quite magical when combined with beautiful low, slanting winter light, and ever-changing skies.

There are some images where colour is important, or even crucial. But using black and white forces you to look at how light and darkness interact in each image: Where are the light and dark bits, how can the be linked together using pathways of similar or contrasting tone, what textures are there and how can they be portrayed?

I always shoot in RAW these days, now my computer is up to it, and then convert the image from colour to black and white afterwards. Shooting black and white JPEG in camera really does limit your options. I then process it, usually in Lightroom, sometimes with some tweaking in Photoshop. This allows you to change the colour balance and apply digitally the filters that I used to carry round in my camera bag – a red filter to darken the sky, a green filter to lighten the grass and so on.

If anybody hasn’t tried black and white, it really is worth a go. When you go back to colour, the sensitivity to the amount of light and dark in the frame will persist, and it will make you think about how to frame a photograph in a different way. You will also learn what scenes look great in black and white, and which ones really don’t lend themselves to black and white. I’ve started shooting a lot more images with the primary aim of conversion to black and white. I love the feel of these images. I hope you do to.

Lakeside Path

Lakeside Path

A walk by the lakes

A walk by the lakes

Here comes the rain!

Here comes the rain!

Sunshine and Showers over Betty's Wood

Sunshine and Showers over Betty’s Wood

Boardwalk at Claybrook Marsh

Boardwalk at Claybrook Marsh

Wet Path at Claybrook Marsh

Wet Path at Claybrook Marsh

Winter Woods

Winter tree canopy

Winter tree canopy

Winter has a reputation for being long, dark and wet, but to my mind it is one of the most photogenic times of year. In winter you can see every detail of the tree canopy. The fractal beauty is outstanding, and completely obscured during the summer.

Then there is the winter light. It has a lovely watery quality, a cool beauty. It comes in from a low angle all through the day. Like a perpetual sunrise or sunset, it illuminates the tree trunks and branches with a stark contrast to bring out the true structure of the tree, branches, bark and twigs.

Even in the rain, and in dull weather, there is beauty in the hazy wetness of the woods, a lovely softness that you get at no other time of year.

The woods in winter have a true grandeur that is hidden in summer. They are definitely worth a visit.

Our woods on a damp winter day

Our woods on a damp winter day

The plantation in winter

The plantation in winter

Birch woodland path in winter

Birch woodland path in winter

Birch Wood Path

Birch Wood Path

Canal trees in winter

Canal trees in winter

Along the canal in winter

Along the canal in winter

Flooding

Surreal Bench

Surreal Bench

We recently visited Derwentwater for a family wedding.  On the Saturday morning, the lake was already flooding over its banks, but by Sunday, there was a full flood including the hotel car park. Fortunately we had moved our car, but a few people were caught out.

Some lovely moody, atmospheric and slightly surreal photos to be had though!

Flooded car park

Flooded car park

Derwentwater

Derwentwater

Derwentwater - flooding begins

Derwentwater – flooding begins

Jetty at Derwentwater

Jetty at Derwentwater

Derwentwater

Derwentwater

Winter Light

Glade in the mist

Glade in the mist

As the seasons change, autumn brings not just a change in colour, but also a change in the quality of the light. Summer light is bright and harsh, and the golden hour is either very early in the day or very late. As winter approaches it changes completely – now the sun is low all the time, with long shadows and a wonderful pastel, watery quality. The golden hour is at a civilised hour. The weather is interesting too – storms, clouds racing across the sky, and by way of contrast, perfectly still mornings and evenings with frost on the grass and mist rising in the river valley.

Don’t get me wrong – I love all the seasons, including summer – but winter light is probably the most photogenic.

These are just a few shots of the woods in winter light – low light through the trees, mist, stormy skies and mist rising at sunset. Perfect!

Mist rising at sunset

Mist rising at sunset

Mist through the trees

Mist through the trees

Storm approaching

Storm approaching

Ray of light with stormy sky behind

Ray of light with stormy sky behind

Mist through the trees

Mist through the trees

Mist and golden trees

Mist and golden trees

Main path in the mist

Main path in the mist

Gentle yellows and greens of oak woodland in Autumn

In Praise of Restraint – Autumn in the Woods

Gentle yellows and greens of oak woodland in Autumn

Gentle yellows and greens of oak woodland in Autumn

Gentle yellows and greens of oak woodland in Autumn

Gentle yellows and greens of oak woodland in Autumn

Dew on the woodland floor on an autumn morning

Dew on the woodland floor on an autumn morning

I keep going on about Autumn, but I make no apology for it.  It is my favourite time of year.  The spring flowers are magical, and the Summer meadows glorious, but there is nothing quite like the fungal smell of autumn in the woods.  What I particularly like is how oak trees don’t “shout” about autumn like many other species.  Maple and cherry have been particularly loud this year – flaming orange and yellow, and stunning reds lighting up the trees along the roadside.  Almost all the trees in the ancient part of our woods are oak, which takes a more restrained approach.

Some are still quite green right now, others have a gentle yellow tinge, and others simply go brown at the edges and fall.  Against this restrained backdrop, the yellow of field maple, willow and hazel, and the shocking reds of spindle, cherry and some rowan leaves, as well as a gentle pinks and purples of elder can stand out.  Betty’s wood in particular with its greater variety of young saplings shines out in orange, red and yellow against the darkness of the old oak trees.  Oak provides a pastel and gentle canvas against which the other species can stand out.

Yellows in Betty's Wood standing out against the green oak and ash

Yellows in Betty’s Wood standing out against the green oak and ash

Cherry leaves turn orange red in Betty's Wood

Cherry leaves turn orange red in Betty’s Wood

On the forest floor, things are changing too.  It hasn’t been very wet this year and the fungi are yet to get going, but we have seen some amazing hyphae on one of our fallen logs.

Fungal hyphae form a net on a fallen log.

Fungal hyphae form a net on a fallen log.

The lichens are also coming into their own, forming a miniature forest with the various species of moss, topped off by the fallen leaves covered in dew in the early morning.  The grass also shines with dew, giving the woods an autumnal feel, and a softness that is missing at other times of the year.

Dew on a fallen oak leaf on a bed of lichen and moss

Dew on a fallen oak leaf on a bed of lichen and moss

A tiny forest of moss and lichen

A tiny forest of moss and lichen

The leaves are gently falling now and autumn is in full swing.  There is no sadness – nature is beautiful all year round.  Winter is round the corner, and with it the milky low sunshine and stark beauty and form of our lovely trees.  The turn of the seasons is something I really treasure.  For now, I will enjoy the restrained beauty of an oak woodland in the fall.

 

Farming Today

Presenters, producers and owners at Alvecote Wood.

BBC Radio Four Farming Today at Alvecote Wood

It has been too long since I updated this blog – and too many other things have got in the way.  But last weekend we were invited to take part in the BBC Radio Four Farming Today programme feature all about woodlands and forests.

The presenters and producers were extremely nice people.  They visited the woods, along with the Chairman of the Royal Forestry Society, and we recorded the whole programme from the woods, including links to other segments recorded on other days.

We were keen to point out the multiple uses to which woodland can be put, as well as its value for wildlife, and the importance of management.  Leaving it alone generally results in one or two species becoming dominant.  In order to maintain a variety of habitats, particularly in smaller woodland that has been affected by human activity in the past, you need to do some management.

The programme is available as a podcast and on iPlayer if you live in the UK.

Alvecote Wood on Farming Today.

Bugs (and weevils)

Curculio venosus - an acorn weevil

Curculio venosus – an acorn weevil

Bugs are often overlooked and ignored, and often misunderstood as well, but are really very beautiful and spectacular when you get in close. Yesterday, I was lucky enough to find a wonderful collection of several species of shield bug as well as two species of weevil on one small patch of nettles at the woods.

Shield bugs are flat bugs with a back that resembles a shield, and sucking mouthparts which extract sap from plants. They are also called “stink bugs” because they exude foul smelling and tasting fluid when threatened to deter predators.

Hairy Shieldbug

Hairy Shieldbug

Woundwort Shieldbug

Woundwort Shieldbug

Dock Bug

Dock Bug

Green Shieldbug

Green Shieldbug

Green Shieldbug

Green Shieldbug

Weevils also have a bad reputation as plant pests, with different species specialising in different plants. In our case, in an oak woodland, we found an acorn weevil, looking like a truly alien being – a bit like StarBug from Red Dwarf!

This set of photographs shows some of the variety and beauty of these overlooked creatures.