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

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

Photographing Insects – my approach

Common blues

Mating pair of common blue butterflies – backlit

I love photographing insects.  Not just the showy ones, but the small and insignificant ones too.  Butterflies, dragonflies, moths, damselflies, overflies, ladybirds, bugs, flies – all of them are interesting and challenging.

Equipment

Actually, I use very simple equipment, but insect photography IS one of those specialist areas where it does help to have the right equipment – a digital SLR and a macro lens.  I have my SLR (Canon EOS5D Mark III), and a few lenses, of which my favourite is the 100mm f2.8L IS Macro.  I also have a 70-300mm f4 L IS zoom and a 300mm f2.8L IS prime lens.  The 300mm is big and heavy, and I don’t use it often.  I stick to the first two lenses which I can carry easily.  The 100mm lens is absolutely without compare in terms of image quality, but does require you to get pretty close to your subject if you want the insect to appear a decent size.  It is also f2.8, which gives the opportunity to blur out the background if you wish.  The 300mm zoom or prime have the advantage of a longer reach, which is useful for shots over water, or where the insects are easily-disturbed.  The disadvantage is that the longer reach is no advantage if there is undergrowth in the way, and there often is.  It is also harder to hand-hold.

A lot of people use a tripod or monopod to reduce camera shake.  I don’t do this for three reasons.  First, I have a serious illness (cystic fibrosis) and my breathing isn’t good.  Carrying a tripod and monopod on top of the heavy camera and spare lens really tests my breathing, so I tend to avoid it.  Second, I find tripods or monopods tend to restrict your viewpoint.  You set it up and then can’t be bothered to adjust, particularly if you are close to the insects, which means that you aren’t as flexible with your viewpoint, and consequently with your background, lighting and everything else, as you can be if you hand hold.  Finally, the problem with insects is that they are often moving, or what they are perched on is moving, and a tripod doesn’t help with this at all.

The other thing worth considering is a circular polarising filter – this allows you to make adjustable changes to the way in which reflections are handled in your pictures.  Particularly when photographing over water, it can be nice both to show reflections and also minimise them, for example when you are trying to get a picture of an ovipositing female dragonfly.

Southern hawker

Southern hawker dragonfly by our pond

Finally, it is worth learning how to use the non-auto features on your camera: aperture-priority to control depth of field in your pictures, shutter-speed priority to freeze motion for in-flight shots, and manual focus to get focus on exactly the right plane, exactly on the right part of the insect – usually the eyes, but sometimes the root of the wings or other parts.

Learn how to approach

The first difficulty with insects is getting close to them (apart from mosquitoes, which like to get close to you all the time!).  They have good eyesight, and are very sensitive to motion, not to mention sound, vibration and smell.  You can’t just go crashing through the grass, waving your camera around, and hope to get a decent photo, or indeed, get anywhere near them.  I find the key is to move very slowly, no matter how tempting it can be to get in quickly before the insect goes.  It might disappear anyway, but is much more likely to disappear if you rush.  It is useful to practice the Tai-Chi way of walking which is quiet and smooth.  Also, use the wind, if there is any and time your movements to coincide with gusts of wind.  It is also worth learning how to squat or kneel very slowly, quietly and smoothly – doing very slow squats isn’t easy, particularly with a heavy camera.  It is worth practising this  without taking photos, until you can do it well.

Remember, they can smell you too – so it might be worth remembering this when preparing to go out and avoiding things like smelly hair dressing, perfume, deodorant and of course, insect-repellent.

Viewpoint and Background

Once you have made the effort to get close to the insect, it is tempting to blast off a photo and be happy with that.  However you really do need to think more about it than that.  What viewpoint do you want?  Which bit of the insect do you want to feature?  Do you want to see it from behind, from the side, head-on, from below, above or on the level with the insect?  Do you want detail on the wings, or do you want the light shining through the wings?  This should be in your thoughts as you approach, so that you approach from the right direction, and get yourself on the right level to take the photo.

Emerald Damselfly

Emerald Damselfly – dark damselfly, bright background

Likewise, how do you want the background to appear?  Do you want it to be a blur, or do you want to show detail?  Do you want it to be dark or light, a complimentary colour or the same colour?  When you are close to a subject, a very slight adjustment in your position can make a large difference to the background.  Likewise, it is easier to blur the background when you are close than when further away (for any given aperture – it is down to distance ratio between subject, lens and sensor).  A very slight shift in your position can give the picture a totally different feel, if the subject allows it.

Common blue butterfly

Common blue butterfly in meadow


Lighting

Full-on front lighting is great to show details of the markings and structure of the insect, but try experimenting with other types of lighting including side and back-lighting, because these can give a very different feel, although getting the exposure right is more challenging.  Again, worth thinking of this before you approach the insect, so you can get set up in the right position.

Common darter dragonfly

Common darter dragonfly on a cane


Exposure

Getting exposure right can be challenging.  You may have a dark insect with a bright background such as sky, grass or water, or a pale insect against a dark background such as dark leaves or water, as well as challenging lighting, such as side or back-lighting.  It is worth becoming familiar with the exposure-compensation button on your camera, and learning to use it without moving your face from the camera.  This will allow you not only to make a best guess as to how much compensation is needed, but also to manually bracket the exposure so you get some insurance against having made and incorrect decision.  This is something that comes with practice, and is well worth it.  As a guide, if it is a dark insect on a light background, I usually over-expose by 2/3 a stop and then adjust – for the converse, I underexpose by 1/3 or 2/3 stop then adjust.  You can also adjust exposure to give a particular feel to a picture – over-exposed ethereal, or under-exposed and dark and menacing.

Banded Demoiselle

Banded Demoiselle – challenging exposure!

Some insects are surprisingly difficult to judge:  butterflies, for example, have very iridescent wings, and it can be hard to judge the exposure.  Common blues, for example, often need a surprising amount of under-exposure to get the colours correct, because of the reflections from their wing.  Ladybirds, also, tend to look very washed-out at correct exposure because of the reflective nature of their elytra (wing cases).

Male common blue showing iridescence

Male common blue showing iridescence


Learn to see the picture in your head

Finally, it is very helpful to practice seeing in your head what the final picture will look like, after you have taken it and processed it.  Visualise what you want to see.  What details do you want to see?  How do you want the colours to look – bright, subdued, deep and rich, pale and ethereal?  How do you want the balance of light and shade to look in the picture?    How do you want the background to look – detailed or blurred, bright or dark?  Which bit of the insect do you want the viewer to focus on?  How can you best compose the image so the viewer sees it through your eyes?  Is there anything you can do to draw attention to what interests you about the insect, or the setting in which it is placed?  How do you want the viewer to feel?  How do YOU feel?  Can you convey that feeling in your imagery?

Common darter shelters from the rain

Common darter on willow leaf, sheltering from the rain


You may disagree

This is my approach.  Many will disagree, and many will have their own, different, and equally-successful approach.  It works for me.  In 2014, a portfolio of my insect work reached the final round of Wildlife Photographer of the Year – not something to be sneezed-at, even though I didn’t win.  I hope it has given you something to think about, and provides some guidance for beginners.  Whatever you do, I hope you enjoy looking closely at insects, and getting into their weird and wonderful world.

Common darter in oak tree

Common darter in oak tree