True Black and White Prints

Much of my work is in black and white. I studied the problem of printing black and white images to get prepared for a print competition. What I found is that printing black and white images on an ink jet printer is a problem.

Ink jet printers do not print true grey or true white. Those colors are printed with a magenta cast. There are drivers and special ink cartridges available for some printers to be able to more accurately portray the grey scale. I wasn’t willing to invest time or money into what I consider to be a long shot, potentially getting results that did not have the quality that I expect.

In the northeast I found Digital Silver Imaging, a lab that specializes in the use of technology that produces excellent black and white prints. Their web site explains this technology better than I can. The technology mimics the process that is used to develop black and white film. The result is true black and true white and all of the shades of grey in between.

I just received three competition prints from DSI, two 12 x 16 and one 12 x 18. The tonality and contrast of the images in these prints were reproduced faithfully. My expectation was that the prints would appear as they did on my monitor. That expectation was met and the  images are sharper than I expected.

Upload your images to the DSI site and you receive a quote within 24 hours. After you call to pay for the quoted processing, the turnaround in my experience is seven to ten days. The prints arrive safely packaged in flat packs.

I recommend taking advantage of the DSI  introductory offer. The offer is for two 8 x 10 prints of an image, one on each of their papers: Ilford Gallerie Digital Silver FB and Ilford Gallerie Digital Silver RC. This is a good opportunity to try the process and to determine your preference for paper. I did my competition prints on Digital Silver FB paper because I like the sheen and the weight of the paper.

My black and white competition prints are very high quality. I matted and framed them using materials from American Frame. I’m excited to find out how good my images are and whether or not my work is good enough to be accepted for the exhibition.

Anatomy of an Accepted Image

I just received notice that two of my Open Monochrome images were accepted to the NYC Exhibition 2017. I had a total of twelve entries into three of the competition divisions: four in Open Monochrome, four in Photojournalism, and four in Street. The two that were accepted were in Open Monochrome and happened to be the two that were the most heavily edited.

Both images were composites of photographs that I took in Scotland in 2016. The first, Tied Down, I thought interesting because of the lines that tie the boat to some invisible anchors. I wanted the dark shadows and angry sky to threaten the safety of the boat in spite of the lines. Below, the first image is the edited version, the second is the original raw image of the boat, and the third is the sky. Click on any of the images to see more detail.

 
 

The original image of the boat was not remarkable at all. The colors were flat and the sky was featureless and white. Flat colors almost always suggest black and white to me with some adjustments to exposure and contrast. As for the sky, I found another Scottish seascape that had a fine sky. This gave me a sky with some character and I liked it well enough that I used in several other images. For Tied Down, I converted it to black and white, stretched it a bit to cover the background, and adjusted the contrast to make the sky appear more threatening.

The second accepted image, The Sky, the Sea, used my favorite sky as the star of the image rather than as the background. The seascape itself is boring, but I saw the promise of black and white. A slight, curved gradient helps to focus attention on the horizon rather than the featureless water. The little rain shower at the horizon on the right was perfectly positioned to fit into my anchor at an almost perfect location in the composition. Below, the first image is the final edited version and the second is the source of the wrought iron fence. Click on either to see more detail.

The wrought iron fence came from a Scottish scene that  is missing color and impact. I loved the fence and used it to create the foreground layer. I converted it to black and white and adjusted the exposure so that the detailed features of the fence didn’t detract from the background.

The photos were shot using a Nikon D750 with the Nikkor 24-120mm f/4 kit lens. The lens is heavy and slow, but versatile for travel shooting. I don’t like carrying extra lenses with me on vacation. The edits were done with Photoshop CC. I love Photoshop, but there is little that is easy or cookbook about using it. It takes a lot of time and trial-and-error to get a great result. If you are clever, you can avoid the need to start over if you make a mistake during the trial-and-error part.

My first love is street, photojournalism, and candid photography. This kind of editing is not acceptable in those divisions because it materially alters the facts. It has been important for me to leave my sandbox to compete in other open categories because of the ability to experiment and most of the artistic skills transfer.

Competitions – Where do I Stand?

This is a continuing tale about improving personal photographic skills and the value of competition. I’m still navigating through competitions and I’m continuing to compete. My finding thus far is that some events have more value than others and that I have a need to find other ways to get feedback.

This year I have completed three digital photo competitions outside my club. The first one, organized by the Professional Photographers Association of Massachusetts, set my expectations. The judging was live streamed at the event so that many competitors received some kind of critique. All of the scores were available as well as the images so that you could view the competition and understand the differences in the scores. I could also see where I stood in the ranking of scores.

The second results came from the Ridgewood Camera Club International Exhibition. Their web site shows the number of Acceptances and number of entries for each country by category. However, if you miss the threshold for Acceptance, it is impossible to determine how you fared against the field of competitors. This approach works for the artists that achieved Acceptance or an award, but not for the people like me who are hoping to use the experience to improve their skills.

My most recent results from my third competition came from the Atlantic International Photographic Exhibition. In this case the Accepted and Awarded images will be displayed on the web site beginning in May. I’m hoping that the scores are given for each so that I can determine the artistic threshold for Acceptance. I know the scoring threshold, but need to view the images and understand the rank of each in the eyes of the judges. That’s the only way to determine the artistic differences as the scores increase.

Still, it would be nice to know: Was my score “Average”,  “Below Average”, or “Above Average”? What was the distribution of the scores: how many competitors had lower scores and how many had higher scores? The average doesn’t mean anything if most of the scores are “Average”. In my first competition with the PPAM, I was a solid “Average” with plenty of competitors above me and below me in scores for most of the five images that I submitted. I considered that an achievement in my first competition ever, especially since I was competing mostly with professionals.

I’m not expecting to soar up the rankings, but I would like to know where I stand and whether or not I’m improving. In parallel with competitions, I have found other means for getting feedback on my images. I have submitted images to reviewers at both the Professional Photographers of America and the Photographic Society of America with good results. The PSA also has study groups that I am joining. I may also take a shot at certification with the PPA. It’s important to know all of the options available to you and to take advantage of those that interest you because many competitions don’t provide a complete assessment of your skills.

An Outlet for Creativity

I am pleased to be one of the featured artists in the latest issue of Literary Orphans, an online literary publication. As a photographer, I am always looking for outlets for my work. As an independent photographer who does not make a living as a photographer, that is not an easy thing to accomplish.

Literary Orphans is a fresh approach to provide an outlet for writers and photographers. By the magic of the Internet, the online zine aggregates and publishes work by artists who want to be seen and read. I wish them the best.

Pen F – Sweet for the Street

A few months ago I bought a used Lumix GF1 body for $125. The camera was introduced by Panasonic almost eight years ago. It’s a twelve megapixel Micro Four Thirds design that still has some great attributes for the street. I bought it to determine whether or not I want to commit to Micro Four Thirds for street photography since there are many features of the camera designs that make them well suited for that purpose. Along with the camera body, I bought an M. Zuiko 25mm f1.8 prime lens that I reasoned could be used with another Micro Four Thirds camera if I decided to go in that direction.

A couple of months passed and I enjoyed using the GF1 on the street. The size is perfect and I don’t experience neck pain any more from carrying the huge DSLR. The design of the camera makes it easy to change the shooting parameters that I use all of the time: aperture, ISO, exposure compensation, and focus point, to name a few. Among the shortcomings is that the twelve megapixels doesn’t support the crops that I like to use to make fine adjustments to composition. My opinion is that if, for example, I need to straighten an image to get a dominant line perpendicular or horizontal, I will also need a few extra pixels so that I have something left over after the crop to remove the white wedges at all of the corners after rotating the image.

Along came the twenty megapixel Olympus Pen F. It is slightly larger than my GF1, but a huge improvement in shutter response and ISO performance. I won’t go into a full review of the camera here since many others have done a very good job of that. I want to specifically talk about my impressions of the camera as a street photography tool after using it for the first time.

My first impression came as I took it out of the box.  It is a beautifully crafted camera. I purchased the silver and black version rather than the all black because I thought the silver gave it more of a retro appearance. It is comfortable in my hands and the buttons and knobs have a solid feel.

Olympus Pen F Micro Four Thirds Camera

Before my first shoot, I sat down with the Pen F Instruction Manual and my new camera to set all of my street defaults. Since I like to have a lot of control, I turn off the auto ISO, setting my default to ISO 1600. I stick with the default matrix metering (Digital ESP Metering) and use continuous autofocus (C-AF). I set the aperture wide open for aperture priority shooting. The file format is set for RAW RGB.

On the street the camera powers up quickly, ready for shooting. The touch screen makes it very easy to select the focus point. On the GF1 and my DSLR, it was necessary to use the arrow buttons to move the focus point. Now all I need to do is touch the screen where I want to place the focus point. I use this feature instead of letting the camera select the focus point automatically because I don’t want to trust the camera to always do it correctly. An optional feature is to not only place the focus point, but also to focus and shoot without touching the shutter release button. The Pen F allows adjustment of the size of the focus point, which is handy for more dynamic situations where your aim may not be precise and need a larger target.

Shooting is fast: the shutter response is very good and the sequential shot rate is up to 20 fps using the electronic shutter and 10 fps using the mechanical shutter. I found the electronic shutter difficult to use because there is no feedback. When you press the shutter release the camera rips off images at a mind-numbing speed, but you get no idea how many images you are shooting. The real advantage of the electronic shutter is that it is perfectly silent. Most of the time, however, I prefer the mechanical shutter because I can hear the clicks. The mechanical shutter response is also very good so that you can rip images at a high rate using successive shutter presses.

One last feature of the Pen F that I like a lot is the creative dial on the front of the camera body. There are five settings: MONO (Monochrome Profile Control), COLOR (Color Profile Control), camera default, ART (Art Filter), and CRT (Color Creator). The only one that I want to mention is some detail is MONO since my finished work is normally black and white. There are three monochrome profiles to choose, each with grain and color filter options. My favorite is the Monochrome 2 profile that simulates Kodak Tri-X film.

The camera automatically shoots RAW+JPEG when the creative dial is used so that you get both the color image and the processed JPEG. The JPEG results are quite good and the only reason that I would do my own processing might be to achieve a stylistic appearance. I really can’t think of a good example except that I like to have the RAW file in case I don’t like the camera processing.

After the first shoot with the Pen F, I am delighted with the camera and can’t wait to take it on another trip to the street.

It’s Time to Compete

I have entered my first photography competition to try to get more visibility for my work. This is the first time that I have ventured away from the Internet where I have this blog site, Facebook, Adobe Behance, and Flickr pages. I have worked hard on my Internet presence, but the Internet is not a place where a photographer can get honest feedback. That hasn’t been a deterrent or demotivation because I enjoy what I’m doing. Self-assessment over the past several months has provided some growth for me, but now it’s time to get the critical review of experts assessing my work.

I joined the Professional Photographer’s Association of Massachusetts since the organization seems to align well with my goals. Membership opens the possibility of competing with professionals and, importantly, being judged by a panel of professionals who are certified as judges. I’m hoping to get to know some of the members as well, although many are studio photographers who are building a business on photography. My studio is the street and some people don’t even want me to take their picture. That’s not a good business model.

That sounds like a chasm, but I think we also have a lot in common as photographers. Many of the same composition and technical skills are required in the studio of the street. One of the differences is that I can’t control the elements of lighting, the dress and expressions of the people in my images, or the background as a studio photographer can. I still need to know how to use those elements to my advantage to capture images that have impact. I probably delete more images than they do because of those uncontrollable elements.

Soon after joining, I began to study the rules for the 2017 PPAM Photographic Image Competition. Images could be submitted either as prints or digital files. I chose digital because I didn’t have enough time to deal with print quality issues. Most of my images are black and white and I was still in the process of evaluating commercially available black and white printing. There were several competition categories to enter and I chose “Illustrative”, a broad classification where street photos would be appropriate, and “Album”, a category where I thought that I could present a series of images to tell a story.

This was all foreign territory and there was unfamiliar terminology that I needed to understand so that I would be compliant with the rules. I reached out to one of the competition co-chairs with some questions and she referred me to Nancy Green who responded to me directly with an email. Nancy is an accomplished professional who is also an international judge. As my mentor for the competition, she reviewed my work and clarified some of the rules. Her critique helped me to improve the composition of the images that I planned to submit. I made slight adjustments that helped to eliminate distractions and focus on the message being conveyed by each image. These are things that I can apply more broadly to many other images. They are important enough that they could be the subject of another post in the future.

I would have missed the “Presentation” element of the images entirely without her help. The Presentation is a digital matte board designed by the photographer to complement the image. Nancy provided a link to her video on the creation of presentation for an image. I designed a simple off-white matte with a faux bevel on the inside using her technique. My work is black and white and I wanted something very simple that complimented the images rather than distracted from them.

Creating an album was more than I could manage and I decided not to enter that category. There were format requirements and there was creative work that I did not anticipate. In the future, one of my street projects may be suitable as an album, but it will require planning in advance of the shooting and shooting an appropriate series of images. I have at least three series that I’ve done, but none have enough of the correct kind of images to adequately tell a story as an album.

My first impressions of the PPAM are very good. My experiences with Nancy Green were great and I’m impressed by the PPAM culture of sharing and helping. I hope that I have something to give in return. I submitted six black and white street images into the Illustrative category and will now wait for the results. My expectations for an award are not high because of the level of competition. My expectations for critical review are high and I expect to learn things that will improve my images for the next round. In the meantime, see you on the street.

Using Creative Commons

When I began to post my photographic images on the Internet, I researched copyrights and found that it was easy to apply an unregistered copyright to an image. All you need to do is use the copyright symbol followed by the year of origin and your name. At the time, ownership of the images and the right to control their use were my concerns. I thought that copyright was the only alternative.

There are two practical problems with using copyrights. First, enforcing a copyright relies on the integrity of the entity that wants to use the image. Placing an image on the Internet and making it available to search engines makes it available to the world seems to invite an infringement. In that scenario, if someone misuses an image, how in the world will I necessarily discover the infringement of the copyright? Second, my interpretation of information on the U.S. Copyright Office web site is that an unregistered copyright may not provide the desired level of protection, including recovery of damages.

The alternative that I use is Creative Commons. The protection of my work still relies on the integrity of the entity seeking to use it, but it makes compliance much easier. I give up my “right” to compensation, but retain the right to be recognized as the creator. The entity that desires to use my work needs only to attribute the work to me and conform to other terms and conditions of the specific Creative Commons license. I am more likely to have my work used under these conditions and all I really desire is recognition. The other terms and conditions that can be specified under Creative Commons control further distribution and adaptation by the licensee.

Recently I discovered a peril of Creative Commons. I received a message on Flickr from the Corporate Accountability Lab asking for confirmation of the Creative Commons licensing terms and conditions for a specific image that belongs to me. The image was taken at the Occupy Inauguration Boston protests on 20 February 2017, conducted on the Boston Common. In this day of sometimes unfathomable sensitivities, it is easy to attribute a motive to me for posting them. The Web site stated, “As a non-profit organization we rely upon the generosity of our donors, both our fiscal donors and our creative donors.”

I am flattered that they like my image, but was not so happy that I was identified as a donor to the organization. As a street photographer, I capture events as they happen and my opinion doesn’t count. My opinion is not the point: the point is the image itself. They are free to use my image, but I objected to the implication that I support their mission. They were responsive to my concern and updated the wording.

In spite of this annoyance, I will continue to use Creative Commons licensing. It gives me the best chance of getting what I desire most with my images: recognition. My images give me a lot of satisfaction for their own sake, but I like to think that if someone else likes them well enough to reuse them, the work gets attributed to me.

Street Photography: Night Protest

On 20 February 2017 I went to Boston Common to photograph the Occupy Inauguration Boston protest that was scheduled to begin at six in the evening. Crowds always provide opportunities for street photography because of the high density of humans in one place. Protests are even better because most people participating in the protest expect to be photographed. The opportunities are reduced at night and night protests present some unique challenges for photography.

Street photographers are accustomed to dealing with poor light, but at night there is often lack of light. Autofocus sometimes fails to lock onto the subject and switching to manual and back to auto can be cumbersome and counterproductive. If the camera can’t focus, it is not likely that you have enough light to capture a decent image. As it was, I was hovering between ISO 3200 and 6400 during the evening.

Flash is an option and I brought a flash unit with me. As I waded into the crowd I realized that the flash would be distracting and did not use it. In retrospect I also feel that the lighting would have made the images unnatural, losing some of the impact.

This was a low-budget protest: there was no lighting or platform for the people who spoke. When I first arrived, I could hear the voice over the audio system and followed it to find the person speaking. That led me to the pickup truck that was loaded with mobile speakers. I followed the wire another fifty feet to the place where the voice was located. The only lighting on the person speaking was from a video camera and the person speaking was in a hole. The Nikon D750 Live View was useful on several occasions so that I was able to raise the camera high, frame the picture in the display, and shoot.

Boston Common is illuminated by lamplights along the walkways. I found myself running between lamps to catch relevant shots as the crowd marched through each lighted area. At one point the group stopped at the Parkman Bandstand and the only light I had was the taillights of the pickup truck carrying the audio equipment. I took shots with abandon because I knew that many would have poor lighting or focus and end up in the trash bin.

As I was planning for this event, I debated my lens choices. I did not want to carry multiple lenses because I didn’t want the weight or the hassle of changing lenses in the dark. My choices were narrowed down to the 50mm prime lens that I use for street photography or the 24-70mm zoom. I chose the zoom. My rationale was that the wide angle would give me intimate close-ups if needed and the longer focal lengths would let me capture the action from a distance. I was happy with that decision even though the lens is heavy. I shot with the lens wide open at f2.8 the entire evening.

I read some amusing suggestions for lens selection from street photographers that have experience with protests. One person suggested the 24-70mm for peaceful protests and the 70-200mm for more violent ones. Another photographer suggested wearing a bicycle helmet for protection against rocks and clubs. The Boston protest was peaceful and none of that was necessary. If it had turned violent, I would have been out of there.

When I do a shoot like this I am always doubtful of the result until I get home and examine the images. My hard work chasing the crowd paid off. I shot a total of 214 RAW images that resulted in ten to fifteen that were worth keeping. Many of the lighting and color issues go away when the images are converted to black and white, my preferred street medium. To me that is an excellent result. Now I’ll see what my followers think.

See you on the street.

The Life of a Street Photo

When I photo hike on the street I will generally take over a hundred photos. As soon as possible after the shoot, I will sit in front of my computer and select the images that have promise. I move those into a separate folder and import them into Lightroom. In this part of the process I consistently reduce the set of images to about 12% of the original set. It doesn’t seem to matter whether I shoot 150 photos or 500.

In Lightroom I use my personal preset to convert the images to black and white and to make a few adjustments. Occasionally I will retain the color if it is important to the subject. In any case, I only do a minimal amount of processing. Once that is done, I will select the final three to five percent that I will post. From a set of 250 photos, I process about 30 and get about seven that I consider good enough to post.

I have started the practice of deleting everything that I don’t post. In the past I have gone back to review all of the shots that I passed over. I have rarely found the gem that is worth resurrecting and posting. There is always an exception. There are sets of photos that I have had for several years and didn’t give them much thought until I became interested in street photography. In some the composition was good, but the color was awful. Now that I’m doing almost everything in black and white, some of those old photos have gained new life.

When I choose photos for posting I look for something that distinguishes the subject and makes it unique. If I capture the image of someone walking or doing some other common act, I need some other element in the composition to speak to me. Sometimes that element can be in the surroundings, the appearance of a person, or the presence of other people. If the act is itself less common, I look for dynamics and action that make the composition come alive. Sometimes that comes in the form of the subject interacting directly with me as the photographer.

I don’t think that my process is much different than that of other street photographers. The thing that differentiates my work from other street photographers is my approach for capturing images of people, the types of human activities that I enjoy capturing, and consistency in processing so that all of my images have a similar look and feel after I have screened the ones that I like. When I see my small cache depleted, it’s time to go out to the street.

Avoid being a Creep

My wife gave me an article from the December 2016 Discovery Magazine that was adapted from “On the Nature of Creepiness” published in the December 2016 issue of New Ideas in Psychology. A graphic portrays a creepiness scale from one through five, five being the creepiest. The scale is used to rate behaviors that people find creepy. The list of behaviors includes six that can apply to street photographers:

  • Watches you before interacting (4.55)
  • Asks to take your picture (4.11)
  • Opposite sex (4.01)
  • Significantly older than you (3.72)
  • Tall (3.08)
  • Has facial hair (2.89).

It is also significant that the study included 1,341 people and over 75% of them were women, that the age range was 18 to 77, and that the average age was 28.97.

Coincidentally, these are all my behaviors as a street photographer, at least some of the time. Before I take a photo, I sometimes study a person or a setting, basically watching people. Although I haven’t been in the mode of asking to take pictures, I have done it and I’m sure that for some street portraits I will do it again in the future. At least half of the time I will be of the opposite sex, I am retired (old), I’m 6’-4” (193 cm) tall, and I have a short-cropped beard.

I have given this some thought since I don’t want to be unintentionally creepy when I shoot street photos. You certainly don’t want to be walking around someone trying to figure out how you want to frame a photograph or following them to get the shot. That’s creepy in a big way. I have at times felt like a stalker, even when my watching isn’t so obvious. There are ways to watch and to set up a shot without being obvious. Standing in one place or sitting are ways to be less active and, hence, much less threatening. When the moment happens, you need to be prepared to raise the camera and shoot with a confident and deliberate motion, take the shot or multiple shots, and be done with it.

Asking to take a picture is a personal act where you make contact with a total stranger. For those cases I decided to hand people my business card with the URL to my Flickr photostream. I invite them to download their photo for free should I decide to post it. I will not ask them to send me an email or to provide any personal information although my card gives them some of my personal information. I may mention that I do not take unflattering photos of people and theirs will not be posted if it turns out poorly.

There isn’t much I can do about the other items on my personal list of creepy behaviors. Being opposite sex, being old, being tall, and having facial hair are things that I can’t or will not change. I can mitigate the effects of those by using other factors of my appearance. I can dress well and dress appropriately. I avoid denim pants and t-shirts or mysterious looking hoodies. On a recent shoot I wore a flannel shirt, insulated vest, and tan cargo pants. I try to look like grandpa with a camera rather than a voyeur. That said, there are probably few things that a female street photographer can do to be creepy. I will concede that some of the problem comes with being male.

There are times when being intrusive doesn’t matter and you do not risk being creepy. That often happens in a crowd where people probably feel anonymous. There are times when people do not care that you are shooting pictures that include them. Sometimes when you aim the camera at a person or at a group, magical things happen that give you the gift of a great shot. For me it is an intuitive thing that I can’t describe except to say that you need to put yourself out there and get some experience before you can feel those moments.

Everybody has their own style and their own way of rationalizing their street behavior. Just be aware of the things that may make street photographers creepy. You will be more comfortable with the process of street photography, your subjects will react better, and you will get better results.