Photoessay: Tokyo, on the move

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The taxi

Unusually for me, I shot very little monochrome on my last trip to Tokyo. Almost none at all, in fact. I suspect it was partially due to equipment choice – the Hasselblad’s digital back really excels at reproducing accurate color – that made me want to explore the use of color even more. Either that, or it was the subtle subconscious influence that Saul Leiter’s work has been having on me. His color was not at all accurate, but rather both pleasing and very evocative of an emotion or era; maybe because of the tonal shift, maybe because of the conscious choice of palette.

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Photoessay: Amsterdam street colour

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Street photography is something I’ve always done solely for myself – there is no direct commercial application (though arguably some of the techniques probably apply to reportage). For me, it didn’t come about from following a popular trend or other external influence: I just wanted to capture the essence and feel of daily life in a place when I travelled; nothing more, nothing less. Sometimes we find a unique and fun moment or two; sometimes it’s a case of the locally familiar being unfamiliar to us – and therefore interesting. But above all, aesthetics and timing still matter. Enjoy! MT

These images were made during the October 2013 Making Outstanding Images Workshop in Amsterdam; I will be holding three more of these in Melbourne, Sydney and London later this year. Click here for more info, and to sign up.

This set was shot with a Ricoh GR, Olympus OM-D E-M5, the Panasonic 14-42/3.5-5.6 X pancake, and the Leica 50/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH.

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Color management for photographers: a primer


Color spaces, from Wikimedia Commons; reused under a Creative Commons license. Image by Cpesacreta. What is clear here is that none of the common color spaces or reproduction methods can display the entire visible spectrum.

Starting from the start, a colour space defines all of the possible tones and hues that a single pixel may take. The values may take either a RGB value or CMYK value; the set of three numbers represents the amount of each colour present from a scale of 0-255, which gives 256 possible tonal values for each colour (red, green, blue or cyan, magenta, yellow and black). Combining every possible permutation of these gives you 16.7 million possible different colours for RGB. Note that you don’t get 4.3 billion colours for CMYK, because the K (black) value controls the overall brightness and density rather than contributing another possible hue to the mix.

The reason why we have different colour spaces is because they define the limit of reproducible tones for a particular reproduction method – be that screen, web, print, or TV transmission. The most commonly used colour spaces are either a type of sRGB or newsprint CMYK; both of these actually offer very limited reproduction potential. Many of you will notice that most images you see on the web, or in print, are lacking in depth and tonal subtlety; this is simply because the desired tone simply cannot be reproduced, and as a result lands up defaulting to the nearest possible colour value – which is obviously not going to accurately represent the original image. When a colour goes outside the possible range, this is known as gamut clipping. Some of the better proofing software can be configured to display a warning when this occurs; Camera Raw shows a small warning triangle in the upper-right near the histogram.

For photographers, the important colour spaces you need to be aware of for digital display are Adobe RGB, sRGB and ProPhoto RGB. For print, it’s whatever variant of CMYK your printer uses. Let’s start with the former. Adobe RGB is the most common wide-gamut colour space available; almost every camera today – even compacts – has the option to output in this colour space by default – use it. sRGB is a limited, mostly web-safe gamut that varies slightly depending on the standard; one camera maker’s sRGB won’t be the same as another, and the sRGB displayed online will be different yet again – possibly depending on the browser, or your system settings, or any one of many other factors. Avoid this wherever possible. The final RGB – ProPhoto – provides the widest of all gamuts; however, most monitors aren’t capable of displaying the majority of the possible colours, and few web browsers support it. I’m going to leave covering CMYK until the section dealing with print.

Although the tonal limitations of each colour space depend very much on the specific colour space themselves, it’s safe to say that in general, you’ll see the difference between Adobe RGB and sRGB most prominently in the blues and greens. There’s a particular shade of sky blue that seems to be nearly impossible to reproduce in sRGB, for instance. CMYK has similar restrictions to sRGB, but biases towards cyan instead of green and blue; overall, it lacks the vibrance and saturation that RGB can deliver – unsurprising given that the constituent colours are not red, green and blue! CMYK is used only for print proofing and is never found in camera or monitor; this is because the native components of these devices are formed of RGB photosites or pixels.

The observant of you will have noted that 256 tonal values represent 8 bits of information per colour channel. So why do we bother with 14 bit raw files, and working in 16 bits? Simple: although our output may always only be 8-bit, the amount of information we have going in affects the amount of work we can do to a file before we start to see posterisation (separation of areas into distinct blocks of colour with no tonal variation or smooth transition between adjacent zones). If we have 256 input values, do some contrast adjustment (effectively, ‘stretching’ the histogram) – we might now make some of the levels cover adjacent levels, resulting in only say 150 truly distinct tonal values for a particular channel. Most of the time, software will cover these ‘steps’ reasonably well; however, the reality is that you will see some posterisation. Working in a 16-bit colour space – with 65,536 tonal values per channel – avoids this problem mainly because we can’t actually achieve this many distinct tonal values through most reproduction methods; everything is effectively down sampled before output. Make sure you have your editing software convert any files in other colour spaces to the working colour space, too.

In-camera, the best option you have for maintaining accurate colour is to shoot RAW, Adobe RGB and whatever the highest bit space your camera offers; for the current batch of Nikons that would be 14-bit NEF, Adobe RGB, lossless compressed or uncompressed. (Lossless compressed only discards information in portions of the tonal register that aren’t being used or are adjacent duplicates, not any of the actual image data). Any time you’re shooting JPEG, you’re limited to 8 bits – and every file is compressed; avoid shooting JPEG unless you absolutely have no choice (A non-compressed JPEG is effectively a TIFF or bitmap). After being used to the tonal elasticity of of manipulating a good RAW file, you’ll be surprised at just how fast a JPEG will clip or posterise when manipulated – it’s one of the reasons that I almost always avoid buying a camera until there’s full RAW support for it through my usual workflow (ACR>PS). And it’s also important to note that RGB channel histograms and overexposure warnings are important: once a channel clips, it’s gone for good, especially with JPEG files. Although most raw converters will allow for some interpolation of surrounding tonal information to recover and reconstruct some highlight data, it won’t be that accurate.

All of this care during capture would be useless if not maintained during the postproduction process – that’s the importance of your screen workflow. Firstly, you need to have a good monitor that’s capable of displaying a wide gamut; the best of today’s bunch (Eizo, some NEC, Apple Cinema Display) are capable of covering almost all of the Adobe RGB gamut; if you’re serious, this is the kind of monitor you want. Secondly, it needs to be calibrated – i.e. ensuring what you see on screen accurately represents the actual data. The Monitor Calibration Utility for Apple (under System Preferences, Displays) is actually pretty good at this if you do all of the steps properly – a handy tip is to have an image which you’re familiar with open in another window while you run the wizard to ensure that the end output looks accurate to you. For Windows users, you’re recommended to invest in a Spyder or something similar – this generates a profile that the monitor then uses create its display output.

The next step along the chain is output: what are you going to use the image for? If it’s print, save as a 16 bit uncompressed TIFF; this will give the printer as much information as possible to work with when performing the RGB to CMYK conversion. I don’t actually recommend performing this conversion yourself unless you have the exact colour profile your printer is going to use, otherwise you might land up with some strange hue shifts. If it’s for screen or web use, then a jpeg is fine – most viewers are not going to have the right equipment to view the full gamut anyway; thus it’s better that you run a test proof under as close to actual viewing conditions as possible. I wouldn’t advocate going to sRGB unless you know that’s the only possible output; your best choices these days are Safari and Firefox – both are available for Windows and Mac. Similarly, ensure that your web hosting service preserves as much of the colour information as possible; the only one I know of that doesn’t convert things to sRGB is Flickr. Facebook et al are absolutely horrible – not only do they compress the hell out of the image, but they also shift everything into a very restricted web-safe sRGB that makes things appear both tonally blocky yet ‘coarse’ at the same time, due to the compression. Do NOT use Facebook to display images unless you have no choice, don’t care, or didn’t have the tonal information to begin with (smartphones, for instance) – everything just looks bad.

Printing is a whole article unto itself, but I’m going to touch on it briefly here: the main disconnect between the print workflow and the capture workflow is colour space; screen viewing involves an additive method where R, G and B are mixed together to make the desired colour; print uses C, M, Y and K inks subtractively to create colour. The reason for this is simple: pixels are backlit, prints aren’t. You’re dealing with reflected light off the print medium as opposed to transmitted light. Although this conversion process keeps improving, the mapping isn’t perfect and there still remain portions of the Adobe RGB gamut that can’t easily be reproduced in print. Part of this is due to the subtractive method; part of it is due to the fact that ink drops are either there or they aren’t – to create the illusion of tonal variation, printers use very, very small drops and dithering or half toning to leave white space between the dots. Note that print DPI is not the same as screen DPI – one pixel may be represented by anywhere up to 12 dots of ink! By far the best option for printing is to ensure your RGB output file is as accurate and full of information as you can manage; then find yourself a competent printer. I’m not going to get into self-printing – suffice to say that I did try, but between the wasted test prints, the clogged heads, the cleaning cycles…it simply wasn’t economically feasible for me to maintain my own printer.

There’s one final thing you have to take into consideration when an output image is being viewed: the effect of ambient light. It’s less important for devices that supply their own light – LCD panels, for instance – but it still matters because ambient brightness might overwhelm the panel and make colours appear dull or washed out. It’s far more critical for print viewing; the colour temperature of ambient light will affect the perceived white point, as well as the light reflected off the print itself. This causes toning or shading of the print; a good print master will adjust the yellow and blue components of an image for the intended display location; for instance, under tungsten light you have to remove some yellow component and/or increase the blues slightly as the light itself will provide that; the opposite is true for LED lighting. This is why all critical print proofing should be done in daylight – or under a daylight (5500-6000K) source. There are special daylight spectrum fluorescent tubes available for this purpose.

You’ll notice that I haven’t said anything about black and white workflow – it still matters, though less so. Assuming your printer can create a pure black and white without any hue shifts, then the important part is to check your grayscale space – this works in a similar manner to colour spaces, but controls the gamma of the image rather than the actual range of possible tonal values. This is critical to ensure that the resulting output image has the right density.

I’m going to finish with a final note on my own workflow. I run a 15″ MacBook Pro, calibrated with the Monitor Calibration Utility. I shoot 14-bit lossless compressed RAW in Adobe RGB on my D800E, M9 and OM-D; the RX100 is JPEG-only for the moment (Update: now supported by ACR/ LR as at October 2012). Files are opened in Adobe Camera Raw for initial adjustments (even JPEGs) before conversion to the working file format in Photoshop; I keep everything in 16 bit Adobe RGB until output. My web output is 8-bit JPEG; everything else is 16-bit lossless compressed (LZW) TIFF, or Photoshop (depending on the use or client). I will do some CMYK conversions for clients if they can supply the working CMYK space; otherwise, if it’s print, I leave the conversion to my printer – he knows the output capabilities of his equipment far better than I do, and I’ve yet to be disappointed with any of his output. It’s important to note that although I’ll select the colour space that retains as much of the original tonal information as possible, there’s also no point in bloating files if the information simply wasn’t there to begin with in the first place; I’m not going to save a conversion from a 12-bit RAW file as a 16-bit TIFF because there simply isn’t that much information after manipulation; let alone a JPEG. These will be saved as 8-bit compressed TIFF files instead.

Although the colour management process can be daunting, it’s important to invest time in understanding it and get it right – you’ll find afterwards that your images look a lot more consistent, regardless of the display medium. MT

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Color or black and white?

In advance of tomorrow’s review of the Leica M-Monochrom, it seems that this is a an appropriate question to tackle (if a completely academic one if your camera doesn’t shoot color in the first place.) It’s actually one of the tougher problems I face on a regular basis. Does a shot work better in color or black and white? What if it’s both? There are generally a few things that I look for which help, either to define the obvious or if I’m on the fence. This article is a short distillation of that process.

1. Is it commercial? If so, then 99% of the time, the required output will be color. Especially if it’s food or product; architecture can be either.

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Commercial architecture. Nikon D700, AFS 24/1.4 G

2. Are there strong dominant colors in the image? If so, then color. Generally, if the image is about strong color, monochrome almost always never works because for a color to be perceived as strong, you need to have fairly constant luminance values across the scene. And luminance variation is what you need for a good B&W. If the strong dominant color as a good range of luminance values, then either can work.

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Offerings of strong color. Leica M9-P, 35/1.4 ASPH FLE

3. Is the image naturally washed out or low saturation because of the subject or lighting? Generally, black and white works better here; however, you’d be surprised at how different an image with subtle color and very low saturation looks vs one that is completely colorless.

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Subtle color works well, sometimes. Prague castle. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

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But sometimes there is just no color to be had – the scene in reality was almost monochrome already due to the flat lighting and fog. Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

4. Is the subject isolated or highlighted by the lighting of the scene? Either can work, but my personal preference is for black and white because you’ve got enough luminance isolation already without having to overdo it.

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Isolation by lighting. Note how the backlight rings the subject. Paris. Leica M8, Voigtlander 50/1.1

5. Is the subject isolated by color? Stupid question, easy answer. Go with color. If not, you risk running into the problem of small differences in luminance values again. Sometimes, color IS the subject.

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Isolation by color. Goa, India. Leica M8, Voigtlander 15/4.5

6. What emotion or feeling are you trying to achieve with the image? Classical timelessness always requires B&W, otherwise, go with color and shift the white balance a little.

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Film Noir. This could have been 8 days or 80 years ago. It was neither, actually. London, Leica M8, 35/2 ASPH

7. Is the image part of a series, group or set? Whatever the answer is, be consistent. You could produce two different sets, but make sure the style (including color or lack thereof) is consistent between images in the set. If you’re only delivering or using one set, then don’t change styles halfway through. See what best fits the images and overall goal of the series.

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The man behind the scenes, literally. If the backdrop was monochrome, would the blue screen effect metaphor have been as obvious? I think not. Nikon D700, Zeiss ZF 1.4/85 Planar

Of course, the easiest way to avoid all of these problems and questions it to pre visualize your shot and start with the end already in mind, so you know what you’re going to do with it. And that will be the subject of a future article :) MT

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Chasing perfect color, and common myths about white balance

The previous article on the inexact science of color and emotion dealt with why color was important, and how we can use it as a tool to alter the mood and emotional response of the viewer of our photographs. This article explains how we get there.

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Sandwiches. Did you know greens are heavily affected by the yellow channel? Nikon D700, AFS 60/2.8 G Micro

Although highly saturated color is visually striking, and B&W images are timelessly classic and elegant, there are a lot of times when neither is appropriate or an accurate representation of the scene. I’ve recently realized that I like accurate color above everything else – saturation control then becomes a matter of seasoning to taste. Color accuracy is actually quite critical when it comes to things like food – if the color of cheese or lettuce is off, it just looks moldy or unfresh. This is definitely NOT good for commercial work! My recent work is what I’d call in a ‘natural’ style – the color, saturation and hues are as close to my perception and remembrance of the scene as possible. I’ll do some shifting of white balance to make things warmer or cooler as required, but not a huge amount because it can do some very strange things to tonal accuracy.

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Scarlet Ibis. The red in is plumage is due to pigments in the shellfish that forms the majority of its diet. Leica V-Lux 3

Skin tones are perhaps the most difficult to replicate accurately; this is because skin is both reflective of ambient light (easy for the camera to capture) and emissive – we’re warm, and there’s some passive IR radiated by warm objects. Although modern cameras have very effective UV/IR blocking filter packs, they also produce (in my opinion) slightly dead-looking skin tones. I actually liked the skin tones from the Leica M8 for this reason, which was notorious for having perhaps the weakest UVIR filtration of any camera on the market – to the point that to get accurate blacks you’d have to use a UVIR filter on your lens.

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Black fabrics in the sun are notorious IR-emitters. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

Other objects that are notoriously difficult to reproduce accurately are flowers, some animals, and some fabrics. Again – this is because of the way they interact with the near-UV and near-IR spectra, which affects the way our eyes perceive color (though we can’t see UV or IR directly unlike some animals). To date, there is no camera that accurately reflects the spectral response of the human eye – and I suspect it might be very difficult to make one, because the filter pack would have to be calibrated to transmit or cut out a certain amount of each wavelength. It’s much easier to make a filter that cuts out everything above and/or below a certain wavelength. Throw in the added complication of mixed light sources, and you’ve got a minor nightmare.

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Colors. All of them. Which one do you balance for without shifting the others? Answer: focus on your subject – in this case, skin tones and blacks. Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini, 45/1.8

So what can we do to achieve perfect color?

First clarification: we are not trying to achieve perfect spectral reproduction; we’re trying to achieve perfect perceptual reproduction. It’s not quite the same thing. Basically, you want to get to the starting point of being as close to what you remember seeing as possible, then work from there. That way, you know that all of your tweaking isn’t going to create some strange shifts in certain parts of the tonal spectrum.

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Chilis. Nikon D700, AFS 60/2.8 G Micro

White balance is inextricably linked to color. And there are some important things one has to bear in mind:

1. You have to get it right first time if you’re shooting JPEG. There just isn’t the tonal headroom in 8 bits to be able to make anything other than minor channel adjustments and not encounter posterization or weird hue shifts.

2. Manual white balance and a piece of paper are your best friends.

3. If you’re shooting RAW, white balance is less critical, but if you blow a channel, you’re not getting it back. Usually reds and yellows are the first to go. With earlier cameras, you might have to underexpose by as much as two stops to maintain tonal detail in the reds. I think it’s something to do with IR-sensitivity, the effectiveness of the filter pack over the top of the sensor, and how the red pixels respond very strongly to IR pollution.

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Cigars are one of the most difficult colors to get right. I don’t know what it is about the tobacco leaf, but that rich, deep brown hue requires a lot of work to perfect. Nikon D700, AFS 60/2.8 G Micro

4. White balance does affect exposure. This isn’t immediately intuitive; the reason is because if you get it very, very wrong, you’ll find that after correction, the dominant colors in the shot will shift, and the sensor may not have gained up enough at the extreme ends (red or blue) resulting in underexposure – most likely. You can to some extent recover this in post, but the bigger problem is that you’re going to land up with a very noisy image – the blue channel is generally holds the most noise for most cameras as it is the least sensitive due to the laws of optics, photon energy and filtration…but I won’t go into that here; complex quantum mechanical formulae are beyond the ability of my blogging software to input and display. :)

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Prayer wheels, Nepal. Nikon D700, 24/1.4 G

Bottom line: shoot raw, and get in the right ballpark. Small adjustment are fine, and you can never get it 100% right all the time with a manual balance because ambient light is always changing. AWB works reasonably well on most cameras these days, but you have to watch out for the very warm light sources. I was told by several people in the camera industry that it was a conscious choice to leave the yellow/red components in the tungsten AWB because people expect the light to be warm (back to perception) – and having pure whites just looked odd to most consumers. I can attest to that as a lot of my students have asked me why the color is so blue when shooting indoors! Although I can’t say whether it’s a visual expectation on the part off the photographer, or whether inaccurate white balance is something they’ve come to expect because it was inadvertently dictated by the industry.

I’ve been playing with a handy little tool recently called a WhiBal. Basically, it’s a very, very accurate neutral gray card. I’ve found there are two ways to use it – one, take a shot under AWB with the card in the frame, and use that as your reference frame; eyedropper tool WB from the card in ACR, then sync white balance between the remainder of your files. Note that these two methods only work when your lighting is consistent from frame to frame, i.e. under studio conditions. The other option is shoot the card under the lighting conditions you’re going to use to set the preset in camera; I find this works better because all of your frames are automatically synced from the shoot. And if you’re using the same setup – as I do for watches – I can basically do it once and just leave one of my manual presets to match my flash and diffuser combo.

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If any of you have shot purple flowers, you’ll know they’re notorious for shifting towards blue: that’s because of the UV reflectance. Flowers have UV and IR reflective pigments to signal to other animals – in this case pollinating insects and birds – that can see UV and IR.
Nepal. Nikon D700, 24/1.4 G

Next, make the tweaks – in your RAW converter, (I use ACR 6) perfect your white balance. Use the eyedropper tool on various gray areas in the scene until, it looks close to what you remember. (This is another reason why I like to process as close to immediately as possible: you might forget what the originals scene looked like, or any processing ideas you might have had at the time). Don’t worry if the eyedropper tool doesn’t get it right; you can shift the color temperature and hue sliders a little until you do.

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This blue is one of the most difficult colors to get right. What makes it so appealing as a car color – the fact that it changes a lot under different lighting conditions – also makes it a royal pain to photograph and represent accurately. The honest truth is that I have no idea what RGB value this actually is, because it’s both reflective and in many spectra. Nikon D700, 28-300VR.

Open your file, make whatever contrast adjustments you need to – curves/ levels – then only use the Hue/Saturation tool to adjust the individual channels. Using curves inevitably shifts the saturation and hue slightly – there’s no way out of that – so you’ll need to bring back the individual channels. For instance, if it’s predominantly red and you used a curve that darkened the image, you’ll have to compensate for that by reducing saturation and increasing lightness slightly in the Hue/Saturation tool. There is no exact science to this – it’s all about experience, perception, and having the most accurate monitor you can find.

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Remember what I was saying before about shellfish and birds? Nikon D700, AFS 60/2.8 G Micro

Each camera has a different filter pack and spectral response. Even though manufacturers try to keep the color output consistent from model to model, there will be differences. The D3100, for instance, has a crappy color gamut that I was never happy with – much like the NEX-5 – however, the D700, D5100 and D7000 are all pretty similar. The D800 is close, but even more accurate and with a wider supported tonal range out of the box. The M8 with UVIR filter, M9 without and S2 are almost identical. Since I use a whole bunch of cameras – at the last check, Leica, Nikon, Olympus and Ricoh – I’ve created individual color profiles for each camera in ACR and saved them as camera defaults. The look I like is somewhere between the tonal richness of Leica and the warmth of Olympus – perhaps Olympus + Zeiss glass describes it best. Oh, and different lenses have different spectral transmission characteristics too, just to make life more interesting. Your personal preferences will almost certainly be different because each individual perceives color differently. But I suggest that if you have the time, this is a worthwhile exercise.

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The challenging pale but saturated lightness of macaroons. Nikon D700, Carl Zeiss ZF.2 2/2.8 Distagon

One important final note: all of this is in vain if your final output use is extremely limited gamut or highly compressed (*cough*FACEBOOK*cough*) – all of the additional tonal information you tried to save is going to be lost and compressed to hell. Some browsers (Safari) and photo sharing sites (Flickr) are better than others because they are color profile aware and don’t compress images, but the issue then becomes monitor accuracy. So unless you know the final output method and have some control over it, it’s very tricky to ensure that everybody is seeing the same thing. And printing is a whole separate blog on its own…MT

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Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

POTD: Primary colors

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Primary colors. Nikon D700, 28-300VR.

Here’s a good example of an image that wouldn’t work at all in black and white…to be the subject of an upcoming article! MT

The inexact science of color and emotion

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What makes this photo identifiable as dawn instead of sunset? Hint: it’s the color. We expect sunsets to be warm, but mornings to be cool and clear.

A series of experiments was done many years ago that showed humans have been conditioned to expect certain things in the way of color: blue ketchup just doesn’t fly, for instance. The theory is that it’s a primeval subconscious response to warn us of danger. Think of it this way: rancid meat looks a certain way, and has a certain color. Even if we can’t smell it – looking at a photograph of vomit or something decomposing makes us go ewwww. Such examples are to be found in nature all the time – think of those brightly colored poisonous beetles, for instance. In fact, the link between color and range (and thus emotion) is so strong that many species mimic the coloring of more dangerous species to warn away predators, but at the same time rely solely on that as protection because they pack no venom or toxicity. (Toxicity is energy-consuming to produce, and in food-scarce environments, you want to waste as little of your nutritional intake as possible producing something that’s only going to help you if you’re eaten – and thus probably going to die anyway.)

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A tale of two cities. Shot minutes apart, though. How does the first image make you feel? The second?

How does this relate to photography? Quite simply, when you look at a photograph, how does it make you feel? Ignore the subject for a moment. The remaining emotional response is mostly down to your reaction to the processing: specifically, color. Why do black and white images have that ‘timeless’ or ‘ageless’ quality? Why do they make you feel slightly detached, as you’re an observer but not really part of the scene? It’s all due to color, or in this case, the lack of it. It’s difficult to relate to something if your information or perception on it is limited to tonal information only.

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Why does this shot imply richness and juiciness? How would you feel about pale gray steak with red tomatoes, even if it tasted the same?

In fact, if you look through historical photographs and video – you’ll see that each recent era or block of ~10 years in modern history actually has quite distinct color and tonal styles. And looking at this often makes one feel something – nostalgia, hatred, wondering what one was doing with their youth. Early color photos from the 1930s and 40s have that vintage look, for instance.

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To me, this screams classical photojournalism – because of the contrast, the tonality, and the lack of color. Early photographers didn’t purposely go for that look – they learned to work with it because of the limitations of darkroom chemistry.

A lot of modern photography software capitalizes on this. Instagram and all of those software filter packages are a good example – hell, even Lomography to some extent – they let you instantly create a feeling through a combination of color fiddling and contrast manipulation. There’s a reason why a photo from a Lomo or Instagram looks like a vintage hippy polaroid: it’s because the white balance was shifted warmer by several notches, the saturation decreased slightly, the contrast decreased a lot, and the relative luminance and hue of the red and yellow channels shifted. And there’s probably some grain and gaussian blur in the mix, too. Try it yourself in Photoshop, if you don’t believe me.

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Cool mountain. Nikon D700, Zeiss ZF.2 2/100 Makro-Planar

The point is, polaroids looked that way because of the chemical process of the day: not because they wanted them to look that way. I’m pretty sure the engineers there were chasing perfect color, too. The upshot of all of this is that a modern photograph processed that way invokes memories of the polaroid era, because that’s how most social images looked then.

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Mmm, natural green freshness.

Most humans respond in similar ways to color, namely:
Red – danger, warning, attention;
Blue – cool, calming, relaxing;
Yellow – warm, friendly, open;
Green – natural, fresh;
Black – mysterious, sinister, classic, premium, heavy;
White – pure, open, light, honest, clean
Gray – apathy

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Multiple light sources can be confusing as hell, but almost always signal ‘party!’

Simply put, there’s a reason why most Ferraris are red, and most hospitals are white.

How does this help you as a photographer?

Actually, it’s fairly simple. Color enters your image everywhere, but makes an impact in at least two major ways. The first is if you’ve got one dominant color in the scene that registers on the subconscious of the viewer even before they figure out what the subject is; it can be the color of the backdrop, for instance. A more subtle way is the ambient light temperature – for instance, a warmer white balance setting will result in a shift towards the red and yellow channels; this in turn imparts the ambient light with a particular quality and tone.

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Warmth. The ambient WB was shifted further away from the primary light source (the flame) to preserve the warm color.

The second major way is through contrast: if you’ve got a subject of one color against a backdrop of another completely opposite color (red and green or blue and yellow, for instance) then it’ll stand out because it’s the only thing in the scene that is visually discordant. It’s a good thing, in this case, because it draws your eye to the subject and lets the background serve as a stage – which is the way it should be.

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Why does my subject stand out? It’s a different color to the background, of course.

But what if your scene has no dominant color, or is very washed out or low in saturation? Do what the cinematographers have been doing for years, and either impart a global tint as described above – you can easily do this if you shoot raw by shifting the white balance; lower color temperatures that what is accurate are cooler and bluer, and vice versa for higher color temperatures. The other alternative is to use a filter over your lens, or color the light – the latter obviously assumes you’ve got some control over your lighting, though. By far the easiest way to shift color and not land up with odd hues due to the nature of color addition and subtraction is to adjust your white balance.

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KLCC dawn, color slightly shifted. Nikon D700, 28-300VR

One final comment: you need to start with an accurate white balance before you shift the color temperature. This is so you don’t land up with strange colors due to shifts along the green to magenta axis (white balance and color temperature affects only blue to orange/red). Also, remember not to overdo the saturation: shifting the white balance can cause other channels to blow, even if the original appeared to be correctly exposed. And over saturated images just look crude, frankly.

And on that note, I’m going to break until the next topic: chasing perfect color, and white balance myths. MT

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Funky diner colors. Sometimes, your ambient light is close to exactly what you want – and all you have to worry about is color accuracy. Nikon D700, 85/1.4 G

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