It’s all about light: making mood and strong images in monochrome

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Rush hour

A couple of days ago, we looked at the inexact science of color and emotion: I don’t think anybody is going to argue that the mood and feeling of an image is influenced heavily by the dominant color palette, both in terms of the color of incident/reflected light and the color of the subject elements themselves. But how does this translate to black and white images? Obviously, it’s very possible to do since not every monochrome image feels the same. Even within the same sort of general lighting – say low key – it’s possible to produce variations in mood. How?

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‘Painterly’ photographs

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Ready to go

The idea of a photograph looking like a painting isn’t a ridiculous one. In fact, I personally find it quite appealing, and a very good solution for the times when you don’t have strong enough light to make something more dynamic. It’s certainly a style I’ve been exploring increasingly – beginning consciously with Havana – but what exactly makes a photograph ‘painterly’?

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Achieving visual consistency

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One of the questions I’m asked also (unsurprisingly) happens to be one of the biggest challenges for a lot of people: how to achieve visual consistency across multiple systems/ cameras/ media, and across multiple subjects. Though the latter is really getting into the question of what constitutes style and how can one consistently apply it, there are still things you can do to ensure that you are in control of the final presentation: not your camera. I certainly cannot tell a client ‘sorry, it looks different because I used two different cameras.’

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Repost: Defining style, and finding your own

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I think of this image as being very characteristic of the way I shoot these days – and you can probably guess that it was one of mine, even without the frame. But what does that mean? Why and what is it that makes it so – and more importantly, how do you consciously add your own visual signature to an image?

Introduction: This was an earlier essay written on a tough topic: something that is fundamentally important for all serious photographers, yet is extremely difficult to define in a strict technical sense due to its very nature.

In hindsight, I realized that it might not be something that a lot of photographers consciously consider at the time of capture; it might come up come post processing time, but you really need to have it in mind before you even hit the shutter. There is of course far more detail than I can possibly cover in a single post – we tried to put everything into a single 2h video, but we landed up needing 6 hours in total to be comprehensive. I probably should have reposted this as an introduction to the latest two videos, but better late than never! Think of it as context, preface and explanation for Making Outstanding Images series: Exploring and Processing for Style.

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Now available: Making Outstanding Images Episode 4&5: Exploring Style!

I’m pleased to announce the final two videos in the Making Outstanding Images workshop series: Exploring Style and Processing for Style are now available for instant download!

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Coming soon: Making Outstanding Images Episodes 4&5: Exploring Style. Last call for HTS2/ Street 1 bundle

I’m pleased to announce the final two videos in the Making Outstanding Images workshop series are very nearly complete.

Style is a very complex subject that extends from the point of capture through post processing and eventually, output. We examine what style is; break it down into constituent quantitative components; look at four styles in detail, shoot live examples on location in Penang, Malaysia and then bring the whole thing back to the studio to complete the post processing. It’s more than six hours of video in total, spread over two episodes (you can buy the style portion and the post processing portions separately) and four parts. It is easily the most comprehensive, time consuming and extensive production we’ve done, so advance warning is necessary: it will cost a little bit more than the previous videos, but you get what you pay for :)

Both videos – Episodes 4 and 5 – will be available very soon from the online store.

This will also be the last few days to buy the Making Outstanding Images Ep. 2&3 bundle, and the How To See Ep2.: Tokyo & Street Photography 1 bundle at the special launch prices. Those are also available from the online store right now :)

Finally, some of you may have noticed we’ve also taken this opportunity to give the store UI a little refresh – the whole thing should be much easier to navigate now, and you can also see which videos we have in the works.

Thanks again for your support! MT

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How camera choices influence your image

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A little while back, I made an offhand comment about a certain camera being my choice for ‘serious’ work which spurred a lengthy subsequent discussion offline with a reader; it got me thinking: what exactly constitutes ‘seriousness’? But beyond that, how does a photographer’s choice of camera, or format, or medium, influence the final image? More importantly, is there any way we can use that to make stronger images – because ultimately, that’s what photography is all about. We’ll explore that in some detail in today’s article.

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Photoessay: San Francisco monochromes, part two: channeling Winogrand

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One of the exercises I did at the last round of US workshops was an exploration into finding style. Naturally, having taken both of the groups in San Francisco to see the Garry Winogrand exhibition that was on at SFMOMA, there was more than a healthy curiosity amongst the groups to attempt to shoot replicate his way of shooting. I of course had to demonstrate. Whilst I don’t particularly care for his off-center/ misaligned/ ‘loose’ framing and various forms of blurring, I do appreciate his sense of timing and getting into the moment and the scene. Plenty of shooting from the hip or with the tilt screen and a wide lens ensued; the OM-D and 12/2 was weapon of choice. Enjoy! MT

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Personal evolution: changes in style

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This essay is a loose continuation of the previous article on Ignorance, fear and photographic freedoms in Malaysia; increasing paranoia and protection of perceived rights. It’s just the latest driver in the evolution of my photographic style over the last couple of years. There are two reasons for writing this essay: firstly, as an exercise in self-reflection and analysis, and secondly, to help my readers understand the effect of environmental factors on one’s photography. Actually, a good place to observe this trending is on my Flickr stream; there are lots of images dating from several years ago, in mostly chronological order, and it’s regularly updated.

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2007. No way I’d be able to shoot that today; I tried using an RX100 two months ago and was confronted by security – this shot was with a D200 and 70-200VR.

Restrictions in subject

The aforementioned limitations on where I can shoot have forced me to revisit the easy places – cityscapes, street photography, and any abstracts I can get from public property. One of my favorite subjects – geometric architectural abstracts with human elements for scale – is now pretty much a no-go. I’m even trying out minimalist landscapes and general abstracts now; though the subjects aren’t as strong, it is forcing me to pay even closer attention to the strength of my compositions. An image with an abstract subject must be very strong indeed to stand on its own, because you’re effectively removing one of the four fundamental must-haves – leaving you only with light, composition and the idea.

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A preference for physically smaller cameras

Many years of intensive laptop use (I blame this entirely on consulting), air travel and simply carting around far too much junk are now starting to take their toll on my back and neck; I simply can’t carry around as much as I used to without feeling sore after a couple of hours. I even use a roller bag on assignment now, where previously I’d have made do with a backpack for better mobility.

Although I’ve always had a compact camera for as long as I can remember, my preference has always been for larger sensors due to the benefits in image quality. It is only recently that technological evolution has permitted the quality of small sensors to reach and surpass the point of sufficiency for the majority of applications. Of course, the image quality from larger sensors has improved by a similar margin; the bigger the better continues to hold true in situations where ultimate image quality is paramount. Of course, there are restrictions involved: mostly around lenses and depth of field control. On the former, there are few high quality fast telephoto equivalents in fixed-lens compacts – Micro Four Thirds is a nice exception – which shifts one’s shooting style to prefer wider perspectives.

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Less bokeh, more context

A general lack of depth of field control on smaller formats forces you to avoid relying on bokeh as a crutch to save what would be an otherwise boring image – I see this as a very good thing, because the focus returns to light, strength of composition and overall balance. Depth of field control is a nice bonus when you do have it – I find I can now precisely control just how much context I want in a shot. Conversely, I also find that I’m making a lot more compositions that work with or without shallow depth of field; this can sometimes lead to paralysis by choice.

Although I think this shift in shooting style was brought on largely by my increased use of small-sensor cameras, I think it’s also a related consequence to an increasingly commercial mindset to my images; clients usually want to have more of the overall scene in focus.

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2012 – I was on holiday, but it looks pretty darn commercial to me.

The shift from personal work to commercial work

This is a change that’s been a double-edged sword for me. Although it has forced me to up my game when it comes to lighting control and compositional variety, the fairly conservative nature of all of the industries I cover mean that there are generally accepted styles and norms, and a very low client appetite for something different. I’ve noticed the majority of my work now trending towards a very standardized, clean-looking style – I feel the unconventional angles and compositions that used to be my hallmark eroding somewhat.

There’s now a definite trending of my personal work towards the commercial style; it’s almost as though I’m almost unconsciously avoiding the grit of reality. I’m taking a lot more time to set up a shot that previously, paying more attention to potential still lifes and lighting control. Needless to say, I’m doing very little to no reportage these days – a friend’s wedding I recently attended brought home just how out of practice I was. (I suppose it didn’t really help that I chose to use two manual focus lenses that are known to be rife with field curvature.) At least I’m still continuing to put my individual stamp on color; if anything, I’m even more picky about it, because color accuracy is absolutely critical for product work.

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2012. Shot RAW, converted with a little curve. That’s all – 30 seconds of work, maximum.

Efficiency in postprocessing

A part of me used to enjoy the Photoshop portion of the workflow – in some ways, it was the place where all the ingredients came together with a little alchemy to make something special. I suppose it’s akin to finding a sculpture in a rough block of marble. To put it bluntly, spending large amounts of time in front of the computer is no longer a preferred activity for me. Perhaps it’s due to the time spent on keeping this site running; then again, it’s more likely to be the D800E: the enormity of the files place huge demands on my computer and slow down the whole process by a factor of two or three. And when you’ve got a lot of images to process, this can make a huge difference in one’s tolerance. Furthermore, time spent on postprocessing is effectively dead time: you can’t do anything revenue-generating, or lead-generating, so it makes sense to keep it to a minimum. And when you work freelance for yourself, these two things are what keeps you afloat. (That, and debt collection.)

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2012. Almost zero postprocessing – just dust removal.

Practically, instead of visualizing the physically impossible, getting a good base image to work from and then spending time on it in Photoshop, I’m now trying to do everything I can in-camera to minimize the amount of postprocessing. Granted, there will be some things that have to be done post-capture, but the more you can get right the first time, the faster your workflow can be. This has always been the case for commercial work – I’ve always believed that if you have to do heavy postprocessing on an image to make it look right, you’re not really in control of your lighting – but it’s increasingly also becoming the case for my personal work. If it doesn’t look 95% there in the actual scene, I probably won’t bother taking the camera out. It’s one of the main reasons I’m revisiting film.

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Seeking control with consistency

Another upshot of being more commercially-focused with my photography is increased consciousness of elements you’re changing in order to be able to replicate the shot later. This is especially true with watch photography where you might have several models of the same type where you need to have identical or near-identical images for catalogs etc; you might not be able to shoot them on the same day, but the lighting had better damn well be identical. (There are, of course, postprocessing tricks to get around this and make up for any small differences.)

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From cinematic to natural

Perhaps one of the most difficult things to do is create a very natural-looking image from a natural, human perspective and still have it appear unique and arresting; I suppose having mastered the cinematic, perceptual color style and growing bored of it, I’m being masochistic and forcing myself to take on a new challenge. Or perhaps it’s a consequence of heightened color-awareness due to increased commercial work; or maybe even because small-sensor cameras do not lend themselves well to cinematic work: you need extensive depth of field control for that.

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This site

Reviews require images, and I simply don’t have the time or budget to be able to travel somewhere new every time I want to get to know a camera; similarly, I can’t take the risk of using something untested on a commercial job, and even if I do, I frequently can’t release the images due to licensing agreements. So this means that whatever I shoot for a review has to be located relatively nearby; being nearby and having reviewed hundreds of cameras and lenses in my past life as a magazine editor means that I cannot avoid revisiting the same places multiple times. The tough part here is avoiding repetition: you don’t want to see the same test images as the last review, nor do I want to produce something boring; it is after all also my personal work. I am thus forced to revisit familiar places with eyes for a different image and composition every time; it gets increasingly difficult, but I think it’s also forced me to open my mind to different subjects and angles. In short: I am forced to experiment, and in experimenting, evolve my skill set.

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Workshops and articles are the complete opposite to reviews: they rely on repetition and consistency. I have to have enough understanding of both the shooting process and my thought process to be able to give an objective account and description of the mostly qualitative elements involved. In a workshop, I have to be able to structure and demonstrate the techniques I use when I shoot. The trouble is, there are a lot of them which may be minor variations on a few major themes, and you may need to use one or several in any given situation. How does one decide what is a conscious technique choice, and what is a fundamental skill that runs on autopilot in the background of a photographer’s brain? It’s not easy to find a balance – too basic and you appear patronizing, and too complex and your students get frustrated or confused.

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I’ve always found photography to be fascinating because it involves mastery of both quantitative and qualitative skills: there is only one correct exposure to get a certain luminance value in your image, but how you decide what that luminance value should be is an entire matter altogether. This of course is just one of the hundreds of tools a photographer has at their disposal; the evolution of style is a process that requires one to continually test, evaluate (objectively, but with a consistent level of personal and artistic bias) and experiment. I have no idea what or how I’ll be shooting a year from now, but I’m almost certain there will be value in repeating this evaluation exercise. MT


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 | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Defining style, and finding your own

Introduction: This has been one of, if perhaps not the most difficult essay to write so far: it concerns a topic that’s fundamentally important for all serious photographers, yet is extremely difficult to define in a strict technical sense due to its very nature. It’s the only essay I’ve had to stop and start writing several times because I penned myself into a corner. What you read is the culmination of many sessions and days of work. I hope you find it useful.

What is style? gives a lot of options – 16 to be exact – but I think perhaps the most appropriate definition of style from a photography perspective is best described as:

A particular, distinctive characteristic mode or form of execution, construction, appearance of a visual work which can be associate with a particular person or group of people.

Let’s think about this for a moment. It probably isn’t an exhaustive definition, however, it captures the essence: style is distinctive. It’s individual, or belonging to a group of individuals, associated with them because they created it or they promote and propagate its use. What are the distinctive visual elements or combinations of visual elements that define a style, specific to photography?

1. Color (or lack of it)
2. Tonality
3. Perspective
4. Lighting
5. Focal point/ depth of field
6. Fidelity
7. Quirks, the personality of the photographer, or perhaps the X factor

Let’s examine each one individually.

This one is fairly simple: is there color or not? Is it black and white? Is the color saturated, bright and punchy (think happy commercial product shot) or is it monochrome and gritty (think classical photojournalism and war photography)? Consistent use of color is one of the fundamental things that defines a style – but it isn’t exhaustive on its own. Similarly, consistent use of filters or digital gradients to apply a consistent hue shift to a set of images can also define a style; for example, I personally associate that warm, golden light with California; I have no idea why, perhaps it’s the pollution of LA or a fetish of the Hollywood directors.

This splits out into a few options: neutral, high key, low key, low contrast and high contrast. The former three options can be combined with the latter two options; you can have something that’s neutrally biased but high contrast, or neutrally biased but low contrast. In digital terms, think of the former as where the majority of the histogram is bunched: neutral would be evenly spread, high key would be towards the highlight end, and low key towards the shadows. Contrast then becomes the bunching: if you’ve got strong gradients in the histogram at any particular point, that’s high contrast. Low contrast images don’t show this. A good example of distinctive tonality would be the works of Sebastiao Salgado: you always know it’s a Salgado because of the tonality of the image, before you even see the subject. It’s a distinctive signature that’s there in his corporate work covering the Channel Tunnel and his humanitarian work in Africa.

This one is a highly technical characteristic, and linked to the focal length of the lens used – only. If a set is shot predominantly with a wide angle lens – modern photojournalism tends to do this a lot, with the subject placed center or near-center foreground and the environment in the background around it to give context – then that’s gives a distinct exaggerated perspective. Similarly, sport and wildlife almost always employ compressed (telephoto) perspectives due to inability to get close to the subject.

Lighting is linked to tonality and contrast: direct lighting produces harsh shadows and flat images for subjects in the frame that are perpendicular to the camera; diffuse lighting produces nice textures and gentle gradients. If you’re not shooting with studio lights, you might not always be able to control this; but you do have control over when and where you shoot, which of course affects the quality of the lighting. Some photographers are nocturnal, for instance. Others choose to always use direct flash in daylight – Bruce Gilden, for example.

Focal point/ depth of field
How much of the image is in focus? Granted, sometimes this is linked to the perspective because of optical limitations, but there are ways around that – fast ultrawides for DSLRs give a telephoto-like separation of subject from background, but with exaggerated perspective; similarly, small sensor super zoom cameras will let you achieve compression but also short hyperfocal distances.

This is a tricky one to define: how close is the image to reality? Is it a feasible scene, which you could happen upon with your naked eyes, or is it something that’s been so heavily photoshopped that you can’t tell between what was shot with a camera or created with a Wacom tablet? I’d put HDR imaging somewhere on this spectrum, too. It isn’t reality, but HDR can be used properly to actually create more natural looking results (to be the subject of a future article).

We end with the broadest possibility of all: anything open to the creativity of the photographer. Some photographers leave a little in-joke in frame; others have a particularly distinctive way of retouching; others may only shoot one particular subject. I deliberately haven’t put subject in as a component of style, because it’s possible to shoot the same subject in many different styles – and this wouldn’t be consistent.

Now that we have some idea of how to define style, how do you define your own? Firstly, it must be consistent: you need to be shooting and finishing images in this style consistently, without having to think about it. There may be more than one style you do routinely; I have three which I’m aware of. Using my work as an example, I do three things:

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Classical Photojournalist.

1. Classical photojournalist. High contrast black and white, with almost everything in focus, finessed tonal transitions in the subject – I expose and process for the the subject and let everything else fall wherever on the tonal scale it may – and mostly wide angle, mostly 28mm but with some ventures as wide as 24mm or as long as 50mm, but no longer. I’d describe it as as mix of Salgado and HC-B.

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2. Cinematic. This is perhaps the style that defines me the most: shallow depth of field, mostly long perspectives (85mm) with some wide, dramatic shots; strongly dynamic lighting, with heavy manipulation of color and tonality to affect atmosphere. (Color will be the subject of several future article). Heavy focus on the subject and just enough background to give context, but no more.

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3. Commercial. Although there are elements of the previous two styles in here, I prefer to think of this as the clean, perfectly-lit product shot: it’s what I do with the majority of my watch photography.

At this point, I should take a step back: how do you even find your style, before you define it? Simple: look at what’s out there, and experiment. For the first few years – hell, it might be a lot of years – you will probably be following other people’s work. You might not even be able to consistently reproduce a style that isn’t your own. Don’t worry – that’s not the point. Your own style should evolve naturally after sufficient experimentation. I know that I didn’t really have a distinct style until 2009 – though I dabbled in many up to that point – which was the classical photojournalist. Cinematic developed at the end of 2010. Commercial has been continuously in refinement as I improve my lighting skills. Other than proving I’m nothing if not a schizophrenic photographer, it shows that even if you can define your style, you may not necessarily have found the one that works best for you: I can shoot in any one of these three, and often have trouble deciding which one would look best.

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And you know what? I’d be very disappointed if I stopped developing here. I think there’s a midpoint between all of these three styles – something I’ll tentatively call ‘natural’ – which seems to be the direction in which my work is going now, be it available light or studio. The characteristic of this style seems to be perfect color, with a little cinematic hue shift where required; a mix between dynamic and natural lighting, with an emphasis on the subject; and an overall natural perspective to the images – as though you could have seen them with your own eyes, without much artificial intervention (think monochrome, or long exposure, etc.). I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes in the future. MT


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!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!


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


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