Robin’s take on framing, color and simplicity – part two

Following a recent article on framing, color and simplicity (here), I continued my street shooting session looking for similar content. My exploration expanded to different parts of the city including lesser known areas. The aim was straightforward – look for bold colors that catch my attention; something unusual or out of the ordinary to isolate the subjects as much as possible. In order to do this, I made use of much longer focal lengths than usual with the Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm F1.8 seeing the most use. Developing a unique street photography style is not easy and mine is still a work in progress with a constantly evolving approach. Being able to go out and shoot is a privilege that I do not take lightly and I enjoy every single moment of my shutter therapy!

All images here were shot with Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II and M.Zuiko lenses 45mm F1.8 or 25mm F1.2 PRO.

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Framing, color and simplicity: Robin’s take

After sifting through a huge collection of street images shot within the past year, I found that I was specifically drawn to colour and simplicity. We all look for different subjects and approach street shooting differently. For example, I love MT’s appreciation of interesting and unusual urban geometry as well as creative use of dramatic shadows and light in his framing. In contrast, I take a more simple approach by focusing on a singular subject/content and ignoring everything else. I work with many human subjects – close up street portraits in particular – and keeping the image clean helps take the attention straight to the facial expression of the people. I have come to the realization, very recently, that colour also played a huge role in how I chose and frame my portraits and general street shots.

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Understanding color, from a workflow perspective: part 2

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Continued from part 1

It is possible to make a calibration profile for every camera that takes you back to neutral color and tonal response; I do precisely this in PS Workflow III because I need to use a variety of tools for the range of work I do. It allows me to have a consistent color palette/ tonal signature across all of my images, regardless of hardware: this is important because some projects last for years and I may change hardware several times across the duration; but I cannot change the way the images look too much, else you sacrifice visual consistency. I also do this to get control over the output palette: subtle biases can influence viewer emotional response; this is one of the many tools in a storytelling photographer’s arsenal. Note: whilst some cameras allow for a wide range of adjustability of the in-camera processing, none of them allow full HSL adjustments (which would be required to get a totally neutral profile). Currently, the Olympus Pen F comes closest – but you still can’t fully escape the slightly warm default tuning, nor can you compensate on the fly for scenes of wildly different contrast levels (which our eyes do automatically).

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Understanding color, from a workflow perspective: part 1

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We first need to understand a bit of history to appreciate the origins of ‘house color’ or ‘company color’ or a particular tonal palette: in the early days of color photography, it simply wasn’t possible to make a film emulsion that responded equally to every color, much less mirrored the response of the human eye to the visible spectrum. It’s also important to note that a recording medium’s color response and luminosity (tonal) response aren’t the same thing but they are linked; further complicating things. And we haven’t even started talking about how different individuals’ eyes respond differently to color*. The best manufacturers could do was offer a range of emulsions (corresponding to a range of different chemicals that had different responsiveness to light) that gave photographers choice. It’s one of the main reasons images from certain eras have a particular look to them: the world didn’t offer different colors or fade; what we’re seeing is a mixture of time-sensitive oxidation of pigment in the output image, and the limitations of the recording medium at the time. As emulsions improved, so did the spread of color that could be recorded. The world didn’t become more realistic: our means of recording and displaying the recording did.

*As you get older or if you have cataracts, certain frequencies become blocked/absorbed by the lens or liquid portion of your eyeball, limiting what reaches the retina. And the retina itself may well not be operating at peak tonal response, too.

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Photoessay: Saul and Edward

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As a very much non-American, Chicago tends to evoke a few things in my imagination every time I visit: gangster hits in back alleys with fire escape stairs and Art Deco building rear entrances; Ayn Rand’s The FountainheadEdward Hopper’s Nighthawks painting (which coincidentally is in the Art Institute of Chicago, though I’ve not seen it in person), and to a lesser extent, Saul Leiter’s splashes of color sandwiched between glass. I suppose it must be curious to a local which of the many cultural references make it across the international divide, and how few of them are sporting…

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Repost: 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.

Today’s post is one from the archives; back nearly to the beginnings of the site. I’m pulling it out again to set you up for what comes next. 

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

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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