Friday, 11 October 2013

Colour or black and white…

“It’s going to be fine,” she said.

It was a comforting remark to hear.  A phrase accompanied by a warm smile that gave me a nice feeling, knowing that things would turn out for the best.

Not that the remark was prompted by any emotional upheaval I was going through. I was listening to the weather lady giving the forecast for the coming weekend.  It seemed that we were about to witness one of those rare events; good weather over a weekend in September in Scotland!

I immediately made plans for a Sunday photographic outing.  Turning to the “Scotland” pages of my well-thumbed UK road atlas (“2002 edition – with speed camera locations”), I closed my eyes, twirled an index finger (one of my own) in a few circles in the air and brought it down firmly in a decisive and manly way on to the page.  I had previously decided that wherever it landed would be the photographic location for the day.

In the planning phase, I had assumed it (the finger) would at least be capable of picking somewhere in the reasonably large land mass that makes up the Scottish nation. In the event, it landed offshore – in the North Sea to be precise (or not so precise, given my knowledge of the sea and anything to do with it).  Quickly amending the initial plan in a decisive and manly way, I opted for the nearest accessible onshore location to the finger – Lower Largo.

Situated within 60 miles or so of my home (Wishaw) and placed neatly on the East coast of Scotland, Lower Largo is one of the many places in this country I had never visited.  At least the finger had selected (well, nearly) somewhere new for me and a camera.

Next, on to the internet.  First “The Photographer’s Ephemeris” was consulted.  If you haven’t seen, heard of or tried this (free) bit of software, give it a try.  It will give you sunrise and sunset times, direction of the sun, angle of the sun, moonrise, phase and moonset, etc etc for just about anywhere on the planet.  If nothing else it will at least help you decide when to arrive and where!  Might just get a few extra minutes in that nice warm bed in the depths of winter (or summer, in Scotland).

Lower Largo’s latent likelihood to supply some serious sea and shoreline shots seemed achievable (alliteration allocation accomplished amply in a single sentence – so satisfying!). So it was on to the tide tables.  Once again, easy to find on the ’net – and useful to know if you’re going to have to chase the water for those surf breakers or whether you’re going to have to pay extra attention to make sure you don’t get cornered against a cliff…

Sunday morning came – I was up a couple of hours before sunrise. Wash, dress, breakfast, grab camera bag, car keys and dog, set satnav and we were on our way.  We arrived just over an hour later to find the sun just thinking about appearing above the horizon and the tide rolling in – keeping perfect time with the ephemeris and the tables!

It was breezy and there was a definite edge to the wind that cut through a layer or two of clothing. But the stroll along the beach was a treat to the senses – “refreshing” would be a good description. A “windswept and interesting” hairstyle quickly followed.  Not many people about – a few dog-walkers and lone early-morning exercisers, but no-one to get in the way of a scenic photograph.

The beach itself was uneventful – a few rocky shapes still managing to stay above the incoming waves.  We – me and Fudge, the dog – made our way along the shore, he was sniffing around the rocky nooks and crannies (as dogs do) I was viewing the sandy world through the viewfinder (as photographers do). We looked towards each other occasionally – mainly to make sure that we were moving in roughly the same direction, albeit not necessarily together.

Late September in Scotland means that there’s no great risk of the sun getting too high in the sky for “good light” for the landscape photographer. It’s a time of year when a clear sky at dawn leaves you with at least two or three hours to search for a picture.

As is usual on any walk with a camera, eventually something catches the eye – in this case, a nicely-rounded group of nicely-rounded boulders. A quick fumble about in the bag for the 35mm lens and I risked two frames on the scene (the M9 was in the camera bag I’d grabbed and I don’t want to wear the sensor thingy out too quick).  It felt like colour would be the first choice for this one – it didn’t strike me as having much potential for a black and white print.

Camera : Leica M9     Lens : Voigtlander 35mm f2.5      Processing : Lightroom 4.4

A bit further on and a small rock outcrop pushing its way above the sand was the next attention-grabber.  Two rows of thin, vertical plates – like the scales along a dinosaur’s spine – stood up catching the light. Covered in green algae, in the new morning sun the lines sparkled – the greens and yellows wet from the waves, catching the light rays, with the water drops reflecting and refracting sunlit spots.   I swapped the 35mm  for a 21mm and a few clicks later the deed was done. However, although I was shooting in colour, it was a shot that I knew immediately I would be processing in black and white. It seemed an ideal candidate for a high contrast treatment, accentuating the morning light rather than the details of the subject.

Camera : Leica M9     Lens : Voigtlander 21mm f4      Processing : Lightroom 4.4 

 Camera : Leica M9     Lens : Voigtlander 21mm f4     Processing : Lightroom 4.4 and Silver Efex Pro 2

We hung about for bit – me trying to get a few usable shots of the incoming tide breaking against the rocks, Fudge at my feet wondering why he was getting wet while sitting still (he hadn’t consulted the tide tables, preparation for an outing not being one of his strong points).  Eventually, inspiration ran out, we finished the walk and headed for the car and home.

Back at the ranch, it was lunch, download and laptop. A few minutes in Lightroom 4.4 (which came free with the M9 – whoo-hoo!) and a touch of Silver Efex Pro 2 (trial version) confirmed to me that my preference was for a black and white version of the outcrop and colour for the boulders group.

In general, I find black and white photography – whether for landscape or people – preferable to look at. I’m not colour-blind (at least, I wasn’t when I was tested some years ago), but it feels like there’s less of a distraction when there’s no colour to be concerned about. Excluding, of course, those shots that are dependent on the presence of colour to make the point in a photograph. With a b&w shot I can get on with viewing the subject, the area, the light, the shadows, the detail, the lack of detail, etc in the photograph without worrying about colour accuracy, white balance, warmth / coolness, colour clashes / saturation etc.

I tend to moan (to myself, no-one listens) about the degree of manipulation of digital images that seems to be the accepted current norm.  Radioactive colours, over-saturated, exaggerated, embellished, over-inflated – all adjectives I’ve used to describe colour shots.  However, I suppose that draining all colour from a scene and presenting it as a range of light values using only black, white and grey could equally be called an extreme manipulation of the reality we saw.

So back to the title of the post – what is it that attracts us – me – to black & white?  The world we live in is full of colour, it's unavoidable.  Very few of us are totally colour-blind; we may have some visual condition that causes certain shades of colour to be less conspicuous than others, but not many people truly see in black in white only.  Some images only work in colour – for example, when a particular shade of green grass and blue sky almost merge with each other as the same grey tone, or when the pinks and oranges that attracted the eye to a real-life scene look the same tone in b&w and lose any impact it might have had in colour.  But generally, given the choice (and with no measurable data to back this up) I seem to opt for, and spend more time looking at, black and white images than colour.   

Comments invited - any examples you've got would also be interesting...


PS Apologies for not posting for a month or so - that thing they call "work" gets in the way sometimes...

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Cambridge, 2011 : Rubbish Guitarist...

Camera : Leica M4      Lens : Summaron 35mm f3.5    Film : Ilford FP4+     Developer : Ilford ID11

Anyway, there I am wandering the streets of Cambridge on my first-time visit to the city.  As is the norm for the streetwise street photographer, I'm trying to look casual, all the while on the alert for photo opportunities that might be lurking around the next corner - or the last one (which is more usual) - at which point the trigger on my finely honed cat-like reflexes will be pulled.   Then I notice the singing.  It's definitely live music, yet it has a muffled quality, coupled with a bit of a strange echo to it.  There's a guitar, too, although it's got an odd tone that I can't quite put my musical finger on.  It's a bit like one of those buskers that stands in a shop doorway which helps to focus or amplify the sound - but it doesn't have the same clarity.

Photography forgotten for the moment, I look around for the source of the melodious racket. Natural expectations mean that I'm looking for someone standing with an instrument - or seated maybe. It didn't sound like it was in my immediate vicinity, so I widen the search area a bit.  I retrace my steps towards a litter bin I'd passed a few moments previously, which now appears to have grown an arm and has a guitar neck sticking out of it. A second or two passes as I take in the new scene, then a voice emanates from the interior of the receptacle - which is a bit of a relief, since it means that the arm is attached to something and hasn't been discarded or lost by someone.

I watch for a while as the hand moves around in various chord shapes on the guitar neck and I listen until the song is finished. The singer, still unseen and possibly unseeing, thanks his audience for the applause (although I am the only one in the immediate area and I haven't clapped, since I'm holding a camera in one hand and scratching my head with the other). He announces his next number and launches into it without much hesitation but with much gusto.

I didn't wait for the end of the second song, but, on the basis that he was actually pretty good (given his somewhat cramped studio space) I did make a modest contribution to his white-cloth coin collection facility before taking a photograph and walking on, once again in wonder at the ways people find to make a living.



Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Venice, June 2012 : Sunflower at San Marco

Camera :  Leica M6TTL    Lens : Voightlander 21mm f4    Film : Ilford HP5     Developer : Ilford ID-11

A thunderstorm had just broken the heat and humidity of Venice in June - and flooded the Piazza San Marco!  I was watching as the staff assembled raised boards to enable visitors to enter the Basilica without getting their feet, or ankles and knees, wet.  I was hoping to get a few expressions of visitors coming out into the flood, having entered in blazing sunshine, I thought there may be a picture or two pending.

I turned briefly, more to check whether there was any further imminent likelihood of another downpour, when the lady with the sunflower appeared in front of me.

No time to focus, I raised the camera and pressed the shutter release as she approached and passed, followed by a crocodile of Chinese tourists - all following the sunflower...



Venice June 2012 : One Man and His Dog

Camera : Leica M4     Lens : Leica 35mm f3.5 Summaron    Film : Ilford HP5+ @ ISO 400         Developer : Ilford ID-11.

It was 33 degrees Celsius. Comfortably uncomfortable. Too hot for working – but not for walking.

 Others had the same idea and the Piazza San Marco was as busy as we’d seen it during any of our holidays in Venice.

I was in front of the Basilica, just standing, watching people coming, going, standing, watching.

This gentleman came walking towards me. He had been with his wife (at least, I assumed it was his wife) and I had noticed him pushing the small pram a few moments earlier. They had their backs to me and I assumed (the heat brings me out in assumptions…) that the pram held a small child – perhaps a grandchild (another assumption – it must have been really hot!).

I was pleasantly surprised and smiled when I saw the small dog in the pram. Completely comfortable, making no attempt escape from its confines, content to be wheeled around in the sunshine. I noticed a retractable leash sitting in the small tray near the handle – ready for any situation where self-powered-dog-transportation couldn’t be avoided.

I took just one photograph before they passed me. I noticed the pram had a small maker’s logo and bore the title “Outward Hound”…


Monday, 19 August 2013

Las Vegas, September 2011 : Impressions of Las Vegas #2

Leica M6TTL   Lens : Voigtlander 21mm f4   Film : Ilford HP5+    Developer : Ilford ID-11

We drove to Las Vegas from Phoenix, a distance of around 340 miles or so.  We left Phoenix on the Carefree Highway – where else could you find a road with a name that makes you feel like you’re on holiday?  Along the way we were constantly aware of the desert on either side of us. We passed countless saguaro cacti, their upturned arms like surrendering soldiers everywhere, and a forest of Joshua trees (surely evolved specifically for photographic purposes).

Las Vegas Boulevard, “Sunset Strip” or just “The Strip” as the locals referred to it, leaps from the landscape and is visible long before you’re anywhere near it.  The approaching desert is flat; covered with what look like residential buildings – nothing over a few stories and covering many square miles.

However, despite the long distance view, arriving the Boulevard is still a shock to the senses. It’s a madcap place. It’s as if someone has drawn a line in the road at each end to mark the boundaries of both the luxury hotels and the relaxations of normally-permissible behaviour.

As we walked along The Strip I mentioned to my wife that it felt like we were surrounded by illusions.

Promises of instant wealth line the outside of casinos, roller coaster rides sit on top of hotels, scantily-clad showgirls pose for photographs with passers-by, people queue to watch volcanoes erupt or fountains spout water in time to music, pirates climb the rigging of sailing ships while hydraulic pumps hiss to make the ships move and sink – the result of a direct hit from cannon fire.  It’s possible to take in the view from the Eiffel Tower, buy Prada from a Street in ancient Rome, get a hotel room in a pyramid or take a gondola ride on a canal inside the Venetian Hotel.

This picture was taken on Las Vegas Boulevard.  The Eiffel Tower calls in the background, while palm trees remind us we’re in the desert (although we didn't see any on the 340 mile drive…).  Most prominent is the “hot babes” truck, one of two which seem to circle endlessly up and down The Strip, promising that they can not only find a woman who wants to meet me, but also arrange for her to visit. I mentioned to my lovely wife that I thought that this would be an impressive feat – to finally find a woman who wanted to meet me – and might be worth the price of a phone call.

She muttered something along the lines of, “Talk about surrounded by illusions…” and walked on in the sunshine, shaking her head...


Saturday, 17 August 2013

Arizona, September, 2012 : Out of Context

Leica M6TTL    Lens : Elmar C 90mm f4     Film : Ilford HP5+      Developer : Ilford ID-11

I guess a photographer's "job" is to look at what everyone else is passing by and see it a little bit differently, then present it with a "look what you missed" in the form of a photograph.  Taking things out of context begins as soon as you look through the viewfinder to compose the image. What the photographer leaves out is as important as what is left in.

These are buffalo skulls, not from the deserts of Arizona - I walked some remote sandy areas with a guide and there definitely weren't any of these Plains-loving animals to be seen - but from the main street of Sedona, a tourist town in a very picturesque part of Arizona known as "Red Rock Country".

They can be found outside the Clear Creek Trading Company premises, piled against a barrel as advertising for the general theme of the store - native American goods, leathers, crafts and drums amongst many other things.  There's no hint of their store front location from the composition and framing chosen, though. So a viewer can put their own thoughts and story to the image (at least, they could have up to the point where I spilled the beans...).

I'd recommend a visit if you're in the area - both to Sedona  for the many walks and amazing landscape views it offers and the Clear Creek store for the seven rooms of interesting stuff they sell. Oh, and the skulls, of course...



Las Vegas September 2012 : You wait ages for one...

Leica M6TTL   Lens : Voigtlander 35mm f2.5  Film : Ilford HP5+  Developer : Ilford ID-11

Along Las Vegas Boulevard they come in all shapes and sizes - Elvises, that is.  Tall ones, short ones, thin, plump, dark-skinned, light-skinned and any permutation on the theme.  Some sing, some with a guitar, some without. Some, thankfully perhaps, don't sing at all.

For reasons beyond my understanding they all choose to model the white jump-suit that couldn't possibly have been designed for life on the street at 35 degrees Celsius in the shade. I assume they gave the "comeback-all-black-leather-jacket-and-trousers" outfit a try and opted for the jump-suit.

All are happy to pose with "fans", passers-by, adults, children, male, female - for a small consideration, of course, say, $5 or so...

Here we have a range of sizes to suit any height / weight / age. It may have been the team brief just before the start of shift; a group huddle for motivational purposes. This being Las Vegas, of course, they could have been making a little wager among themselves for best / worst performance of the day - financial or musical...