Looking at Pictures – Kenneth Clark

It was through thinking about how to analyse pictures that I came across this book by Kenneth Clarke. This is not Kenneth Harry Clarke, the conservative MP, but Kenneth McKenzie Clark, the art critic who came to public prominence with the BBC series “Civilisation” in 1969. By this time, this book had been nine years since first publication.

In the introduction, Clark describes his way of looking at pictures, whilst acknowledging that it might not be the only way “No doubt there are many ways of looking at pictures, none of which can be called the right way.”

He follows this with some pithy, but profound advice:

“I believe that one can learn to interrogate a picture in such a way as to intensify and prolong the pleasure it gives one.”

“Looking at picture requires active participation, and, in the early stages, a certain amount of discipline”

“First I see the picture as a whole, and long before I can recognise the subject, I am conscious of a general impression, which depends on the relationship of tone and area, shape and colour…”

“…followed by a period of inspection in which I look from one part to another…and naturally I become aware of what the painter has intended to represent…”

“…quite soon my critical faculties begin to operate, and I find myself looking for some dominating motive, or root idea, from which the picture derives its overall effect.”

“In the middle of this exercise my senses will probably begin to tire, and if I am to go on looking responsively I must fortify myself with some nips of information.”

There follows a collection of essays that first appeared in the Sunday times describing, in Clark’s own style, 16 major works of art. The paintings covered include Titian – The Entombment, Raphael – The Miraculous Draught of Fishes and Turner – The Snowstorm.

Each description follows Clark’s pattern of analysis described in the introduction: leading from and initial impression into more detailed perception, punctuated by forays into the background of the artist and the picture. Clark’s knowledge is immense and he uses this to place the picture into a context, so he explains how the picture means so much more than what it is portraying.

Kenneth Clark has an easy going, easily-read style that makes this book a delight. There is nothing pompous or stuffy about his descriptions; instead they are very warm and genuine. This is a reminder that any critical analysis of a work of art should be honest and as much a reflection of the critic as it is of the artist.

So what do I get from reading the book:
1. an overall impression, leading into closer scrutiny is a good start,
2. to understand the picture at a deeper level it is necessary to know something of the artist and the context in which it is produced,
3. I might not know the context of someone else’s picture but a bit of research will help,
4. Be prepared to commit time and effort to the process, go away and come back refreshed if necessary,
5. stay honest and be prepared to say what the picture is saying to me.

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Project: Digital Photography and ‘Truth’ – Alteration

This is the final exercise in this series of image manipulation and asks us to make some wholesale changes to an image, such as removing an element of the composition.

As a starting point I used this image of a pair of ducks:

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This is a nice picture, well lit and the duck is looking coyly toward the camera. It’s a shame about the one disappearing out of the left hand edge of the frame. I could crop it but that would defeat the object of the exercise so I used the clone stamp tool, set with a fairly small brush and sampled on a bit of grass in the same focus field as the bit of duck being removed:

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That was fairly straightforward and can’t really be thought of as tampering with reality. If I had waited a couple of minutes or framed the shot with more care I would not have had to make the intervention.

What about this picture?

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A pleasant rural landscape, a tourist enjoying the sunshine and photographing the view, a timeless scene; except the large house in the background looks too modern, too large and doesn’t really fit in. It’s got to go!

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This was achieved through a combination of Clone Stamp, Healing Brush set to “replace” mode and “normal” mode, copy and paste. It was painstaking work and by no means is it executed perfectly, it would not pass close scrutiny.

I had to invent the tree line, it came from my imagination not reality, and the distant road disappeared behind it at a point of my choosing. It might or might not be considered an improvement on the original, that is a matter of opinion, it might look better on someone’s wall, that is a matter of taste but if I attempted to pass this off as a true depiction of the scene I would be guilty of deception.

Here is a photo taken in a wine cellar producing champagne:

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The girl in the foreground is blurred and can be removed:

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This was also achieved also using a combination of Clone Stamp, cut and paste and Healing Brush.

Then, what every dark cellar needs is a mysterious, ghost like figure:

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I copied this from another picture, pasted onto a new layer, and then adjusted the opacity until it looked right.

The final experiment was a simple addition, from this:

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to this:

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We have reached the end of the journey along the image manipulation continuum. Along the way we have explored ever increasing levels of intervention and considered the ethical judgements involved. I think without a doubt we have reached the heart of the ethical minefield. Rather than discuss this here, I have prepared a separate entry “The Photography of Truth”

Assignment Three – Tutor Feedback and Response

I have never got comments like this before, “High quality set of prints, they have a considered and precious worth to them…”, “…starting to exhibit a painterly quality…”

John’s comments to assignment 3 were very informative, instructive and encouraging. Arriving on the same day as I received a slightly disappointing mark of 54% for TAOP, it gave me a bit of a boost.

His full feedback is here:

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Once again there is a lot to digest. As well as the positive and flattering comments, he has provided an abundance of pointers to improve. Some key comments and my responses are:

You note that you arrived at the final images without fully noting down your technique and therefore they may not be repeatable, year one is very much about experimentation so this is good to experiment but it is essential that you record how you arrived at the final outcome as this is what DPP is all about, Creating usable and repeatable workflows and understanding how you achieved the result!

Good point, well made. It was a bit hit and miss, even though the result was okay, the journey was arduous. I will rework the images, this time noting the work steps I take to get there and using Lightroom with more control over the conversion. Also, I will include more detail in the exercises.

Several of the prints however change colour! Some exhibit a green cast while some are fairly neutral…

I made the first three prints and ran out of paper. When I printed the rest they came out with the colour cast. It was the same paper, Canon Pro Photo Paper II, and printed with the same inks and ICC profile so it’s a bit of a puzzle why they came out a strange colour. Ideally, I should have printed them all again and got them right but I wanted to get the assignment sent away and get the tutor’s feedback. Something to be investigated!

Most are taken from a similar height which adds to the uniformity, this dilutes the effectiveness of the assignment in terms of visual interest.

I’ve been criticised in the past for too much variety, even stylistically so I have tried to present a set with a degree of consistency. Now it’s not enough variety! There must be a balance between cohesiveness and sameness which I am missing

Michael Freeman suggests experimenting with ‘key’ these images are really all the same ‘key’ which is working and appropriate to the subject matter but again it weakens the assignment in terms of experimentation.

I did experiment with key and some of the submissions were adjusted as a result. In the end though I wanted the overall set to be of a similar feel and texture.

1 The Hay Wain I am thinking that the inclusion of the car is deliberate / juxtaposition? But as this is the only image in the submission that uses such observations it becomes somewhat weak and may start to appear as not a deliberate decision.

The car was a deliberate inclusion. It’s true that it is the only one with a car. Also, Surrey Hills is the only one with people, Bed and Breakfast is the only one with a building. Together they help to tell the story and I don’t think the car’s inclusion detracts from anything but strengthens the composition of the particular photograph.

2 The Footpath…So for me a slight missed opportunity as the path is slightly incidental running along the right hand third. It may have been more effective to shoot further to the right and allow the path to sweep invitingly into the frame.

The pictures are really about the farm equipment so I didn’t want to focus too heavily on the footpath, but I take his point about a slightly different viewpoint might have strengthened the composition.

2 The Footpath. …This print is slightly darker than image 1 and as such a little oppressive in its atmosphere, the blue sky tone is heavy and appears storm like.

I’ll take this into account when I rework the images.

3 Bed and Breakfast “…when using the ‘Info’ tool and you have 255 in all three colour channels, or single monochrome channel if Grey Scale you have achieved pure white…”

I checked and the file I printed the image from showed 255 on all three channels whereas the original jpeg had values from 242 to 247. Again, I’ll rework the image and watch out for this.

4 Vines and Wire.

Generally nice comments on this one. It was one of my favourites, particularly for the texture of the rows of vines as they recede into the distance.

5 Untitled. Not sure why ‘Untitled’? OK similar shot as (4), different take. This does not need to be in the assignment, I would suggest either (4) or (5), for me (4) is a stronger composition.

It was untitled because I could not think of a title! That probably sums it up as this is the weakest in the set.

6 Surrey Hills. …Good …texture, pattern and also rhythm occurring by the repetition of the fencing

This is my favourite of the set, for the footpath and the people on it although I admit I hadn’t noticed the pattern on the fencing.

The rest of the feedback contains some really useful advice:

• Develop more of a critique of your own work…

• …combine this with introducing examples of other practitioners work and commenting upon them, mentioning how they may have started to inform your own work.

• record more detail at how you arrive at the final outcomes,

• In your assignment annotation you say: ‘I have noticed many successful black and white pictures have punchy contrast’ Excellent point and it would be highly relevant at this stage to comment further along the lines of ‘As in the work of…’ and include some examples. This will really start to get your research and blog heading on track for the degree.

All in all, very pleasing comments and some very useful feedback.

Assignment Three: Black and White

Part three of the course taught us image processing with a large portion devoted to conversion to black and white. I haven’t used black and white since I packed away the darkroom many years ago and have never touched it since I went digital. I am an unashamed colour photographer and considered the discarding of colour information unnecessary and wasteful! This meant I was starting from scratch in learning the adjustments involved in the conversion and what made a good black and white image.

I thought a suitable subject for black and white would be something around abandonment. The thinking was that this would be a subject for which the removal of colour would add to the mood of the image. My first ideas were abandoned or empty buildings or discarded items (the kind you see by the side of the road for anyone to take when people refurbish their houses or disused pieces of equipment being thrown away).

I finally settled on this set from our local vineyard. Denbies in Surrey is the country’s largest single vineyard and one of the largest privately owned in Europe. It’s output accounts for about 10% of wine produced in the UK. There is also a small bed and breakfast cottage. It is a well managed, well kept and successful vineyard.

But they have a small collection of farm equipment lying unused by the side of the path surrounded by unmown grass! The contrast between these and the well kept vineyard with the prim bed and breakfast should make a good subject for what I wanted to show.

As suggested by my tutor, I looked at the work of Simon Roberts (see separate post) and Edward Burtynsky. I related to the former (hence he gets a post to himself) and whilst I found the ship-breaking pictures of Burtynsky useful, they did not speak to me in the same way that Roberts’ work did.

My aim when processing these images was to produce a set with a timeless feel to them. The first wine was thought to have been produced about 9000 years ago, the world’s oldest known winery was probably established about 5000 years ago and it was possibly the Romans who defined the process. I don’t imagine these pictures will conjure up images from such ancient times but I wanted to convey a sense of unchanging rural peaceful France, a country now associated with the craft.

Processing steps were firstly to process the colour files in the RAW editor to correct any exposure errors. I wasn’t concerned with white balance as any colour cast would not affect the final result. The file was then opened in Photoshop for the conversion to black and white. My version (Elements 7) only allows adjustment of the blue, red and green channels. It was a sunny day so one of the first editing decisions to make was to darken the sky where appropriate. This was achieved by darkening the blue channel, this had to be compensated for by lightening the other two. Green had a tendency to make the foliage look unnaturally light if used to excess so I was careful to watch for this.

I worked up two or three versions of each image, each time starting from scratch with RAW file and each one was slightly different, with some subtle variations of tone between the same parts of each version. I admit to resorting to some cutting and pasting from one version to the next on a few of the images.

I have noticed many successful black and white pictures have punchy contrast. One thing I wanted to avoid in the submitted images was turning in pictures which were a dull muddy grey. With this in mind, I experimented also with making them lighter using the levels control.

Here are the photos:


1 – The Hay Wain

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Canon EOS 40D, 28 – 135 mm at 28mm, f19, 1/45 sec, ISO200

2 – The Footpath

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Canon EOS 40D, 28 – 135 mm at 28mm, f19, 1/45 sec, ISO200

3 – Bed and Breakfast

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Canon EOS 40D, 28 – 135 mm at 28mm, f19, 1/60 sec, ISO200

4 – Vines and Wire

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Canon EOS 40D, 28 – 135 mm at 28mm, f19, 1/45 sec, ISO200

5 – Untitled

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Canon EOS 40D, 28 – 135 mm at 70mm, f19, 1/60 sec, ISO200

6 – Surrey Hills

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Canon EOS 40D, 28 – 135 mm at 65mm, f19, 1/60 sec, ISO200

Reflection

The assignment brief asked us to discuss to what extent I achieved what I set out to. In one respect I think this set is successful. I find an element of timeless peace in these photos. One person I showed them to commented that they could have been taken in France (they had just returned from a trip touring the Champagne region). I put them on the OCA Flickr web site and someone commented that there was something Constable-esque about some of them. This was pleasing.

How do they measure up as a black and white set? I said at the start that I am not used to making black and white imagery, I don’t really know how to shoot and process a picture for best effect in black and white. I think this shows to certain extent here and it shows more in the way I arrived at these. Whilst this is to a certain extent successful, I arrived at it in a very haphazard and non-repeatable manner. There are no accompanying notes to the pictures explaining how I arrived at the final result; this is simply because I made multiple versions, each with multiple iterations; I cannot describe the ingredients that went into the final mix.

Time has prevented much work outside the course material. I have finished reading the anthology “Photography: A Critical Introduction” and started on Susan Sonntag’s collection of essays “On Photography”. My copy of the DAM Book by Peter Krogh has just arrived so I am dipping into that. I continue to monitor the Guardian’s online photo pages and the BJP site, I dip into dpbestflow and I have started to appreciate 1000wordsmag.com.

Reflection on Part Three

This was a big unit!

It seemed such a long time ago we were looking at the RAW format. Whereas I was doubtful to begin with, I have convinced myself of the advantages and it has now become an integral part of my picture taking, my camera is now set almost permanently to RAW + jpeg. I can’t say I’m fluent with the manner of processing but it is improving. In fact, I have just started using Lightroom and this software seems much more seamless in it’s processing of RAW files.

The value of the exercises on managing tone and colour lay not so much in the core subject (although it was useful in providing a more coherent background to the work I already do) but in providing a good opportunity to practise RAW processing. I think the results I achieved with the images I chose were an improvement on what I would have got previously and I particularly appreciated the ease with which some of the adjustments can be made in the RAW file.

Creative interpretation was interesting. To have the freedom to take an image and produce some wild effects with it was quite liberating. I noted at the time that I did not think it would become part of my normal photographic practise. This was based on the notion that I am more of a realist than a surrealist in my work. However I am thinking that some kind of more extreme processing, consistently applied, can provide a kind of signature.

The last, and by far the largest, subject covered was black and white processing. This was new to me so had an immense value. I learnt the effect that adjusting the relative tonalities of the different colour channels can have on the final image. My software at the time, Photoshop Elements 7, could only adjust the red, green and blue channels, Lightroom has the ability to adjust a greater range so should offer more flexibility and control over the finished effect. The course noted that black and white allowed more extreme processing in key and contrast although this is not something I have explored much. The assignment was an exercise in black and white and although I produced pictures that were quite pleasing, I’m still not sure whether it is a medium which I want to pursue. That is not to say the exercises were not valuable: I learnt more about image processing, what can and can’t be done and what is effective; I learnt more about how Photoshop works; and if I’m ever called upon to give black and white images, I can honestly say I know what I am doing.

There are plenty of web sites that offer tutorials in Photoshop but I have found that most of them offer instructions on doing some quite eclectic techniques. Adobe has some good help on the basic features. Therefore I particularly liked the way this unit was structured, starting with simple corrections and moving through more radical adjustments. Photo processing software are powerful pieces of software and an image file is a complicated thing but this unit showed in simple and effective terms the most important elements of those. This process is taken further in the next unit.

Simon Roberts

Of all the photographers my tutor suggested I look at during my research for assignment three, the one whose work I found the most interesting was Simon Roberts. He promised me that; “His images very much ‘pull back’ from the main event allowing us to see beyond what would normally be expected.”

I have encountered Simon Roberts’ work before at the Somerset House exhibition “Landmark: The Fields of Photography”. Three examples for his series “We English” were shown along with one from “Olympiad XXX”.

The Olympiad series clearly demonstrate his “pulling back”. You might expect pictures of the Olympics to be dominated by sports and sportspeople. These are not ignored in Simon Roberts’ work but they are depicted within a context. Take this example of the Women’s Synchronised 10m Platform Diving Final.

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You can see the divers but they very much take second place to the arena, the cameras in the foreground dominate, the spectators are shown in the background, even the judges are in view.

There is no doubt about the location of the men’s marathon:

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The Womens Cycliing Road Race pictured here at Box Hill in Surrey is an English landscape picture, with a group of cyclists and spectators.

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Another of his series that strikes me is “Pierdom”. In this series he is setting out to depict every remaining British seaside pleasure pier.

There is not much context to place a pier in but Simon Roberts still employs the same style whereby he pulls back. Rather than getting close so that we can see the detail of the structure or the amusements available, he surrounds his piers with plenty of sea and sky.

For example, Blackpool South Pier:

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Clevedon Pier:

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Sandown Pier is blessed with the inclusion of a bit of beach:

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Particularly poignant for me is Hastings Pier. As a youth I spent much of my leisure time in or under the pier and it was a particularly sad moment when I heard it had been subject to an arson attack.

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This can be compared with one of mine taken from a similar position (and on a similar dull day):

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My tutor particularly recommended his pictures from the general election campaigning.

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The Election Project

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For me, the overriding character of Simon Roberts is the irresistible Britishness of his work. “We English” and “Pierdom” obviously have the country as their subjects but he conveys throughout all his work a picture of the ordinary British, normal people, doing normal things that as a whole define the spirit of the nation. This is achieved through showing background, foreground, wide vistas, other subject matter additional to the “main subject”. Pulling back as he does enables a much bigger picture to be shown.

Photography: A Critical Introduction

The first sentence in the introduction to this book sets out its purpose as “…to introduce and offer an overview of conceptual issues relating to photography and to ways of thinking about photographs.”

In fact what it does is to discuss the history of photography and its place within society in relation to certain defined subject areas. As such it contains chapters entitled “Thinking About Photography”, “Surveyors and Surveyed”, “Sweet it is to Scan…”, “Construction of Illusion”, “On and Beyond the White Walls” and “Photography in the Age of Electronic Imaging”.

“Thinking about Photography” is mainly about the history of photography and discusses various approaches to chronicling the history.

“Surveyors and Surveyed” chronicles issues principally around the development of documentary photography, both from the aspect of photographer and subject.

“Sweet it is to Scan…” talks about personal photography and the taking of pictures for family record.

“Construction of Illusion” is sub-titled “photography and commodity culture”. As such the development of advertising and its use of photography is the subject matter.

In “On and Beyond the White Walls” the rise of photography as an art form is presented, both within the gallery and outside it.

The final chapter, “Photography in the Age of Electronic Imaging” contextualises the latest chapter in the development of photography, not just restricted to the digitalisation of the camera but cameraless methods as well.

This is an ambitious spread, one which the book attempts with aplomb. It is too broad to review in full here but a few general comments can be made.

There are flaws. The opening chapter is riddled with apparent and irrelevant feminism. There are ample references which implies impartiality but they are well chosen to support the arguments being presented rather than a balanced view. Its focus on history tends to detract from its stated intention “…to introduce … ways of thinking about photographs.”

As a history book on the development of photography within the areas discussed it is excellent (notwithstanding the occasional bias) and the references provide direction for further study but the thrice repeated inaccuracy over the date of the contribution of Fox Talbot and Daguerre (1939 versus 1839) gets tiresome.

The somewhat academic argument over who actually invented photography is evidence that the book is suitable for students of photography, rather than student photographers. I’m not sure at the moment how this will influence my photography but I will return to it later in my studies.

Assignment Two – Tutor Feedback and Response

It came just a few day after I received an e-mail acknowledging receipt. Timely feedback from the tutor is always appreciated and carries more value due to the freshness of the assignment.

Here it is:

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I also appreciated the thoroughness of the feedback with clear and constructive comments on each of the photos presented. The most valuable comments, however, came in the introductory paragraph:

“…but possibly the images have missed the opportunity at shooting all at the eye level of your statues. This would make us much more of a voyeur, especially if you had shot through and past foreground objects to make the images more intriguing and ambiguous…”

and:

“Some images have a lot of ‘dead’ space which is not working as negative space as it does not enhance the composition.”

I will reshoot some of these images to address these comments and some of the specific comments made to the individual pictures.

He has also included some useful pointers to the next assignment.

His comment: “Think about calibrating your monitor as it should help with your dark prints.” was a bit baffling as the images were not processed other than to print them. I admit the prints were dark but this is how they came out of the camera so I would have thought the issue was with printer profiling. I’ll check the dpbestflow website as he suggests and do some further research.

Project: Black and White, Colours into Tones 2

The previous exercise explored in general terms the issues involved in converting to black and white and the creative potential of some of the tonal variations of the colour channels.

This exercise takes this a step further with some specific, targeted adjustments.

Aerial Perspective

This was the starting image, an Alpine perspective taken on a fairly clear day:

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Desaturated, it looks like this:

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In the black and white conversion, I lightened the blue considerably to increase the effect of the atmospheric haze. Lightening green also seemed to accentuate haze but only a small adjustment was given. I then reduced red to bring the tonality back down as the image was now far too bright.

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There are some points to note. The sign that reads “1a” is a light grey in the desat image, it goes black due to the darkening of the red channel, there seems to be more contrast in the fence and the sky overall is lighter.

Portrait

The starting image is this:

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and the desat one:

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To lighten the skin tone, I lightened the red channel, darkened green slightly and the blue to maintain overall tonality.

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The result is quite pleasing. As well as lightening the skin, there is an overall softening of the contrast which suits the subject quite well.

Foliage

The starting image is this one:

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and the desat one is:

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Obviously, the green channel was lightened to make the foliage lighter and this required a reduction in blue and red.

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My aim was to make the tone of the building similar to the desat image. Again there is a marked difference in the tone of the red shirt to the chap on the staircase.

Project: Optimising Tone and Colour, Managing Tone

I have previously noted my fluency with manipulating jpeg images in Photoshop and the operations described in the course notes are part of my normal work process. I chose therefore to use this exercise to increase my understanding of working with RAW files. I chose to use Canon’s Digital Photo Professional as the software platform. The camera for these pictures was set to RAW + jpeg. The first of each picture shown is the jpeg out of the camera. This is compared with the worked up RAW files, saved after manipulation as a jpeg.

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The highlights here were slightly clipped so the overall image was reduced using “Brightness” until the clipping was just eliminated. The shadows were then adjusted using the Histogram until the clipping point. The result is a much more satisfying and punchy shot, particularly the distant buildings.

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As in the previous picture the highlights were slightly clipped so a similar strategy was adopted. Then I wanted to lighten the faces so I created a point on the tone curve and adjusted it by eye. Care was needed here as the adjustment tended to re-introduce highlight clipping in the clouds.

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The sky then was a little light, so I created another tone curve point to darken it.

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I used the same strategy again here, the clipped highlights were reduced using “Brightness”, shadows restored to the clipping point. The midtones were adjusted so that the overall image looked “right” using two points on the tone curve.

This was a useful exercise in getting to know RAW processing better and I feel more fluent with it now. I still have some way to go before I am as confident as I am with jpegs, but then I have probably put over 1000 images through that particular mincer.

All of these pictures require some colour correction as well so they will be further enhanced in the next exercise.

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