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Review: Image Interpretation Techniques

a new eBook from Bruce Percy

in Book Reviews , Thursday, August 29, 2013

The internet has brought about a huge change in book publishing. In the “old days”, getting a book published meant getting a publisher, an editor, a designer, a printer, a distributor and probably a lawyer or two. All this presented a high bar to entry, and although self-publishing, at a range of levels, could work, generally you had to jump through the hoops, and this provided a reasonable quality filter. Nowadays all you need is a desktop publishing application and a web service.

One area which has bloomed in this new world are photography “how to” eBooks. There are countless examples on offer, on topics ranging from the ultra-specialist to getting started guides, and quality ranging from absolute crap to excellent. And with wide ranges of pricing to match.

There are various ways to evaluate eBook quality, including design, layout, writing, photography and content. They don’t always come together - I have examples of eBooks which look gorgeous, but where the content is a severe let-down, basic to the point of laughable. I’ve also had to hack through jungles of mangled prose delivered with all the grace of a 3rd rate corporate PowerPoint presentation, to get to a kernel of valuable information. I haven’t come across many photography eBooks which tick all of these quality criteria, but of those that do, several come from the (digital) pen of Bruce Percy.

His latest eBook, “The Digital Darkroom: Image Interpretation Techniques” doesn’t really break any new ground - in fact the topic has been done to death by the likes of Michael Freeman, John Paul Caponigro, Alain Briot, David duChemin and a host of others - but it just does it better, by avoiding mystification and waffle, and bringing a very welcome clarity of expression to the table.

The topic is essentially an extension of ideas about image composition, discussing how you can use digital darkroom tools to help to lead the eye and to enhance the composition you made in the field. There is no discussion of technology here, just the ways in which generic software tools can be used. This in stark contrast to another eBook I purchased not so long ago, on Dodging and Burning, which I expect to cover similar ground, but was actually a sumptuously designed never ending rundown of various things you can do in Lightroom. I don’t even use bloody Lightroom. While I expected it to be an enjoyable read, I didn’t necessarily expect to learn that much from Bruce’s book, thinking that I already know this stuff, and that anyway it will be applicable principally to Bruce’s very distinctive style. I found out I was quite wrong, on both counts.

The book starts off by discussing visual paths through an image, and how the eye can get attracted - or distracted - by some sometimes quite innocuous areas. Where often people will tend to boost things, like saturation or contrast, Bruce shows that locally reducing such parameters can be more effective in achieving a good balance. It also helps that his example photos are pretty good from the outset, in that it the subtle enhancements he makes are all the more impressive in their effect. A set of case studies demonstrates various techniques, and includes the application to portraiture as well as landscape. I have to say the book immediately made me take a closer look at the photos I’ve recently been editing, and inspired to add some touches I otherwise would not have thought of. I have my own approach to enhancing areas of images, and actually it uses a tool which Bruce doesn’t cover - but that’s all for the better, as seeing things from his perspective can only add value to mine.

Getting back to design, typography and layout, it is clear that Bruce Percy, unlike far too many photographers, not only cares about such things, but is skilled at them. It makes a big difference - so many pundits on photographic style preach from the most horrifically designed eyesores of websites.
On a final point, the vast majority of eBooks I find are of the “read once, delete” variety. This one is quite the opposite, being both a rewarding read, and a reference I’ll come back to many times.

There’s a lot packed into the 37 pages, and although the presentation is clear and easy to follow, it isn’t necessarily suitable for complete beginners. Oh, and one more thing: at £9.99,“The Digital Darkroom: Image Interpretation Techniques” is pretty expensive for an eBook. But there are those that know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Unless you fit in that category, I thoroughly recommend this eBook, and indeed the others you can find on Bruce’s web site.

 

Wide is the new narrow

a refreshing perspective

I’m besides myself with excitement as I announce that snowhenge.net has just had a minor facelift.  A few little twirls here and there, but mainly I’ve rebuilt the photo gallery part to improve the display of photos, and in particular, the XPan panoramic photos which are closest to my heart.

At the same time I’ve updated all the panoramic galleries with higher resolution versions, perfect for pirating. Well, for pirates with low standards, anyway. I’ve also revised the selections for the Iceland and Antarctic galleries, and added a brand new 13 year retrospective set, featuring an ad hoc selection from my archive.

Oh, and it won’t work in antique versions of Internet Explorer anymore. At last.

Snowhenge dot net photography other stuff gallery

I hope you can spend a few minutes exploring these new and revised galleries.  Do let me know what you think.

 

Dog Days

sleeping in the midday sun

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Thursday, August 22, 2013

The heat persists. Officially, around 30C, since mid-July. Feels like … hot, lethargic, slow. The slight north wind just takes the edge of it. Nobody around, midday. The streets of Abilene, um, no, Giubiasco are deserted. Well, even more deserted than usual. Agosto sono tutti in vacanze. Al mare. Al sud. Al caldo. E tutto chiuso. Sleeping in the midday sun, sleeping in the midday sun. Dark, deep shadows, retina-searing light. And the heat radiates. In a week or so things will stir, the sleepy, sleepy town will awake a little, I’ll have to look both ways before crossing the street.  Until then… dog days.

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Olympus E-P3, Panasonic Lumix 17mm f2.8

 

Kinds of Blue

playing with options

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Although my principal tool for Raw file development is Apple Aperture, every now and then I play around with other applications, mainly Iridient Developer and Photo Ninja.  Each application has it’s own look and character, not unlike different film types in Ye Olde Days.  Aperture is fairly neutral, or at least I’ve trained it to be.  A little like Kodak Ektachrome. Iridient is even more neutral, very laid back. It brings to mind cool forests and fresh sea breezes. Not exactly Instagram. Photo Ninja is pretty wild.  It’s also very, very different in how it is set up, and is very clear that it knows best. Photo Ninja could be the Fuji Velvia of Raw developers.

Actually, the reason I got into another mini-round of comparing versions and messing around is that I was finding Aperture’s very weak noise reduction tools were falling short of what I needed on a high contrast shot from a few days ago.

But then I decided to unleash Photo Ninja on a couple of Antarctic iceberg shots, and, well, wow.

This is what Aperture, with some input from me, made of this shot:

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And this is what Photo Ninja made of it, straight out of the box:

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The Photo Ninja look to me has a very “American” feel to it. I don’t mean anything dismissive about that, it’s just that American landscape photographers tend to go for a stronger palette (although there are exceptions, for example my friend Ira Meyer, who generally goes for a more subtle tone in his excellent Antarctic work).

Photo Ninja also cranks up the micro contrast, which can be pretty impressive, but unfortunately, is all or nothing - there’s no way to mask it or dilute the strength in different regions as one can in Aperture.

Although sometimes I like what Photo Ninja gives me, in fact what I usually get from it is a hint of a different direction I could take the image in.  My personal preference of these two versions is the first, more muted one, which probably one of many reasons I don’t grab many people’s attention.  Whatever, I’m doing it for me, mainly.

 

Rumour ‘n sigh

whispers from Mt Olympus

It’s remarkable how much this strange hobby / profession of photography is dominated by equipment when in theory it should be about creativity. Such a huge amount of time and energy spent obsessing about rumours of new gear, arguing about it when it is released, buying it (on credit), discarding it soon after for the next new thing, and yet the actual impact on the presumed end result - photographs - is actually minor if not zero. That new Wonderblitz X-Pro-1000 Titanium with its 30 Megapixels will show AWESOME sharpness and DOF at pixel level… but actually, nobody cares except the owner. Not even even other photographers, less they feel insecure with their 29 Mpix X-Pro-999. And for everybody else who might be persuaded to look, well it’s still a pretty dull photo of a cat. The whole subculture just seems to be an extended, extreme form of retail therapy. And therapy of some kind seems to be desperately needed by the denizens of the rumour site, 43rumors.com, which just leaked photos of the long promised miracle machine from Olympus which will merge the (big, heavy) four thirds system with the (small, light, but a bit limited) micro four thirds system. The comments on those posts could provide material for at least several psychology PhDs.

Which is a very long-winded way of getting to the point of what is, in fact a post about gear. It’s really a pity that this partial information has been leaked, devoid of any context or presentation from Olympus. The camera looks quite interesting, although the design seems crippled by a brief to make it look “retro”. I guess retro sells, but I’m not convinced it is a good idea in this case. This rumoured OM-D E-M1 looks too big for micro four thirds lenses, and too small for four thirds lenses. All in all it looks like what the French describe as a “usine a gaz” - a gasworks. A bunch of components loosely held together with knobs and dials seemingly at random all over the place. The silky smooth, mould-breaking ergonomics of Olympus’ fabulous E-1 are a distant memory these days. But anyway, it still deserves to be presented as the manufacturer intended, not by some sleazy rumour mongerer, out to snare clicks on his adverts.

But these days I’m only really tempted by gear that can help me make photography significantly better or easier. By better I mean that it opens up opportunities, not that it provides 2 squillion megapixels on the head of a pin, and AWESOME IQ at ISO 3245643000. One of the key features of my Olympus E-5 is the rugged, fully orientable swivel screen, which lets me make otherwise near-impossible compositions. The new camera, apparently, loses that feature. Of course it adds all sorts of check-list features, like HD video - which, c’mon, NOBODY really uses, and other fluff.

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One of my favourite photos from Iceland, and one that would have been pretty mudh impossible without the unique (at that time) swivel screen / live view combination of the Olympus E-3


More and more I’m finding that new gear releases just make me value what I already own more. And that photographers who I actually admire would be bored to tears, or just baffled, by this post.

 
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