After the Snap pt. 2

Today I’m going to show you just how I go from a digitally captured black-and-white to a polished photo and then to a transparency for the final product for this particular image – an anthotype print.  Although this project was done in Photoshop, less expensive and less advanced software will often do the same things.  Today’s project can just as easily be done in Photoshop Elements or GIMP.  The tools are the same, but may be located slightly differently in the menus.

This is what my camera captured. The image is flat because everything in front of the lens was the same shade of green and it was in corner where the sun either doesn't touch the plants or washes out the details.


I went out in the back yard to take some pictures of pansies.  The ruffled leaves and budswere particularly interesting for their textures and shapes. The plants are growing in a spot that is alternately in brilliant sunlight that washes everything out or in shadows that are good for texture but not contrast.  The lighting on the plants was very even, so the delicate textures were easy to capture among leaves that were largely a uniform shade of green.


 I was happy with the composition in this one, but the shading needs a lot of work.



Using levels, I adjusted shadows and highlights to increase the contrast and bring out the details.

To start off, I opened the image in my editor, in this case Photoshop.  There are several ways to change the contrast in Photoshop and Photoshop Elements.  One is to simply use the sliding contrast bar under “Adjustments”.  It’s quick, but not very refined.  Another quick way is to select “levels” in the “Adjustments” menu and click on the button in the levels dialog box that says “auto.”  This also requires minimal experience and is somewhat more reliable.  I often start with auto levels as a shortcut and if I don’t like it, I’ll undo it and play around with the sliders for shadows, mid-tones and highlights in the same dialog box.  This came out pretty well.  There is a lot more dimension to this image now.   However, there is still detail in that bud that gets lost in the shadows.


I dodged shadows and mid-tones around the bud's petals to bring them out of the dark shadow that merged them in the original.

So, the next tools to pull out are the dodge and burn tools*.  Here, the one thing I really wanted to do was make that one big black blob of a bud into the individual petals that were hidden in the shadow.  I used the dodge tool set to “mid-tones” and carefully dodged each petal so that the edges remained shadowed for depth.  If I were going to use this just as a black-and-white photo, I would probably stop here.  There are many shades and textures that I would not want to loose by over-working the image.  However, this image went a step further because of the nature of the final print.

Good anthotypes need very contrasty originals.



More dodging and burning was required to get the image to show up clearly in an anthotype.

Plant juice is just not as high-contrast as a black-and-white image.  Quite simply, there is no black or white.  So, the details have to be brought out further to make up for the loss of contrast in the final print.  Here, I focused on dodging the highlights and burning the shadows so that the details were much more obvious.  The contours in the sepals and petals are more defined now, as are the details in the highlighted leaf at the center of the image.  I also brought out the veins in the leaves at the bottom by dodging the mid-tones a bit.  This was printed onto Pictorico transparency film in my ink jet printer.




And here, after a few weeks in the sun, is the final print, exposed on emulsion made from that very flower.




*These tools get their names from the darkroom techniques used to lighten and darken areas of a picture.  In a darkroom, the print is exposed by shining a light through a negative onto a piece of treated paper for a certain period of time.  If an area needs to be lightened, it is “dodged” by blocking light to that area for part of the exposure with a finger, a whole hand, a piece of cardboard, a shaped tool or whatever fits the shape of the area being lightened.  Burning is pretty much the same idea.  An area is made darker by exposing it to more light (think of getting a sun tan) while the rest of the picture is covered to prevent the rest of the picture from being over-exposed and therefore too dark.  Digital editors take this a step further by allowing the user to dodge or burn shadows, mid-tones or highlights in the same area separately.


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After the Snap pt. 1

Wow!  I didn’t really intend to take the whole summer off from my blog, but I’m baaack!

This month I am going to take a step away from simply explaining how to use a camera and get into digital editing for a bit.  Though I cannot over-stress the importance of carefully crafting the image in the camera before turning on the computer, image capture is only half the project.

While at a big, international photography show, a gentleman once brought up the question, “Do they lose points for using Photoshop?”  The answer was a resounding, “Of course not.”  Why?  Because just the act of resizing an image to fit the paper or screen is a necessary alteration of the original.  Furthermore, every time an image goes from one medium – the camera- to another – a paper print, digital slide show, anthotype or whatever – it needs to be tweaked a bit to make it look its best in the new medium.  What looks terrific in a camera screen may need more or less contrast between light and dark,  more vibrant color or a shift in color to make the new medium look just like what you saw when you took it, assuming that you want it to look like that at all.  Start taking black and white pictures and the difference between the details you notice and what shows up in the image becaome even more desparate

Then there’s the more creative tweaking.  Did the camera capture things the way you perceived them?  You and your camera see and record things differently because it has optical sensors and you have organic eyes and a brain that interprets what you see.  You can account for a lot in the exposure, but not everything.  If what the camera saw is not what you saw, then there’s further lightening, darkening, cropping and fiddling to be done. You may want to play around with the picture to bring out the details, texture, shadows and highlights that you noticed and want others to see.

And what if you want to create an image that was never in front of you?  Sometimes the art of photography is so much more than what is captured.  Why strictly limit yourself to the obvious? There just may be a whole new world in your head just bursting to come out, if you let it.  This could be the time to break out bigger tools, layers and filters, though one simple tool can go a long way in making an amazing image.

In the coming weeks, I’ll explain about how various pictures got polished digitally and how you can use some very simple tricks to make your photos more creative.


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Pinhole Day 2012

Worldwide Pinhole Photography day has come and gone.

My own shot taken on APril 29th, the actual day of the event, just for fun!

To celebrate last week, I took a few photography students, some of whom didn’t own cameras, out in the schoolyard to see what they could do with a few of my film can cameras.  The results were as unpredictable as a set of elementary school students can be counting the seconds under their breath. We went back and forth between our make-shift darkroom and the schoolyard trying one shot after another.  In the end, they had a lot of fun and got to show the folks around school and at home the wonders of a simple box with a hole in it.

Although I would not recommend this camera for action shots, it's wonderful what you can do with no batteries, circuitry, or even mechanical innards.,

If you want to see what the rest of the world did – 63 countries and counting – check out the WWPD gallery.  Photographers all over will be adding to the site until the end of the month.

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Celebrate Simplicity!

A small paper negative made with my film-can cameras and an enlarged positive

Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day is upon us!  On the last Sunday of April every year, pinhole photographers around the world take up their cameras – some home-built and some commercially-made instruments, and take pictures to share on the event’s website.

What is a pinhole camera?  A pinhole camera is any lensless image-capturing device.  Light enters the camera through a small hole, usually the size of and made with a pin or needle, and exposes some light-sensitive material.  It may be a piece of film, photo paper, or even a digital camera array.  They can be rather crude, like my film-can creations.  They can be works of art in and of themselves.  They can be made of any light-tight container, like shoe boxes, tin cans, Legos, or how about an egg?  Some use digital cameras from which the lenses are removed and replaced with a simple cover with a tiny hole.  They typically require very long exposure times, ranging from perhaps half a second outdoors in bright sunshine to half an hour or more indoors in low light.  The images are often crude due to light-leaks in the camera seams and imprecisely made pinholes, in the same manner as toy cameras, though some are very precisely-made pieces of equipment.

Why???? With all our wonderfully high-tech, precision gadgetry, why would anyone build something that makes such crude pictures?  For one thing, there is the appeal to some for the edgy, low-tech look of the photos, which is now being emulated by cell phone apps everywhere.  Beyond that, when a pinhole camera is made carefully the image can have infinite focus.  Whereas cameras with lenses have a defined range for which the image is in focus, pinhole cameras put everything in front of them in focus.  Something an inch away from the opening is just as clear as object way off on the distant horizon.  To top it off, they’re just plain fun to make.

A 5' x5' x5' cardboard pinhole camera with its creators. The "pinhole" was the size of a dime.

So, grab your cans, grab your boxes, or download a paper pattern like this one.  Take a few pictures this Sunday and see what you can create!


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Anatomy of a Photograph

One of the marks of people who are good at something is that they make what they do seem so easy.  Good photographers make it not only seem effortless but also entirely automatic within the equipment.    A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of participating in an international photography exhibition, where hundreds of wonderful photos graced the walls.  Most of them were of the narrative sort, showing more or less what was in front of the photographer at a particular point in time rather than something that the photographer dreamed up and created by digital editing, darkroom tinkering or in-camera special effects.  My own picture was no exception.

Like just about everything else on the walls, this shot was anything but instant success.  Having entered it as a photojournalistic print, I had to be careful to use only cropping and basic toning adjustments to retain the “truth” of the picture (see last week’s post, “The Camera Lies!”) while still giving it enough pizazz to grab the viewer long enough to really read the story the picture contains.

My photo started out as a carefully aimed and timed shot of a father and son sharing the boy’s work art school.  I was careful to get the exposure right.  I took several shots of these two, playing with the angle while they ignored my presence and read . This one was composed so that the faces more or less follow the rule of thirds.  It’s a sweet shot as the boy hugs his dad while talking about the book in front of them.

Nice shot, but the brightest things in the picture are the globes and books on the shelves and they scream for the attention of the viewer, distracting from the main focus of the image: the father and son.  They also make the picture look incredibly busy when what I wanted was a quiet, intimate moment.  So, I crop the sides and a little off the top.

Better, but one bright, orange and yellow globe is so close that cropping it out would also mean chopping off a hand and the part of  the book on which they are focused.  The bright shades all the way around also seem a little too vibrant for such a peaceful scene.  I chose to make the picture black and white, keeping the setting intact to show where they are, toning down the energy in the picture and still allowing the subjects to stand out.

Ah!  That’s a bit better, but the picture looks pretty flat.  The faces still do not stand out as much as the book and baskets in the background, the boy’s sleeves, or the book in hand.  The faces are what I want the viewer to focus on. So, I used my photo editor to adjust the contrast and brightness a bit, then dodged the faces to bring them out and dodged the hair to give it some texture.

We’re getting there!  But, the faces still look a little flat and the picture still looks busy.  The paper on the desk in the top-left corner is particularly distracting.  

There!  A little more dodging and burning of the faces brought out their contours.  Burning the four corners, especially the top-left, brings the eye to the brightest part of the picture — the man, the boy and their book — while still leaving enough detail that you can see that they are in a classroom full of interesting things.

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The Camera Lies.

They say that the camera never lies.  They haven’t played around with cameras very much.

The camera (and the person wielding it!) can make a person look larger than a house or as small as a mouse – just put them far enough in front of the house at the right angle and the person’s home could look like a dollhouse or you can put a small subject in the foreground and the person in the back to make them, look tiny (see A Matter of Perspective).

The camera can make a trashy beach into an ocean paradise.  All one has to do is aim the camera away from the trash or change the angle and depth of field so that the trash blends too much to be visible.

The camera can make a small clump of trees look like a vast, remote forest.  Again, it’s all in the camera angle the photographer chooses.

The camera can make a clear day into a foggy one.  Breath on the filter (never your lens!) to fog it up, then shoot through it.

The camera can make a person look fatter or thinner than they actually are.  Just having the lack of a third dimension to see a body “adds ten pounds.”  A wide-angle lens spreads the image at the center, including one’s mid-section, if it happens to be located there.  Better to place the subject at the edges, where things are made thinner, and better still to use a lens with a longer focal length to avoid the distortion.  Camera angle and shadows can also go a long way in making people look larger or smaller than they actually are.

The camera can make someone look taller or shorter.  By shooting slightly up at the subject, you can make them look taller than the photographer or viewer, and likewise standing on a stool and shooting down at the subject will make the person look shorter.

The camera can make a bright day into a dark night.  It’s an old movie trick.  Film the cowboy in broad daylight, but underexpose everything so that it the image is too dark.  He looks like he’s going on a long night ride.  Instant night scene and everyone can go home to bed.

The camera can make a person fly.  Make the subject jump up and down on a trampoline, snap the picture from solid ground just before they come back down (so that the hair is not standing up) and you have instant levitation.

The camera can make a gently-flowing stream into a rushing torrent.  Slow down the shutter speed enough and the water that is slowly trickling will blur to look like it’s moving very fast.

And, as Paul Simon and Art Garfunkle so succinctly put it, Kodachrome (not to mention filters and polarizing lenses) can make all the world a sunny day.  Oh, yeah!

 The camera can…

Well, actually the photographer does, with the camera in hand, and this is not counting any editing later.  Do you really think you can trust what you see, even in an “unaltered photo?”



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Yes, But Is It Art?

Is photography art?  Is all photography art?  For over a century people have debated these points.  I once thought the matter had been settled with so many exhibitions in museums all over the world , but I am still surprised occasionally when I meet someone with a very different opinion on the matter.

Ten years ago, I had a solo show as part of my Individual Artist Fellowship from the Delaware State Arts Council.  It was a very big honor and quite well advertised, especially as I was one of the first photographers to receive the honor.  As I proudly shared my handiwork with visitors, a woman came up to me and asked a very odd question: “Where is the artwork?” Confused, I pointed at the three walls filled with my photographs.  No, she said, she was looking for the artwork.  After some brief inquiry, I came to understand that she was looking for a painter in the building next door.

Clearly, her definition of art did not include my medium.  There are those who still see as photography as too mechanical to be art.  Many just cannot get past the notion that photography is all done by the camera itself.  It’s not art because it involves no skill, thought or creativity from the photographer.  So be it.

In another instance, I was at a gallery with a few fellow photographers whose work ran the gamut from thoughtful portraits to dreamy landscapes to much more abstract takes on things.  The gallery owners shared with us some recently acquired photographs which were far edgier than anything the four of us did.  The owners’ question was,”Is this art?”  We all looked at the pictures.  Some loved the pictures.  I found them rather revolting.  All of us had very emotional reactions to them.  The photographer had truly succeeded in skillfully making imagery that evoked emotions.  While we wouldn’t all have hung it on our walls, the consensus was that yes it was art because it stirred emotion in us all.

Two weeks ago, I caught up with a fellow photographer with whom I am well acquainted.  He is part of an organization holding the huge annual photographic exhibition to which we were both accepted and attending.  He has a decidedly different approach to his subject matter and methods of capturing the image from my mode of operation .  He caught me a bit off-guard when he said the difference between him and me lay in the fact that I am an “artist” and he is an “image maker.”  Image maker?

It must be mentioned that this particular show is historically of a very reality-oriented variety.  The largest category for this show is an open, anything-goes kind of thing by the rules, where a photographer can make trees walk and pigs fly if she so desires.  The vast majority of accepted works are much more subtle, though,  making a scene more real than real by highlighting, darkening, cropping, erasing, pasting and otherwise digitally adjusting the image to dramatize, rather than report the absolute truth of it.  They are so good, though, that it all seemed like so many well-shot, unmanipulated photos.  It gave some patrons pause that day and at least one asked, “Do they lose points if they use Photoshop?” ( The answer is no.)

My conversation with the image maker got cut short and I never got a chance to hear an explanation of his statement.  It is possible that the he intends to simply dramatize reality rather than create a whole new one, as he knows I tend to do*, and so that stretch of imagination in my work took me into the art realm.

As for myself, I’d say that even Mr. Image Maker, even if he disagrees, is more of an artist than he thinks.  Sure, I am more experimental in my projects.  I throw in a bit of imagination where he prefers realism.  However, he puts himself into every picture he takes.  He chooses his own versions of just the right lens, just the right angle, just the right moment, just the right exposure, and just the right composition to every picture he takes.  He goes home and opens up Photoshop and spends probably hours tweaking the pictures just-so to give them the drama and impact he wants to see in them, adjusting vibrance, contrast, saturation, hue, brightness, sharpness, cropping, and so on, then finishing it off, if he prints it, with his paper and printing method choices.  The pictures he produces aren’t just snapshots of a passing moment, but the deliberate reflection of how he saw or wanted to see what was around him.  He wants everyone to look at his pictures and say, “Wow” — and many do.  In the end, though he’s using a different set of skills, I don’t see much difference from a photorealistic painter doing the same thing with a portrait, still life, landscape or anything else.  However you want to express it, I think art is not defined by the medium but by the though and soul that are put into the work and its ability to stir something in the viewer.

Ultimately, I guess the question isn’t really, “Is photography art?” but “What is art?”  The answer to this is so personal that there are probably as many answers as there are people thinking about it.  So, what is art to you?


*Ironically, he was accepted in the open category and I was accepted for photojournalism, which allows only for cropping, and adjusting of brightness and contrast.  The realism of the scene, for my category that day, was first and foremost, but even then there is room for the personal editorial touch.

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No New Subjects, But…

They say that there are no new subjects and that what is left is each individual’s take on the subject that is important.  I would strongly emphasize this point to anyone who works to re-create other artists’ work down to standing in that person’s hallowed tripod marks.  However, by standing on the shoulders of those who have come before, who knows what we can see?

Who can forget Harold Edgerton’s ground-breaking high-speed photos of milk splashing, bodies in motion and the iconic bullet through the apple?  Edgerton didn’t invent any of his subjects.  Certainly people had taken pictures of fruit and ripples in liquid, but he developed a technique to put all these subjects in a different light.  Nor was he the first to do high-speed photography.  Eadweard Muybridge shot his famous sequence of a horse galloping some 50 years earlier, in 1877, with a hundred thousand other photos of moving bodies to follow in later projects1.  However, Edgerton fine-tuned the idea to freeze all kinds of  subjects not only in sequence but also as a way to freeze that pivotal instant of change when something is beginning to happen.

In the 21st century, German photographer Martin Klimas is taking the high-speed a little further, shattering, glass and clay and tradition simultaneously.  In one series, he shatters static figures capturing the same moment of change that Edgerston tried to capture.  Part still-life and part action, the works he chooses to show also seem to be breaking free to move on their own, freed from the confines of their immobile media.  A pair of ceramic kung-fu fighters, for example, unfreeze from their pose to continue their fight as arms and legs fly free.  Recently, he has been exploring the motion of paint with sound waves, trying to find out “What sound looks like.”  Placing wet paint on a flat, translucent surface above a speaker, he vibrates the paint so that it jumps and spins with the vibration of the music he plays and photographs the action. Though he attributes this work to more scientific influences2, he has been compared to Jackson Pollock in 3D3.

So, the question of the day is this:  Whether you can do something technically new and brilliant or just angle things a little differently, how can you make your own work just a little bit different from what you have seen before?  What personal spark can you add, in your own way, to the art world?





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A Couple Prints in the Right Direction

Mixing the 21st and 19th centuries is giving me the joy of both worlds and a huge lesson in patience.  Being accustomed to having to take a couple of days to get some prints just the way I want them – whether digital or darkroom – I thought I was prepared for the big wait with anthotyping.  The suspense of waiting for each print to oh-so-slowly develop is like a kid waiting so many weeks  until Christmas.

"Mantis in the Garden" on beet leaf juice emulsion, after a "quick" two-week exposure

Having stepped up from simple leaf cut-outs to digital transparencies as the original for the anthotypes, I chose a nice, “quick” emulsion to see how the transparencies worked.  (It only took two weeks to develop.) Though not destined for the anthotype Hall of Fame, these two prints are a step in the right direction.  The Mantis has a green spot at the top where the paper got wet while printing.  This could have interesting applications down the road, but at the moment it is just an annoying spot.  The Mushrooms are very soft to the point of being indistinct at close observation, but if one sits back a bit from the computer monitor or looks at it as a smaller image like the one below, it is clearly there.  Although it is very grainy, I really like the color variation with this particular emulsion.  This one was a bit low-contrast because I accidentally had a double-thickness of transparency film.  The next attempts, with higher-contrast originals, a single layer of transparency film and different plant emulsions, are slowly fading in the driveway.

"Mushroom," printed on beet leaf juice. This was a "quick" two-week exposure.

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Long Live Film!

Though you can’t tell from a computer monitor, the vast majority of my artwork is still film-based and printed in a darkroom.  It’s not better than digital but it is different than digital.  There is a quality to the shading and details that gives it a softer, more even feel to me.  I also love the process itself.  If you’ve never been in

Self-portrait in the Darkroom

There is a certain magic to working in the solitude of the darkroom and watching a blank sheet of paper slowly change into a picture before me.

a darkroom before, there is more than a little magic watching a blank sheet of paper in a pan of clear liquid slowly change into a picture by the dim red light.

Sadly, I have watched as suppliers for the darkroom alchemists slowly vanish into the sunset.  Kodak, among many, has been discontinuing one product line after another to try to focus on the digital age.  Poloroid went bankrupt.  I watch the news to see if and when my supplies are going to run out, stocking up when I can, experimenting with other brands and wondering if I need to finally either go completely digital or dive further into a hybrid of 21st century image capture and arcane printing processes.

Yet, film users are not a dying breed!  We are a niche.  We use our film as a distinct medium from the flood of digital photography — think oil paints vs digital graphics — and there are plenty of us.  When I go to my local camera store, I still see a wall full of fresh film boxes for sale and a ready supply of my favorite paper, too.  No need to order online from a purveyor of old, forgotten inventory. Film is alive!

This month, Kodak realized that film is not going away as quickly as it thought and is returning to concentrating on its first, best products – film and photographic paper – as is reported in the British Journal of Photography.

The next time you get a chance, go in person to see an exhibit with darkroom photos.  Take a good look and see if you notice the differences from what you may see on a computer screen or in a digital photo.  Feel the moods these pictures evoke and lose yourself in the imagery beyond the process.


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