Inspired by Stieglitz?

Some considerable while back I read an article about Alfred Stieglitz. The photographs that were included were quite beautiful and I was much impressed by the range and quality of the monochrome tones. So I gathered together some of my own shots and put them into a Lightroom folder which I called “Stieglitz”. The intention was to process them based on the Stieglitz look that had inspired me. The shots were chosen especially as being suitable for that treatment. I then forgot about them.

Now that I’ve found them again I can’t remember what it was about the Stieglitz photographs that so captured my attention. Googling didn’t help, I’d lost the thread. So I just processed them. Here are the first three, taken at a stately home called Riddlesden Hall, near Keighley in Yorkshire. When I’ve done some more I might create a portfolio of them all but I hope you enjoy these.

Prehistoric woods

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There is a geologic period called the Devonian. One characteristic of it was the formation of extensive forests, with ferns being one of the early forms of vegetation. If you wander round the woods of Exmoor on the north Devon coast you can imagine that time.

This particular shot caught my eye partly because of the play of light and the slender zig-zagging sapling in the centre of the scene. However, I think it is only fully successful when you see it in a large reproduction. The version above is down-sized but I’ve included a full-size version below that you can click on. I didn’t want to include it in-line because of the size (over 9Mb).

Here is the full size version

Carrying on the sharpness theme of recent posts I discovered many years ago how adding an amount of blur can (paradoxically) add an impression of sharpness. The processing software I used (PictureWindow Pro) had an Unsharp Mask tool for sharpening. I found I could get a very nice result by using a small amount of gaussian blur in addition (I think I added the blur after the sharpening but don’t quote me – it’s been a while since I’ve done it that way). My theory is that the impression of sharpness comes from having smooth tonal gradations. Too much sharpening and contrast can make the picture harsh and the blur softens it again. In this shot I’ve used Lightroom’s usual Sharpen settings but also taken the Clarity slider down to -43. I think it’s had the same effect of smoothing the tonal gradations to reduce harshness. I think it is best seen in the full size version in the ferns at the bottom of the scene.

In addition, the contrast (in tone, colour and texture) between the foliage and the tree trunks creates another source of perceived sharpness and three-dimensionality, helped by the lighting.

Triptych

Triptych

These three shots are not new but I’ve revisited the processing for two of them. I wrote a few weeks ago about how I found how effective it can be to stretch the whites and blacks sliders in Lightroom. Since then it’s been part of my standard workflow. This has prompted me to take a fresh look at some older pictures and that’s what I’ve tried with the two left hand shots above. I’ve shown them with the shot on the right because I think they make a great triptych.

To carry on with the theme of sharpness I’ve had for the last few posts this is another angle on that subject. An effect we want to achieve is a sense of depth and three dimensionality to our pictures. Having a wide range of tones from dark to bright is one way to help that. It’s not enough just to have the range. You’ll get that from a bright sunny day of high contrast. It’s how you position the tones to emphasise parts of the shot and downplay others. In these shots I’ve lightened the parts of the shot I want to bring to the foreground and used vignetting or radial filters to darken the surround. This makes parts of the shot advance or recede and adds to the sense of depth and this is part of the whole perception of what we simply call sharpness.

On Sharpness

I talked a few posts ago about our perceptions of image sharpness. I illustrated that post with an example of extreme sharpness – showing the amazing level of detail available even hand-held from my Olympus OMD-EM10 and its tiny and cheap kit lens.

A view of Skiddaw shot using the Olympus OMD-EM10 "high grain with pin-hole" scene mode.
A view of Skiddaw shot using the Olympus OMD-EM10 “high grain with pin-hole” scene mode.

This time I want to go to the other extreme. The shot above was a result of constraining myself to shoot JPEG only on a day of uninspiring bright sunshine. In real life this was not an attractive scene. A water pipeline is being layed and the project has created an ugly scar on the landscape. The light is flat and uninteresting. However the shapes are strong. The S-shaped curve of the pipes and track leading up to the mountain range and with the aircraft contrails fanning out at the top.

I used the Olympus’ “High Grain” scene mode, with the addition of “pin-hole effect” which has created a strong vignette. I find the results work quite well, though quite different to my normal style. Here’s another shot taken a short while later. The scene is more my usual thing but the light and haze made it a boring conventional shot.

Using Olympus High Grain scene mode
Using Olympus High Grain scene mode

The point of this post, though, is that the effects have removed much of the technical sharpness from the shot. Looking at it at 100% magnification gives the authentic impression of poor quality film shot through a poor quality lens from a hundred years ago. However this becomes irrelevant because of the strong subject and composition. If anything, sharpness and technical quality might have distracted. As it is, it becomes easier for the viewer to see the strong abstract shapes but still keeping the atmosphere of the landscape.

I was speaking about this subject to someone recently and they said that when you’re concerned about the lack of sharpness in your picture it’s because there’s nothing to hold your attention in the subject and composition. I agree. Probably all modern cameras are capable of giving good quality results. If you’re worrying whether your camera or lens are sharp enough then pay more attention to the fundamentals – subject, composition and light.

Try something different

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I did a walk on wednesday starting at Castlerigg Stone Circle, near Keswick in the Lake District. The weather was perfect for walking – blue skies and sunshine – but completely uninspiring for photography, especially with hazy air. I gave up any idea of taking good shots so thought I’d try something different. I set the camera to record JPEG only and tried a variety of art effects that the Olympus provides. The idea was to constrain my choices and live with the results, good or bad.

There’s a long tradition of this in art and photography. Sometimes when you have complete freedom to do whatever you want it’s difficult to decide what you want. Giving yourself constraints can free you up. In photography perhaps we have too much freedom with digital cameras and zoom lenses. Take a film camera and a fixed prime lens and choose a particular film type. If this is all you have with you then you’re forced to work within these constraints.

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I didn’t go this far, of course. My Olympus OMD-EM10 has a zoom lens (I don’t own a prime lens for it) and you can’t leave all of its options at home. So you need a little self-discipline to put it on JPEG and leave it there.

The two art effects I found most interesting were soft-focus and high-grain black and white. The soft-focus option has an added “star effect” option, and the high-grain has an extra “pin-hole” option.

The big benefit of the electronic viewfinder, of course, is that you see all these effects in the viewfinder as you compose the scene.

At the moment it’s peak time for bluebells and wild garlic. I was lucky enough to find a beautiful clump of wild garlic raised up high next to a driveway, so that the flowers were on eye-level. When you see a carpet of wildflowers you might be tempted simply to point the camera and shoot but the results may be disappointing. You still need to find a strong subject and composition to make the most of the scene.

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I thought I’d get some good shots but was nervous about using JPEG and these scene effects. If the results didn’t work I wouldn’t be able to fix them. But the soft-focus effect I saw through the viewfinder gave me some creative energy. I might not have been so inspired to look for the shots if I had stuck to shooting raw.

Later on I found some nice areas of bluebells in the woods. The strong sunshine coming through created a high-contrast scene which I would normally have turned my nose up at. Having the camera on JPEG/soft-focus made it seem less like serious photography and freed me up to take the shots anyway. The results are far from perfect, with plenty of blown-out highlights that would normally make me reject the results, but I just don’t care and I like the results.