You’d expect someone who’s visited London over 50 times and regularly rants about unimaginative tourist shots to serve up something better than the Eye playing darts in the sunset, right? But no, that’s exactly what you’re getting with this post. That, and more of the same …
Have I gone potty ? Well, yeah, a long time ago. But that’s not (exclusively) what this is all about.
The fact is that, if you love flashy colour photography, forget Valparaiso. Come to London and go nuts. It’s like this city has been designed by generation after generation of worshipers of bright hues. Add the frequently colourful skies and exotically dressed cars, and all the ingredients for a very bright recipe line up.
I recently spent 5 days in the capital of Brexit, during which I decided to focus on two extremes of the chromatic spectrum. So let me report on my wanderings in two posts : one in full, over the top colour. The other, in stark B&W. All this to conclude that practising both is essential and fun.
All too often, people either specialise in one and neglect the other or hesitate between the two and end up missing the point of either entirely. So, in separating the two visions, I have deliberately gone overboard in my processing as an exercise to get the most impact from both. My aim is to let colour convey emotion and B&W convey information.
The shot below is a mix of both, and analysing the two components separately make it easier to recombine them for powerful shots.
Colour is tricky. It is very easy to fall into that viral territory with golden hour light and over-processed shots. Great for social media’s goldfish attention span, but the underlying photograph needs to carry more than just crazy colours to keep the viewer interested for more than 3 seconds. More easily said than done, so here are a few pointers.
1. Go for colour contrasts. In a photograph dominated by a group of neighbouring tones (the crazy purple sky and walls below), even a smallish patch of contrasting colour (the blue & green glass) goes a very long way towards balancing the photograph and making it less syrupy, more interesting.
Be bold in your processing if the colours of the scene are what drew you to making the photograph in the first place. This is not about photographing a stamp for archival purposes but about expressing what it is that impacted you enough to lift the camera to your eye. Above, the bridge’s shape makes for a very strong composition, but the yellow-red buildings also contrast strongly with the dominant blue in the image. It would be a shame to lose that supporting ingredient by being chromatically timid.
A little contrasting colour goes a long way here too. In this dominantly green-glass environment, the small splash of red is enough to create a strong focus point and make the image much more interesting (visualise the same image with a grey coat, for instance).
Also, as much as I love going grungy / grainy / contrasty / dirty in b&w, over-the-top colour needs a super clean image to avoid falling into the outright tacky. Given how “at the limit of vaguely acceptable taste” the image below is, it’s essential to remove distractions and PP flaws to maintain the notion that you are in control and that the psychedelic colours are a deliberate choice, not a hickup-induced nudge of the saturation slider.
When you’re going overboard in your processing, balance and imbalance will become more obvious. It’s a great exercise to push the colour info in your files to their limit to learn how to maintain (or not, if that’s what you’re going for) that balance.
2. Create worlds within your composition. However careful your PP, pictures such as the one above are a step too far for my liking. But when only a fraction of the image is subject to the craziness, it all feels a lot more interesting.
The first image below is a bit more saturated than the second, but the large presence of the grey bridge brings some grounding. Also, the very tight composition with little space to breathe compresses the two “worlds” creating a contrast between them that makes the image interesting (remember, composition is not about taste, only about retaining and directing the attention of your viewer to better convey a message).
The framing also works the other way, with crazy (but real) colours defining the boundaries of a less saturated world. The second & third images below are more of an eyesore than the first because and yet there is far less colour everywhere. In the first, the flashy blues and pinks are used as a compositional tool, creating a frame within the frame that focuses your attention onto a portion of the image that’s much more lackluster and “normal”. The interplay between the two is what makes this photo interesting while the other two are a bit garish.
3. Love your sunsets. Worshipers of colour landscapes often insist on shooting while the sun is still below the horizon. Not my cuppa. While the reduction in dynamic range can make PP far easier, it also makes the resulting image much less vibrant. The sun is our greatest source of light. Honour it by making the best use of its rays. In harsh mid-day light, monochrome is often your friend. When a golden studio light of infinite power is handed out to you, however, say thank you and let it infuse your shots.
4. Lower the contrast. Remember the part about colour conveying emotion and monochrome conveying information? Contrast is the monochrome component of the photograph. By lowering it, you are deliberately minimising the situational information and feeding the brain only hues.
Monet used this regularly to his advantage by producing paintings that would look close to middle grey if you removed colour information (very little contrast). Our brains are wired to use shape to understand the topology of the world around us. By reducing the amount of ‘monochromatic shape information’ in a picture, you make it less stable. The eye moves about more in search of topological clues and the image feels more alive, more vibrant.
No need to go overboard with this contrast reduction (I tend to add a little clarity to make up for the lost punch, but that also diminishes the effect). Even though subtle, the effect is clearly there and the images take on a more pastel look without requiring heavy lifting on the saturation sliders. Compare the 5 images above with those of sections 2 & 3 (more saturated but less colourful).
5. Increase the contrast. Of course, once an effect is identified, you can use it both ways, right ? When a scene is high contrast, why mess with it ? The contrast drew you to it, the contrast must shine through in the final image. Increasing what contrast is already there will produce more menacing colours, the opposite of the Miami Vice pastels above.
In essence, the middle two photographs are monochromatic. Simply not shades of gray but shades of purple. They would have worked well in B&W. They are all about the shape and contrast, but the crepuscular hue adds a lot to them.
6. Make the most of colourful lights. When natural light is super harsh or the sky is very dark, contrasts tend to become very high and I feel those times of day are better served by B&W photography. But artificial light can be a colourful saviour in those situations and however nuts you got with them, it takes a lot a misbehaviour to create something that looks distinctly overboard (unlike some ‘enhancements’ of natural light). The variety of colours present in artificial lighting isn’t always completely obvious with the naked eye and can be more visible in photographs. Wonderful compositional opportunities ahead, then 😉
7. Go to London. This was my intro and it will be my conclusion. If you live in a place where car dealerships will let you order any colour provided it’s a shade of grey, London is going to seem psychedelic to you. This is a city where car designers seem to be on acid.
Bus designers seem to be on acid.
Plants seem to be on acid.
Boats seem to be on acid.
Taylors seem to be on acid (and you should see the bright orange Kingsman suit just next door …)
Architects seem to be on acid.
Given the highly colourful nature of the subjects at hand, I took very little risk to create those images, simply making obvious or enhancing what was already there. In low contrast light, this means lowering the contrast even more to create soft palettes and dreamy images (probably the reason why so many people love the period just after sunset or before sunrise). In high contrast light, this means increasing the clarity or contrast of the image to draw bolder lines and let colour take on a deeper, more fierce, hue.
At the end of the day, the aim of this exercise is not to argue for strong contrasts or bold palettes. Subtlety is the master-key to success in my book.
But, by taking things to extremes, you soon get a feeling of how to retain balance in exaggeration and how to direct your post processing in a way that blends in the strongest elements of contrast management and colour theory. I don’t believe in low-impact images, that’s a personal thing. But the harder you press, the more balanced your pressing must be if the processing isn’t to take the focus away from the intended story. And that’s what makes the game fun and images meaningful!
Next up, London in Monochrome. What say you ?
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First DS article, ever, that I couldn’t wait to scroll through and exit. Sorry, but those low contrast color shots reminded me of old 1940s and 1950s post cards. They did creat an emotion with me alright…..made me want to throw up. I’m not trying to be a troll. Just reporting how they made me feel. Maybe it’s because I grew up in that era and I didn’t like it then and don’t like to be reminded of it now. 🙂
😀 😀 😀 Don’t worry, Cliff. I find many of the photographs on that page ghastly myself. The interesting point, though, is that your reaction was emotional, not intellectual. With the next series, in B&W, you might find the photographs boring or fascinating but not puke-worthy. Colour elicits a more emotional response and B&W a more mental one. And if you view those exercises in over- or under-doing stuff in colour and B&W as training in balance, then you can achieve more or less what you want on either spectrum. My fave pics on this page are the book market under the bridge (sunset series) and the final Rolls. Both are over the top processing, strictly speaking, but they still appeal to me a lot and tell the story as I felt it on the spot.
A great study in light and colour, Pascal.
The shot before your “3. Love your sunsets.” heading is a good example of the type of shot amateurs take, trying to “get everything in” – you says it’s a bit garish, for me it fails because it becomes too crowded. It’s a classic mistake, we’ve probably all made it, and we have to train new ‘togs to avoid it.
I am startled at the suggestion people are avoiding the golden hour. As punishment, I hope they only use cellphones for their photography! I accept that the overhead light of the middle of the day – particularly in summer – can be harsh, but that’s just another challenge – and so are the golden hours, the blue hours, the other hours during the day, and the fall of night. All part of the study of light! And all the camera makers are shouting they have the best HDR, so we no longer need multi-shot HDR composites to bring out the detail in the highlights and shadows! 🙂 Couldn’t resist that, having just read a review of a medium format camera which explained why THEY could get more detail in highlights and DSLR (or smaller) format cams can not. What we need to do is to explore what our gear CAN do and stop worrying about what it can’t – or win Lotto and buy one of everything there is!
Oh, how can you say that of such a delicate and tasteful image ? 😀 😀
The only overboard image here that really works, in my mind, is the bridge & St Paul’s, second in the N°1 series. But, in the really garish series, I quite enjoy the first, where the grey structure of Millenium Bridge hangs low over the skyline (pic 1 of section 2).
It’s all about balance. And it’s all subjective. We all have a sweet spot on a very wide spectrum that ranges from super dull to super vibrant, with the thickest part of the bell curve at a more timid spot than most of the photographs on this page.
I think we should all experiment with pushing things too far, as I did on this page, to learn to maintain balance, find new looks and find our own sweet spot.
To go where no man has gone before? 🙂
I think finding new looks entails focusing ON “looking”. Too many people pass by things, without actually “seeing” them. While I was living in Australia’s Northern Territory, I learned something which has been of tremendous value to me ever since. Indigenous Australians don’t “look you in the eye”, they regard that as extremely rude – instead, over thousands of years they have trained their peripheral vision, and when they want to look “at” you, they point their eyes at something offstage left and look at you with their peripheral vision. In addition, their peripheral vision functions perfectly well over a range of roughly 170 degrees, which is little short of astounding. And this gives them other advantages over other people – for example, if they are out in the bush, they see stuff all over the place that Europeans don’t – simply cannot – because they use their eyes to look only where their eyes are pointing. And in Kakadu National Park, which – thankfully – has been handed back to its traditional owners, and is now controlled by tribal elders, employing “white people” to do most of the work, the aborigines have trained their white staff to see the way they (the aborigines) do. I can’t imagine it’s quite the same, but hell, it sure is impressive – these white guys act as tour guides, and as you move around Kakadu with them, they draw your attention to stuff you would never have noticed, without their assistance – their newly-acquired “seeing” skills.
Dunno what it’s like there, now – it’s been a long while since I left – but I have followed their example ever since, and I frequently find myself astonished by how little other people actually see, as they move around. Of course it can be a bit of a curse, because it opens your eyes to all sorts of photographic opportunities and you find yourself going trigger happy, ending up with vastly more photographs. I guess it all fits your suggestion, Pascal, of experimenting with pushing things too far, learning to maintain balance, finding new looks, and finding our own sweet spot. Dunno that I’ll ever make it to “the” sweet spot, because I shoot in so many different fields and they probably all have a sweet spot of their own. 🙂
I also still adhere to the notion that we can learn a great deal from the old masters. I saw the other day one of the ‘togs who publishes regularly on sites like Fstoppers published an article suggesting we should study the old masters and learn from them – I’ve put it aside, to read later, so I can’t tell you what it says. Some people would argue that doing this ends up as plagiarism or pastiche – I would argue that it takes an extraordinary ego for someone to suggest that they know more about art than the greats, like Monet & Picasso & Van Gogh, and cannot improve their knowledge and understanding by doing this.
Are you using ‘Austin Powers’ pre-sets 😉 .
To be honest I think the colour = emotion, mono = information is a bit too simplistic, even for a brash urban metropolis.
Both can have complementary but different effects on an image; colour can cause confusion or distraction, to monochrome muddling or blandly homogenising. Colour can elaborate to monochrome harmonise. Colour can enrich to monochrome distil. And either can have emotional or information content. The last thing I want to do is start and adjective-off, however I should say that I have been trying to shoot some natural river scenes lately (in both colour and mono) and nature is not as forgiving as the artificial for colour. Perhaps that is why sunsets, blue or golden light is so popular, you get a leave pass to play with your sliders, for both colour and luminance.
I look forward to your next instalment
Hi Noel, no presets here, but Austin Powers would indeed qualify them well, had I used any 😉 No, the whole point was to go too far in a series of different directions, as an experiment. We humans have very different reactions to balance and excess and I’m pretty sure 90% of readers will hate many of the photographs on this page but not the same ones 🙂 !!!
About emotion vs information, I don’t want to oversimplify a very complex topic. All I’m saying is that mucking about with colour will make most people react in a very moody way whereas the shape information that is more linked to the monochrome component is more linked to analysis, spatial awareness and, often, intellect. Of course, content will determine the viewer’s reaction as much as your treatment of the photograph. But I’m just trying to help budding photographers dissect the impact of their photographs through various experiments, so as to reconstruct the learnings in a more global understanding of what it is they like or not.
The next instalment is for next week. Don’t expect much more subtlety 😉
I will tell a short story about the recent history of buses in London.
The London Mayor before last (Ken Livingstone) introduced articulated single decker buses to London, known locally as “bendy buses”, at significant cost. They were often entirely unsuitable for London’s streets, as the city never had a grand plan like Paris, and so is full of small streets and tight corners and awkward junctions. The articulated buses, being 18 meters long, didn’t manoeuvre well around London’s streets, the drivers often seemed to think that as long as the cab was over traffic lights or a junction that was ok (ignoring the trailing 15 metres of bus blocking the road), and they had a problem where they caught fire.
Eventually, after enormous public backlash that lasted years, a project was started to choose a new design of “Routemaster” bus for London. A winner was announced, although the chosen design was not the one that was put into production, and the design was changed after the competition closed. They are being manufactured at enormous expense, much more than regular buses that you can buy from a catalogue from other bus makers, although the claimed benefit is their diesel hybrid technology. This had a fault which meant they used much more fuel than intended, and hybrid buses are freely available from other manufacturers at lower cost. When launched, they had neither opening windows nor air conditioning, meaning summer temperatures were unbearable particularly upstairs, in excess of 100 Fahrenheit. The design has had to be changed to include both very small opening windows and a cooling system.
Apparently it is a great example of British design.
So yes, bus designers, and certainly the authorities that procure them, are clearly on acid.
You’ve certainly made London look eye catching! By some strange co-incidence, I seem to recognise almost all the locations you have photographed, but being a local sometimes fatigued by tourists, I rarely photograph at these places myself. For me, some of the post processing is too much, with too much tone mapping and candy colours, but I understand that was in part your intent from the narrative. The photograph I found very striking was the slice of sky seen between dark buildings and an underpass or bridge – although it contains very little “story”, I like it’s graphic style, which I am often drawn to.
For many years my post processing was often quite low contrast, one might say “subtle”, since the pictures lacked the punch compared to a lot of work shown online (high contrast and saturated). More recently I’ve decided that subtlety is largely a waste of time as it is completely lost on most of the internet viewing public, and that the only way to get “attention” is more saturation, more colour, more contrast, more tone mapping… but hopefully always with one foot planted in reality, rather than sci-fi candy coloured hallucinogenic make believe.
Last year I took a photo from the beach looking out to sea after sunset, at the end of a series of the setting sun and an idyllic sky and clouds. Strangely, when post processed and with WB adjusted, it looks almost like day, but without much colour information, giving it a slightly “sci-fi” atmosphere because it looks somehow “wrong”. I’ve not had the chance to replicate it since, but now you have made me curious.
Hi Adrian, the very frustrating story you tell us is what makes most politicians so very loveable to me, and I would love to think such blatant and hypocritical stupidity was limited to the UK. I’m sure Brexit will induce many more bouts, on either side, that will cost their authors nothing but will bring ruin one step closer to the door of many innocent bystanders.
Yes, the overboard pp was part of the idea, not that it appeals to me either. Strangely, I don’t mind going over the top in B&W but it’s more difficult to do so in colour. The final Roller picture is an example where it didn’t bother me to push the saturation slider as far as it would go, but that picture is still closer to monochrome than garish colour.
The interesting thing is that the range of personal preferences is very broad. So it’s important for everyone to experiment and find out what works and doesn’t on a personal level. If subtlety is your thing, you can keep doing subtle work for yourself and enjoy it. I’m sure others will, and never mind the Internet crowds. There no lasting personal satisfaction and there’s no money there anymore. I’d love to see that sunset you mentioned. Maybe in the “memorable photographs” series we are working on ?
We shouldn’t talk about politics here – apart from the photographic kind – but I agree that the money that can be spent and sometimes wasted on political decision making is worrying. I sat on one of the fancy new buses a couple of years go in the summer as people nearly passed out on a long slow journey. However, the buses have 2 staircases (meaning very little lower floor space for seats, which limits access for the less mobile), and fancy rounded corners and a wrap around glass treatment. It apes the look of the original 1950s “Routemaster” buses, but appears to fail to understand the original’s practical design ethos, modular design and long service life.
I like the final car photograph, and think that some darker high contrast photos look good “saturated” – I think it often depends on the range of colours and colour palette in the picture.
It would perhaps be interesting to show one of the beach sunset photos, and then the last one after the light had gone completely.