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Wednesday, 09 February 2011


Loved the Randy Nelson quote! I had the pleasure of working with him in the early '80s when he was doing animation for Pizza Time Theatre restaurants (aka Chuck E. Cheese's). I'm not surprised at all that someone as bright, creative and personable as Randy is now with Pixar.

Beautifully done, Ctein. Thank you for sharing and inspiring!

I love the quote from Robert Doisneau that if he knew what made a good picture, he would make one every time.

Contrariwise for the semi novice, I take the route that if you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there:

Alice Through The Looking Glass

Randy Nelson? Not Lewis Carrol then. Or was it.As in 'Alice', "If you dont know where you are going, any road will serve to get you there". Call me Mr Picky, sorry, Im just saying. But as good to read your column as always Ctein.
Kerry Glasier, Cornwall, UK

It Doesn't Matter How You Get There If You Don't Know Where You're Going

Hmm, when I was in strategic planning we used to say "if you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there" Must be a left-brain: right-brain thing.

Great image, BTW :-)

Looks good to me. I love subtle shadow detail like that, with the dark gray tones. I've been experimenting with the Lightroom/photoshop plug-in Enfuse, trying exposure blending (non-hdr) and think I'll see if it can do anything like that with my 4/3's camera. Though I wouldn't mind a Contax with Phase One back... Looking forward to your upcoming articles.

Dear Kerry,

I doubt it is so rare a sentiment that it's original with either Nelson or Carrol. Probably shows up in Socrates' writings somewhere.

The FKB were intellectually capable of coming up with this on their own. These are folks, after all, who subjected audiences to stupifyingly obscure puns, like "Ontology recapitulates philology."

pax / Ctein

I prefer Fig 1.

I liked Fig. 4 best, because it looks like an old photo. The lighting gave it a vintage feel. It's like looking at the structure and the lake that's from another era. Thanks for the post!

For someone who didn't know where he was going, you sure knew how you got there! :)

Yes, David, that quote from Doisneau is quite telling. . . we could all use a bit of that kind of humility and self-knowledge, coming as it is from a great artist.

I look forward to comments on your PEN experience, as I am seriously considering an E-PL2 and a pro friend who has a Panasonic GF-1, which he got partly because he thinks that ACR doesn't play well with Olympus files.

Interestingly enough, I just picked up a P30 back for a reasonable price and built a 503CW kit around it. My goal is to play with night time photography also. Here are some pics from the P30
http://www.5pmlight.com/?p=2005 the longest exposure is ~35 seconds with the street with holiday light decorations.

Here are some from the digital M, with ~20 seconds exposure, not too shabby either:

I hope to do more night photography soon...

Lucky you to have such a nice toy to play with! By (lucky) accident I found the same thing--that occasionally a color photo looks much better in B&W--and that's opened a new world. FWIW, I like Figure 2 for the color version and Figure 6. The gradations between black and white...Wow! Thanks. The infamous Forrest Gump said "if you don't know where you're going you're probably not going get there", which is a nice paraphrase for the Nelson quote.


Your meandering path through colour and black and white edits reminds me of a technique I've been experimenting with recently:

1) Once I think I'm "done" editing a colour photo in Lightroom (which I'm finding is something of a moving target), I'll save a snapshot. (like figure 4).

2) Next, to force me to consciously think about luminosity and tone, I'll do a black and white conversion and tweak the various luminance sliders, tone curve and burn and dodge to my heart's content. Once I have an image that looks good in black and white, I'll save another snapshot. (like figure 6, without the perspective fix applied)

3) I then export the two snapshots to Photoshop for editing. I copy the black and white image on top of the colour image as a new layer and set the blending mode to "luminosity".

My goal with this technique is to get more refined contrast and tone in my final colour image. In my case, working with the black and white conversion may be a bit of a crutch for my inexperienced eye; I'm less distracted by colour contrast and can focus on tonality in isolation before merging the two layers together.

PS: For the record, I don't mean to imply that I think your final image would work better in colour; It is stunning as is.

I never tried night photography in my film days, but I've been doing a collection of cemetery night photos on digital since 2007. Insanity has come to me, and I've decided to buy another scanner, and start using my Spotmatic. What developers did you find t be the most successful for extreme compensating?

I've got no problem with Ansel Adam's jargon, "previsualization"

Except that he didn't write that because it isn't a word. He only used visualisation in his books (except he used a z to spell it the American way).
Visualisation is already 'pre' so it doesn't need a pre qualifier. i.e. you don't need to create a mental image of creating a mental image.

I think Edward Weston did use this non-word though.

Hmm. Figure 6 certainly is impressive for the dynamic range at night, and I like the soft flowing tones in the sky (how much NR required for that?).

(Maybe it's insufficient coffee, but the verticals all seem to be leaning right, and I don't like the b&w tonality in the rest of it - esp foreground - much, to be honest. Now you know the image, what happens if you ignore ACR and run it through DxO to simulate Ilford FP4+ instead?)

Dear Rob,

ACR does entirely fine with Olympus Pen files. ACR's all I use for RAW conversion, so I've run it on a lot of photos. No problems.


Dear Dalen,

It was soooooo long ago that I was likely using D-76, because I probably didn't know about any other film developers. Understand, we're talking 40 years; I don't have any recollection of the details.

pax / Ctein

It's horses for courses of course, but my taste would have had the last colour version as my pick of the bunch. Sure I'd have looked at a number of B/W conversions too, but the delicacy of the colours would have won the day for me.

Back in the dim old 20th century, there was an article in Camera and Darkroom about a Belgian called Gilbert Fastenaekens. A Google search produces a number of his photographs. I think they're wonderful. He seems to have had a fascination for hanging round grubby bits of industrial Belgium at night. His prints are fairly large, B&W, and so dense and dark, that you really need quite good lighting to see them properly. I regret not buying one when I had the chance. Alas, offspring and mortgage have removed that option.

His work did inspire me to spend some time prowling under the 405 Freeway where it crosses Venice Blvd, late at night with a 4x5 and some tmax 400. I never got results that satisfied, but it was a blast. Except for that time I picked up my camera bag and discovered that it was hotching with cockroaches. Bleuch.

Anyway, I agree the B&W and night time can produce wonderful things. And I urge you to check his work out.

The light is just wonderful in example 6....but, there is something wrong with my brain because my eye locked on the metal fence in the lower left of frame. I'd get into trouble because I'd be the one to revisit that scene with the 'goon squad'(a few of my crazy friends) to, at least temporarily, move the offending fence out of frame.

Beautiful B&W and great timing. I was just editing a similar shot of a church and got the color decent, but not great. It looks much better in B&W, although I still need to work on my tweaking skills.

It was the rich shadow detail in some of your dye transfer prints that first sucked me in to actually buying some, as you may recall (only took a decade or some such). So this is right up my alley.

I got drawn into night photography (as opposed to low-light, which I did from pretty much the beginning) by color slide film. A friend in MA did it a lot with his Olympus (benefitting, I think, from the meter continuing to read off the film while the shutter was open), and they impressed me and I started playing with it myself. Of course that's a completely different curve!

Hi Ctrein

Please forgive me, but I have to be honest here, and its not good news.

I have a pretty new Dell 2209 monitor, and I am sorry to say that regardless of my brightness settings, Fig 4,5, and 6 look frankly awful with a lot of dark blotchy artifacts in the sky and none show good sharpness. Figure 5 actually shows a series of darker parallel horizontal striations above the dome, which are clearly post processing artifacts.

These artifacts are plainly visible on my monitor both in the expanded and unexpanded versions of these images. :(

My monitor is NOT calibrated, but prints done after processing come out with the very similar luminosity values as my previous CRT monitor which WAS calibrated.

What is going on, do you think?

"If you don't get lost, there's a chance you may never be found."

Author Unknown

I used to have two camera, one loaded with color film, one with B&W film to allow for what can now be done so easily with one digital camera. While one can make the decision after the fact, it really works your brain to visualize ahead of time which might be best. Strong shapes for B&W, interesting colors for color was a guide. Then of course I have to think about what sells. Interestingly, sepia sells very well in my world.

ctein: "Ontology recapitulates philology."

Great play on the discredited biological theory: "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny", as in, "The first cup of coffee recapitulates phylogeny", which is sort of how I feel in the morning: starting at the amoebic and creeping up the tree of life to mammalian.

What I want to know is, is that a digital black and white that convinces Mike Johnston?

I was tempted to say I liked #5 slightly more than #6, but print vs. jpeg? I imagine 6 is the winner easily.

Quite inspiring, thanks! I will keep it in mind ... And yes, I love Photoshop too :)

The original shot appears easier on my eye; a little tweaking would get a very good black and white. But judging a small jpeg is a bit harsh and a downside to publicly displaying images you know are good but that don't translate onto other(even very good) monitors: trying to show subtly toned pictures on the web is hopeless.
I don't wish to be negative, just an observation that the process has dominated the content: the tonality is a bit of a mish-mosh to me as the high radius USM effect is perhaps too strong (?), like ink on watercolour.

Dear Steve,

I was an English major, so I can be as much of a pedant about the language as the next nerd. Really, truly.

But... that train left the station sooooo long ago it's not even worth a discussion.

Just get over it and move on with your life. You'll be happier not beating your head on that brick wall (previsualize your life without that throbbing headache [g,d,&r]).


Dear Tim,

The trees are leaning; the building aren't.

Noise reduction? Hmmmm, lemme check... OK, just my usual default settings in ACR-- 0% luminance noise reduction, 25% color, 50% detail. I don't like doing much of that sort of thing in ACR-- throws away data I might later find I wanted.

Just to be clear, while #6 is heavily worked on by me, #5 is just what ACR threw out. If you're liking the image quality you're seeing, that's not my magic, that's the PhaseOne back's.

As Mike and I frequently say, illustrations illustrate a point, they don't prove it. You're never going to be able to tell from looking at small web jpegs what's going to make the best large print. You just have to take my word.

I don't own DxO, but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't care for the result-- I have never favored the normal S-shaped characteristic curve for night photography. Looks wrong to me. Lots of work to fix in the darkroom, much easier on the computer (note: that doesn't require making the original photo with silicon rather than silver-- curve reshaping works great with film scans).


Dear JackM,

Read the previous column I linked to at the bottom of this column. You'll really like it.

(BTW, this is a place to inject something important-- when Mike and I include a link to something we've written previously it's because that article ties into the current one. PLEASE, skim the referrals to refresh your memories. It bothers me how many questions Mike and I get that were answered in the writings we linked to that the questioner didn't bother to read.)

(No, Jack, you're NOT guilty of that-- you only reminded me of the issue.)

pax / Ctein
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com

Dear Gingerbaker,

Welcome to the wonderful world of limited-bandwidth JPEG illustrations. The web equivalent of so-so magazine reproduction.

Don't dwell on it; you'll just make yourself crazy. I speak from experience-- all us writers and editors were long ago driven to madness by the uncertainty of press reproduction. The more things change...

Yet one more reason why Mike and I say, "Trust what we write; don't trust the illustrations."

It's why, on those very rare occasions when I think readers need to see something close to original quality, I'll put up a high-quality (lotsa bits) version of an illo on my server and include a link to it in the article.


Dear Dennis,

OK, that is NOT web-illo distortion; you're seeing something real. This is a case where the difference between on-screen and on-paper reproduction ends up making big difference. I did produce a finished version of #4 while noodling about, and I couldn't tell from what I was seeing on my studio monitors whether I liked #6 more or less. When I printed them out, it was a no-brainer. #4 makes a much worse print.

Unfortunately, no way I can show that to all of you readers.

Interestingly, this happened twice. Enthused by my chance discovery around this photo, I wondered if I might have others from that evening that would look better as B&Ws. I had one photo that I was sure would look better in B&W than color; the color didn't do much for me on the screen. The B&W conversion was a real winner. When I printed it out, the B&W print failed badly. So I tried printing out the color version, just to see what it looked like, and the print looked great.

Go figger.


Dear Rob,

I agree-- #5 is a better small web illo. But it makes a crappy big print. All because of changes in medium and size.


Dear John,

Understand your feelings about the fence. For me it works fine, but I had to think about it. In part that's because the structure links to the geometries in the bench and trash bin on the walkway. To see what I mean, hold up your finger to block out either the fence or the bench. The other becomes a lot more obvious and jarring.

Also, they're both less bothersome when the image gets bigger.

I toyed, briefly, with the idea of producing a truly "classic" photo by getting rid of the fence AND the bench and bin. I can do that; I haz m4d l33t sk1llz [vbg]. Although that would tick off the purists no end.

Do understand, I considered that an argument in favor of doing it.

It was too much like work, though.

pax / Ctein
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com

> I haz m4d l33t sk1llz

That's so determinedly non-Ctein that it made me laugh out loud. David Dyer-Bennett will now need to go back and caption one of his pictures of you, in the cheezburger style.

These look like everything that I dislike in digital capture and post-processing: a sort of HDR version of black-and-white that looks exaggerated, unnatural and totally ungraceful.
I'm intrigued by what happens when an artist creates these sorts of images. I'm inclined to do it myself when posting a picture online: each gradual transformation (*little* bit more saturation, *slight* angling of the luminosity curve, *touch* more contrast), all of those seem to make the original image just that little bit more attractive, less flat and lifeless. In the end I have a monster just like every other digital image out there.
To see the grace and restraint of true black-and-white, even online images of the work of Josef Sudek show the beauty of film.

Dear Mani,

No problem, I don't expect everyone to love every photo I do. If they did, I'd be richer than Ansel's estate! But I feel I need to make three points:

one, don't evaluate prints from lousy web illos. That trick never works, as the flying squirrel used to say.

two, no HDR or HRD-like tricks were used.

three, I've shown the final print to 15-20 other photographers (both digital and film fans) and they all thought I did a fine job of making a print that looked very much like I'd done it with large format, low ISO B&W sheet film processed with compensating development.

pax / Ctein

Mani, I guess you're not a fan of dodging and burning in the darkroom, eh? Since when has a photograph ever shown exactly what ones eye can actually see? Especially the black and white. In the examples above I see no versions that resemble the nasty over processed HDR. Greater dynamic range is something that is always an important factor when developing film or sensors. Our eyes are still better than what can ever be produced without HDR.

Figure 6 does look amazing.

One of the things I like about making night photographs is not knowing what sort of image will result from long exposures. Sometimes I like to aim the camera at a dark spot, open the shutter for minutes at a time and see what results. Unseen elements and strange lighting can make or break the image so some of them work and some of them don't.

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