Look at this picture

Take a good look at the following picture and form an opinion about it. You can just remember what you thought of it, or you can comment on this post. Tomorrow I’m going to tell you some things about the image, and I’m interested in whether or not they change your opinion.


How to get to Carnegie Hall

I once had a conversation with my guitar teacher about practicing. It went something like this:

Teacher: “How much do you practice?”

Me: “About 45 minutes a day.”

Teacher: “Tell me what you do on a typical day.”

Me: “I warm-up by playing some songs that I know well. Then I work on the ones I’m learning, slow at first, then faster as I learn them. Then I play songs for 20 minutes or so.”

Teacher: “Do you play scales?”

Me: “No, I hate to play scales.”

Teacher: “Do you use a metronome, especially when you’re slowing down the songs?”

Me: “No, I hate that.”

Teacher: “Do you find the parts that are difficult for you, and work on them in isolation?”

Me: “Not very often.”

Teacher: “For the most part, you’re not practicing. You’re just noodling.”

Since then, I’ve read about a technique called deliberate practice. You can find out more about it here. If you are interested in the psychological underpinnings of this concept, you can find a seminal paper here.

One of the keys is what the author of the first-linked web site calls the problem-solving model. I’ll quote the key elements from the web site, but I suggest you read all the material if you’re serious about this.

  1. Define the problem. (What result did I just get? What do I want this note/phrase to sound like instead?)
  2. Analyze the problem. (What is causing it to sound like this?)
  3. Identify potential solutions. (What can I tweak to make it sound more like I want?)
  4. Test the potential solutions and select the most effective one. (What tweaks seem to work best?)
  5. Implement the best solution. (Reinforce these tweaks to make the changes permanent.)
  6. Monitor implementation. (Do these changes continue to produce the results I’m looking for?

The author is talking about music performance, but there are lessons here for photographers.

I never did practice the guitar that way, preferring to noodle my way along and attaining a skill level distantly approaching mediocre before stopping altogether because of arthritis. But I realize that this is an approximation to the process that I arrived at independently and follow when making art. I hated doing it while playing music, but I love doing it while doing photography. Funny how that works.



A book report: more on gamut mapping

This is post fourteen in a series about my experiences in publishing a book. The series starts here.

Earlier in this series, I’ve reported on mapping the images for the book into the rather small GRACoL 2006 Coated color space used by the printer. Today, Brooks Jensen taught me a new-to-me tool for gamut mapping. It’s far from perfect, but it certainly has its place in the process. I’ll explain it to you.

Let’s start with this image of this morning’s sunrise, which has been tweaked so that parts of it are way out of the GRACoL 2006 Coated gamut:

test gamut

If you turn on the gamut alarm, you see in gray the parts of the image that are out of gamut (OOG):

gamut warning

Newer versions of Photoshop (Ps) — I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you which versions — have a tool for selecting the OOG colors. You click through Selection>Color Range>Out of Gamut:

select oog

If you say OK, you get a selection like this:

oog channel

The good news is that we’ve selected all the OOG colors with a pretty simple set of actions. The bad news is that it’s a binary selection. If a color is a little bit OOG, it’s selected 100%. If a color is waaay OOG, it’s selected 100%.

You can see this clearly if I zoom in:

OOG channel closeup


What I’d really like is to have a selection that is grayscale, with slightly OOG colors being barely selected, and far OOG colors being strongly selected. I’ll show you why. If we create a vibrance adjustment layer and desaturate through the selection just enough to silence teh gamut warning, like this:

vibrance layer

We get parts of the image that were slightly OOG and next to parts of the image that were barely within gamut less saturated than them:

barely within gamut

Admittedly, what I did was fairly ham-fisted, but, in order to prevent these kinds of chroma reversals, we’d need to make the edge of the OOG selection fuzzy. That would work pretty well if the relationship between how far OOG of in gamut a color is varies linearly with position in the image, but how often does that happen?

It get’s worse if I notice that the saturation change I made lightened the affected colors and compensate for it with a curves adjustment layer:

adding curves layer

Now we get this:

with curves layer

Ugh. Fuzzing up the mask would probably have helped if I’d planned to do this in the first place.

I shouldn’t look a gift horse, or even a subscription-rented horse, in the mouth. This will be a useful took, just not as useful as it could be.

Unless you’re a color geek, you should stop reading right here.

OK, the civilians are gone, right? I’m gonna get to the issue that you probably noticed above. I said I wanted a grayscale mask that got “whiter” the further OOG a color is, but I didn’t define a scalar measure for describing how far OOG a color is.

Turns out, there are choices. Let’s assume the color distance metric that we’re going to work with is CIEL*a*b*, which is one of the Ps native color spaces. One measure might be the Euclidean distance to the nearest point on the gamut envelope. Another might be the distance to the envelope if the hue angle is held invariant.  Or we could have two measures: one the two-dimensional distance to the gamut envelope if hue angle and luminance are held constant, and the other the one-dimensional luminance distance to the envelope if chromaticity is held constant.

Depending on your gamut mapping strategy, each would have its uses.

Working on photography 24/7

If you don’t do photography in series, you go out and photograph with a brand new plan every time, or maybe no plan at all. You get better a photography as time goes by because you learn what works and what doesn’t, but the only time you’re thinking about photographing is when you’re capturing or editing images.

Did I get that right? Since I nearly always work in series, I may not understand what it’s like if you don’t. The above is what it feels like to me when I’m not engrossed is a photographic series, as when I’m on a family vacation.

Hold that thought.

When I was working as an electrical engineer, I would occasionally find myself in a tough spot with a design. Engineering is all about dealing with constraints, and sometimes I would find myself seemingly unable to come up with a design that worked the way I wanted it to, as well as I wanted to, consumed as little power as I wanted to, and would cost as little to manufacturer as I wanted it to. When I painted myself into one of those boxes, I usually found my way out. And the way I found my way out came as a fully formed idea, and was usually so inventive that that surprised even me. That’s how you get patents, leapfrog the competition, and make the company – and hopefully you – a pile of money.

And here’s the interesting thing: those breakthrough ideas almost never happened while I was sitting at my desk. I would wake up in the middle of the night with an aha!, and record it with the Dictaphone that I kept by my bedside (I was afraid that I’d forget it, but I never forgot the big ones, and the Dictaphone was just so I could sleep soundly). I’d be taking a shower, or lying in the bathtub drifting, when the solution to the problem that I’ve been struggling with pop into my mind.

What that meant was brain was working on the problem all the time – when I was driving my commute, when I was sleeping, when I was going through all the routine, and not-so-routine tasks that make up your day. Then, when I was sufficiently relaxed, the unconscious part of my brain would deliver the solution to the conscious part.

It seemed too good to be true; there was a part of my brain that would work tirelessly and continuously  — and with no conscious effort —  to help me out of a jam.

If I hadn’t designed myself into a corner, there were no flashes of insight in the middle of the night. My unconscious assistant left the building. I continued to do solid design work, but the aha moments were fewer and farther between.

Okay, now back to photography.

When I’m working on a series, I get the ideas that move the series along at the same odd moments: I dream them, they pop into my head when I’m relaxed and least expect them. What that tells me is that working in the series, and struggling with the inevitable problems that arise, energizes my subconscious to move the project to the next step even when I’m not thinking about it. Instead of my photography advancing only when I’m explicitly doing it (capturing or editing), my subconscious is working on making my photography better 24/7.


In praise of repetition

This post is self-plagiarized from a couple of earlier posts in this blog, with new material added.

In this blog and elsewhere, I’m always posting images of the same subject matter over and over. I run in spurts. This year, I started out with the stitched infrared trees, moved on to hills across the valley from my house, and am currently bouncing back and forth between that and synthetic slit scans.

Los Robles 6

Los Robles 6 — Infrared, stitched

I find working in series a very useful method. From the work I see posted in Internet fora, I’m in the minority. In this post, I’d like to tell you why I adopt the constraints I do, and see if my ideas resonate with anybody else. If they don’t, no problem; everybody should make photographs in the way that floats their boat. I’ll respect your work no matter what you do.

My shirts

My shirts, slit scan

I used to do a lot of underwater photography. Whenever I was on a dive boat and the crew asked us where we wanted to go next, the non-photographers tended to opt for someplace new. The photographers wanted to go back to a place we’d already dived.

Hills and fog

Hills and fog

Ruth Bernhard used to make repeated suggestions that photographers make pictures close to home. She suggested that the rule be “within fifty feet of your bed”, which seemed a little extreme, but sure made the point.

Cloud shadows

Cloud shadows

The more time you spend taking pictures somewhere, the better your pictures will be. Whenever I’m someplace that’s new to me, I make the obvious picture. I know I’m doing it, and I do it anyhow. I’ve got to get them out of the way so I can move beyond the superficial. If I were in the stock photo business, they might be good for postcards. I sometimes post them on my Facebook page.

Hills half an hour after sunset

Hills half an hour after sunset

It used to be that I got bored after spending a lot of time in the same spot. I’d keep on photographing, and then I’d start to make good images. Now I seldom get bored, but I sometimes get frustrated that it seems I’ve run out of subject matter. Soon after that happens, I start to find great material all around me. Running out of ways to look at a new subject is just beginning. Once that’s out of the way you can get down to the serious work.

Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, said in a Business Week interview, “I think frugality drives innovation, just like other constraints do.” Replace “innovation” with “creativity” (I’m not sure I can tell you the difference, but “innovation” is not a word that resonates as well with artists) and “frugality” with darn near any constraint, and you have a truth that has been demonstrated over and over to me. It seems that the tighter the box, the greater the unleashed creativity. The opposite is also true: when I don’t set limits for myself, I get lazy and take the easy way out, which, by no coincidence, is the way of most photographs, and my results are just as mundane as the average ones.

We don’t have to get esoteric to see how limits foster creativity. Ultimately photography is about putting a frame around the world; the boundaries of the photographic image are crucial to the result. That’s why photographers hate it when others crop their work; it’s like someone is messing with the soul of the image. Many photographers almost always use the entire image that’s captured by the camera. When using film, some even prove it in the end result by including the edge of the negative.

Why do people do this? Doesn’t the perfect frame for any subject vary widely with the nature of the subject? Maybe it does, but there is a wonderfully clarifying consequence of constraining yourself to a certain image shape. The easy response is to seek out subjects that do well with that shape, but the real magic happens when you find compositions that work within the shape for subjects that don’t seem like they should naturally fit. The shape of the image, which you decided in advance, forces you into a picture that you wouldn’t have otherwise made. Your own creativity is energized by the challenge of mapping the subject into the predetermined frame, and you come up with an image you wouldn’t have made without the constraint of the frame.

I don’t usually define a series in advance; it usually grows out of some other photographic project or something else that’s going on in my life at the time. Once I’m into the series, it slowly becomes clear to me what the focus of the work is. For my best work, that focus is narrow, which means that there are lots of limits. Dealing with those limits forces me to be inventive.

I’ve tried to be creative off the cuff. It never produces anything beyond pretty pictures. If I go traveling to some new place, I take my camera along. Ever hopeful, I snap away with intent. If I hadn’t long ago dropped any expectations of great pictures from these expeditions, I’d be crestfallen after every trip. I’m so constraint-driven that I can’t look for B&W and color pictures at the same time. Back in the film days I used to wander around with a Hasselblad and two backs, one with color film, and one with B&W. The unfortunate result was that neither my color nor my B&W pictures were very good. Once I get my head wrapped around making color pictures, I can make good color pictures. Once I’m focused in on B&W images, I can make good ones. What I can’t do is switch gears and do well.

So, if you think that what I’m talking about might work for you, take the subject that you’ve been the most excited about in the last few months and start to work it. Find out all the things that don’t fit, and the few things that do. Allow yourself to feel frustration. On the other side of that is insight. Double points If your chosen subject is close to home. Triple points if you make at least one exposure every day.

Book report: full bleed images

This is post thirteen in a series about my experiences in publishing a book. The series starts here.

Now that I’ve decided on page size for the book, it’s time to think about the full bleed images. For those of you not familiar with the term, in the printing business, full bleed refers to images that run completely to the edges of the page, with no white space showing. In order for this to work with the printing tolerances on the press and the cutting tolerances when the pages are trimmed, the images need to be slightly larger than the actual page size. Jerry recommended that I make the images an eighth of an inch larger in both directions, giving me an image size of 9.625 x 12 1/ 8 inches.

Most of the pictures in the Staccato series of quite a bit wider than they are tall, and none of the images that I’ve selected for the book happen to be precisely the right shape to be printed full bleed. To see what I was up against, I asked Lightroom to sort the images by aspect ratio, which, in my case, puts the squarer images at the top. Now I had the images ordered in such a way as the top images would have to receive the least amount of cropping to fit the page. I created virtual copies of the top 20 or so images, set a crop preset in Lr, and came up with the best crops that I could. Then I spent a long time staring at them, and eliminated several as me not acceptable.

I had feared that trying to force the images into a Procrustean bed dictated by the page size would be a frustrating and fruitless process. My fears were unfounded. I was able to find acceptable croppings for many more images than not. Indeed, I found the task interesting and pleasant, and one that gave me new insights into many of the images.

Book report: options, options

This is post twelve in a series about my experiences in publishing a book. The series starts here.

I said in an earlier post that sorting through the options for a book was a lot like working out the details of what goes into a house that you’re building. You’ve got a lot of choices to make, and it’s not clear exactly what the cost trade-offs are or what the final result will look like. Initially, Jerry Takigawa and I, together with the folks from Hemlock Printing, spec’d out a Cadillac book design. When I got the quote from Hemlock, there was an element of sticker shock. We tried peeling options out one at a time, but that proved fruitless – the turnaround time for the quotes ran to almost a week.

Finally, we happened upon something that worked, and I recommend this to people trying to find out which features are worth the money in any book they’re going to have published. We first asked for a quote for a very basic, but entirely adequate for most purposes, book. The spec we chose was spec that Brooks Jensen uses at LensWork Publishing Services. Then we asked how much additional money would be to add each of the options that we were considering to the basic spec.

Finally, we knew what each option would cost and could make a decision about whether or not we wanted it. 10 µm resolution didn’t make the cut. Neither did a dry varnish layer. In fact, a wet varnish layer is problematical; although, apparently, varnishes have improved, no one can say with any certainty that they won’t yellow over time, although it is unlikely that they will yellow in my lifetime.

We could also compare Hemlock’s quote to us with the LensWork Publishing Services price, and it is apparent that Brooks Jensen is offering a really good deal. So good, in fact, that my current plan is to have Jerry design the book and take the design to Brooks to get it printed. Brooks’ price includes the design, which I won’t be using, so in some sense I’m throwing money away. However, I really want a Jerry Takigawa design.

Jerry’s not used to working this way, and I don’t want to increase his workload, so if he has any questions about the book, they will go through me. There may be some stumbling along the way. If there is, I will report on that.

Brooks said that he would be okay with considering a few of the options. I sent him a list of the ones that I’d like to have. We’ll see what he has to say about that.


And the winner is…

This one:

Los Robles 4

Los Robles 4

Not a unanimous pick among you blog readers. In fact, it didn’t get one vote. I debated on whether to include it in the submission or not.

This little exercise demonstrates to me — and I hope, to you all — how unpredictable and seemingly arbitrary the jurying process is. I’ve sat in on jurying sessions with multiple jurors, so I got to hear them explain their thought processes, and there was occasional unanimity, but mostly debate. It’s certainly not cut and dried. But then again, would we want it to be? Then we could write computer programs to judge photographs. Ugh.

A corollary of this exercise is that we shouldn’t feel too dejected when our work isn’t selected, or too elated when it is.

IR stitches in CPA show

I’ve had a picture selected for the Center for Photographic Art Member’s Exhibition. I submitted ten images for the infrared freeform-stitched work that I did in a nearby oak grove a few month ago. My tentative title for the series is Los Robles.

I’ll show you all ten images today, and you can play juror. Tomorrow I’ll post the image the Richard Gadd picked.

Los Robles 1

Los Robles 1

Los Robles 2

Los Robles 2

Los Robles 3

Los Robles 3

Los Robles 4

Los Robles 4

Los Robles 5

Los Robles 5

Los Robles 6

Los Robles 6

Los Robles 7

Los Robles 7

Los Robles 8

Los Robles 8

Los Robles 9

Los Robles 9

Los Robles 10

Los Robles 10


Photography meets digital computer technology. Photography wins — most of the time.

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