Tag: photography (page 1 of 3)

Review — VSCO 4.4.1 for iOS and Android

Around three years ago, a new photography app hit the App Store. Called VSCo Cam, the app came from Visual Supply Company, makers of film emulation presets for Lightroom, ACR, Aperture etc. It was never meant to compete against Instagram, but that is how a lot of people saw it. (Some probably still call it the anti–Instagram.)

Today, with the recently released 4.4.1 version and renamed simply VSCO, the app stands as arguably the best filter for iPhone, but is really a full–powered editing suite and manual camera. Most use it in conjunction with all their mobile photography needs, not merely as an Instagram competitor. And with nearly a hundred million uses, #vscocam is Instagram’s most popular hashtag today. Competitor Snapseed has four million,  Afterlight has three.

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Photographic sharpness: an obsession

I somehow came across an article by Connor McClure where he talked about how far too many people blindly use VSCO filters to process their photographs and call it a day. What he said about VSCO is true (and is something I strongly believe in myself) — they are a convenience, and not much more than trends; and trends pass on. McClure says it best: “They are trendsetters, and I don’t believe in latching too tightly on to trends.”

In addition to filters in general (not to target VSCO, whose filters I use rarely, but do use nonetheless) there is another misdirection I feel we ought to address in today’s photography scene: mindless obsession over sharpness.

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Recently I decided it was time (after three years) to backup my mobile phone photographs. I only started taking mobile photography seriously after getting my Note 3 and that enthusiasm swelled with my iPhone 6 Plus. In all I had about 1,300 photographs made since I got my iPhone — just the photographs I wanted to save, the total number of photographs is greater. And I looked around for an ideal backup and storage solution with which I could maintain my photographs.

The first option a lot of people suggested to me was Loom, but that is not available where I live. (Loom happens to be US-only.) And then there was Everpix — was — which was free and shut down as fast as it became popular. In all honesty, Everpix was an excellent solution, but faced the biggest problem with cloud storage solutions: they shut down, mostly because they run out of money trying to give storage free. Lesson: never opt for free cloud storage.

Then I tried Picturelife about three months ago and still love it for a lot of reasons. Some readers asked me to talk about my experience with the product and how I went about moving my photographs to the cloud, so this is it.

Update: After this article was published and discussed around the web, Picturelife got in touch with me and offered a generous 20GB of additional free storage for life. Thank you. And here’s to Picturelife for being one of the top cloud storage solutions for all of us.

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Initial thoughts on Ello

I have been spending some time on Ello recently and I have generally liked it. Being invite-only and beta at the moment, Ello still needs some sculpting, but so far the developers and designers, Paul Budnitz, Berger & Föhr, and Mode Set, who are, as they describe themselves, seven well-known artists and programmers, have done a great job.

Right from the start, Ello has a somewhat informal yet encouraging feel to it — despite the predominantly, nigh fully, black and white design. In brief, Ello is gunning to be what social networks should have been all this while: an ad-free, content-rich social platform which does not thrive on selling user data.

I joined Ello right at the start of 2015 and have no plans of leaving. Ello is something I had been looking for all this while, both in terms of design ideas/usage and community. But that does not mean Ello is perfect; there are quite a few things that could do with improvement.

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Review: Pro HDR X for iOS 8

Dynamic range has always been the Achilles’ heel of smartphone photography. It is the one aspect where dSLRs shine and simply cannot be outdone by our phones. (There also used to be auto-focusing on this list, but with phase detection AF on iPhone 6 Plus, Apple has raised the bar really high.)

Among several additions to iOS 8 comes burst mode capability — click and hold for several shots in quick succession. My iPhone 6 Plus shoots 10 frames per second which is almost twice the speed of my Nikon D600, which shoots 5.5 frames per second. Of course, the fact that the sensor is bigger, more memory needs to be written and other such factors come into play here.

The biggest advantage of this burst mode feature means making HDR (High Dynamic Range) photos with iPhones is no longer a software-only affair spewing out fake HDR/grunge images, but actual multiple bracketed exposures combined into one HDR photo.

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Photography manifesto

Around this time last year I had presented to you my 50-point blogging manifesto. It signaled a change in my approach to blogging and almost a year later now, I am convinced it helped me and I am happy I followed it.

However, I have increasingly come to feel that my photography needs such a set of beliefs in black-and-white — hence this piece. But this is nowhere near as long as my blogging manifesto, but whether you are a photographer yourself or not — so long as art appeals to you — you might find this an interesting read.

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Get started: the Quick Lightroom Guide

I know that everybody reading this article is either armed with a bunch of photos and a digital camera or is soon going to be. So I will get to the specifics really fast; but organisation dictates that we first clarify two things: the target of this article (i.e. what you will be able to do after reading this), and the scope of this article.

If you have the software already, fire it up and follow this Lightroom guide; if not, you could read it and return to it once you do have Lightroom. Lastly, some of the advanced stuff mentioned here may not be possible on older versions of Lightroom (before 5) but the basics definitely are. You can always skip the target/scope section if you wish.

Before we begin

1. After reading this Lightroom guide you will be able to…

Take a proper photograph you have shot in your camera and ornament it to better suit your vision.

More importantly, you will not be able to make bad photographs you shot magically look better. After all, photography is still inside your camera. But generally, you will be able to make your photos look more refined — like adding a second coat of paint.

My suggestion is that you always shoot RAW, not jpg, because — Lightroom or not — jpg limits what you can do while RAW gives you a lot more control and latitude over how your images turn out.

2. The scope of this article

Firstly, I will be talking about making a photograph in post (i.e. editing it). Secondly, I will talk about how Lightroom is laid out, generally how it works, and go over each and every module and adjustment and tell you how it helps your photograph. I will not use a photograph to demonstrate that because it will bias your judgement. That is why I suggest you turn on Lightroom, pick one of your own photographs and follow this Quick Lightroom Guide.

Lastly, I will talk about how I organise it with flags, colours, collections, smart collections etc. But remember, there is no single way to do this, and every photographer out there will tell you a million different methods. This is just what I have found works, and I share it with you hoping it works for you as well, or at least that it gives you a stepping stone to launch yourself with.

I will not go in-depth about printing, slideshows etc. because we will keep ourselves mainly to photo editing, not what you do after it. But we will still visit those capabilities briefly.

Part 1: The layout of Lightroom 5

Like all software, Lightroom has some terminology it likes to use. We will see most these as we go, but two of the most important ones you should be clear with are modules and panels.

Spot the file, edit, settings… menu at the top left of your Lightroom window? Remember that even those are contextual, meaning they will change depending on which module you are currently in.

For instance, in the Library module you may have the photo, metadata, view menus, which, in the Develop module change to photo, settings, tools, view menus.

1. Modules

When you open Lightroom 5, you find (top-right) that it is laid out in the form of seven modules: library, develop, map, book, slideshow, print and web.


Versions older than 5 may not have all of these, but library and develop are the backbone of Lightroom, and you will always find them in their places.

What I find interesting about this software is that at the very least, you can go through it in the order it has been laid out, if nothing else. You may want to move a few steps around, but if you are lost, a fallback is that you just do things in the order that they are.

2. Panels

All modules have four panels. They are at the top, bottom, left and right identifiable using their tiny arrows. You can open or collapse them using those arrows. When closed, simply hovering over the arrows will bring each panel back. Moving your cursor out will hide the panel once again.

For instance, in the library module, these are your four panels. (We will, of course, later go over them fully.)

Lightroom panels

The top and bottom panels (labelled 1 and 2 in the picture above) are common panels. They are present unchanged across all modules. The bottom panel simply lists your photos (filmstrip) with their star rating, tags, keywords, flags and colour rating (we will talk about all of those later). The top panel is your modules menu as we saw earlier.

The left and right panels change as required based on which module you re currently in.

Part 2: The modules

1. Library

Briefly: The left panel in the library module shows a small thumbnail of your current picture. Below it is your organisation structure. It shows your catalogue, folders, collections, and your import and export buttons common to all photos. We will come to these below when we discuss organisation.

On the right is information specific to the selected photo. It shows a histogram, keywords, meta data and comments option along with a quick develop menu.

In the centre, your photo may not show as a large single image but instead as a grid. Then the thumbnail is a helpful quick view. To view your photo large, click on it in the grid. It opens as shown in the picture above. To close it, simply click on it again.

2. Develop

On the left panel are preset, snapshot, history and collections sections, and on the right are those titled basic, tone curve etc.

This module is where you will shift your attention to a single photograph. The options on the left and right have been tailored to suit a single photograph, meaning whatever you modify will be applied to this photograph alone.

Since Lightroom is all about non-destructive editing (see box below) your edit history is stored in the history section, letting you jump back up to a previous edit point if you do not like how things turned out. You can also save milestones in your editing route, so to speak, as a snapshot, that will let you quickly switch between editing styles and strengths useful especially when you are lost as to exactly which of several looks to try.

Non-destructive editing refers to the practice of editing a file (a photograph in Lightroom, for instance) without touching the original. This lets you revert completely and start over should you need it, but, more importantly, your edits are stored as text files and rendered in Lightroom rather than saving edited originals or copies of originals, thereby saving you a lot of space.

Think about carrying around 1,000 20MB photographs, versus a single 20MB text file and no photograph at all. So long as your photographs remain in the same location, you can kick your Lightroom (.lrcat) file around like a football, and you will be doing just fine.

3. Other modules

As I already said earlier, I will keep this article strictly to photo editing and organisation and not what you do at the end of an edit. That means we will only be briefly touching up on the remaining modules. Map, print and slideshow modules let you geo-tag, print and create slideshows of you photos respectively.

These often use collections, so, if you would like to make a book out of certain photographs, put those in a collection and switch to the Book tab to have a pre-set basic book created on which to build further.

The Web module lets you upload to a site, export your photographs in a web-friendly manner in smal sizes with rich quality, email them, all with or without your watermark, identity plate and so on, including as much or as little of your information as you prefer.

An interesting feature of Lightroom I wish more people knew was the virtual copies feature. Instead of saving an edit as a snapshot and trying a new edit on top of that (we will talk about actual editing further ahead) you can create virtual copies of your photo itself. Being virtual, they take very little extra space if at all.

You can create a virtual copy by selecting a photo and going to the Photo menu (top left) and hitting Create virtual copies. (Or Ctrl + ` on Windows.) You can identify your virtual copy by spotting it right next to your original, styled with a small page-flap on the bottom left of the copied photo:

virtual copies

Part 3: Organisation in Lightroom

Step 1: Bring in your photos

Lightroom begins once you plug your camera or any other source in. This can be turned on if it gets annoying, of course. In any case, let us assume you have Lightroom running and your device/source plugged in.

In the library module, hit import and select your source folder and photographs. Often, the first time round, you are asked to set up import presets; anytime, however, you can use the options on your right under the Metadata setting to edit your presets or create new ones.

The import screen

The import screen

It is a good idea to set your copyright, name, and such details as those which are going to be constant across all your work. When importing photographs, on the right you have a batch setting keywording option where you can set keywords for all your photographs. For instance, if you shot in city X today and are moving to Y tomorrow, importing all your photographs from city X and adding, say, city X as a key word will save time on the long run.

Adding keywords and other details, apart from being useful while sharing, will help you search your Lightroom catalogue as well. Simply go to your Library, click on the text option at the top centre of the grid and then use the search box to look for photographs. This is, needless to say, very useful when you start accumulating a large number of photographs.

Step 2: The organisation structure

This is perhaps the most controversial section in this quick Lightroom guide. Every photographer does things a little differently, so I will try to map out a fairly generic route. Once you understand this, you will be able to follow the next steps better.

The broadest section of Lightroom is not a folder, really, but the catalogue itself. Think of a catalogue as your office. If you shoot fairly often, you can create a new catalog every year. That helps you start Lightroom anew every year with zero photographs and helps run things faster and makes searching easy.

If you shoot extremely frequently, especially in a professional capacity, making several photographs a day, you can even have separate catalogues for every month. You can have also have different catalogues for different cameras, or if you go on big projects, you can have a catalog per project.

Creating a new catalogue is as simple as going to File > New Catalog. You can also switch catalogs from the File menu (or Lightroom menu on a Mac) but switching catalogues forces Lightroom to restart.

Once your photographs are in Lightroom, its all about sieving out the good ones from the pile. You can use flags, rating, colours and even smart folders to easily pick the ones you will edit and get rid of the rest. We will talk about that in the next step, Rating and picking your photographs.

Finally there’s the editing, but we will skip that and go to filing your photographs by category, date, rating, keyword or all of these or a combination of any of these using smart folders in the fourth step. This is because I want to return to the actual editing process in full depth under part 4 of this guide.

Step 3: Rating and picking your photographs

Lightroom is famous for its ease of selecting your good photographs from your bad. We will go through almost all ways to do that. Often, photographers make several photographs of the same subject, with the same composition, or slightly different ones. Lightroom has some extremely interesting features to help you sort out: pick the ones you like and therefore want to edit; discard the ones you do not.

Start by firing up the loupe view. Do this by either selecting a photograph and clicking E or by simple double clicking a photograph. Make sure you are in the Library module grid view. The loupe view lets you see a single photograph on your screen. Get rid of the side panels to see a larger photograph.

The Loupe view

The Loupe view

At the bottom of this panel, you see five stars, i.e. Lightroom’s rating system. I usually let alone photographs to discard and give selects a one star rating. You can do something similar, but you can also leave stars alone and flag your selected photographs (or simply selects as many photographer call them). Do that by hitting on the flag next to the stars. Hitting on the flag with the cross will remove the flag.

You can also select two photographs in the grid (select one, then hold ctrl or cmd and select a second) and enter Lightroom’s compare view. Once you have selected two photographs, press C. This is very useful when, among other things, you have similar looking photographs than are best judged side-by-side. Here is an example, albeit between different-looking photographs:

The Compare view

The compare view of course gives you two sets of stars and flags for each of your photographs. Click on the candidate and use your arrow keys to move around and use different photographs for comparison. The same can be done with the select photograph on the left.

Once you have selected all your photographs, return to the grid view (click G) and you can now chose to discard photographs you do not want.

For instance, if you have rated selects with one star and discards with zero stars (i.e. left them unrated) then you could click on the fliters off option on the top right of the grid view in the Library module and, in the drop down menu that becomes visible, click on unrated. That will give you all your discards.


To discard a photograph, hit del. This gives you an option to permanently remove this photograph from your disc or just from Lightroom. I like to keep originals, so I only remove from Lightroom. Note the two terms used by Adobe here: generally, remove removes your file from Lightroom, but does not touch it on your computer itself; delete removes the file from your computer and hence from Lightroom as well. Alternately, you can right click and select Remove photograph or select all (ctrl+A or cmd+A) and do the same.

If you want to skip actually discarding, from the filters menu, click on, for example, flagged. That way, if you have flagged your selects, only your selects will be displayed and since you will not even see your discards, they will not come in your way.

Step 4: Organisation after editing

As I said before, we will talk about the actual editing process in the next section of this Lightroom guide (below) and we will talk about organising and filing your completed, edited photographs now. You can read the editing section and return here if you wish, or keep reading. It does not hurt either way.

If you are a professional, say wedding, photographer, you could arrange your photographs based on clients. For this guide I will assume you are a regular photographer who arranges your photographs by genre, perhaps. Either way, the methods stay the same.

1. Setting up smart collections

Lightroom’s biggest productivity boosters, especially after processing, are smart collections. These are virtual folders (they are not created, and hence do not exist, outside Lightroom) that will automatically file your photographs based on certain conditions. If catalogues are your office, think of smart collections as your filing cabinets.

In the Library module, click on the mark next to the Collections menu and select create smart collection.

Screenshot (155)

From here on, it is simply a matter of making your conditions exactly as you want them to be. When a photograph fits the conditions as you have chosen, it can automatically be found in the respective smart collection. Here is an example from one of my catalogues:

Screenshot (156)

Remember, you cannot delete photographs from within a smart collection because its is virtual. To remove, you have to do so from the All photographs section in the Library module.

Apart from this, you can always create a collection the same way you created a smart collection and manually add photographs. Perhaps you handpicked best photographs can go in one collection so you can showcase it as a slideshow straight from there or via the slideshow module.

2. Exporting

Hitting ctrl+shift+E lets you export one or many selected photograph/s. Hitting ctrl+alt+shift+E lets you export them with the same properties (e.g. location, dimension, quality) as the previous photograph/s that you exported. You can also use the file menu for this.

The export dialogue looks something like this:

The Lightroom export menu

The Lightroom export menu

Once again, most options are self explanatory, but the one you probably need to take advantage of is the Rename option. Using the edit… menu on the drop down next to the Rename to: checkbox, you are given an exhaustive list of renaming capabilities. Make up your own combination.

For instance, using {Date (YYYY)»}-{City»}-{Title»} will export your photographs with the naming format of year-city-title. For instance, 2013-Bern-Patent Office. The title is extracted from the title field under the Metadata menu on the right hand panel of the Library module.

You can resize, limit file size, monitor quality, chose to open the photograph after exporting and so on right here in the export menu.

3. Other modules

Once you have completed editing, another alternative is to use Lightroom’s slideshow, print and web modules to share your photograph. They are just as their names suggest: slideshows can be created right in Lightroom. You can select all your photographs that need to go into the slideshow, put them in a collection and then open the Slideshow module with that collection selected and all photographs in that collection will automatically be brought into the Slideshow module.

The same goes for the print module. Most of these justify guides of their own, so I will not be talking about them here. I for one rarely use these. The web module, however, is pretty useful if you want to let Lightroom upload all your photographs to the cloud one after the other. Many plugins are available if you want to upload to a service not built into Lightroom. To export and upload may seem inconvenient and unnecessary to some, so the Web module allows you to skip a step and upload straight to the web.

Part 4: Editing your photographs

This is probably the part you have been waiting for. So welcome to the powerful Develop module of Lightroom:

Screenshot (160)

Firstly, although Lightroom is laid out so proceeding sequentially on your adjustments panel is a wise decision, this either is sometimes unnecessary or complicates things. For now, we will only concentrate on the development panel on your right; we will come to the left-hand side panel later.

Secondly, everybody approaches post processing differently. Some do it with a feather, others charge at it with a battering ram. I fall in the former category, but I have, on occasion, processed to extremities to achieve my desired look. But at the end, this makes little difference: the procedure is pretty much the same; the difference is in how much of a change you make.

Lastly, I will use different photographs to demonstrate different concepts so that using a single photograph will not bias your own judgement down the line. That said, let us continue onto the basic panel.

1. The Basic panel

To demonstrate the usage of this panel, I am going to use a photograph that I recently edited only with the basic panel. Here is (the low resolution) RAW version converted straight to JPG:


This is a very powerful section of Lightroom, but that is arguable. What is pretty clear, however, is that these set of sliders are often the best starting points. This is what the basic panel looks like:


Most sliders are pretty simple to understand. Exposure alters your photograph’s exposure, although, if you ask me, you should have got your exposure pretty spot on in camera, otherwise it is time to spend some time learning to use your camera before you think of Lightroom. In any case, the exposure slider is there for some of those tricky situations or times when everything looked so perfect on your camera LCD but reality on your computer was quite far off.

I will talk about the contrast slider in a moment. Let us skip to the highlights, shadows, whites and blacks. Think of highlights as bringing over-exposed, blown areas into the safety zone (i.e. not cut-off by your histogram, unless that is an effect you are going for). The shadows slider does the same, but for the darker areas. The whites and blacks sliders, however, help you define the whitest white spot on your photograph and the blackest black spot so Lightroom can put all other shades of grey in-between those two boundaries.

Once again we will skip the clarity slider and discuss the saturation and vibrance sliders. The saturation slider is a master control for the HSL sliders we will see a couple of panels later, but what it does is make your photograph more colourful. Reds become redder, greens become greener and so on. The vibrance slider, on the other hand does the same thing but with some smartness. It only alters saturation for colours that are not already very saturated and it keeps well saturated colours as they are. Think of saturation and vibrance as coarse and fine tuning mechanisms.

Finally the contrast and clarity sliders: in actuality, these two do the same job, but with one major difference. Contrast varies the contrast on your photograph overall, while clarity varies contrast on a pixel-by-pixel basis, making neighbouring pixels contrasty and hence increasing “clarity”.

Working with the highlight and vibrance sliders, and making miniscule changes on the blacks and whites (no more than +/- 5) you can achieve this look:


As I said already, I like to make my photographs as close to my vision as possible in-camera, so my editing is pretty limited; but if it looks effective and gathers your curiosity — and if you like it — part of my job is done. The other part is satisfying myself, and that is the hardest bit.

2. Tone curve

While the contrast and clarity sliders do their magic on your photo (I personally stay away from the clarity slider because it often gives an unnatural look) but if you want even finer control on the bright and dark parts of your image and the greys in the middle too, the tone curve panel is your thing.


The tone curve has three parts, for practical purposes: the curve itself, the four sliders beneath it and the tiny white circle on the top left. All three are directly controllable. The sliders are the same as in the basic panel. The tiny circle is like a colour picker. Click on it and click and drag on any part of your photo: drag down to darken, up to lighten. But if you know what you are doing (and that comes easily with some practice) you can target the exact point on the curve and drag it around.

If you do not have any idea about the curve, however, use the others as the curve makes it easy to wreck your photograph. Generally, the lower part (the x-axis) is the lightness and goes left to right from darkest blacks to brightest whites (or shadows to highlights, if you will). The vertical pull (or y-axis) is how dark (pull down) or bright (pull up) all pixels with that degree of shadow or highlight will change by. Consider this photograph:


Using the tone curve alone, you can make it look a lot more effective, making the light on the trees a lot more obvious:


Just make sure when you use this panel that you do not overdo tonal curvature and lose all detail in your photograph and leave it looking like something a three-year-old clicked with its Fisher Price (which isn’t all that bad, really, but it isn’t a Nikon or a Canon or a Fuji or an Olympus or a…).

3. HSL and split toning

These two panels are pretty similarly aimed, so I decided to combine them into one.

HSL stands for Hue, Saturation and Luminescence. Alongside the HSL section, you notice a second option that says Colour and a third that says B&W for black and white. Colour is basically HSL, but, while HSL has colours under each section for H, S and L, the Colour section is divided by colours with H, S and L sliders for each colour. In essence, they are both the same thing.

Here are the two panels combined:


Do note that the adjustments I have shown above are mock. Often, you never have to make such extreme changes if you made your photograph well, but they are there just in case, for rare situations like I have described three paragraphs below.

The black and white slider automatically converts your photo into black and white and lets you make edits to that. There is very little to explore here that is not already clear: HSL, as I said under the Basic panel, is a finer control for saturation. With the saturation slider, you change all colours at once, but with the HSL, you target colours. Again, there is no mauve or lime, so you are limited to the basic colours like red, blue, green, yellow, orange, aqua, purple and magenta. You can, of course, make combinations.

The split toning basically lets you colour your highlights and shadows with a coat of semi-transparent colour. You can make you highlights all green-ish and shadows red-ish (I have no idea why you would want to do that, though) but the point is, for the right photograph, the right pair of colours can make a good impact.

But, more often, if you shot under tricky lighting and some awkward spill is colouring your beautiful white walls pink and you are unable to make it white without throwing off the white balance of the rest of the photograph, adding a green split tone highlight will, in effect, help you alter the white balance of only the wall and make it white again, while leaving the rest of the photograph untouched.

4. Details and lens correction

The next three panels have to do with the tinier but pretty important part of your workflow. We will start with lens corrections.


Every lens has curved glass; being part of a sphere, (recall your physics classes) the lens ends up distorting your image ever so slightly. Often, this is visible when you have curved lines in your image, but when you have no such guideline, it can be pretty hard to tell. Thankfully, Lightroom carries a bunch of camera corrections that come straight from the testing labs and are upgraded every time a new camera is out in the market. The lab-tested degrees and angles and types of distortion can be reversed with a single click. Usually, Lightroom identifies your lens for you; if not, you can do so manually and it will apply the adjustments. Here is an example with before+after animation of one of my older photographs, Red about everything red! Well, mostly the connections, but, yes, it is my favourite colour:


I know it can seem bulging when you look at it for the first time, but, trust me, observe carefully and you notice that the geometry in your photograph has actually been corrected.

The details panel is what many call sharpening. If you have shot well, you rarely need to sharpen, but what you may need to do is clean up noise. If you do like an over-the-top sharpened look, go for it.


Notice you have three sections here again: the first is dedicated to sharpening and the next two to noise reduction. The 100% zoom window at the top can be used for both.

To reduce noise, one must first understand noise. It comes in two types: noise due to wrongly identified light (at the pixel level) and noise due to wrong colouration (still at the pixel level). To correct this, identify which of the two noises are predominant in your photograph. The first type, often called luminescence noise is identified by randomly spread bright pixels. If these are what you need to get rid of, slide the luminance slider. Beware, though, because the only way to get rid of this noise is to get ride of and merge pixels, which means the farther you pull the slider, the more you lose.

One comeback is to use the details slider to preserve details, but this is at best a shot in the dark. The contrast slider has pretty much the same story. If you find random red, green, blue pixels etc., i.e. coloured ones, then you have a case of colour noise and you will have to use the colour slider. The detail works the same here. You have no contrast slider, of course, because you are altering colour here and not light as you did with the luminance slider.

Yet another comeback is to sharpen your image post noise-reduction, but this may increase the chances of artifacts all over your photograph. In any case, if you want to sharpen, remember to use the sliders extremely sparingly or risk white outlines all over your image.

Understand these well: the amount slider lets you specify how sharp you want an image to be and is mostly photo-subjective; the radius slider lets you specify how small a radius must be affected. Think about it this way: if you have a date palm in your photograph with leaves with tiny gaps between them, setting a radius size bigger than those gaps will make it such that those gaps are not sharpened.

Then, right below it, the detail slider (which, unlike the one in noise reduction, actually shows some effect) can be used to regain any detail by sharpening things in your photo. Holding alt lets you see how much of the detail is being affected and is another item that depends on the photograph. Lastly, masking is used to mask sharpened areas, i.e. not sharpen them. Think of a landscape with clouds and the like. You may want to sharpen the trees but leave the sky alone with its soft clouds. You can pull the slider around to set how much of the image gets masked; this way you can make your trees nice and sharp and leave the sky soft. To see how much is being affected, use the same trick as the details slider we just spoke of.

5. Effects and camera calibration

If you want to add vignettes to your photograph, the effects panel is the place to be. It is a self-explanatory section which is most definitely optional. In fact, you never have to open it if you do not want to. Vignettes can only be centre-directed, with adjustable mid-points and feathering (the hard or softness of the vignette boundary) and shape (circle, oval or in-between). Vignettes can also be highlight- or colour-priority, depending on what you want to conserve in your vignetted areas.


The next panel, however, is more important although less used by most people. Lightroom lets you use sliders by their 2003, 2010 or 2012 definitions. This is available under the process drop down. Unless you have been using Lightroom for so many years, there is no reason not to use the latest (2012) definitions.

Below that are profiles like camera landscape, neutral, portrait, standard and so on. It is advisable that you get used to your processing with this in mind, because (although you need not meddle with this) the six sliders below the profile drop down will determine the base points for all your other alterations. For instance, if the red saturation starts at +5 in profile X and you have processed your photograph with that in mind, and if you change to profile Y later, with the red saturation at +20, then you red saturation in the photograph will also get bumped up by 20 points, leaving you with a dangerously red photograph!

So pick your profile at the start. Bette yet, forget about this panel altogether if it intimidates you. There is nothing you cannot do without this.

6. Tools

Below your histogram, right at the top of your adjustments panel are a set of six tools. From left to right, they are the crop tool, the spot removal tool, the red eye reduction tool, the gradient tool, the radial gradient tool and the adjustment brush.

The crop tool crops into various sizes. When you click it, a panel opens with special menu items such as crop ratio and such. You can also rotate your photograph right here and constrain crop so white areas are not left behind after image rotation. Click the lock icon on the top right to enter and exit free crop mode where your selected crop ratio does not apply. Click the crop button again to crop and close. Since this is non-destructive editing, never worry, because you can go back and crop again and rotate again without losing your photograph.

Most of these other tools need to be learnt by experience, but here is a brief review: the spot removal tool erases things from your photograph. From Lightroom 5 and above, the spot removal tool can be dragged, so it is really no longer a spot removel tool, but, like a brush, can be drawn with. Want to remove an awkward electric pole, pick your spot removal tool and draw over the pole. (NB — You may want to try spot removal over small areas and then cover larger ones, because drawing over large areas will confuse the algorithm easily.)

The red eye reduction tool removes red eye (the red flash effect in people’s eyes when you make a photograph with your flash pointing straight at your subject).

The gradient tool adds a gradient. Click and drag to make a margin and feather, then change any property in the gradient tool panel that pops up on the side. Remember that the change in in the direction of your drag. For instance, if you click and drag from top to bottom and change exposure by +1, then the top bets over-exposed by +1 and by the end of the gradient line at the bottom, the exposure gradually falls till it reaches the default value.

For all those other adjustments in places that are hard-to-reach or correct, use the adjustment brush to click and paint over and then make adjustments that will affect only the painted area. Cannot see the area you have painted over? With the adjustment brush selected, press the letter O and it is highlighted for you in red. Press O again to turn the highlighting off.

7. The left-hand side panel

On the Develop module is a second panel we never touched, the Navigator/Presets/Snapshot/History/Collections panel:


The navigator lets you get a preview of an adjustment on a small screen like the one you see above, before you actually click the mouse and adjust the photograph itself. The history is a list of every click you ever made with regard to the current photograph. This means you can jump back to any point in the history of this photograph’s editing.

If you are fighting between two looks, unable to decide one, you can use the snapshot feature. Once you have completed one look, click the + mark next to the snapshot panel and add a snapshot with any name you like. Make a second alternative look and add a snapshot again. You can do this as many times as you want. With snapshots, you do not have to jump to specific points in the history section, but simply click a snapshot to view a snapshot of a saved point or look of your photograph.

Once you have made an edit, if you really like that edit and feel you will apply it to more photographs in the future, you can simply save it as a preset and apply all those changes with one click next time. Hit the + mark next to the presets section and name your preset, tick which properties you want copied to apply to future photographs and save it. Next time, just open your preset menu and click your preset to apply. By default, Lightroom has bundled several basic presets.

If you want to copy settings from just one photograph to another, you do not have to go through this process and save presets. Instead, click ctrl+shift+C to copy and navigate to the second photograph and paste the settings using ctrl+shift+V.

Concluding remarks

Lightroom, like photography itself, is very diverse. There are many ways to approach and use it and no one way is correct. I did not mention too many shortcuts here so as not to overwhelm you. (Besides, at close to 6,500 words, this quick Lightroom guide is pretty long!) But as you go, as you get a better hold on Lightroom, you will find that using shortcuts is more intuitive than you thought and makes your whole work faster. So keep this in mind: simply hit ctrl+/ (or cmd+/ on a Mac) to bring up this nifty list of all shortcuts in Lightroom, in the module you are currently in.

Screenshot (182)

Also remember that next to each panel, there is a switch in the Develop module. Look for white toggle button on the left of the panel title. Clicking that can turn on and off the effects of that panel; this way, you do not have to reset the settings and re-edit your photograph. You can simply toggle the edits of that panel on and off.

So long as you are in the Develop module, another interesting time-saver is the solo mode. I always use this. As you open one panel, if you do not close a previously opened one, you end up with several open panels and therefore lots of scrolling to do, which can get pretty irritating on the long run. Simply right-click (Macs ctrl-click) on any panel (e.g. Basic, Tone Curve…) and tick to activate the Solo mode. Now, whenever you open a section, Lightroom automatically collapses all others.

I suppose that covers it! This was means to be a quick guide, and it aimed at getting you started. Now that you have a firm footing, you can learn Lightroom through exploration. Visit the preferences menu (hit ctrl+, — that is, control and comma, or go to Edit > preferences) and there, customise Lightroom to your heart’s content.

Fundamentally, only experimenting will teach you about a software like Lightroom, so do not be afraid to experiment. After all, this is non-destructive editing, so whatever you do, you can undo it and try again. But, of course, if you need any help, drop me a word or if you found some way I could improve this Quick Lightroom Guide, do let me know.

I hope you enjoyed this short journey as much as I enjoyed writing it. I will try to keep this updated, but I cannot promise anything. In any case, have fun with Lightroom, but remember, software or not, everything still begins with the photographs you make.

 Cover image: Flickr/See-ming Lee 


Mobile photography, part 3: my return to mobile photography

My joy knows no bounds today because my camera phone (whose wrecked lens glass I wrote about a week or so ago) was finally repaired. Samsung’s customer service was a tad slow in mailing the part (“We don’t get many with that phone here” the man at the service desk told me) but once it arrived, fixing it was easy and lasted as long as a stroll around the nearby bookstore.

The daredevil that I am, I made my first (somewhat) proper photograph as I waited at a traffic signal on the way back:

The weather was gloomy so I cautiously decided to stay at home, but a little later into the evening, as the weather got brighter (or at least as bright as it could just before the sun set), I went for a pretty long walk and made several more photographs.

First of all, I was just glad to have a working camera. But just as important was making sure it worked perfectly, just as well as — if not better than — before it cracked. The exposure, focus and the whole shebang was spot on, and I was in a race against time to make photographs before darkness set in and noise conquered my screen.

In pitch darkness: this is no dSLR, but you cannot deny it is very impressive

In case you are looking for part one and two of this collection of short reports on mobile photography (and if you want to see more photographs), you will not find them labelled as parts but as Mobile photography and dedicated cameras: where do they lie? and More indulgence in mobile photography.


When necessity breeds good photographs

Voltaire said, “nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity”; but let me spare you a Voltaire lesson. I have not blogged for a short while now, but I am content because I am keeping in tune with my promise of slow blogging.

Having made very few photographs this past month, thanks to tight schedules, I had been (rather fortunately) forced to invest time mostly in making photographs with my phone until this happened:


I have no idea exactly how it happened, but I am waiting, right now, for Samsung to ship in a replacement glass (and — although unlikely — a lens, if it turns out that is damaged too). For the curious, this has thrown off exposure, focus and white balance, and it costs a fortune, so try not to wreck your camera.

Back to Voltaire now: I was reminded of this quote on the very last day of a short travel around my hometown. I never intended to go, but I did, solely because I wanted to (a) get out of the stuffy city air to clear my mind, and (b) make photographs. Mostly the second part.

That meant my time would be futile should I return without making photographs at all. Very surprisingly, I never made photographs until the last day and then I realised what I was facing was not a choice but a necessity. I had to make photographs to justify traveling for so long, and, like food and water, I realised photography is a necessity but also a pleasure.

We all make photographs one way or another, and it is wrong to assume that compulsion brings out the best in us. In fact, look closely and you realise compulsion only makes one believe whatever they have done is good enough because that is really their inner voice saying, “compulsion met, move on”. Don’t encourage that.

I sat down with my camera and opened up my photographs less than fifteen minutes ago (ten of which I spent writing this article, to be honest) and I was happy with what I saw. Because suddenly, my belief was crystal clear to none other than me (ironically): I may be pressed to make photographs to justify a trip, but really all I look for is one.

I have no idea how others look at it, but this is my approach, should you be interested in it: whether I go on a photographic rampage or several small walks, all-in-all, I only hope to have at least (and sometimes end up with only) one good photograph. Anything more is welcome, but there is usually that one which I suspect will stand tall for quite some time. Mostly till I return there a week, a month or years later.

I may be jumping the gun here, but this is the first one I made on my said travel, and so far (I am yet to see the rest, but so far) this is looking like it is going to be the one:

Photographic grittiness: justifying what we leave out of the frame

This is one of those Ah, I’ve figured it out! moments you get when you think you stumbled upon the key to a secret treasure. Only, there are so many of them that this becomes just another I think this is how it’s done… maybe? moments.

It is alright if you followed none of that, because that flowed unchecked from the back of my mind. But I think what I have come to realise in framing a photograph today will cause me to make a pretty huge turn in my photographic endeavours.

Oftentimes I am guilty (as I am sure you are too) of leaving out certain things from my frame for whatever reason. But I think only about 60% of the time or thereabouts we do this for a real cause: composition, light, the whole assortment of technical reasons.

And then, the rest of the time, we leave it out because we just do not like it. A hanging wire, a cracked wall, a broken pane, a stray leaf, and the list can go on. These have come to be subconscious decisions of cleanliness rather than aesthetic. A cracked wall, many of us believe, will somehow wreck out photograph; that it will somehow make our photograph look like it stemmed from a poorer locale. The same with a broken window pane, for instance.

What I notice about many people shooting a country like India, is that they attempt to make it look better than it is. Indeed there are parts of the country’s urban belts that are no less modern, high in tech or global than a so-called first-world metropolis. But the other side of India — the one National Geographic is so fond of showcasing — is something many photographers shy away from.

The best illustration I can think of is when I made the photograph below. I decided to make the place look alive more than photogenic. But then I went ahead and made this photograph of the same place anyway, as a more artistic twist. (You can always see more on my portfolio. Also, the large building here is an oriental carpets store — wow!)

To make it look good or to make it look alive

To make it look good, or to make it look alive

I am just as guilty of this as the next fellow. In fact, I have seen far too many people who decided not to shoot a doorway because it was so common, so mundane. Or a wrecked old tonga because — what’s interesting about a wrecked old tonga? I think this is answered in much the same way as why Mr N!xau’s character from The Gods must be crazy was so taken aback by a Coke bottle and why you and I are not.

However, what interests a global audience (such as the one your photographs are subject to when uploaded to the internet) is precisely that which we think is commonplace. A metropolitan skyscraper, except for its geometric identity, is far less awe-inspiring to a global audience (who have probably seen a skyscraper in their own city, to say the least) than a stray buffalo.

But nobody really up and shoots a stray buffalo on camera, because… buffalo?

Perhaps that was all extreme, but one thing I have learnt from looking at so many legendary photographers make photographs of India is that they showed the country as it was, not as they thought it would be. But, more importantly, India here is only a namesake. In general, in all of photography, I think if we paid a little more attention to what we photograph than what we think we are photographing, the results would surprise us.

Art photography is highly subjective, so I do not expect somebody trying to weave, say, minimalism (myself included) to adapt this approach 24×7. But when we are trying to depict a place (as we do every once in a while) we ought to try to show it as it is, albeit through the magic of our lens and our eyes, being careful not to repaint it altogether. This may seem similar to abusing Photoshop but, trust me, this is far worse.

So I for one will make sure I include that little element I was too quick to judge as a defect because maybe it will enrich my photographs like I never thought before. How ever your edits end up, it’s time your compositions are bold and gritty.


More indulgence in mobile photography

It seems that mobile photography has me awed. Not a long time back I wrote a couple of articles on the topic.

My points, then and now, were that making photographs with one’s phone has often been underrated, and we (especially we photographers) need to re-visit it. Perhaps we can even think of making our phones our secondary — or tertiary — cameras. As people have said far too often, the best camera is the one you have with you.

I indulged in some more photography these past days with my phone and thought of sharing the results here. You can see the first round on my Tumblr.

Processed with VSCOcam with se3 preset

2014-01-29 18.35.36

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Processed with VSCOcam with s1 preset

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset

Processed with VSCOcam with se3 preset

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset

Processed with VSCOcam with se3 preset

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset

Processed with VSCOcam with m5 preset

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset

Processed with VSCOcam with p5 preset

I like mobile photography for precisely the reason many hate it: because it gives me very limited control, forcing me to focus not on my device mechanics, but instead on the substance in my photograph.

Keep photographing au portable.


Mobile photography and dedicated cameras: where do they lie?

I have only recently come to use my phone a lot for photography, and I am pleasantly surprised about how good it is. But what really strikes me are the similarities and differences between photographing with a dSLR and indulging in the new breed of photo-art: mobile photography.

This article was written in parallel, and to serve as a postscript, to my article in Subtle magazine.

Familiar grounds in mobile photography

If you have been photographing with an actual camera (as opposed to a camera phone), you would have realised that the power the dedicated camera gives you can almost be addicting.

Forget the thick, zoom-filled unreasonably high resolution camera phones. I refuse to carry any of those around and risk looking like I am insane. The sleeker, more decent-looking ones we do have with us, iPhones or Android or Windows Phone or something else, all end up sacrificing a little to deliver that slim profile.

But there are familiar grounds: the light and the composition stay the same, to a great extent. And that is what I bring from my dSLR to my phone, but that, often, is all bring.

Making space for incapabilities

The largest sacrifice mobile photography demands is the zoom. (Disregarding digital zoom, that is.) In other words, your phone acts as a fixed focal length lens and forces you to zoom around on foot.

I think that, while this is definitely a drawback under some circumstances, it is a boon under most others. Your phone inevitably forces you to physically find better frames to photograph or spots to shoot from, all while making sure you consider the light, the feel and the capabilities of your phone (maximum tolerable ISO, shutter speed etc.)

This is the fundamental difference between phone and dedicated camera photography. Clearly, neither takes the back seat and both go on to succeed in their own ways, depending on how you look at it.

Coconut and sunshine

Coconut and sunshine

Spending a day with your phone

I recently spent an entire day with my dSLR cozy at home, and with my phone alone to satisfy my photography urges. And, boy, was I pleased with the results.

I think technology has come far enough to warrant the use of phones exclusively, unless we carried around our dSLRs on purpose. That is not to say, of course, that a phone can replace one. In fact, I am a firm believer in mirror-less cameras also being at least a couple of years away from truly matching the capabilities of a dSLR.

Again, mind you, I said capabilities, not quality. The J1, P5 or even my GALAXY Note 3 can match the quality of, perhaps, the D3xxx, the D5xxx or so in regular photography (the kind that does not require tripods, compulsory manual control and so on). That is to say, for everyday use in today’s world, even a regular camera phone can make art — especially the kind suited for digital sharing and small prints.

I will very likely be spending more time with my phone now. You can also take a look at some photographs I made on a road trip with my dog, Sir Gladstone, where I have more specific commentary about today’s mobile phone photography. I think dSLRs are a different breed altogether, but phones have found themselves a niche that was perhaps both unexpected and extremely interesting. And, in any case, well worth any photographer’s time to explore.

(P.S. Here you can see the photograph that made me want to try out mobile photography giving it greater patience than I had before.)

What Dmitry Medvedev can teach you about photography

A very common cry about photography is that it can be hard. In truth, many are unwilling to accept that, while photography takes just as much care and thought as any other art form, it is actually a lot easier.

Why the complaint, then? It is because most people do not find time to take out their cameras and make photographs. I have spoken to one too many about this, and I often use a similar story to narrate the importance of this — or the futility of their reasoning, that they cannot find time. That is how this article came about.

Meet Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev

You may know him, you may like him, hate him or have never heard of him. Mr Medvedev is a busy man. A very busy man.

He does some interesting things like talk to world leaders, point his camera at anybody and anything he damn well pleases, and he probably even has an army of bodyguards around him every time he goes out to shoot. Sometimes he can be just another tourist…

Photo courtesy: Ria Novosti / Reuters

or he can be found sharing burgers with Obama, because, you know, burgers are great and all…

This man is an all-round good guy who is one of the few people in his field today that I actually find extremely interesting. If you have not caught on so far, the man is none other than Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s ex-President and current Prime Minister.

Medvedev, the photographer

What many people do not know (and by that I mean you, dear photographer without time to make photographs) is that Mr Medvedev is a big photography-buff and a photographer by hobby. Yes, he runs a nation and finds time to photograph things too.

That is one of the reasons I admire the man. It is one thing that he can own a Nikon, a Canon, a Leica, a Samsung Galaxy Tab (yeah, mine!) about a million dollars worth of accessories, as well as sell a photograph for $1.7 million:

Mr Medvedev’s $1.7m auctioned photograph of the Kremlin. Photo courtesy: Dmitry Lovetsky/AP Photos

But he also spends time talking to photographers, taking tips from them and his photographer-friends. He also enjoys spending time with his computer, toying with his photographs. And he runs a nation: even if he is second to Putin, he still is above 143 million other Russians.

Looking through his gallery, one thing is clear: Mr Medvedev has a good eye. Sometimes he churns out really great photographs that are very easy to connect with. I particularly like this church photograph he made:

Other times, he messes things up with Photoshop, but that is OK too. We rarely get to see purple/yellow sunsets these days.

Photo courtesy: Dmitry Medvedev

And all this carefree, adventurous approaches to his work is precisely what makes this man seem like such fun to be around. (This side of him is probably costing him backers for the next election, but that is talk for another day.)

On photography

Some time back Mr Medvedev even took time off to speak about his passion:

Photography’s real meaning, the Prime Minister says, is capturing “the special… moments already gone and never to be returned”. He says he got into photography about 35 years ago while at Pioneers Palace with his Smena 8M, then the cheapest Soviet camera with perhaps the poorest optics where he had to “judge the exposure, the light, the contrast”.

He likes to photograph nature, architecture and people. He shows his new digital M9 in the video and says it’s quite a good camera and that “photographers have praised it”


Of course Mr Medvedev probably travels to more places more frequently than you and I. He can, perhaps bring the Ferrari motor show to his doorstep rather than visit Italy; or he can go fishing with Prime Minister Putin and then decide to do some underwater photography; or he can say things like, “Hm, I wonder how the pyramids are looking today… Well, you’ll never know until you see them” and then proceed to fly to Cairo for lunch.

But all that is besides the point. As a former lawyer and current politician, he surely has a lot on his plate: healthcare reforms, a public image, media hounds, upcoming elections, the Winter Olympics this year and more. But all I want you to take away from this article is that if Russia’s Prime Minister can find time to make photographs, so can you and I.


Photography and its unfortunate critiques, part 2

 An elaborate, argumentative photo-essay. 

A little over two months ago, I had written an opinion piece titled Photography and its unfortunate critiques. At that time I had no plan or intention to write a follow-up second part to the article.

Now, however, the huge readership and discussion I got from the last one, along with the fact that I have enough more to say, warrants this part 2 in continuation of my older article. If you have not read the older one, please read it to get a better idea of what we will be discussing here.

Deviating from your norm

As photographers, we have consciously or otherwise, learnt certain rules to abide by. Some understand that these rules are more suggestive guidelines, but some religiously stick to them. That is not a problem, so long as we realise there is something else we are creating in the process.

What I refer to could, to an extent, be called prejudice. It is a sort of forbidden territory we set for ourselves as photographers. Everybody, whether they like to admit it or not, has certain compositions, styles, processes and techniques they will never try. And most have their reasons.

Over the long run, however, it becomes important to recognise that our prejudice may not be as well-founded as we thought. As with the previous article, I shall use myself as an example: I hate the Dutch angle. But after a lot of self-loathing I decided to try making a photograph that way.

My belief was simply that, done well — and done at the right moment — even the Dutch angle has some weight. It took me nearly three days to find a good reason to shoot in this style, but I did it as carefully as I could and I quite liked the result I got (see image at the start of this article).

I tried it a second time in this photograph above, and, although it was a spur-of-the-moment decision, I still liked it. If anything like a lesson is to be learnt from this, I would say, step out of your norm. Try to do something you were sanely prejudiced against. It might surprise you.

50 shades of black and white

(I did not mean to strike at E.L. James’ work with that heading. It just seemed apt.)

Over the past several years, I have come across a vast range of black and white processing styles. The most prominent of these is the over-used Silver Efex set from Google. But this is only one of a myriad single-click solutions to beautifying photographs.

I am not a big fan of filters. In fact, the last time I used filters was on my Instagram account one-and-a-half years ago. I have used it exactly 61 times, all on Instagram, all around two years ago; never before that, never more recently than a year-and-half. Why did I use that? I was experimenting, as we all do, and I did not like the gimmicky look — quite the same as Silver Efex and others. They work, but too much of anything, as they say, is too bad, so I never use them.

Die Nr 1

Die Nr 1

The photograph above received one of two criticisms: either that it was good (in some way or other, which we will naturally not bother about here), or that it was too dark. I never asked anybody to define too dark, because that is highly subjective. A criticism of the form, “That photograph is worthless because I hate that shade of pink”  is not really criticism.

Here is a photograph by the legendary Hungarian-born photographer, Brassai. Too dark? That is not the point of a photograph.

Copyright Brassai/any successive owner.
Photograph sourced from Atget photography

As a photographer, I have the right to use all the shades between black and white when I make a photograph, and whether it is predominantly black or white is up to the photographer’s intention. While that is not an excuse for poor technique, such as, for instance, a slower aperture, a faster shutter speed or smaller ISO that should have ideally been, it can hardly be the basis of a strong critique either.

On showing motion

I may or may not have made it clear so far, but I sometimes devilishly enjoy throwing out my photographs for critiquing just to watch the naïevity of self-proclaimed critics. Try it sometime, you will have a fun, laughter-filled evening.

For instance, I put out this candid photograph that I made early one sunny evening:

In the sunny heat of the moment

In the sunny heat of the moment

Once again, I will skip the positive comments I received because they are of no concern to us. Many people urged me to clone out the pole before the cyclist. I would not, as I do not believe in cloning things out. But another interesting point was made: (my intention was to capture the bright, sunny day as well as, very subtly, some motion) it was suggested that if I did want to make motion shown, I should have made it more pronounced.

What they refer to is the typical photograph where motion is shown as a long, fuzzy line or arc or patch on the photograph. I can understand that this is the norm, but why anybody would want to stick to this so magnetically really troubles me.

When you look at this photograph, three things are clear: two people going about their business, subtle movement, and the fact that it is a bright, sunny day, as I said before.

“Red wall and rope”, Singapore, by Jay Maisel. © Jay Maisel.
(I respect the photographer’s rights over this image and I have tried hard to clarify the fair use rights for this photograph and it is my belief that use for criticism/teaching falls under fair use, especially since I am not using this work to monetarily profit from it, and have linked it to the portfolio on Mr Maisel’s website; but if you believe otherwise, please write to me before taking further action and I will take the work down immediately and replace it with a text-link to the artist’s portfolio.)

Consider this photograph (shown above) by Jay Maisel. I need hardly speak of Mr Maisel’s brilliance in this art, especially after his famous photograph for Kind of Blue, and the fact that he holds the Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Society of Media Photographers.

Notice that the motion of his shoes is no more pronounced that those in my photograph above. Why? because pronounced motion was not the subject of either photograph. I have already stated my three intentions in making my photograph above, so what about Mr Maisel’s work here?

Firstly, the colours. I, as I am sure you too do, love the colours that pop out of this photograph. A red/blue juxtaposition adds great contrast to the photograph. However, this photograph also conveys a sense of hurry, motion, work, and generally the need to get things done. The man in blue overalls pulls the rope as he walks across the canvas, literally instilling a sense of motion in the viewer without the need for long streaks of light.

Once again, like in my photograph above, motion was not the centre of this photograph, but, instead, an element used to beautify it and add a feeling of presence to it. But mostly, in Mr Maisel’s work, it is all about the colours and the rope and the composition at thirds.

Big name v emerging artists

This all brings me to an important point I wanted to make: a raging social belief (or perhaps a very human flaw) that makes people accept what big name artists do rather than what an emerging artist attempts.

Indeed, there is a reason why an artist became a big name, but that does not mean emerging ones need to stick to the norm. I have wildly ignored the norm in making many of my photographs and roughly half of them have been received well and half otherwise.

Is it that only big name artists have the right to draw a new line for others to follow? I do not think so. Art is art whether you do it or a squirrel does.

HCB: a case study

One of my favourite photographers is Frenchman Henri Cartier-Bresson. I like his work as the epitome of exhibiting an eye for photography. But I am not here to talk about Mr Cartier-Bresson; instead, I would like to share with you an incident from a critiquing platform I watch, which serves to expand upon (or simply prove, if you will) my previous point.

This photograph (shown below) was put up there by one, André Rabelo. On the one hand, it serves to further prove my point that motion can be achieved by very subtle means; see how the cyclist is not a long, fuzzy line, just like the shoes and feet were not, in Mr Maisel’s photograph above and mine above that?

This photograph, on the critiquing platform, received some rather nasty criticism like blurry, soft and generally crap. Would you agree? I suggest you pick a side before reading further because things are about to get interesting.

Mario’s bike | sourced from André Rabelo

The photographer is not André Rabelo, but Henri Cartier-Bresson.

That says a lot about the brilliant critics on the web and elsewhere, does it not? Had it been revealed that the artist was Cartier-Bresson, a whole lot of praise and fanfare would have followed.

I shall leave you at that: think about motion, how subtle it can be, and how many people might hate HCB’s work when they are not told to like it. Humans.


Deciding between being an amateur photographer and ‘going pro’

NB This article has a fair lot of images; please be patient as they may take a little more time than usual to load on a few devices.
Several days ago, I was asked by somebody if I was thinking of taking up photography professionally; whether I was interested in ‘becoming a pro’. I remarked that that was a curious choice of words, but that question struck me hard: I had never truly given it a thought. Would I like to stay an amateur photographer or ‘go pro’, as some say?

I never answered; but I did think a lot, and finally wrote this article in reply, the simple reason being I did not want to dumb this decision down. It is not etched in stone, but, as any artist will agree, this decision is something like a milestone for an artist to make.

Choir stalls

Choir stalls

Who is an amateur?

Interestingly, many people have got the spirit of an amateur down wrong. Speaking literally, the word amateur means, a lover of. So an amateur sculptor is a lover of sculpting.

Further, however, an amateur footballer is not a lover of football, but a not-star-quality footballer. I know it is quite hard to wrap one’s mind around, but in sports, where terms like best have a cut-and-dried meaning and measuring system, an amateur becomes a measure of ability.

In art, however, the term amateur cannot possibly be a measure of capability — we have another word for that, talent — although some wrongly use it that way. So an amateur in all arts, science and sports one who does something without the aim of being paid for it, and, especially in art, one who does something because he loves it. Sometimes, it is both.

Ambulance service

Ambulance service

Do I want to ‘go pro’?

I never quite understood why people looked at making art professionally as a level up from anything else. I have heard many say, I’m taking my photography to the next level, when they really mean they are planning to do it professionally.

Webster’s defines ‘amateur’ as ‘one who engages in a pursuit, study, science, or sport for pleasure rather than as a job’.

Working in professional capacity, or, to use the street term, going pro, ought to be looked at as a parallel to being an amateur: you still are at the same level, however high or deep, but your work will give and take away from you some very different things.

Professional photography is often mistaken to mean good photography. And, horribly, amateur photography is used to refer to a lack of talent. Neither is necessarily true.

Smoking Joe

Smoking Joe

Answer the question

Now let me return to the original question: do I want to take photographs professionally? do I want to ‘go pro’?

I am an amateur photographer. That means, among other things, that I do what I do because I like to do it, and that I do not get paid for it — regularly anyway. While shooting to get paid for my art may seem beckoning to some, to me it just seems like another chore that would fight for my time.

I would rather spend time getting a good spot to make a photograph from than getting lots of money to make mediocre ones. But some earn their only income through photography and they understandably have to make compromises between pleasing themselves and pleasing their clients. I, fortunately, (as an ‘amateur’) do not have to make such a compromise:

Two towers

Two towers

Going professional means commitments. Commitments are good, so long as they do not eat into everything else. Photographing professionally also means less time photographing and more time managing a tonne of things in a businesslike manner.

Professional photography also means satisfying clients while putting your artistic intent — which not too many get in any case — to the background, and showing it the light of day occasionally, just so it remains alive.

Philip's car park

Philip’s car park

So is an amateur photographer perfect or is a pro?

Given all this, it becomes easy to argue that, while they are both good, a pro needs to be perfect every time because he gets money to be and that an amateur is not. Conversely, one can also argue that an amateur, because he apparently does what he does because he loves it, must be close to perfect in realising his vision.

This has definitely happened to everybody, mostly many times over: for instance, I made this picture (which is shaky, blurry, and portrays every other fault you can think of) in a hurry because I had to catch my plane and could not risk getting delayed. I slid my travel bag to a halt, whipped up my phone, made whatever the best photo I could at that instant, and then ran through the airport to my departure gate. I know what’s in that photograph (and it’s exciting!) but that will do. I never made this and several photographs like this to show anybody; these are personal. What I make for art’s sake, I exhibit.

A photograph as a memory v. a photograph as art

A photograph as a memory v. a photograph as art

With the time and all, indeed, we can all be brilliant. But sometimes all photographers — yes, even ultra pros shoot photographs for a very different reason. In fact, a reason that fundamentally gave birth to photography: memory. And when we shoot for memory, especially when we need more time to think and compose and set-up, but do not have it, only one thing rings in our minds (and as any real photographer, amateur or pro): when it is a shoot or quit decision, we need to capture a moment to remember it primarily, then make art if time permits. This does not demean photography in any way.

This all reflects one thing I strongly believe in: never sacrifice experiencing the moment with your eyes to make a photograph out of it. Do both if you can, but remember that experiencing the place must always come first, otherwise your photographs will be lifeless. Fellow writer, Pam Mandel, wrote about something similar a long time ago.

And if you think I am using this as a reason to explain that phone photograph above, I can still make memories more thoughtfully, like ’em Harleys so popular in the US:

Sometimes, art can be memory

Sometimes, art can be memory

Should go pro? It is all about the spirit.

An interesting question now is whether you should remain an amateur or go pro.

What is the spirit of your photography? Being an amateur is safe; you are your own master. You need to please nobody; there is no such thing as failure, just experiment. And it costs nothing but your time — which you are probably already giving a lot of.

Elisabeth's golden light

Elisabeth’s golden light

On the other hand, being a professional might sound rewarding monetarily. But that is a harder path to tread, and involves lot less photography and a lot more business management than you might think at first. If you are a good businessman who does not mind putting photography second to building your brand, go for it.

But, if you are anything like me and have an obsession about putting good photography before good cash, (and that need not always be a bad thing), make your money elsewhere — perhaps in much easier places — and let photography be just what you love.

Think like a kid



Most children are carefree. If you give a kid a camera, he will surprise you with a picture or two. But, more importantly, he will show you his talent.

The problem with matured people is that they have lost this childlike thinking: they worry too much about how else photography can benefit them and soon forget what got them into photography in the first place.

But, quite surprisingly, it is only photography (and painting and music and the like) that fall prey to this. Think of a car that really had your blood racing when you saw it. You drive it, and then, if it is yours, you drive it everyday like it is your first time behind the wheel. You never start thinking of selling parts of it from day two.

To me, photography is like that car. I drive it. I get to keep it without bothering about selling it in bits and pieces. The more you think of that, the less you think of your driving. Or, to say it straightforwardly, the more you think of leveling up and going pro and selling and getting published, the less you think of improving your work.

All grey

All flat, grey and moody

Pro quality: big income and big expenses?

Another aspect often associated with ‘pro’ photography is costly gear, time-consuming and expensive post-production suites, dedicated computers and a whole lot of studio space.

While that may define a generic photography professional, those are hardly the things you need to make a professional quality photograph (a highly subjective term, I realise that).

All that you need is really free. You do not pay the sun for light, you do not pay your camera to capture every frame. At the end of the day, that is all you need to do. You expose right and move the photograph from your camera to your computer through a RAW convertor like Lightroom or Aperture. Everything else is optional.

Let me illustrate with a simple photograph I made. My point? you can make a photoshop-esque effect with one open window and the right exposure. Watch the frame through your camera’s gorgeous viewfinder, grab what you want and voila, like this one I made with one of our cars one day while playing around in our garage:

Benz and an open window

Merc and open window
(The photograph is straight out of camera, hence the spots on the lower-right. I will probably clean them up some day.)

There are other ways

The real problem here is also what is on the back of many amateur photographers’ minds: publicity and getting noticed.
These are both understandable quests, but is ‘going pro’ the only road to attaining them? Hardly. Think of somebody like Vivian Maier. Honestly, her work surpasses most famous photographers of her time and later and perhaps even those of today.

Maier’s work was hardly in any book, newspaper or magazine. So how did this woman from the mid-1900s become so famous? Because of her work, re-discovered through a collection in a box (of course while she was still alive) gave her unmatched reputation, and rightly so.

What is my point? Let your work speak for itself. The harder you find yourself trying to sell it to people and magazines, the worse your work is probably getting. And you never realise such things until it is too late.

I'll ride home tonight

I’ll ride home tonight

Neither route is bad

All-in-all, neither going pro nor being an amateur photographer is bad.

If you can shoot and make your life all about selling (because nothing less will do) then you can do photography full time and be a ‘pro’ by definition. But never make the mistake of thinking full time photography is 24×7 photography.

Really, it’s about 15% photography (most probably lesser than what you are already doing) and the rest is maintaining your business, talking with clients, sacrificing your personal shooting space and time, paying any assistants (you’ll need them soon enough), paying taxes, offering money back to dissatisfied customers (there is always one), and generally doing a lot of things that have nothing to do with your camera or pressing the shutter. Not all glitz and glamour.



The eternal amateur

That is my decision: I will be an eternal amateur photographer in terms of income. Because I will photograph for my passion; I will keep learning and I will not attempt, on purpose, to make any money out of my work. If you liked my photograph, there is no greater joy; if you used it, I will be honoured. If you did neither, I will not grow to hate you.

There is nothing wrong with being an amateur — unless you feel lowly about yourself (in which case you need to visit a mind doctor). An amateur can be wrongly taken as a fellow poor at his job, but he actually is one who loves what he does, sometimes even does it better than the pros.

It feels great to be an amateur, then; to be free to do what one likes, to be free to dictate one’s own work; to be in a safe ground where you can deliver better than expected and stay safe and generally keep improving. That, believe you me, is what it has always been about.

 Cover image: Flickr/Johnragai