Photo-impressions: American urban architecture and street lights

Music and architecture are connected. When I hear some genres of music I think of architecture, cityscapes and streetscapes.

Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin makes me think of New York in the 1920s and 1930s. The opening clarinet rising to a high note conjures up a picture of the Chrysler Building. My viewpoint rises from street level right up to the top of the building, with the 1930s Manhattan skyline visible beyond. I feel I have a connection with the New York of that time as my father lived there from around 1929 to 1931.

A Kind of Blue, the album by Miles Davis, also gives me strong visual associations with Manhattan in the 1950s. The album was recorded in 1959 in New York. When I hear it I can see a yellow cab making its way uptown by mostly empty warehouses.

Does my mental association come from a magical quality of the music to capture the essence of time and place, or is it just that I know it was recorded in New York at around this time? I think it could be a bit of both.

Another group that for me capture the atmosphere of New York is Weather Report. They recorded in the 1970s and 80s and that’s the era I think of. I was in New York in summer 1981, around 50 years after my father was there. When I listen to Weather Report, I can see yellow cabs, the subway, the Twin Towers, the streets and highways.

There is a quality of nostalgia, like the films of Elliott Bristow, with whom I worked when I was in New York. There’s a frustration with taking photos today. The USA of today is quite different from the one we have in our minds from times past.

The Best Of Weather Report album cover

The cover of the album ‘The Best of Weather Report’ has a remarkable photograph that completely echoes the images in my mind. It looks to me like it was taken on the West Side Highway at a traffic intersection. It must be looking west, as it appears to be a dusk sky.

On a visit to New York and Philadelphia, I took photos in a similar style to the Weather Report album cover. I’ve always found street lighting to be an important part of the cityscape and very visually interesting, especially at nightfall when the lights start to glow against the dusk sky.

These photos are not going to win any photography prizes. I don’t take photos to win prizes or to make money. I take photos to capture my mental impressions and make them visible to others.

All photos taken on the Canon 550D digital SLR camera with the Tamron 16-300mm zoom lens.

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Photographing lightning – Video tutorial

On a visit to North Wales I unexpectedly witnessed a spectacular lightning storm. I had my camera and tripod with me as I had hoped to take some photos of the night sky from somewhere in Anglesey.

A cloudy sky got in the way of that idea, but later in the evening, I saw lightning flashes in the distance. At around 1.30 in the morning, I was standing on the waterfront in the town of Beaumaris, overlooking the Menai Straits with a view towards the mountains, which were shrouded in darkness of course. Every so often, purply-blue lightning flashes lit up the clouds, silhouetting the mountain tops, including Mount Snowdon over to the right.

I had to photograph this, so I set up the tripod and placed the camera in position.

I have rarely photographed lightning and I needed to think on my feet.

Perhaps if I did a long exposure – say 30 seconds – I would be able to catch one of the flashes. The trouble with that is that during the long exposure, the glare from the street lights becomes visible.

I decided to set the camera to a slower shutter speed and to fire the shutter repeatedly. Sooner or later a flash of lightning would occur while the shutter was open.

But what about aperture and ISO?

I referred back to my simple approach to using the camera in Manual mode. The principle is: first set the camera to f/5.6, 1/60 sec and 200 ISO and adjust the shutter speed until the exposure is right. In this case the shutter speed needed to be much longer in order to capture a flash of lightning, so I decided on one second. With the camera pointing towards the dark sky, I began to fire the shutter repeatedly. Most exposures were completely black, but then I caught the first flash of lightning and looked at it on the screen. It was too dark, so I increased the ISO from 200 to 1600, three stops above the standard 200, and I continued to press the shutter.

CmLightning-G828-IMG_3134

I was very excited to see the first successful image of the mountains and the clouds all lit up in that eerie purply light. I continued to press the shutter resulting in lots of black images on the camera LCD, but in amongst them, I caught some spectacular shots of the lightning. As the storm developed, the intensity of the lightning increased, making it brighter and brighter, and I had to put down the ISO down to 200.

Finally I saw thunderbolts jumping from the clouds to the mountaintops and managed to photograph a couple of them.

It was exciting, and a great example of how photography enables you to see things you can’t see with your eyes alone. The burst of lightning, lasting just a tiny split second, is preserved in the photograph and you can study the mountains, the clouds, the boats and the reflections on the water.

LIghtning over Snowdonia - 2

Soon, heavy rain started to pour down, I put the camera and tripod in the boot and sat in the driver’s seat as the raindrops pelted down onto the windscreen.

Knowing what to do in this situation depends on having a good knowledge of the basic principles of photography and how shutter speed, aperture and ISO work together.

It doesn’t matter what genre, knowing the simple basic principles are the key to taking successful photographs.

I teach these principles in my one-to-one photography courses and (planned) online courses.

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View from Tranmere – Story behind the image

Rodney Street Birkenhead looking towards Liverpool
One of the themes of the Eyewitness blog is ‘secrets behind the image’. In this post I am going to write about the creative and technical questions underlying this photograph of Rodney Street, in Tranmere, near Birkenhead on the Wirral.

About the location
I love to photograph cities. To be frank I find the man-made environment more interesting than the natural environment. I was driving through Tranmere, close to Birkenhead town centre, and glimpsed the view down a long straight street looking towards Liverpool.

The street is Rodney Street, Birkenhead, not to be confused with Rodney Street, Liverpool. The view is similar to the one in the famous photograph of the Ark Royal by the photographer Edward Chambre Hardman (1898-1988). He lived on Rodney St Liverpool and his home is open to the public. If you’re interested in photography I definitely recommend it.

The view here looking roughly east north east towards the centre of Birkenhead, with north Liverpool in the distance. I love the effect of the long, straight street with the houses on either side and north Liverpool skyline in the distance.

We can see the ventilation shaft of the Queensway (Birkenhead) Tunnel centre right. It overlooks the River Mersey, which is hidden in this view. Just to its left is the Tobacco Warehouse on the Liverpool side of the river.

Technical info
The photo was taken with my new Canon 750D DSLR camera, using the Tamron 16-300mm zoom lens. (I’ll review this camera in another post).

I took the photograph in Program Auto mode, which I use in most situations. The camera chose the settings of 1/160s f/6.3 ISO100. This indicates the light level was plus two thirds of a stop. (If you’d like to find out more about light level and why it’s important, why not take a look at one of my walks or courses.)

The lens was at focal length 70mm so it is roughly mid-way in its range from 18mm wide angle to 300mm telephoto.

Previously I used the Tamron 18-270mm lens which was excellent. The newer 16-300mm Tamron is even better as it gives you slightly more wide angle and slightly more telephoto than the previous one.

In this case, I was able to frame or crop the view at 70mm. For comparison, here’s the view taken at 16mm wide angle. It’s clear that to get the best effect, you have to zoom in, but not too far. I zoomed in so the street and houses were visible, as well as the skyline at the top.

This photo was taken in the evening. The sun is shining from the west – off to the left – and lighting up the tops of the houses. The street was mostly in shadow. I lightened up the street slightly in Photoshop. I also rotated the image by about 1.5 degrees.

For the symmetry of the composition, it’s important to stand in the centre of the street.

In summary
It’s not a perfect image. Coming from the left, the light leaves the street partly in shadow – It would probably have been better to take the image earlier in the day with the sun directly behind. However I don’t take photos for the sake of technical perfection or to win competitions. I simply take photos to capture the striking views I see around me. Whether they are of interest to the viewer is up to them!

Here’s the same view taken at 18mm
Rodney Street, Tranmere, Wirral, Liverpool region / Merseyside

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4 pieces of advice photographers should ignore

Manual Mode Graphic

Manual Mode is useful for a limited range of purposes

 

1) You need to use Manual mode all the time.

2) You must always shoot RAW.

3) White balance should always be set manually.

4) Only shoot cities in dawn or dusk rays.

This is the first article on my relaunched Eyewitness photography blog, now focusing mainly on photography and Photoshop. I will be dealing mainly with questions and issues that arise on my photo walks and in my one-to-one photography training sessions.

In this article I’m going to take a look at four popular misconceptions about photography that I frequently encounter, and I would like to set matters straight with information and advice based on my 40+ years experience with photography, 20+ with digital photography.

First piece of advice to be ignored: You must use Manual Mode all the time

We’ll start that much quoted phrase ‘I need to get off Auto’.

Here there’s a misunderstanding about the true meaning of ‘Auto’. What is being referred to here is ‘Full Auto’, the one marked in green on most cameras.

It’s true that people should move away from using just Full Auto, but that doesn’t mean you must always use Manual Mode.

And incidentally it’s not true that professional photographers use Manual Mode all the time. They use the four main modes  -Program Auto, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual – depending on the type of photographs they are taking.

In Manual Mode the camera’s Auto Exposure is switched off. The scale in the viewfinder functions as a light meter. You have complete complete control over Aperture shutter speed and ISO.

Manual Mode is useful:
A) For learning about photography – My method of ‘Using the camera as a light meter’ is a very useful approach to using Manual and I’ll talk about that in another post.

B) When you need to take a series of shots the same exposure, for instance photos for an eBay shop where the background needs to be the same in every photo.

C) For taking photos in extremely dark conditions, for instance astronomical photography and time exposures of longer than 30 seconds.

D) When you need to choose exactly what Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO you would like to have and have plenty of time to experiment.

E) In a photography studio where you are using studio lighting, either flash or continuous.

Manual on a digital camera is not suited to general photography. For instance if you are at an event or taking lots of photos one after the other, Manual Mode is simply not practical. It is too fiddly and time-consuming to adjust aperture, shutter speed and ISO for each shot.

The best general-purpose camera mode is Program Auto with ISO Auto.

I’ll explain this in more detail in another blog post.

As far as Manual Mode is concerned, I know what I’m talking about! My first camera, a film camera, only had Manual Mode and I used it successfully for several years.

Second piece of advice to be ignored: Shoot RAW! Always!

Diagram RAW Sliders

Some people can’t resist the temptation to ‘tweak’ the sliders when opening a RAW file.

 

I get very annoyed when whenever I read advice like this, because it shows that whoever wrote it doesn’t have a full understanding of RAW, nor of the different requirements of the varying lighting conditions.

First of all, what is a RAW file?

RAW is a family of file formats unique to each camera manufacturer. With a RAW file, all the picture information from each shot is stored. That information includes the colour information for each pixel, plus lots of extra data. RAW files are much larger than JPEG files because all the data is kept.

The JPEG format uses the information from the RAW file and compresses it, discarding the information the human eye can’t see. It’s the equivalent to the MP3 file in audio.

Often the finished image taken with a JPEG looks no different from an image taken with a RAW file.

So why do camera manufacturers include the option of saving in RAW? Because the RAW file gives you more scope to carry out adjustments such as changing brightness and contrast.

At this point I would like to highlight an apparent contradiction in the advice we often hear.

A) You must try to get the image right in the camera so you don’t need to carry out adjustments later.

B) You must always shoot raw so that you can carry out adjustments later.

The truth is probably somewhere in between. Another issue with RAW is when people become slider happy. When you open a RAW file you are presented with a set of sliders in the vast majority of photos taken in bright conditions they can be left as they are put money photographers can’t resist adjusting them often resulting in a less than satisfactory image.

The JPEG file is set to optimise brightness contrast from us images and underskilled “tweaking “of the raw sliders will result in a possibly worse over-processed image.

Okay so why should we use the raw file?

Those sliders, if skilfully used, can transform an image taken in difficult lighting.

Whilst cameras can make a good job of capturing scenes with a good range of tones, they have great difficulty in handling scenes combining very bright and very dark areas.

Please note there are limits to how much a raw file can be adjusted if the clouds are partially overexposed and you try to darken them by dragging the highlights later to the left you will get pure white patches.

Don’t get into the mentality of  “I have made a mess of the exposure but I can always correct it in RAW”

You can’t always correct it!

So my advice is:  Use the RAW file format whenever you need it and if you don’t need it, don’t use it!

Third piece of advice to ignore: Always set white balance manually!

White Balance Symbols

Auto White Balance – Tungsten – Cloudy – Sun – Shade – Fluorescent

 

All digital cameras have a white balance control and by default it’s set to Auto

But first, why do we need to have White Balance and what exactly is white balance?

White light comes in different shades but I rise are not able to distinguish between the shades for instance sunlight is at the blueish and of wight what is interior lights can often be at the more reddish side of wight are human eyesight adjusts to the different shades of white and the digital camera can do this also so if you taking pictures outside in bright sunshine the camera will adjust to ensure that the white shade of white is exactly right in the artificial lighting in doors the camera is also very well able to adjust to the shade of light to the shade of white of white light whatever the light source whether it’s halogen bulbs or low energy lightbulbs.

Under normal circumstances you do not need to set the white balance manually for these or other lighting conditions.

In some circumstances the white balance can give inaccurate results, for instance if the subject is predominantly of one colour. Here the building is reddish brown in colour but the Auto White Balance has shifted the overall colour towards blue. In this case it is appropriate to switch to White Balance ‘Shade’. This is the setting that best matches the  light in the scene.

My general advice would be to use white balance  manually when there is one predominant colour that may cause the white balance to overcompensate. Or simply check on the LCD and if it doesn’t look quite right, try a manual White Balance setting.

Most of the time, however, it can be left on Auto.

Fourth piece of advice to be ignored:  It’s best to take city photographs in the rich golden light at the end of the day

Kendals / House of Fraser

Kendals, now House of Fraser store on Deansgate Manchester completed 1939

 

As a person who likes to photograph cities, I know that this piece of advice is wrong and for a simple reason: In pre-sunset light,buildings cast long shadows onto other buildings. In architectural photography, shadows on facades are not a good thing.

The other reason why I regard this as  incorrect advice is because in the period before sunset, there is a reddish brown hue to the colour of the sun. This can have an effect on the mood of the picture, it’s not always the best light to take photographs of buildings.

The best time to take photos of cities in sunlight is in the middle of the day when the sun is higher in the sky and there are fewer shadows. The higher position of the sun makes the buildings look better.

Well that’s the end of my first blog post in the reactivated Eyewitness photography blog and I’ll be doing another one soon

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My thoughts on the resignation of Anton Corbijn from professional photography

EYEWITNESS 2015 blog by Aidan O'Rourke - Manchester, Liverpool, North West, photography, art, travel, local interest

Anton Corbijn exhibition Berlin

The celebrated photographer Anton Corbijn has announced that he is ‘bowing out’ of professional photography. From now on, photography will be just a hobby. This is according to an article I read on the Economist blog in November 2015.

The news coincides with a retrospective exhibition at the C/O gallery in Berlin. Anton Corbijn is famous for his portraits of rock musicians and actors. He has a raw visual style emphasising graininess and high contrast. All the photographs in the exhibition were taken on film and printed in the darkrom. Most are in black and white.

He has been active in photography since the mid 70s and went on to photograph U2, Joy Division and many others. I once met and shook hands with him in Manchester at the press conference for his film about Joy Division: ‘Control’.

He is one of the leading photographers of our era but now he has decided – apparently like many other less well known photographers – to give up photography as a profession.

But shouldn’t we take his words with a pinch of salt, like David Bowie’s announcement in 1973 that he would no longer be performing live?

I find it difficult to believe that a photographer as famous as Anton Corbijn can simply resign. I don’t think this is the last we’ll see of him or his photography.

But there is an important issue which is brought up in the Economist article. Photography today is very different from the days of film. That expression makes them sound like they are a lost era but they lasted for 180 years from the 1820s until we reached the ‘film to digital tipping point’ , by my reckoning around the year 2000.

Previously Anton Corbijn would spend days photogaphing a band. Nowadays the shoot is limited to a few hours. Photography is no longer a slow process, resulting in a small number of high value images, rather the opposite, or so it seems.

How does it feel to have grown up with film and then to witness the gradual takeover of digital? In my opinion although photography has become more convenient, it has lost its quality of exclusivity. Maybe that’s both a bad thing and a good thing.

Anton Corbijn’s exhibition is on at C/O gallery on the Hardenbergstraße Berlin, from 7 Nov 2015 to 31 Jan 2016.

www.co-berlin.org

The Economist: Anton Corbijn is bowing out of professional photography

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Featured photo: The Cloud (hill) seen over snowy Cheshire landscape

EYEWITNESS 2015 blog by Aidan O'Rourke - Manchester, Liverpool, North West, photography, art, travel, local interest

EYEWITNESS 2015 blog by Aidan O’Rourke – Manchester, Liverpool, Cheshire, photography, art, travel, local interest

The Cloud seen over snowy landscape in Cheshire

As I post this image, it’s the middle of winter in December 2015 but there’s been no snow yet! I decided to pick a featured photo from the archive with a snowy landscape. This photo was taken not far from Macclesfield, Cheshire on high ground not far from the village of Gawsworth. We are looking south east towards The Cloud – that’s the curved hill rising up in the distance.

This photo was taken on 31 Dec 2001 using the Nikon Coolpix 990, the first digital camera I owned that was good enough for day to day use. It’s a great camera, I still have it and it still works. Here is the exposure information:

1/344s f/9.9 ISO100. The setting was Program Auto, which is the best general purpose setting.

A shutter speed of 1/344th of a second is about two and a third stops above the standard 1/60th of a second.
The aperture f/9.9 is around one a third stops above the standard f/5.6
The ISO was at 100, one stop below the standard 200.
Therefore the light level in this scene is plus 2.6 above the standard.

Using this information you can work out any combination of aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Exposure is very easy! I teach my unique approach to Manual mode on my walks and in one to one sessions.

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