Thursday, 29 October 2020

Club Photography - Post Covid

In this post I want to discuss club photography and what you could expect from being a member of a club now and perhaps in a post Covid-19 future but firstly a little background into my own photo society on the Wirral Peninsula. 

Hoylake Photographic Society is one of six clubs on the Wirral Peninsula of Merseyside and is affiliated to the Lancashire and Cheshire Photographic Union (LCPU) We are also members of the Photographic Society of America (PSA) and we run our own Hoylake International Exhibition competition which brings in much needed revenue. The society is outward looking with about 50 members who average over 60 yrs of age and are probably atypical of other photo clubs across the UK.

Getting younger members enrolled is a major problem. I suspect the reason is that photography can be an expensive hobby and your middle aged retiree usually has more disposable income to spend on camera gear and the time to dedicate to photography once their children have left the home. 

In contrast every young person uses their camera phone these days and the image quality is so good that some Photographic Alliance of Great Britain (PAGB) salons now have a phone camera section in their competitions. 

I bought my daughter a Sony A6000 camera and kit lens a few years ago because she is artistic and likes photography. It doesn't get used. Whenever we're out together she uses her Samsung phone and the excellent JPEG's are instantly uploaded to Instagram. Photography on the go and a free spirit. I'm often shocked at how good her JPEG images are straight out of camera compared to my Sony A6400 Raw images. Perhaps this is where younger club members will spring from if they're encouraged.

Of course club photography may not be suitable for everyone who owns a camera. People enroll for different reasons; to gain knowledge, to test their skills in competition and for the social benefits of joining a club. 

I sometimes become disillusioned with my photography and threaten to sell my gear, then realise that since retiring from work 15 years ago everyone I know is either a photographer or a local artist that I've befriended through selling my prints at local fairs. I've made 100 new friends through club photography.

Hoylake Photographic Society Christmas Meeting

Whether you enroll as a member of your local club depends a lot on your photographic background. Are you already formally trained, a professional photographer or a free spirit in the "art" of photography? 

Phone camera users unconstrained by the rules tend to be free spirits in the art of photography. I say "art" because photography is an art form and most artists don't like to be constrained which club photography can do if you're not careful. It's so easy to fall into the habit of taking photographs with competitions in mind.

I've sometimes mistakenly stayed at home on a nice day as I'm unlikely to photograph anything that is worthwhile entering into the club monthly competition instead of just going out with my camera and shooting what I see for my own pleasure.

If you're serious about winning the club's monthly competition or gaining distinctions through entering national and international competitions then you must conform and present images for competition which meet the expectations of the judges. Those judges have likely been through a training program which can shackle them to certain rules of thirds, composition, removal of distractions, sharpness at the expense of the art of photography. Prints may be marked down for not being tack sharp despite the photographers intention to produce a soft focus image. The rules are there to be broken, right? 

Brian Magor receiving his monthly competition award

I encourage everyone to view the London Salon of Photography which accepts images into it's competition based on artistic merit rather than conforming to club photography judging criteria. The salon often produces unconventional award winning images that make you think.

Hoylake Photographic Society - Annual Competition Trophies

You will certainly gain knowledge from being a member of a society. I've always attributed my growth from a novice to advanced amateur in our society through being inspired by the photography of our expert speakers, picking up their tips from tutorials, getting critique from the monthly competitions and talking to more advanced club members.

Film Noir workshop

Film Noir Workshop

Our Program Secretary has been having a very difficult time booking expert speakers for our club nights in recent years as the available pool of speakers is generally limited to the (LCPU) region. Good speakers are reluctant to travel large distances from outside of the area on a Friday evening and travel home again after 10pm during the Winter months when the society meets. We compensate by filling in empty dates with "members nights" where a club member will present their own photography or give a tutorial. Strangely though, Covid-19 could solve this problem.

Covid-19 has placed severe restrictions on photography as a hobby. Travel restrictions are in place, events are cancelled and venues are closed to the public. Due to the average age of our membership, Hoylake Photographic Society stopped meeting at the village hall in March 2020 and we restarted our season in September with guest speakers giving their talks via Zoom. Is this the future? 

When the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted and club life eventually returns to weekly village hall meetings, the club program in theory could involve speakers giving talks and tutorials from anywhere in the World via Zoom projected via a laptop onto a screen. Perhaps it would be possible to watch a Youtube tutorial and finish the evening with a practical session. If only the village hall had internet supplied.

We are entering October 2020 and hopes of getting Hoylake Photographic Society meetings back in a village hall by New Year are fading. Scores of photographic societies across the UK will undoubtedly be in the same boat, but the Covid-19 pandemic gives club members the opportunity to meet via Zoom and plan for a physical return. Perhaps a future which encourages younger members, embraces changes in photographic trends and uses new technology to enhance the club photography experience.

Thursday, 15 October 2020

High Dynamic Range Photography

Camera sensor technology has come a long way in recent years but the one thing a camera can't do is to record what the human eye sees. In terms of light's dynamic range, sensors fall short in their ability to record detail in both the whites and blacks of an image at the same time unlike the human eye. Estimates suggest that the human eye can see anywhere between 10-14 f-stops of dynamic range whereas a camera sensor is about 8-11 f-stops. Each yearly improvement in sensor technology brings the camera's dynamic range closer to human sight albeit very slowly.

It's for this reason that in high contrasting landscape shots depending on which exposure mode the camera is set to and where in the image you have the horizon, the result will be either a blown out white sky with no detail and a well exposed foreground or visa versa.

Exposed for the foreground - blown out sky

Exposed for the sky - under exposed foreground

Always shooting in RAW for the best image quality, once the highlights in a sky have been blown out there's no chance of recovering any detail but there is the possibility of recovering detail from the foreground of an under exposed RAW image to create an acceptable single shot image. The solution that I prefer while the camera is already on a sturdy tripod is to simply take an extra shot and create a three shot HDR (high dynamic range) photograph. 

The first two photographs above are unprocessed RAW images out of camera while the finished photograph of Llyn Dinas in Snowdonia (below) is a three shot HDR with the exposure "averaged" out in HDR software. The result is dramatic with detail in both the sky and the shadows. The photograph has punch. 

Three shot HDR of Llyn Dinas in Snowdonia

The other way of overcoming these restrictions in dynamic range is by using a graduated neutral density filter on a filter holder screwed onto your lens. The "Grad ND" is darker on the top half of the glass filter with the lower half clear and it's designed to balance out the exposure in landscape photography but there is a drawback. They're fine for straight horizons but what about when you're photographing a horizon which are undulating such as mountains, trees or a cityscape full of buildings?

I gave up on "Grad ND" filters many years ago for landscape photography because they're expensive, cumbersome and slow to use and I find the technique of taking multiple exposures and blending them together to be more convenient when shooting and flexible when post processing. If I take five or seven bracketed shots of a scene with the cameras multi metering set to 0 in the viewfinder I can choose in post processing to use a single image to process or any number of them together as a HDR photograph. Shooting a series in burst mode takes a split second and card storage is cheap. Any unwanted shots can be deleted when on the computer.

The biggest drawback to capturing multiple exposures for creating HDR images is movement within the image. Modern HDR software is very adept at correcting "ghosting" in post processing. Often a five shot series of bracketed images in burst mode will be over in a split second and the software can handle minor movement well.

Pseudo HDR - Below Aber Falls

Sometimes the movement between shots will be too much for software to handle. In that case a method that I sometimes use to overcome movement is to create a "pseudo" HDR from a single image.

Shooting in RAW, take a shot with a well balanced exposure. You can adjust the exposure slider in your RAW converter to overexpose the shot by 2 stops and save, underexpose by 2 stops and save, then blend the three images together as a pseudo HDR. This technique was used on Below Aber Falls (above) one of my first HDR photos and it's brought out detail in both the moving water and the rocks many of which were in shadow. 

The modern technique is tone mapping a single image in HDR software. Tone mapping is a technique used to map one set of colours to another to approximate the appearance of HDR images.

Three shot HDR - Tower of London

Creating a HDR image is an ideal way of dealing with difficult lighting in any setting. The photograph of London Tower (above) was taken in a very dark room lit only by the window. It was impossible to capture detail in the shadows of the furniture and the sun filled window in a single shot. This was achieved with a three shot burst bracketed at +-2EV either side of 0EV and processed in Photomatix Pro HDR software. The camera was hand held and braced against a wall for stability.

Three shot HDR - Dunham Massey

The same technique and settings were used to capture this photograph of Dunham Massey (above) with light streaming through a window. In fact I've used HDR photography to capture more interior scenes than landscapes due to them only being lit by natural light with a flashgun being barred from use or the building being too vast for flashgun light.

Three shot HDR - Lady Lever Art Gallery

Three shot HDR - Lady Chapel, Anglican Cathedral Liverpool

When you have the ability to use a tripod as in the shots of Lady Lever Art Gallery, Wirral and the Anglican Cathedral, Liverpool then shooting in HDR is the way to go but how many bracketed shots do you need to produce a good HDR image?

I've read articles claiming that three shots bracketed at +-2EV is sufficient and this is the method that I've mostly used and that I'm satisfied with. I've also read articles that claim that the more bracketed shots you take the greater the detail in the finished photograph and I've shot HDR images using five, seven and nine bracketed images on occasion. 

Five shot HDR - One Careful Owner

The photograph of One Careful Owner (above) taken on the Dee Estuary at Lower Heswall is a five shot HDR bracketed at +-1EV. Is there any more detail compared to a three shot image producing the same dynamic range? It's very hard to tell.

So what software do I use to produce HDR photographs. In my early days I used Photomatix Pro which is available to try and purchase. My software of choice for several years has been Aurora HDR by Luminar. It's very powerful with a huge range of sliders to produce the HDR look that you prefer. 

Photographs produced as HDR's have a certain "look" which doesn't appeal to everyone. At worst they can look grungy, but at their best they will have punch and a wow factor but care is needed in toning down a processed image to make it look more natural as the colours can often be overpowering. Every camera has the settings to produce HDR photos. Some even have the ability to do it "in camera" All you need is a tripod or steady hand and the software. Have fun.