Photography and Art

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Making Black and White Photos Like Ravilious

One of my favourite photographers is the late James Ravilious. I reviewed his book, An English Eye, earlier this month. However, try as I might, I just couldn't get my black and white photos (converted from digital colour) to look anything like the photographs of Ravilious.

Let me show you what I mean. Here's a nice photograph of the Bell of Skenfrith on the Welsh/English border.

It's a pretty photograph with a lovely old bridge and a lot of green pastures. Just the sort of countryside that Ravilious would have liked. Here's what I got when I converted this photo into black and white using the default photoshop settings (I used a black and white adjustment layer and didn't touch the settings).

It's an OK image, but most of the pizazz in the colour version has disappeared. For example, the bushes in the foreground have totally lost the highlights that dot the coloured version. In addition, the photo has taken on a dark, gloomy aspect, conveying just the opposite mood of the coloured image. You could swear that it was just about to rain, when it actually was a very nice day (for a change)!

After reading the part of the Ravilious book where the author discusses Ravilious' techniques, I had an "ah hah" moment. It seems that Ravilious just hated black and white photographs with too much drama and contrast. Not only did he seek out older, uncoated lenses that rendered images with less contrast, but he often photographed WITH A YELLOW FILTER on his lens. The light went on for me. I went back into Photoshop and, sure enough, when you use a black and white adjustment layer, you have the option of applying a filter to get the effect that you want. Most people are looking for ways to increase contrast, but I was looking to the yellow filter to do the opposite. I wanted that lovely Ravilious continuous grey toned image that makes you yearn for the days of yore!

Here is the same image with the yellow filter applied:

Hey presto, what an improvement. The bushes in the foreground have their little sparkly bits, the overall tone of the image is less forlorn and dark and the pastures have that lovely milky grey tone to them that I love in the pictures of Ravilious. The image still needs a little adjustment to make it perfect, but it shows much more promise with the yellow filter applied.

Here's the final version with some small adjustments applied in Lightroom. I've lightened the mid-tones a little and I've applied a gradient to darken the sky and bring out the clouds.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Luckiest Man in the World

If you were a three year-old boy, that would be the man who drives the Zamboni!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Urban Renewal

I've had a front row seat for the last few months, watching a building being torn down. It was a fairly new office building, probably built in the 60's, and it was quite sizable, about 12 floors. The land owners are going to build a couple of large condo towers and some town houses. 

The demolition was so much fun to watch. The workers must get a tremendous amount of satisfaction from ripping things apart. Hell, I'd do it for free!

The project started slowly because the really big machines can only reach about 10 stories in the air, so they had to lift up a couple of small machines to take off the top 2 floors. This took quite a while. Once the building was down to 10 floors, the big, yellow concrete eating monsters started chewing at the building. There were three of them. First, they would take a U-shaped bite out of each of the floors on each side of a pillar. Then, they'd take out the bottom pillar and the whole corner of the building would come crashing down. Everyone in our office building would rush to a window to see the dust rising up from the newly-felled concrete.

Here's a picture of the very last side of the building before it was totally demolished.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Book Review: An English Eye

I recently ordered An English Eye, The Photographs of James Ravilious by Peter Hamilton from Amazon UK. I've always admired the photography of James Ravilious, but had not been able to find one of his books in print until recently. The book came the day before yesterday and I haven't been able to keep my eyes off it. It is simply sublime if you like this sort of photography -- beautifully rendered black and white images of peaceful English countryside, replete with cows and sheep as well as characters from the farms, towns and villages.

As you can see from the image on the left, Ravilious liked to take photographs facing into the sun, with his subject nicely illuminated around the edges. According to Peter Hamilton, who wrote the excellent text that accompanies the photos, Ravilious had to master the film development and print making processes in order to expose the shadows without blowing out the highlights. He shot with a Leica M3 camera and found that the modern coated lenses of the same vintage took photos that had too much contrast. The solution was to haunt the used equipment stores looking for older lenses made from non-coated lenses. The results speak for themselves. The images have a lovely, gradual transition from shadows to highlights with all sorts of middle tone variations. Using non-coated lenses made the whole set-up prone to glare, so Ravilious concocted his own lens hoods with lots of black tape to shield the lens from glare.

The book is organized into two main sections. Peter Hamilton has written about 40 pages of text outlining Ravilous' life as a photographer. There is a chapter on his life and influences, a large chapter on art, photography and Englishness and a chapter on techniques and working methods. The second main part consists of over 60 wonderful plates of Ravilious' images, each slightly larger than 5x7. The reproduction is quite beautiful, printed in Italy by Editoriale Bortolazzi Stei.

To someone like me who works in today's crazy world of long hours and urban commuting, where you're glued to your Blackberry and your laptop and send and receive hundreds of messages a day at full tilt, Ravilious' life seems like a dream world. He actually made is living taking photographs of farms and daily life in small villages. He was paid to be the artist in residence by the Beaford Art Centre, working on a long-term project to document the North Devon people. Sometimes when I survey the trail of red lights up the Don Valley Parkway at night, I think of Ravilious and what his life must have been like. Sigh!

Here's a quote that will give you a taste of Hamilton's writing: "Anecdotes about James Ravilious recount his almost boyish delight in his photography, his ability to devote himself so completely to his work that for him at least time stands still, the contrasts between a person whose mercurial personality renders him extremely 'jumpy and agitated' yet is able to wait patiently for three hours in the same spot to make a picture. Such characteristics allow us to understand why his wife, Robin, describes him as 'very pleasantly mad'."

In my next life, I'm coming back as a photographer of rural England (if it still exists).

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Urban Cathedrals

This summer, Trish and I have done a bit of biking on the fantastic network of trails that run through Toronto's many ravines. There are two large networks that are accessible close to our house, one that runs south and eventually emerges just to the east of the downtown core and the second that goes northbound to Steeles Avenue, the northernmost street in the Greater Toronto Area.

When we take the northbound route, we ride along a branch of the Don River. At one point, the pathway takes you under a massive bridge that carries the 10 or so lanes of the 401 highway across the river. The bridge was built using huge steel beams suspended on concrete arches. Underneath the bridge, you seem to enter into a strange world where even though the cars and trucks travel overhead, the sound becomes muted. It reminds me very much of the atmosphere inside one of those old European cathedrals.

Visually, there are other cathedral cues: the arched columns in rows, the path running between the columns, the giant roof supports. A photo project seemed called for!

This Saturday, I walked up the path with my slow photography gear (Canon 5d mkII, 17-40 mm wide angle lens, tripod and head) and had a very nice time taking images of the urban cathedral. The path was completely deserted despite the mild weather and I had lots of time to try different angles and exposures. I even tried merging several exposures using Photoshop HDR, but it led to some weirdness with yellow tinting at the edges and I eventually selected an under-exposed image and did some manipulation in Lightroom to get the following image.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Niagara On the Lake Abstracts

Each year, we go to the beautiful town of Niagara on the Lake for a week-end to see a play at the Shaw Festival and buy some wines at the local wineries. This year, I took the Fuji X100 along and became enamored with some of the patterns, textures and colours in the winery yards.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Telephoto Lens Compression

One of the results of shooting through a telephoto lens that always surprises photographers is the compression effect. Here's an illustration using three photos from a recent shoot. I didn't set out to shoot a comparison of three focal lengths, but it just worked out that way.

Here's a photo taken with a focal length of 100mm. The other side of the lake looks roughly like it does to the naked eye.

Here's the same subject taken with a focal length of 200mm. Not only is the subject cropped as you would expect, but the far shore now is starting to look closer than it does to the naked eye. The distance from the sailboat to the far shore is being compressed.

While this is not the same photo as above, the distance to the far shore is exactly the same and the sand bar in the foreground is the same one as in the first two images. This image was taken with the lens set to 300mm. Note how the lake now starts to look like a river. The compression effect is quite severe and if you were familiar with this view, the compression would strike you as strange and bothersome.

Compression is something to think about when you are composing a scene. It can often be used to your advantage. In the photo below, I deliberately used a wide angle lens (24mm) to make the building in the foreground stand out from the background. Most people who shoot this scene use a medium telephoto lens so that the skyscrapers in the background loom over the smaller flatiron building.

Here's an example of the same scene shot with a longer lens (70mm). The intent of this image was to focus on the reflections in the road and compress the background so that the flatiron building and skyscrapers loom in the distance.

It's pretty amazing how the skyscrapers seem to move and get larger from one image to the other.

The moral of the story is: choose your focal length with care. Bear in mind that longer focal lengths produce a compression effect that may be unwanted. Shorter lenses also spread out the subjects in your photo and can also have unwanted consequences. The naked eye is roughly equivalent to a 50mm focal length, so both shorter and longer lenses have the potential to be disturbing. Often, this can be a good thing, but not if the effect is unintended and distracting.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Landscapes of Africa

We went to Tanzania in the summer of 2010. I've published a lot of photographs from our trip, but nothing from my collection of African landscapes. Here are some of the better images of a most beautiful part of the world.

The Selous, in southern Tanzania, is dotted with lakes and wetlands. Here's a dead tree with its reflections.

Here's another image of the Selous. This sunset was taken from our small safari boat. The sun sets very rapidly in this part of the world.

We went on a morning hike from our camp in the Selous and had the benefit of a lovely sunrise lighting up the foliage.

This is one of my favourites. Again, it is a photo of a Selous sunset taken from our safari boat. I love the silhouette of the bird in the foreground. It is probably an egret of some sort, but it sure looks like a pterodactyl!

Another sunset, this time we're at the Ngorongoro Crater. I like the multi-layered look of the hills and the cloud.

The next morning, we awoke to find the mist spilling over the crater walls like a liquid.

Here's a typical Serengeti scene, with a solitary tree under sunbeams.

They were doing a controlled burn of the grasslands while we were camping in the Serengeti. The smoke combined with the setting sun to provide us with lots of nice colour.

Our tent looked right at the setting sun. We were sipping a nice glass of scotch while we watched the sun set beneath the branches of this tree.

Here's an early morning view of the Serengeti from a balloon, with our fellow travelers in the distance.

And finally a close-up of the other balloon as we traveled over this vast plain.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Trish is a Good Photographer

I needed a new bio pic for an upcoming musical (Christmas Survival Guide) and enlisted my wife Trish who can take a mean picture if she's asked. This is a great example of making a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Abandoned Farms

When you drive through the countryside as often as I do, you start to notice that things are not going well in farm country. It seems that marginal farms are being abandoned one by one and the land is reverting back to nature. Maybe Mom and Dad hung on as long as they could and the kids beat a hasty retreat to the city, leaving the farmhouse to rot and the land fallow. Maybe the family farm can no longer compete with large factory farms, especially when the land is rocky or the soil poor.

The closer you get to the Canadian shield just north of Toronto, the more you notice abandoned farmhouses, fences no longer being repaired and land reverting to forest. In the Canadian shield itself, farming was abandoned many years ago. If you look carefully, you can sometimes see old split rail fences running through the forest. The soil is glacier-swept and very thin.

In September, I joined a group of friends on a hiking trip in the Adirondacks and the drive south from the St. Lawrence bridge crossing into northern New York State was also littered with abandoned buildings and fallow fields.

It's all rather picturesque (witness the abandoned farm group on Flickr:, but rather sad just the same. I'd rather look at a prosperous farm with cows in the meadow and corn growing as high as an elephant's eye any day.

Here are some photos of abandoned buildings in upper New York:

This house has seen better days. It looks like a tree fell on the roof and administered the coup de grace.

Here's a road-side cabin of some sort. The architecture is interesting and the upper story window looks like it was replaced not so long ago. The structural integrity of the place shows the foolhardiness of building a flat roof in a snow zone.

This looks to be a classic 19th century homestead, probably originally on a prosperous farm judging by its size. The porch is nice. You can imagine roses growing up the trellises.

Here's a barn near the Adirondacks. At one point, it looks like it was painted a lovely shade of red. I'm not sure why it seems to have buckled so badly.

This is not really an abandoned farm building. In fact, the green metal roof is quite recent. I love this cabin because it combines the old with the new in an innovative way. Looking to enhance your cottage and add some living space? Why not buy an old trailer and graft it on to your cabin! Make sure you match the colour of the roof to the colour of the trailer. Aesthetics are so important.

Monday, October 31, 2011


I've got all these little projects on the go that rejuvenate photography when it gets a little dull. Earlier this week, it was time to feature rural mailboxes, an ongoing project that is a lot of fun although it sometimes irritates people who are along for the ride when I suddenly screech to a halt, do a u-turn, go back 100 yards, do another u-turn and leap out of the car with the camera to take a shot of a rare find, like a mailbox shaped like a dog or a tractor. There's one shaped like a fish that I keep passing when the light isn't any good. I'll get it one day too.

Windows are another pet theme. Architects and builders put a lot of effort into making interesting windows and people generally put a lot of effort into decorating them. It's another expression of individuality. Here are some windows that have caught my eye recently:

Here's a church window from a small town in New York State that I passed on the way to go hiking in the Adirondacks. I liked the original patterns of the window combined with the texture of the church walls.

This window was in a building in a pioneer village near Hamilton Ontario. The strong colour of the window frame combined with the window in a window effect drew me to the photo.

There's a beautiful fishing village in Scotland called Crail that has some very nice windows. Here's what I mean about people using window sills to make a personal statement. 

and finally, there's the allure of the silhouette in the window. When walking in Montreal last winter, taking pictures of Christmas lights, by accident I noticed a silhouette of a woman in the top left window. She was there for a minute and then the light was extinguished. 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Late Fall Colours

By last week-end, the fall colours up north were starting to fade, but there was still enough left in the tank for a couple of photos. Here's the view of a wetland from Highway 35:

Further south, my eye caught a farmer's field where the tracks of the machinery were a different colour from the rest of the field:

Not really a fall photo, but here's a shot of an abandoned junkyard that resonated with me. Maybe it's the red white and blue colours that stood out.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Mr. Heron Comes to Call

It was nearly dinner time at the cottage on Canadian Thanksgiving week-end and my young grandson came racing up from the beach to tell me that a loon was catching fish in our bay. I brought the camera down to the shore and saw that it was a blue heron who had decided to pay a visit, not a loon at all. I took a lot of photos of the heron until he finally got fed up and flew away.

The next morning, there was a mist covering the lake and the heron was there again. I took more pictures of the blue heron against the grey water and sky. The heron was having a great time catching minnows.

The next morning, he was there again. This time, the sky was clear and we had a rip-roaring golden sunset that silhouetted the heron against the sky. Here are some shots of Mr. Heron:

We finally spooked him on the first day and he flew away. I like the water drops trailing from his feet.

Here he is perfectly reflected in the water.

The next morning was very misty. The sun just started to come out enough to highlight his plumage a bit. The reflections in the water are nice.

The second morning featured a glorious sunrise and a preening heron. Believe it or not, these are the colours right out of the camera. 

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Self-Expression Through Mailboxes

Nearly every week-end, I travel to our cottage in Haliburton through southern Ontario farmland. This is some of the most beautiful farmland on earth. However, this post is not about scenery, it's about self-expression. One of my fascinations is how people express themselves through mundane objects. for example, if you walk along European residential streets where the houses are very close to the road, people are very careful to select objects to display on their window sills to express who they are and what they care about. In farm country, the houses are set far back from the road. The only venue for self-expression is the mailbox. Most people are content to use utilitarian mailboxes, but one in every ten chooses something that tells something about the family that lives down the lane. It may be a mailbox done in cow camouflage (holstein in this case), or it may be a mailbox that looks like a sausage dog. It doesn't matter what the subject of the mailbox, these tokens of self-expression show the lengths that people will go to tell their story.

Here are a selection of recent images of mailboxes. Enjoy!

The Holstein Mailbox

The Milk Can Mailbox

The Tractor Mailbox

Mr. Hum's House Outside a House

Mr. Sopha's Moose in the Woods

And...The Sausage Dog Mailbox