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).